Home » The beautiful people of Rishikesh

The beautiful people of Rishikesh

Trayambakeshwar Temple
Trayambakeshwar Temple

The beggar took the bowl of potatoes and hurled it into the river.

We watched in disbelief as the potatoes spread like shotgun pellets before crashing into the water. Satisfied, the beggar shuffled away, dragging one foot. I slowly turned to Joe, who’d bought the potatoes for the beggar and looked downcast. I then looked at Jenn. We burst into uncontrollable laughter.

The Lakshman Jhula hanging bridge
The Lakshman Jhula hanging bridge

This encounter summed up my time in Rishikesh. To borrow a phrase from my friend Ionut, it was a holy city full of unholy people. Rishikesh is a Hindu pilgrimage site, nestled beside the Ganges River at the Himalayas’ feet. However, it’s better known for yoga and for being the place where The Beatles wrote the White Album. 

This creates a division that’s hard to reconcile. On the one hand, pilgrims come to use the ashrams and bathe in the Ganges. Meanwhile, Westerners strut around with yoga mats, paying large sums for the privilege at yoga schools.

Sadhus sitting by the Ganges
Sadhus sitting by the Ganges
Washing clothes in the Ganges
Washing clothes in the Ganges

Privilege is the keyword here, and was hard to ignore. As I stepped in cow shit for the hundredth time, I was grateful that I wasn’t living on the street. Sleeping against a wall were countless beggars, with cracked soles and long beards. One approached Joe, and moments later fish were inexplicably dining on potatoes.

I have no idea why the beggar threw away the food, and had no time to dwell on it. We were on our way to watch the nightly puja, a ritual offering to the Ganges. Hindus deify the river as the Mother Ganga and believe that bathing in it cleanses them of sin.

A busload had arrived to pray, light candles and launch flowers down the river. Smoke drifted through the air as a beard with a man attached to it grabbed the microphone and started preaching. Thjs was a little too Gospel TV for me, but the atmosphere was cracking.

The puja outside the Parmarth Niketan Ashram
The puja outside the Parmarth Niketan Ashram

I returned to my guesthouse, sighing when I saw the light on in the room beside mine. “You’re finally back Daniel”, a voice rang out. The trap sprung, I was now caught in the conversational black-hole of my Israeli neighbour. Like so many travelers in India, she was on a voyage of discovery.

But for someone with a self-proclaimed open mind, she was oddly dismissive of new ideas. “You’re very quiet,” she’d told me earlier, after scathingly shutting down each subject I’d initiated. It was impossible to engage with someone who denied that dharma was a part of Hinduism.

Pilgrims at the puja
Pilgrims at the puja

My Israeli neighbour was also the type of traveler who despised the classic backpacker question, “so where are you from?”, viewing it as an assault on their individuality. I’d encountered this occasionally over 3.5 years on the road. It always amused me how seriously some people responded, instead of just using it to start the relationship.

In the past I’d received douchey answers including “I’m from Planet Earth man, why do you care?” But my Israeli neighbour produced the even more pretentious, “do you want to know where I’m from mentally, or just physically? Because this will take me all night.” I was quickly becoming interested in neither.

But maybe I’m being too harsh, as our conversations did offer some unique insights. “Why’d you bother studying history?” she’d once asked me. I squinted my eyes. “Because like, time isn’t real, you realise that it’s invented by humans? This means that history doesn’t matter, everything’s happening right now. So what you did was a waste.” Unsure where to even begin with this, I sat in silence. “Have you done DMT?” she added.

Pilgrims at the puja
Pilgrims at the puja

No I hadn’t, but the next evening I had my first bhang lassi, a cannabis drink traditionally drunk for religious purposes. Joe, Jenn and I were sitting in the sort of cliched backpacker place that I usually avoided. Inside the wooden shack overpriced food was being served, while Bob Marley sang on repeat and some Westerners had just got ripped off buying shitty weed. I’d come at the recommendation of my Israeli neighbour, a decision that I deeply regretted.

Putting it down to dull thinking from the lassi, we all decided to take a Kundalini yoga class, sold by Joe as the “crack cocaine” of yoga. The next morning we were posing in a sweaty room crammed with about thirty females and a male yoga teacher.

Walking beside the Ganges
Walking beside the Ganges

I know that I’m fairly skeptical, but even the most open-minded person would’ve struggled when our teacher said, “today we’re going to focus on the chakra between the anus and the genitals. This will help you stay grounded and will also improve your finances.” Like schoolkids at the back of a classroom, it was impossible to keep a straight face while the teacher demonstrated how to rapidly breathe while “opening and contracting” his anus. Picture that for a moment. You’re welcome.

Rafting down the Ganges
Rafting down the Ganges
Rishikesh Sunset
Sunset by the Ganges

Yet despite my snarkiness, Rishikesh wasn’t all charlatans and false gurus. That evening I walked alone to the Ganges, and stood in its cool waters. An inflatable raft floated past me, packed full of people having the time of their lives. The sun turned a deep orange, expanding as it got nearer the horizon. I breathed in deeply, enjoying the silence. God it was good to be in India.

After Rishikesh I took a bus to the much more holy town of Haridwar, but it was not what I expected

3 comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.