Have you ever heard of a place on the globe where
renunciation is a way of life. Where life is more lived in its
leaving than its clasp?
The river Ganges is
regarded as holy in India. And, as it flows out onto the parched
plains leaving forever the secure embrace of the hills, it is
thronged by thousands of men and women gathered from many countries
at Rishikesh. The river waves have woven their presence into the
lives of the people as plaits braided in the hairdo of a sage. Not
many know that the name of the town denotes the hairdo of a saint.
Rishikesh (rishi:sage; kesh:hair) is something as
meaningful as that which is carried aloft on the head of a sagelike
ancient wisdom contained in knotted thoughts. Brahman, Vishnu,
Mahesh, the three lords of the Hindu pantheon live at Rishikeshin
the vermilion marks pasted on the forehead of the devout; in the
shlokas and mantras recited by the faithful; in the
regimen of asceticism followed by swamis; in the ritual bath
undertaken at the banks of the river early morning, worshipping the
sun, in the pravachan (address) discharged by the guru;
and even in the pure vegetarian food which is consumed by the
(priests) literate the souls of the dead to a possible union with the
spirit (parmatman). Others are content with dips in the icy
waters, convinced that their sins have been carried away by the holy
river. More involve themselves in ceremonies. This soul-cleansing may
satisfy the ordinary toiler but not the seeker of truth. The truth
beyond all existence, past all comprehension, is a subject to be
dabbled in at Rishikeshexploring the frontiers of spirituality,
much above the ordinary plane of life and the visible.
Along the two banks of
the eternal river Ganges are organized ashramslarge pockets of
asceticism in the city of Rishikesh. Steps leading to the river,
called ghats, have a role to play in each mans life.
Humanity descends to these steps at the break of dawn to worship the
rising sun. Surya Namaskar, a puja (worship) of the sun
lord is rendered by the devout, standing in the flowing water. The
others make good at different times of the day till night fills up
the waters. The current of the river dulcifies as if in pacific
obeisance to the night. The sheet of black becomes a still picture of
reflections. Prayers and hymns said from the banks match the slow but
sure progress of the waves, both of which move unseen under the
surface, towards their final destination.
The two suspension
bridges across the river bind more than two banks. The are mans
link to legend. The one upstream called Laxman Jhula, at Tapovan, was
originally a rope-way strung across in 1918 with the riches of Seth
Surajmal Nagarwal of Calcutta. Laxman, the younger brother of Sri
Ram, is believed to have crossed the river here on a jute rope.
Locals believe that he performed a tapasya (meditation) at
this place. More than that, a huge rock in the midst of the bend in
the river upstream, is reputed to be a well called Pandav Kuan.
The unflinching faith of the residents holds that just across this
well, there was a cave on the east bank hill. This cave led to the
secret route which the Pandavas took to cross the Himalayas while
ascending heaven. Whatever it be, truth or fiction, the belief is as
perennial as the river. In earlier days when pilgrimage to Badrinath
Shrine was done on foot, a devotee had to cross Laxman Jhula, and
traverse 125 km of hill route before he met his deity.
The floods of October
1924 washed away the fragile link. In 1927, two and a half lakh
silver coins donated by the earlier named devotee, saw an iron bridge
erected at the same site. The construction was mastermind by Chief
Engineer Mr. P.H. Tillard, and executed by Superintending, Engineer.
Mt. E.H. Cornelius. The inauguration of this 450 X 6 ft bridge took
place on April, 11th, 1930. The other one at Muni Ki Reti,
3 km downstream, is a later version. As people trundle the boards of
the bridge, its swings gently, as if giving a spring to the gait.
Crossing the bridge is best understood here, both literally and
Across the swing is a
street by the river which leads to many ashrams. Here people live
with minimum needs and maximum religiosity. The funny and awkward
have also surfaced to quench the temporal hunger of the superficial
tourist. A man dressed as a Hindu priest in yellow apparel, chest
bare, covered with vibhuti (wood ash), vermilion marks on
forehead, sequins pasted in a pattern on cheeks, and significantly a
huge choti (stiffly tied erect pony tail), is an advertisement
for a restaurant. The fare is local and delicious, especially the
sweetened lassi (curd milk). There are many more
advertisements that excite the humour palate. One proclaims that
Astrological gemstones are sold here. The other is about
any one requiring the services of Witch doctors. Then
another markets Curries cooked according to Ayurvedic
rulesIndian, Chinese, Continental. The list includes Pasta
and Shepherds Pie too. Trained chefs could well learn a lesson
or two in Ayurvedic cooking!
Past ancient houses with
stone windows you come to Geeta Bhawan and Swarga Ashram. Both have
their own literature and a discipline of religiosity. Those who have
renounced everything live here in worship and peace. On the west bank
is the Divine Life Society. Talk to a swami in chaste English
on spirituality, or meditate quietly, or alternatively sit in a chant
when puja is rendered. One can join the society for a
short-term course on meditation, yoga or theology. The founder, Swami
Shivanand is no more, but the holy work goes on. In one prayer hall,
chanting is continuously in progress since 1943. Interestingly, all
religions of IndiaHinduism, Islam, Sikhism, and Christianity
are represented in this prayer hall through photographs of founder
saints. Just outside, a pillar has teachings of all religions etched
on its stone. Divinity is not bound by the parameters of one
religionperhaps, that is the message intended to be conveyed.
The most popular object
at Rishikesh is the rudraksha. This is the fruit seed of
Rudraksha tree (Elaeocaraus sanitro). It is believed that
rudraksha was created from the tear-drops of Lord Shiva, which
fell on the earth at the time of slaying Tripurasura demon. It is
found only in Nepal, Indonesia and in India in the Garwhal Himalayas.
This comes in various designsekmukhi (one-faced),
domukhi (two-faced), and so on up to a fourteen-faced seed.
The most rare is the one-faced, which is believed to grow once in
eleven years on a tree. It is reputed to be possessing remarkable
qualities to cure blood pressure and other ailments if worn around
the neck and suspended to touch a particular point on the chest. It
is also reputed that the rarest, the ekmukhi, brings good luck
and is a charm against all evil. Sages and swamis also use it
as a bead garland, running fingers in a count, as the recite mantras.
Rishikesh is 245 km. from
New Delhi. You can also alternatively take a train to Haridwar 24 km
short of Rishikesh.