The direct train from Amritsar to Haridwar was a pleasure. I write hours of blog for it all to be wiped off, thank you very much Mr WordPress app. It’s not the first time either. I’m not going to rant, I’ve ‘found’ myself in Rishikesh so I’m calm. I am a little peeved, but I’ll move on.
Rishikesh is a strange little place, split into five little settlements either side of the Ganges river. The bus drops me off at the bus stand in the main town where the bazaar is. There’s also the more popular tourist haunts Ramjhula and Laxmanjhula further down the road. The budget backpacker contingent stay at Laxmanjhula, south of the Ganges but I opt to stay in an ashram in Laxmanjhula, north of the Ganges, in a quieter part of town. It’s called Kriya Yoga Ashram, made famous by the book, ‘autobiography of a Yogi’. It’s a good deal too, 400R per night and they provide a clean room, three meals a day, chi and a morning and evening aarti (prayer) and meditation session. Yoga and meditation courses are intensive and are an cost extra. I opt out of the additional costs due to the yoga festival offering free classes. Maximum enjoyment, minimum money spent. I’m becoming such a tight arse. Either way, I’m in Rishikesh, doing the spiritual thing. Blah.
Walking through the streets of Ramjhula and Laxmanjhula I notice there’s a huge array of meditation and yoga courses available, from beginner to expert level, fake to authentic, cheap to expensive. Whatever you need to become enlightened, Rishikesh reckons it can sell it to you. The advertising is extreme.
This place was made famous by The Beatles back in the sixties, where they stayed at a now derelict ashram and recorded songs for the album ‘The White Album’ back in 1968. Recently Ringo Starr called Rishikesh ‘the Butlins of the yoga world’, after a recent return trip. I can fully understand his comment. Don’t get me wrong, I like the place, it’s clean, yes, clean, full of nice people and there’s a relaxed vibe, a bit like Pushkar. There’s all types of backpackers, yoga experts, new age hippies, rich western holiday makers and Europeans in search of true enlightenment. In general, these types of people are honest and want a good humble life. But where there’s tourists comes commercialism and greedy money makers. Standard pattern. Prices go up, tourists pay more, touts make up scams, etc. That special something that attracts tourists in the first place then disappears.
Due to the large influx of tourists, both Indians visiting the Ganges and the westerners searching for inner well being, there is a steady stream of beggars, from the physically disabled to the wannabe baba. And there are plenty of them. There are hundreds of guest houses and ashrams. Some are world famous ashrams offering an amazing service and some ashrams not doing what they are meant to do and offer a guest house service with a curfew. In between these establishments there’s the usual array of Internet cafes, restaurants and textile shops. However, it’s still charming enough for me to like it.
I’m a beginner in the meditation and yoga game with a limited budget so when I see that there’s a yoga festival with a busy daily schedule of yoga and meditation workshops with a few lectures thrown in on top, for free. I’m all over it. Bring it on, get me bendy, let’s get deep, let’s get spiritual. In the western world, we surround ourselves with material items and to get time to listen to yourself is rare. Now’s my time.
I’m in Rishikesh. I’m at the home of yoga. I’m going to find enlightenment and inner peace. Honest.
Kriya Yoga Ashram
At the Kriya Yoga Ashram, the day starts at 5.30am with arti and a meditation. Arti means prayer and yes that’s right, it starts at 5.30am. The bell starts to ring whilst a yogi chants. The religion is Hindu but they don’t force it on you, you just need to respect their traditions. I awake, get dressed and pop down into the prayer and meditation hall. The hall is impressive. It’s circular like the outside building and it feels like a church. It is only 20 years old so it is warm and cosy but is traditional in its design. The acoustics are amazing, the energy, I’m told, is perfect for meditation. The first prayer throws me, chanting and Hindu traditions I don’t understand or expect. When the guy starts chucking water over us I’m a little taken back. Suddenly I visualise what Carl Pilkongton would have made of this experience. I try not to laugh. However, the prayer and rituals put me in the mood to meditate and boy do I meditate my little heart out. My deepest meditation almost hits the two hour mark. I sat there and didn’t move, I tried not to think for almost two hours. I actually floated. I felt like I was on drugs. I couldn’t feel the floor when I walked out of the hall. An intense feeling. The brain is a powerful thing that is underestimated, especially in the western world. I’ve just joined team meditation. I’m learning. I like it.
This same arti and meditation is repeated in the evening, before they serve dinner. A routine of meditation that I stick to for the next four days. Remember, ashrams lock their doors early. Kriya shut theirs at 9.30pm and lights out at 10pm. Judging by the streets outside, there’s not much going on else where so I settle into the early fall, early rise routine well.
The food they provide us with is basic and a little lacking in the taste department but it’s edible. The chi is disappointingly moderate. I feel I’m adequately educated in the art of Indian chi to criticise. I’ve sank a lot of chi’s since I arrived in Mumbai six weeks ago. Hundreds. But this is an ashram, so no complaints.
The yoga festival was held in an events room of a hotel and boasted yoga, meditation and lectures on positive thinking from 7.30am to 6.30pm everyday for two weeks. I tried out a variation of classes flexing and bending both my body and brain. Most sessions were inside but if attendance was high then they were out on the front lawn. A German lady was my favourite teacher, she was strict and excellent at explaining technique. She also shouted a lot, barking demands and slapped people’s arses regularly during demonstrations I really enjoyed the yoga classes and pushed my body to the limit. It’s a great workout and I buzzed after each session, physically and mentally, maybe I mean spiritually. Maybe I could convert to a new way of living.
One thing I noticed about this flexible lot was how seriously they took their yoga. I tried cracking a joke every now and then, but to no response. I even cracked open a fart, which I found hilarious, but only a couple joined in with sniggers, the rest holding their pose, concentrating intensively. I met some interesting people at these classes but there were also the hardcore few, who to me, were so focused on inner enlightenment that they forgot to smile and enjoy themselves. Just an observation.
During my stay, the Danish guys arrive and we meet up for some tai chi lessons with a lovely German guy on the rooftop of an ashram opposite a huge temple. Accompanied by the occasional monkey, I learned the basics of flowing movements in the peaceful martial art. As you do.
The Beatles Ashram
So this is the Ashram The Beatles made famous back in 1968. They were full-on hippies by this stage of their careers and were experimenting with ethnic sounds and psychedelic drugs. I joined the Danes as we walked to the site which is close to Ramjhula. The ashram is huge and covers a large area, it’s a shame it shut down in 1998 due to a dispute with the Government. The ashram is locked but an unofficial gate man charges us 50R to get in. He’s a happy chappy so we pay him instead of walking around the other side and climbing through a hole someone has created.
The buildings are still the same, a little ruined from vandalism and overgrown plants cover some of the buildings up completely. There are lots of huge spider webs with just as huge spiders living on them. The ashram was like a village, deserted. It’s sad. Such a symbolic place, the Beatles visit here, introducing India as a spiritual place to the Western world.
One large vandalised hall has been taken over by backpacker artists who have decorated the building with beautiful paintings and written references of the Yogi’s and The Beatles greatest works. The room is stunning, the art work and style reminds me of the streets of Bristol.
We find the number 9 cave where the Beatles stayed. Inside it was painted in true Beatles style artwork of the late 1960’s period, as seen in the film ‘Yellow Submarine’.
A truly unique experience, something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. As I hold a music technology degree, I see this as my pilgrimage to music, my religion.
I saw a fire engine today. I’ve not seen or heard an emergency vehicle since I’ve been here. Interesting.
I hate Diwali. Loud fireworks all night. Bangers are exploding everywhere. They are banned in Europe because they fuck your hearing up. I experienced the horrible deafening effect they have on your ears, all night long. I loved walking through the streets seeing children letting off fireworks but hated seeing them let off the bangers. I winced every time I saw a child pick up a lit firework that hadn’t gone off properly. I hated the constant explosions. Later on, I hated trying to sleep. The streets turned into a war zone. The teacher in me would say ‘accidents waiting to happen’. But isn’t this meant to be a religious day? All I see now is kids terrorising the streets with ridiculous amounts of bangers and some fireworks.
Sorry, I’m writing this annoyed by being deafened by little children who’s parents should care more for their safety. But hey, I’m just a westerner, what do I know.
Earlier on I saw the decorations go up, Christmas style lights switched on and shop keepers lit candles and got on their knees to say their prayers. Locals were in a good mood and were wishing everyone a ‘Happy Diwali’. I was excited, but I’m not happy now, just pissed off I can’t sleep.
Earlier on I met up with the Danes and some cool people from a tantra yoga course. A Swedish couple, a Dutch girl, a Kent lad and a crazy Israeli girl. We went to the beach to escape the noise. We made a fire, watched the fireworks, sang songs and talked the night away. It was a good option. We could see the celebrations for miles around. I love it when people from all over the world come together and click. It was a great night – minus the bloody bangers.
The following day I see several boys hands bandaged up, probably burnt, maybe scared. I hear of a house burning down. The reality of a bit of fun.
In Rishikesh, I seemed to bump into lots of familiar faces. I managed to hook back up with the Danish guys from my trip to the Thar, bump into the Brazilians from Pushkar, Patrick and Chico as well as seeing Joe the Canadian and managed to find and share a room with the French girl Pauline. To top this off, the English lads turn up on my last day in Rishikesh. We share a tai chi lesson on the rooftop and eat pizza and chocolate and banana pancakes in the German bakery downstairs. One billion people in India and I manage to repeatedly bump into my new found friends. You create your own future, but my old pal destiny is having a ball. Rishikesh confused me at first but I found its unique little rhythm and I danced to its beat. I’d go as far as saying I’d like to return one day. Tip top.