Rishikesh

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“Now is good time go Rishikesh,” Amar told us. Nicky said “I tell you now, but you go, you see, and then you believe it me.”

I’m not entirely sure why Nicky and Amar were so eager to send us to Rishikesh, or why, for that matter, we agreed to go, especially on such short notice. But now that we are here, now that an unpleasant day of travel is behind us, now that we are sitting in perfect weather at the edge of a jungle and the foot of a mountain overlooking the Ganges, we are glad we listened to them.

The view from our balcony.
The view from our balcony.

This is indeed an auspicious time to be in Rishikesh. According to Hindu folklore, Rishikesh was the place that Ram was sent to do penance for slaying the demon Ravenna. It seems only appropriate that, having observed this festival with our friends in Delhi, we follow in Ram’s footsteps under their guidance and encouragement. We’re also here right at the end of tourist season, so the crowds are light, the hotels empty, and the weather, beautiful. Unlike Delhi, where the mercury is still pushing 95F every day, in Rishikesh the temperature isn’t above the mid-80s.

Rishikesh is a holy city for Hindus, and sees more than its share of domestic pilgrim-tourists. It is here that the Ganges flows out of the Himalayas, and begins its slow, winding descent through the heart of India. Hindus flock from all over India to bathe in the river and pray in the temples, and also (while they’re at it) raft down the river, rappel down cliffs, and camp in the mountains.

Indeed, the juxtaposition of acts of piety and acts of tourism sometimes borders on comical. This morning we went down to the Ganges with Amar. After wading a little, I sat with Sarah, while Amar finished his swim. I watched a family of pilgrims come to bathe, and reflected loftily and poetically on issues concerning the transmission of ritual consciousness. But the spell was broken when, after the pilgrims filed out of the river, they all wanted to take their pictures with us.

Rishikesh also gets fairly heavy foreign tourist traffic. The Beatles put it on the map for the Western world when they came here to study yoga. The particular ashram they visited has disappeared, but twenty or thirty have appeared in its place. Not only that, it seems every other shop offers courses in yoga and meditation. Even our hotel has a yoga program.

So far as I can tell, all the other residents of our hotel are Orthodox Jews. It is supremely surreal to look out across our balcony in the morning and see five or six Orthodox Jews practicing yoga, and hear a woman singing Hebrew prayers from room above us.

Regardless, we are quite pleased with our accommodations. For the same price we paid for our prison cell at Ajay, we have a beautiful, spacious room with a balcony that offers a stunning panorama of the Himalayan foothills and the largely undisturbed jungle that covers them.

“In jungle, many animals,” Amar told us. “Tiger, and elephant, and also pundits. You know pundits?”

Pundit is the Hindi word for priest. I tried to explain that in English, we use the word pundit to describe political commentators, but I think the humor of this coincidence was lost on him.

Monkeys. Never gets old.
Monkeys. Never gets old.

The jungle is also home to many monkeys, who are frequent guests to the nearby human settlements. At a hotel like ours, where we are situated close to the edge of the jungle, we have to watch our doors and windows. Monkeys are hopeless kleptomaniacs.

The fraudulent sadhus of Rishikesh are also legendary. The tour agent who sold us our bus tickets warned us not to buy drugs from sadhus. “Many of them are in with the police,” he said. “They sell you drugs, and then the police come, and you have to bribe them, too.” (It’s a good thing we didn’t want drugs in the first place!)

Some foreign tourists have disappeared in Rishikesh, and the fake sadhus are often blamed. The Ganges flows quite quickly in some places. An unholy man looking to make a quick buck offers to show a tourist a nice, private place to bathe, then grabs their wallet and pushes them into the river.

“In the jungle, what’s more dangerous,” I asked Amar, “the tigers, or the sadhus?”

“The tigers,” he replied, matter-of-factly. I think he missed that joke, too.

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