Two months in Rishikesh, India
September 19, 2014 | By Mitch & Jewels |
We spent nearly two months studying yoga near the banks of the holy Ganga River in Rishikesh, northern India. It was a beautiful place to be, and we may (just may…) have to return.
We decided to divide out our blog posts between our experiences with Rishikesh Yog Peeth (the yoga school) and our other experiences around town. We tried not to make the posts overlap too much, but a bunch of friendly faces from the yoga program played a lovely part in our Rishikesh experiences.
Rishikesh Town Orientation
Rishikesh is divided into a few towns. There’s Rishikesh itself, which is more urban and fairly unimportant as a traveler. Laxman Jhula and Ram Jhula each span both sides of the Ganga River (with a bridge for each) and apparently are the places where Rama and his brother crossed the Ganga. Laxman Jhula has a much more hopping backpacker/traveler community, with tons of shopping, restaurants, etc. Ram Jhula is a bit more laid back and local, but also with a bunch of shopping and great food options. We stayed on the Rishikesh Yog Peeth campus up the hill from Ram Jhula in an area called Swargashram, which was quiet and out of the fray, but still made everything very accessible.
Cows and Monkeys
We can’t talk about our time in Rishikesh without talking about cows and monkeys. There are TONS of cows all around. They mill around constantly, beg for food, and occasionally congregate for nighttime sleeping on the little alley leading to our building so we had to weave our way between them. When they are begging for food or blocking your path, you can pet their faces, scratch their necks, and often literally have to push them to get them to move or not nibble on your food, shawl, or whatever you’re carrying.
Every single morning, the 2-minute walk from our accommodation to the school building became like a game of Minesweeper to avoid piles of cow poop all around. And with daily torrential rains of the monsoon season, there were often ankle-deep rivers of questionable water to wade through. For whatever reason (unbeknownst to us), some ladies come around each day and collect the piles of cow poop (fertilizer? fuel? community service?) in a wheelbarrow and cart it off. We have both managed to accidentally step in big piles of it at one point or another, which seem like the rite-of-passage for Indian traveling. Thank goodness for monsoon rains… which clean the bottom of shoes right up!
All that said, the cows are very sweet and quite adorable. You never quite get bored seeing cows (especially babies) curled up in a circle the way a cat might curl up to sleep. Or a cow licking/grooming itself or another cow, also very catlike. Or sometimes you’ll see them drinking from people-water taps. One favorite moment was seeing a cow scratching the inside of its nostril on a bicycle brakeshift. (The owner of the bicycle was in for quite a surprise when he put his hand onto the brakeshift!)
And, of course, monkeys. There are two main types of monkeys here. There are the stockier, more aggressive, more frequently seen tan-colored monkeys. They range from being adorable to downright scary (they are aggressive and big!). One day, I had opened the back window to our room and one of them was glaring at me from the next roof. As it started to run towards me, I slammed the window closed to avoid it coming inside. Another day, Mitch couldn’t actually get onto the floor of our building because a few were on the balcony and had decided it was their territory. And we watched a friend in our program (who was carrying a bag of mangos) get chased down a flight of stairs by a group of them.
But usually, they are pretty cute or just slightly pesky… Hanging out, scratching themselves or others, generally being adorable. The babies are particularly adorable, with these oversized fleshy little ears and these very cute little chirping noises. Sometimes they would sit in the mango tree in the school courtyard and throw unripe mangoes down at you.
The other type of monkey is the langur. They’re even larger but more slender and have super long tails. They seem to be less of the urban monkeys, but they come down from the forests and hang out in the cities sometimes. They seem more calm and more intelligent, but apparently their intelligence makes them fight like humans if you manage to piss them off. Personally, I think they’re much more adorable (ie: much less scary), but the intelligence in their faces is disconcerting.
It was pretty amazing because when the monsoons let up after particularly serious rains, TONS of monkeys appeared. They seemed just as excited as the humans that they could come out and play and enjoy the sunshine.
We had timed our yoga course (mid-July to late August) knowing that we would be in India during the monsoons, and expecting that we could hide from the rains while we were indoors focusing on yoga. For most of our time there, the monsoons meant regular (daily) heavy (torrential) rains. At first the rains came every late morning, then shifted to later afternoons. Depending on the timing, we had a few epic lectures with our teachers battling to be heard over the sounds of the rain. Serious.
At one point, it started raining… and raining… and raining… torrentially… nonstop downpour… for about 36 hours straight. We’ve never experienced quite that quantity of rain. We discovered that our room was constructed such that we got a little stream running from the front door through to the bathroom and down the drain (exciting times). On the campus, a retaining wall behind one building collapsed.
But up the mountain, a landslide killed 20 people and injured many more, with a bunch more damage. Apparently the monsoons in India used to be 10 days like that nonstop – yet the monsoons are essential for the agriculture and growing season. It’s an interesting lesson for life, realizing the importance and vital necessity of something that is also so catastrophically destructive.
After the rains stopped and the sun came out, we were so happy just to stop and watch the sky, the monkeys got super excited and all came out to frolic, and we watched helicopters going back and forth to the mountain for rescues and road clearing.
Siva Festival, and Reactions to Foreigners
When we arrived in mid-July, it was in the middle of a huge Siva festival. There were throngs of people on pilgrimage, bathing in the Ganga, and walking up to the Siva temple some 12 kilometers away with little bottles of holy water from the river. They’re all clad in orange and many are people who came here on foot (often barefoot) hundreds of kilometers from their villages.
A bunch of the women in our program got frustrated each time they went out because of the throngs of “orange men” who would try to say hello. At first it seemed like a gender issue, until we realized that when the two of us go out together, Mitch gets all of the attention. Many of the Siva pilgrims just haven’t seen that many foreigners before – and blondes, redheads, etc. are new and different.
It has been really interesting to see how many people around town try to slyly pose for a photo with Mitch in the background. Sometimes they even sidle up next to him and smile for the camera, as though they are going to post it on Facebook and say “look at me and my redheaded foreigner friend.” He started turning toward the camera and smiling, and half of the time if I (Jewels) would turn around to see Mitch posing in the middle of a group of eight Indians for a photo.
The Beatles Ashram
This is where the Beatles came and found and embraced yoga. The Beatles Ashram in Ram Jhula is apparently closed to the public during the monsoon season. We walked over to try to get in anyway, and weren’t able to because the path was a river when we went. (We have some friends who went back two weeks later and were able to get in and said it was really special, but I think we’ll have to save it for another trip to Rishikesh.)
In trying to get in, we did go into this national park area which is apparently closed to foreigners but where a bunch of babas have set up camp. They tried to tell us not to come in, but we decided to go as far as we could to climb up onto a wall so we could at least see the Beatles Ashram before we heeded them and left.
Parmath Niketan Pooja
Parmath Niketan is a huge ashram on the banks of the Ganga in Ram Jhula. Every night at 6pm, they have a beautiful pooja (prayer service) on the steps by the Ganga. We only actually made it there once. From where we were sitting, we didn’t get to see all the activity, but it was still a special experience to be part of so many people with a strong prayerful intention, powerful music, and the mighty Ganga.
Parmath Niketan also houses a special Siva statue (it used to be out on the Ganga until some monsoon issues a while back) and a giant Hanuman. They are both pretty amazing and worth a visit. And a little photo shoot. (Is anyone else excited about our friend Ramesvari and Jewels doing a double-hanumanasana in front of Hanuman? I’m sure a million other western yogis have taken the same photo.)
Waterfall and Ashram-To-Be Hike
Some of the people from our yoga training did a hike up to the ashram that the school is building (more detail on that in our post on the school) and a nearby waterfall. Mitch was nursing a sprained ankle so he wasn’t able to come, which was unfortunate since he loves being a mountain goat on hikes!
The ashram project is really inspiring; it’s exciting to see that the school is trying to create an environment for “living yoga.” But at the same time, it’s interesting to see the hard manual labor that people are hired to do (probably for very low wages, with a lower standard of living based on the temporary living spaces on the property) in the name of yoga. We did a fun little pyramid group photo shoot on the site, which was super fun.
The hike itself and the waterfall were super beautiful. It’s interesting how you think about India as being overcrowded and overpopulated, yet from our room, we could see these gorgeous forested mountains. And then to actually get into the woods for a hike was really special. Just a few meters away from the road where cars and motorbikes honk their horns as they speed around curves, you get into a completely different environment.
Shri Kunjapuri Temple
One of our last days in Rishikesh, we took a day trip to the Shri Kunjapuri Temple. On motorbikes, it takes about 1 ½ hours each way to get there, and the way up is around these beautiful forested mountain areas, passing through a whole bunch of villages and towns.
We went with Jen (who will be spending the month after our course traveling with us) and Deepak on one bike, Art and Eitan on another bike, and us on another bike. Art and Eitan took a wrong turn while speeding ahead and had an adventure of their own, entirely missing the temple. Here’s one of the last times we saw them until they came back to the school a couple of hours after we did.
The views from the temple were super gorgeous – it’s spirited away at the top of a mountain, up the long road to get there and then a couple hundred stairs up. But once we arrived, we got a little blessing and spot of red and rice on our foreheads, a little prasad (blessed food), some special views, but the big central tree in the temple may have been the highlight.
Side note: On the way up, we passed by an adorable little street party, dancing and singing their way down the street as we filled up the bikes with gas. I think they were as amused to see foreigners rocking out to their drums as we were by their party.
Yoga with Surinder
After our course at Rishikesh Yog Peeth, we stayed for a week to take classes with Surinder at Swasti Yog Shala, a local hatha teacher who a few trusted people told us we “must” see. He is really spectacular, and we are toying with the idea of trying to go back to study with him more (another time, another trip).
Major highlights are his precision, his adjustments, which he often does by standing over you and silently motioning how to adjust yourself, and his long and precise holds of simple postures which makes them incredibly interesting and complex. One interesting note, which seems worth taking back to classes we teach at home. Surinder only focuses on adjusting you if you are really present and focused. He silently requires that you give your 100% for him to give his 100%. Pretty awesome.
The Holy Ganga River
We couldn’t be in Rishikesh and not dip in the holy waters of the Ganga River. The water feels amazing, plus we are close enough to the Himalayas that the water has some chance of being clean(ish).
The first dip Jewels did with a bunch of friends from the yoga training. We gave ourselves a little holy mud scrub, were schooled on the right way to bless and offer to the water before you step in. (Super thanks to friends for sharing these photos, since we forgot to document it.)
On our next-to-last morning, the two of us went down with Jen and Gabby from our training and gave a little offering and a little dip. One last purification to seal our intentions and lock in all the healthy patterns that we have been focusing on so much over the past two months here.
On the Way Out
Our last morning, we woke up, went to one last yoga class with Surinder, had one last awesome Rishikesh meal (we were debating between the giant fruit salad at Juice House and the awesome lasagna at Moondance; lasagna won), then finished packing up our bags. We walked down to the river, crossed on a boat, and then walked along the opposite side of the Ganga toward the bus station.
On the way, a few adorable little girls got bored of us saying that no, we weren’t going to buy their flowers, and decided to ask about my hoops. After playing with them for a little while, we decided that the time had come to say goodbye to one of the hoops. What better place to leave it than on the banks of the Ganga with these little girls?
Then onto the bus station, where thankfully Deepak (a friend who works at the yoga school) had come along and could help us out. Apparently the deluxe bus that we had tickets for doesn’t actually run during the low season, so we were transferred onto a minivan for our 14 hour bus ride to Dharamsala. The journey was less than ideal (as will happen in a packed minivan for 14 hours), but we arrived in Dharamsala at 6am the next day, right on schedule.
Oh India… Last mentions
As a welcome to India, one week into our time here, Jewels got stupidly sick with some puking-diarrheaing-fevering-cramping-awfulness. Thankfully it only lasted about 36 hours. Mitch got something similar a few weeks later. Gotta love Indian traveling.
One closing thought. I have never before wondered with car and motorbike horns need to be replaced, but now that we hear how overused they are, one has to wonder whether they ever wear out?
Here’s the full collection of photos for viewing pleasure. As usual, if you click on one, you can scroll through them all slideshow style. Enjoy!