After being in Northern India just over a week I realized a little secret about traveling (in India) that no one had thought to reveal; traveling is slow, cumbersome and often requires massive amounts of patience. I wanted to see it all but I quickly learned I had to make decisions about my route and not look back, this was not an easy task. Not going to Varanasi, one of the holiest places in India where Hindus go to either cleans their spirit in the Ganga (Gaaan-ga aka The Ganges River) or to cremate their family members, was one of those decisions. While Varanasi sounded like an incredible sight to see and a 17-hour train ride sounded even more delightful I decided instead to take the beginner route of holiness and head to the start of the cleaner, less rambunctious end of the Ganga. On route to Rishikesh I made a stop over in Hardiwar, where the Ganga starts and flows from the Himalayas to check out the scene in their holy Ghats. And truckers don’t be fooled…Hardiwar is up there on the list of really holy places, all of the same rituals are preformed in the Ganga which are preformed in the Ganga at Varanasi.
First I visited the top of the mountain and the temple that overlooks the river before spending a few hours roaming around Hardiwar checking out the spiritual Ganga action. The act of people thrusting themselves into the rushing river and holding onto chains for support immediately engulfed me; I stopped for a while to just sit and watch. I observed a slightly younger woman as she helped her elder shamelessly undress and enter the water to let the water flow over her dark brown wrinkled and saggy body. There were several groups of men with shaved heads who sat in circles; they took blessings, said several prayers, lit torches and then entered into the cold rushing river. I observed a young couple as they posed for a picture while making a blessing by pouring a white liquid into the river. When I headed inland into the narrow streets just off the river I stumbled onto one of the most sacred rituals in the Hindu religion, which is when the family members cremate the bodies of the recently deceased. I didn’t actually see a body, but the fire was still burning and the remnants of the ceremony still lingered. To say I stood out like a sore thumb, while I tried to be discreet with my large camera, would be an understatement – I was shooed away from several groups and approached by every beggar for money, every child for a snap and every tout trying to get me to donate to the Ganga cause.After I had my fill of the burning bodies, the precarious dips in the Ganga and the ruthless beggars I headed a little further up the river. Dubbed the “Yoga Capital of the World” Rishikesh was put on the map many moons ago by The Beatles (they supposedly wrote most of the White Album at one of the first ashrams) and has since been turned into a village swarming with local sadhus, new age hippie mystics and people like me just trying to get in a few days in of the downward dog. Across the foot bridge, tucked away along the winding milky colored Ganga river, I found Swargashram (small village in Rishikesh) and realized the town was just my speed; I didn’t have an exit plan and I quickly settled into the seductive solidarity.I drank sweet chai and ate muesli with curd, fresh fruit and honey while sitting on the balcony overlooking the river. I hiked with new friends along the mountain ridges while passing through small homesteads stopping along the way to try and test the waters of meditation. I spent an afternoon photographing a large wedding cake tiered temple and laughing at the monkeys steeling the ice creams from bewildered passerby’s. I learned to netty (nose cleans) without completely drenching my shirt with authentic Himalayan rock salt. I took long yoga classes from a sadhu dressed from (shaved) head to toe in all orange while monkeys tried steal our shoes. I learned to take showers using the Indian bucket method. I talked for hours with new friends about our dreams, our lives and the future while basking in the sun. Mostly, I learned to adopt a French saying that my friend shared, something that would help me make my way through India “lâcher prise” – let it go.