Everyone remembers ‘Buddy Jesus’ from Kevin Smith’s brilliant religious satire film, Dogma, right? Who could forget that hilarious parody of the commercialization of religion and spirituality?
Ladies and gentlemen, I have found its match in Hinduism/eastern spirituality. As soon as we arrived, Buddy Jesus sprang to mind. Willa describes it as Disneyland spiritualism. Welcome to Rishikesh.
We spent our first night there at some friends’ ashram in Haridwar, about twenty kilometers south of Rishikesh, a town comparable in Hindu religious importance to Varanasi, though the latter tends to be more well-known among foreigners. Thus, Haridwar is more aimed at domestic spiritual tourists, giving it a slightly more “Indian” feel; that is to say, there is much less English, and, while we are of course objects of stares, we are not the primary objects of touts.
Located on the Ganges River (or, the Ganga, as it is called here), far in the north, before it gets really dirty, Haridwar has little to recommend it other than a ton of temples and ashrams, only some of which are impressive. The real sight, though, is the sunset aarti ritual, which, I believe, takes place all along the Ganga, at last in the north. Aarti consists of lots of prayers and the release of lots of poojas by devotees into the river. Regardless of your religious affliations, this is a beautiful sight, because the poojas consist of coconut-like shells filled with flowers and other various offerings, with a tiny candle-like paper that allows for several minutes of flame. Thus, as it takes place at dusk, the aarti looks like tons of small flames floating down the river. Needless to say, this is beautiful, and I had some amazing pictures of it that none of us shall ever see, thanks to yesterday’s events.
We also made friends with an Indian family from Delhi who were up there for a few days, which was really fun.
After a rather chill day exploring somewhat sleepy Haridwar, being followed by some obnoxious teenaged boys, having a water bottle stolen by a money, and hiking up a mountain to check out some very popular temples, we headed up to Rishikesh for the hardcore spiritual tourism. We walked into town and the first thing I saw was a guy in an “Om” t-shirt. (It didn’t say “Om,” but rather the Hindi character for “Om,” which becomes recognizable very quickly here, as it’s written on everything wherever people are Hindu.) Then I began to notice all the stalls were full of spiritual memorabilia. The signs posted everywhere were for spiritualism classes, meditation, yoga, reiki, various gurus and ashrams, and so on and so forth. Every hotel, no matter how modest, offered yoga classes. Across the river from Lakshman Jhula, you could see what our guidebook termed “wedding-cake temples,” an apt description, though I thought the temples were less attractive than wedding cakes. It was a bit of a letdown, frankly, given that I’ve seen some gorgeous temples in India. These were brightly colored, but clearly products of the last forty years or so, since the Beatles popularized Rishikesh as a spiritual destination after their trip to the Maharishi Ashram (now abandoned). In addition to all of this, an entire “town” in Rishikesh, Swarg Ashram, is devoted to ashrams. This means that you walk down the street and pretty much every building/complex is an ashram, where you can go to be spiritual and learn from various swamis/gurus. I’m frankly not even sure how you’d pick one, except on someone’s recommendation. I had wanted to do some yoga, but the sheer volume of yoga classes actually convinced me otherwise, because, given their ubiquity and the fact that we were barely there two days, I had no way of guaranteeing quality or legitimacy. (There are stories of less-than-legitimate experiences.)
Before you think I didn’t enjoy Rishikesh, let me assure you otherwise. Rishikesh has some great benefits as a result of being a spiritual tourist destination. For the first time in weeks, I was able to have fruit, yogurt, and muesli for breakfast, and real coffee, and real bread! (Most of India eats white bread when not eating chapatis/rotis/naan/parathas, all of which are good, but sometimes a Western girl wants her thick, soft, whole-grain bread.) For those who head there and want some quality breakfasts, I highly recommend Devraj Coffee Corner, overlooking the Lakshman Jhula bridge. Just next door is a pretty good bookstore, with another one just down the street.
Additionally, the natural surroundings in Rishikesh are stunning. There, you are even higher up on the Ganga than in Haridwar, and the Himalayas have begun to surround you in all their height and grandeur. We spent a lovely middle of the day (it was hot, but not as hot as Rajasthan or Delhi, so we were okay with plenty of water) wandering along a riverside path, enjoying the scenery and the hilarious signs advertising all sorts of spiritualism. Once again, lovely pictures that will never be seen. For those going to the area, I recommend staying in High Bank, which is a bit above the city and therefore much quieter and surrounded by nature. It’s a backpacker spot, but it’s really quite lovely, and nothing is as far a walk as it looks (it took no more than twenty minutes walking – or less – to get down to the river and the heart of Lakshman Jhula).
On top of all of this, you can be constantly seranaded by Hari Krishnas singing and playing music and sometimes dancing along. Yes, for the first time in your life, they will not be actively trying to evangelize. After all, they don’t need to; they know you’ll come to them.
For those interested, Willa is also blogging, now that she’s with me. You can check out her blog either through the link on the sidebar, or here. Like Michal, she’s slightly more diligent than I.