When asked by my new Indian friend what brings me to Rishikesh, I responded: “For quiet – I need it. But I’ve been warned of over-commercialism, fake sadhus and ashram scams. Well, I’m hoping I can still find some authentic magic.”
“Oh honey, money is the new magic,” the Delhi-based boy unashamedly stated.
Ouch. Don’t go breakin’ my heart.
“Don’t worry,” he reassured, “Just one dip in the Ganges River here will help you reach moksha.”
Moksha, in Hindu, means liberation or awakening.
I ended all that shook me, broke me and made me in India by settling into the unofficial yoga capital of the world at the foothills of the Himalayas – strategic itinerary planning of course. In ancient times, pilgrims gathered in one of Hindus’ most holiest land made famous when rock group The Beatles arrived in 1968 to study Transcendental Meditation. These days, spiritual seekers come as mostly Western 20-somethings seeking higher meaning or the ol’ classic “finding themselves” in one of many internationally renowned ashrams like Sivananda Ashram Light Society and Swami Dayananda Ashram.
The first morning, I woke almost in tears. The good kind, as I had never appreciated coming to my senses with solacing singing birds instead of those treacherous tuk-tuks that attacked my soul every morning seizing the streets of India’s capital eight hours away. Surrounded by nature reserves, the mountainous Rishikesh (or “Lord of the Senses”) is all about shanti shanti.
Although the pace is slow, pedestrians still battle for space with cows, motorcyclists and the odd orange-robed sadhu who comes out from his cave begging for money. Walking across narrow suspension bridges Lakshman Jhula and Ram Jhula allows a full scope of rusty, crumbling, colourful guesthouses, restauarnts and temples, while monkeys frolic above and river rafters glide down the Ganges River below. While most of the waterway is much polluted further downstream in other towns, the magic fluid remains almost unaffected here.
Strangely, there were female travellers in denim short-shorts and slinky singlets as well as empty booze bottles on the river-stretch. For a sacred place that serves no alcohol and meat by law, I wasn’t so sure how much of the magic I was going to find.
This north side of main town is full with rooftop cafes with sweeping views of the river, clothing shops offering harem pants and oversized Nepalese patchwork pieces – the same I’ve seen elsewhere -, inevitable tourist shops selling tie-dye sarongs and souvenirs, music workshops and specialised bookstores with names like Shiva Books Emporium. Signs overlap on restaurant walls, street poles, and side alleys promoting daily or week to month-long yoga, self-healing and meditation classes.
There’s tatted up, bearded or dreadlocked travellers working from their laptops. I watched one writer typing away on Finding The Divine Within You (yes, I peeved). After every 30 minutes, he’d shut the screen and meditate with his eyes closed for three minutes, then open them again in Zen manner and get back into his work. (Seriously, get a load of this, LifeHacker.)
“Doesn’t this remind you of Ubud?” asked my coffee date sitting cross-legged beside me at the cosy Little Buddha Cafe, as a dozen of Westerners jab away at their keyboards, myself included.
The digital nomad hot spot for hippies part, yes. But everything else, nada. Although with few culinary gems – the loaded fruit muesli at Little Buddha Café, the hearty banana porridge at Pumpernickel German Bakery and the fresh leafy salad at Romana’s Organic Cafe – the town generally lacks great healthy food, the bright tropical flora and cleanliness of amenities and surrounds compared to Eat, Pray, Love’s hoopla of a tourist destination. On a life endeavour of non-attachment to material items as part of my meditation practice, I can live. Comfortably, happily. But just like the rest of India, Rishikesh’s raw, rich legends and myths still make it a win as a more fascinating place to be in.
One evening while watching daily fire offering ganga aarti (much less intense than the noisy shouting speakers at crowded neighbouring Haridwar), a soul-searching Canadian solo female traveller turned around to me and says, “Don’t you think it’s easier not to care?” I pondered that thought for a moment, and related as post-volunteering-in-Africa Tiffany. Conversations are always deep in Rishikesh.
You could perfectly show up with zeros plans but with a will to chill and partake in whatever’s available. If my schedule allowed me to, I could’ve stayed for at least a month. I spent most days in quiet contemplation, much of it meditating at the banks. Then one day – Day 4 to be precise; the day before I even packed my bags to move into Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram -, something hit me on Little Buddha’s rooftop as I stared over teal rapids. It took me by storm, so much so my eyes welled up.
Was it anxiety?! Whatever it was, I welcomed the message from my inner-self. I experienced some sort of inner-spirit overhaul where waves of energy were rolling through me, a sudden surge of confusion then happiness with hairs raised on my entire body. Then came feeling completeness and alignment. I suddenly felt an unconditional deep contentment for existence. Everything I saw felt altered and new. That I had the power of the universe within me where I was able to move mountains and oceans. Heck, I wanted to lie down on forest grounds. We were one, and we were all love.
It was so overwhelming that I closed my laptop, scurried down to the banks and plunged myself into nourishing crispness and just floated on my back, staring at the nothingness above me. Strip everything on the surface level, and all that remains is love. Let us not be extinguished by our egos in blind selfishness and greed, I thought. At the time, I couldn’t describe the ineffable ecstacy so just accepted its mysteries as is and let my energy evaporate into the river. Could this be the opening of my heart chakra? A profound revelation? The Awakening?
Just three years ago, I would have cringed at reading (or writing) such things, but now I’m the one waddling down to the ghats in the early a.m. to sit in silence and wait for the sun to appear so I can gratifyingly say hello, Namaste, mate. Right back atcha, it says.
Was it the ambient tribal earth records on play? Perhaps the titles of cafes ingrained into my mind when entering places like “Freedom Bar”, “Free Spirit Café” or “Samadhi”, meaning achieving the highest state of consciousness? The echoing temple bells? A backpacker feeding a young cow with fruit he’d probably prefer savouring himself to save money? Maybe the bandanaed Englishman with long blonde locks who stopped in his treks to perch up next to locals for an impromptu banjo sesh. My yoga teachings? The barefoot hippies? (One with the earth, you see.) Or it might just be the mistiness of the mountains, which is half real, half the government’s doing in spraying mosquito repellent that fogs the entire area (let’s think it’s natural for the sake of painting a picture). And certainly, the celestial Ganges River drinking in golden sunsets that wrapped it all up. It was the whole shebang.
How could I be upset that money is the new magic? It’s no new notion but to hear it verbalised was a smack to my naïve or never-ever-want-to-admit-it face. Now “conscious travelling” and “tourism sustainability” mean more to me than ever and travelling to places like Rishikesh has fully unlocked my new way of seeing. You might see the truth and consequences of human egos the more you travel to certain places and the deeper you dig, that sure, it might just be that money does make the world go around. Is our job to ignore it, go along with it or fix it? Nonetheless, love is always indefinitely the answer.
Still on an epic voyage that is Life,
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Official Incredible India website.