A day in the life: from the shores of the Ganges River in Rishikesh.
Rishikesh : Part 1) Morning of Momentous Mysteries
It is 4.30am when you hear the bells ring. They echo in the early morning, and they bounce around the cement walls of the Ashram, only to return empty. You cannot ignore them. They intrude your dreams and induce a groan from your roommate. You lie, uncomfortable, feeling the hard wooden table underneath you.
Somehow you exit the sleeping quarters, and in the sapphire-shine of the early morning you find your way to the humming – the chants of the universal prayers in Sanskrit. For half an hour you sit respectfully, as the prayers are spoken in a foreign tongue. Another half-hour follows as a Hindi lecture is shared. At the conclusion of the sacred rituals, sleep entices you.
After a mere 20-minute power nap, you find yourself on the roof. You lay on the cold cement, watching the clouds ripple across the sky like the ocean. Warm pink and orange light penetrates the cool ocean tones. Your camera does not adequately capture the magnificence of this Indian sunrise.
At 8am, the yoga session begins. At the bottom of the mount you stretch, shaking in the wintery room. An hour later your body has gone numb, your fingers are purple, and your heart struggles to pump blood around your body.
An old cart out on the streets of Rishikesh boasts a sign: ‘The best chai in town. Sarvan tea shop. Blassing to all satnam’. For ten rupees (20 cents AUD) you receive the warm sugary syrup, and sit with locals around a fire. Stray dogs lie beside you, little puppies yip and yap at your feet. Circulation rushes back to meet you.
After consuming breakfast – aloo paratha – in a nearby Ashram, you find yourself on the shores of the mother Ganga. Another religious ceremony takes place, and you sit, almost disembodied. You watch the grain tossed onto the fire, as negativity is relinquished from the body. This is not your faith, so you remain detached, an intrigued observer, as the holy chant echoes in the community.
After the smoke has given your hair a stained smell, freedom comes to greet you. For the first time in three-weeks, you are left to your own schedule. You find your roommate and together walk the streets of Rishikesh, searching for adventure, searching for serenity.
Rishikesh : Part 2) Wayward Wondering
The road is unpaved. The shop fronts are open, market-like, and the stallholders smile and stare at you. You buy the tomato-flavoured chips that you have grown accustomed to here. They are crunchy, tasty, and filling. You are accustomed to snacking, so three large meals are not suffice here. Ironically, you don’t even eat chips back home… Desperate times call for desperate measures. You also need to buy bottled water, and you decide to pick the brand given to you in the hostel, as this has proven to be safe so-far.
You spend some time sowing into the local economy by trawling through fabrics, teas, figurines, and cultural items. The atmosphere is grungy, but with a warm greeting seeping through the colours of the city and the peace of the people. The long street stretch that extends for kilometres is exhilarating. The track is a half torn-up stone and dirt path with locals, cows, and motos competing for the mere centimetres of ground that are stable to move across. You find yourself in an embrace with a cow, who decides to funnel up into your right-side from behind. You also prevent yourself from face-planting into the rubble on numerous occasions.
Consistency and calm float about. The Ganges River is a constant companion, flowing downstream on your left. The colour of the waters is ever-changing, moving up and down the gradient of blues. Each blue is a hue of splendour. The grey clouds hover above, letting the sunshine escape momentarily before casting a comfortable filtered daylight across Rishikesh.
Out the front of the Ashram there had been a man that would always follows you, offering to paint some henna on your arm, or a free bindi on your head. Thankfully he would not join you now, kilometres ahead, as you approach the bridge that forms a narrow path to the other side of the shore. You and your roommate take half an hour to cross the 100m stretch, as the tight-space is both terrifying and terrific. The views up towards the himalayas are breathtaking. Monkeys hang above and below you, fighting for a better view. You encounter a moto-man who stops to steal into your bag, but you are street smart and scurry away in time.
The other side of the Ganges is grungier, if possible. The street is dirtier, the aromas are stronger, and the temptation to try street food is at its peak. You pass a man popping popcorn, another cooking sweet potatoes, and another with freshly squeezed lemon and lime juice. Litter occupies the gutter, and the Ganges is not directly alongside you anymore.
You eventually manoeuvre to the shore, where pink steps cascade down the slope to the shore. You find a reasonably clean step, and sigh in awe as all your senses are stimulated. You grab your journal, and with camera at hand, soak in the setting.
Rishikesh : Part 3) Exhausted Endings
A flock of beggars, children, interrupt the solace. One girl remains long after the others. You are in the moment, and your stomach churns at the thought of supporting their corrupt trade. You aren’t heartless. You struggle with the idea of giving them some rupees to send them off. Yet you can’t. Your empathy extends to them through the depletion of the chocolate-chip cookie bag stowed in your roomies bag.
The gorgeous girl who remains, with clothes hanging limply on her body and crooked teeth hidden behind her cracked lips, tugs at your heart strings. Her tendency to beg and beg and beg is frustrating, but she is a girl who deserves to be educated and empowered nevertheless. She speaks some english. She says she is in school. Class five. This is comforting news.
Education paints smiles and paves the way to sustainability.
As much as the girl is sweet, as much as you praise God she is in school, you cannot face this corruption; so you move away to another set of steps on the Ganga. Little did you know, confrontation and disruption is the norm here. After a seemingly friendly monkey bares its teeth at you, there is nothing left to do but relocate again. However, then you find cows hovering. From a distance they give a unique vibe to the grunge-paradise. Up close, they are quite the terror. You shift again. Next, it is the dogs. Last night, you screamed and ran as dogs crowded the small backstreets of the Ashram. Rabies. Today, you have realised they mean no harm, and are less rattled. A dog sleeps on the step right by your shoulder. Your heart is pelting, but you manage to remain on this step for longer than the others.
Nearby, a boat goes back-and-forth across the Ganges. This is the boat you entered on yesterday, when your luggage was too much for the bridge. Now, as the sun dips lower in the sky and the warm and cool colours of the day blend to beauty, you watch as the locals strategically set up their food on the steps near the little jetty. Prime location to receive a few rupees, enough to get by for another day.
Later, before you meet the rest of your group, you and your roommate explore the beach along the Ganges. This is further upstream, beyond the bridge. There are rocks on the dirty sand that textures the earth, and the mountains are surreal. Another beggar, this time a boy, finds you. Your roommate is pestered by him. He holds a page, a drawing of Santa, that he has done. He tries to sell it to both of you. You and your roommate exchange the views of exhausted and ethically-challenged students torn between the desire to help but the stronger desire to hinder the growth of the begging industry.
As the sky turns dark, you find yourself at the mouth of Parmarth Niketan again. Another religious ceremony unfolds. The evening Ganga Aarti. A Hindu ritual of worship to goddess Ganga. There is more fire, more chanting music. The crowds are massive this time. Tourists materialise from nowhere. The intimacy from the spiritual session earlier in the day is lost. You wonder if it was ever really there in the first place, as your eyes absorb the religious scene. Your heart murmurs of the unseen; the Christian faith that grounds your being.
Dinner is served in the Ashram, a makeshift meal as the kitchen undergoes renovation for the International Yoga Festival that is to be held in Rishikesh in March 2015. The food is bland and basic, but it is sustenance. Members in your group share their tales of visiting the temple up the mountains. You don’t regret the activities you choose for the day. The journey of discovery had been enlightening… Yet definitely exhausting. After the extended day, you willingly retire early to your sleeping quarters.
Trying to sleep, you realise this place – Rishikesh – is not all it seems. The next morning your classmates will wake to wade in the Ganges, though bathing in minus-four-degrees-celsius water doesn’t appeal to you. This form of purification – the Ganges a site for spiritual cleansing – unsettles you. You are disturbed. You toss and turn. The discomfort in your limbs is more than the lack of padding in the Ashram bedding.
The heart is heavy in the chest, yet you find rest; not in the physical act of religious ceremonies and cleansing, but in turning from the mystique and returning to your belief. For you believe in a God who so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). A God so set on the true salvation of the soul that he sent his Son not to condemn the world, but as a recompense. A salvation based not on works, “but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour” (Titus 3:5-6) .
For true belief is not about temporary relief. God’s plan for salvation is for eternity.
When you do sleep, you dream of more than this dimly-lit reality (1 Corinthians 13:12). You are waiting. This world is not your home. Your hope is in Jesus Christ, “so that being justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:7). This. This is a sustainable vision, a lasting solution to the desperation of being. An incorruptible inheritance found in a kingdom that doesn’t perish, but prevails (1 Peter 1:4).
Note: this was written in January 2015. The piece is expanded from a journal entry, classified as creative non-fiction.