The trip to Rishikesh from Srinegar was not a simple one. It involved a wooden Shakira or shikara, as they call them, then an auto rickshaw, and then an 8-hour taxi ride through the Himalayas with a driver who self-identified as — wait for it — Fuckery Zigzag. Okay, I think it was actually Fakira Zigzag, but the way he drove and acted certainly earned him the moniker.
As if this would not test one’s motivation enough, Zigzag was followed by another rickshaw ride to a train station for the last tickets to a 16-hour overnight sleeper train, from which it was necessary to hop off between stations in order to catch another rickshaw – this time pedal-powered – to a bus to another bus to the fourth and last rickshaw, which finally dusted to a halt in the paradise of Rishikesh.
I spent the first nights recovering from the Fuckery of it all, as the whole trip should have been called, and then headed off to find a place to calm my mind and spirit. For better or worse, I was not alone in this pursuit. Rishikesh, where the Beatles wrote most of the White Album, has as many holy men walking around and asking for alms as there are monkeys trying to enter the yoga hall during shavasana to grab smartphones and, presumably, play Angry Birds or Temple Run. Here they are outside the studio climbing through the barbed wire:
My search brought me to Parmarth Niketan, one of the oldest ashrams around. I signed up for a four-week yoga course encompassing many of the eight limbs of the Ashtanga practice as written by Patanjali years ago.
The holistically-taught course included not only the physical practice, with its postures or asanas, but also the other seven limbs, which explore ethics and integrity, spiritual observance, concentration, meditation, self-discipline, and more. For four weeks, I woke at 4 am, meditated, practiced yoga, ate Sattvic food, studied classical Hindu religious texts, took a nap, then practiced yoga again in the afternoon.
Each evening I walked down to the Ganges River for the daily aarti, the celebration of the river that Hindus believe is a living god. This is where the Himalayan Tsunami killed thousands just a few months earlier, in June 2013. A large statue of Shiva, with the Ganges river flowing out of his head, used to stand near the daily celebration site, but the flooding knocked it out.
The place is, as they say, very shanti, or peaceful.
With all the artwork of the powerful deity Krishna, the ashram is a little like Smurfville, except in this case the little blue people are all bad-ass, careening around in chariots, swinging cool swords, and eating each other’s hearts. All these representations raise the age-old question of why is Krishna blue. He didn’t look that sad to me, but judge for yourself.
The time at Parmarth – Gargamel be damned – was an inspirational experience. The silence, contemplation, deep yoga and spiritual development made Rishikesh one of the few places that is on my “to return” list. Set against the background of Ma Ganga, and especially after the tsunami, it puts things into perspective.
Next, off to confront my fear of heights in Nepal….