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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

November 3rd: Rishikesh

On November 3rd 1978 I was in Rishikesh.  Rishikesh is a pilgrimage town in Northern India, situated at the spot the Ganges comes out of the hills into the plain, and famous for its ashrams.  The Ganges flows here through wide sandy banks and walking along the river below the ghat at Laxman Jhula was straightforward.

I enjoyed being anywhere in Rishikesh along the river, but my favourite spots were near the beach by the main town.  I recorded a couple of pieces in my notebook:
Sitting on fine ash-grey Ganga sand, shielding my head from the midday sun.  All along the little beach, people are washing quietly, unhurried, unconcerned, reverently, Brahmins, sadhus, families, single people, washing themselves, their clothes, their children, their pots and pans.  Noise of the water passing over rapids a little downstream, people and crows.  Nothing else.  A row of little wooden stalls along a part of the beach.  Three old men hanging their white dhotis out to dry.  On the bank on the other side is a stony beach, deserted except for a couple of mud huts and a boat at one end.  Behind the beach a Shiva temple washed blue and an ashram.  Back on this side I can see a three and a half story white building with central stairs coming down to the beach and arched doors and windows, white colour almost completely lost.  An ochre ashram up on the bank.   On the road to town, a cluster of shady spots under trees, a row of garland stalls.  Sadhus sitting around, lying around, playing cards, a couple of little Shiva temples, a chai shop, a restaurant, a man getting a shave, religious-looking people heading for the beach, a bead stand, cosmetics, dolls and idols, festival decorations.  An Ayurvedic medicine shop. 
Under the big banyan by the beach.  Quiet and peaceful here.  Sadhus collect on the concrete platform in the shade behind me; one is a palmist/astrologer with his books laid out beside him and a little metal case with Hindi and English written on it; other orange-robed people look at his books or watch what little else is going on.  Below me a group of poor and beggars are sitting around having breakfast, watery dhal and subji and dampened chapattis, 6 women, one of them in orange, a man in orange, another man and a boy with one of the women.  A man selling change, sadhus robed.  Others with sticks and crutches take up positions on pieces of sacking where there's shade from the tree or a post.  Under the tree a woman cooks by a duni with a Shiva trident.  Her little area is cordoned off.  She talks to another woman sitting on the stairs beside a woman with short grey hair.  The woman cooking is a colourful character, with a multicoloured bandanna around her long matted hair, a long white embroidered shift, shawl and bangles and all.  She's quite young, maybe 30, I can't tell.  A group of ordinary men beside me talking.  A Shiva shrine built into the tree itself with a red swastika flag above it and a little one at the side.  An assortment of lingams and bulls and pictures painted on the concrete walls.  Another shrine with garlands around the idol on the far side.  A sadhu with friendly intelligent face stops to look at me write and sits beside me.  Two ordinary men smoke a chillum.  A young sadhu with his hair in a top-knot, a middle-aged one with ochre dreadlocks looking like the cobras in Shiva's hair.  An older sadhu, head in turban and an umbrella for shade.  A sudden galloping cow.  An old man with grey hair and beard lying on sacking under the tree with his Shiva cloth around him.
There were other places as well.  I stayed between the town and the ashram area of Laxman Jhula, and you could walk along a wilder piece of beach here amongst the gravel and sandpipers.  Even here on a grassy mound between the bank and the water was a little Shiva shrine.  In the evening it was lovely to walk back along the road from town and smell the night-scented plants.  Laxman Jhula was then reached by a little ferry and you could have a good meal in a more sober religious area "strictly no onions and garlic", in view of famous ashrams.

One day I walked further up towards the hills along the pilgrimage path.  The old part of Laxman Jhula was interesting, old and crumbling, old India much more than Rishikesh or the area across the ferry.  I stopped for a puri lunch snack near the Pilgrim Rest Place and the famous bridge across the river. Later I sat for a while in the grass between trees, and on a bench beside The Sacred Way, watching the endless stream of passing pilgrims, many poor and elderly, hobbling along with bare feet, perhaps from all corners of India.  I had not realised how many passed this way walking to pilgrimage places higher up the valley:  the middle-class family groups, beggars and sadhus, sitting on the grass or on the benches which lined the path, maybe a little personal shrine set out in front of them, a bowl of some sort to shake, or cymbals to clash, or just some holy song to sing or mantras to chant.  Finally I crossed the bridge, saw the old temple where I was offered prasad and was asked for paise, climbed the hill on the road past the Leper Rehabilitation Settlement, where there were lots of beggars, came back down the cliff and returned to my lodging  by the usual river route.

Sadhu at Rishikesh (2006): Picture by FullyFunctnlPhil, CC

Sadhu Feeding Langur (2009): Picture by Cristina Vaquer, CC

River Ganges (2007):  Picture by McKay Savage, CC

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