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  • The river

    Posted on October 27th, 2009 Sheila Yair No comments

    rish1On the edge of the gigantic Gangetic plains where the mighty Himalayas turn into mere rolling hills before petering away to the vast flatlands, only the rivers are evidence of the true expansiveness of the mountains to the north. Huge tributaries who will tell anyone who is willing to listen about the enormous peaks where they were born. Rishikesh is located on that border between mammoth mountains and vast plains on one of those rivers, the holiest one, the Ganga. Right as the Ganga River leaves its turbulent descent from the north it bends to the east just before commencing its slow lazily run of the plains all the way to the Bengali gulf, that is where you find Rishikesh.

    A river is always reason for celebration in India. There are two things that Indians of all creeds wholly believe in. Two things that lay well beyond any hint or shadow of doubt in the Indian psyche. Two things that unite Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians. The first thing is the horn, Indian drivers believe the horn to be the almighty protector from all threats of the road. You are fine driving fast on a winding road as long as you toot your horn. You can go through a busy narrow street with other cars, pedestrians, rickshaws and animals with no need to reduce speed as long as you beep your beep. You can even pass two trucks right before a blind curve on a highway with no qualms, as long as you press that button in the middle of your steering wheel and honk your horn. The second undisputable truth is water. Indians radically believe in the purifying ability of water. A few drops of water can clean anything, even if the water itself is polluted. Three drops of water on a plate and it is ready for use (and re-use). There are sometimes buckets of water where you can wash your hands and mouth before eating to clean yourself, never mind the amount of hands that were in there or the drops that fell from the many mouths back into the bucket. In Amritsar, the golden temple, the Sikh’s holiest place, lays protected by a shallow 2 meter by 5 meter pool that every visitor has to dip his feet in. The water retains its purifying quality even after thousand of visitor’s feet go through it each day. In Varanasi one of the most polluted rivers in the world is persistently used for cleansing body, soul and all other household items. So with such trust in water a river carrying an unlimited amount of this wonder substance is cause for rejoicing. All rivers in India are extremely sacred. Waters purifying trait is due to its remarkable ability to dissolve almost any chemical. Maybe subconsciously, the Indians admire that latter ability, the capacity to dissolve anything it comes in contact with. This is very similar to what India itself has done throughout its history, dissolving any intruder and eventually swallowing them and making them a part of India. Maybe they feel a certain brotherhood, a similarity of qualities that bonds them with this miracle liquid. So here, in Rishikesh, the mighty Ganga before becoming one of the most polluted rivers on this planet is still in its virginal cleanness with only mud and rock dissolved between its molecules and is celebrated as a flow of purity.

    rish2But there are many rivers running through Rishikesh not all carrying water. One of them is a river of tourism coming to enjoy the tranquil surroundings and numerous ashrams. Its waters of tourists come from the south and crashes on the town’s ashrams, yoga centers and cheap guest houses, all of which serve as sand bags soaking up the gush. That is the river that carries us into town as we get off our bus and look for a nice place to stay. There are people from far and wide all different walks of life and different ages coming to look for themselves, meditate or do yoga. Ever since the Beatles came to meet the Maharishi here, Rishikesh has become a famous center for new age yoga, meditation and Hinduism. We visited the old Maharishi ashram which lays abandoned since the guru’s death. Like many gurus he left this materialistic superficial world with a lot of debt having the Indian government confiscate the ashram and the little he left behind. Money can’t buy me love…

    There is an orange river of sadus (Hindi holy man) who pass through the town on their holy quest to the mountain temples and sacred glaciers. Many of India’s big rivers start up in this section of the Himalaya and every one of these river origins are extremely holy to the Hindus, making them central destinations for yatras (pilgrimage).
    There is also a river of thought, this one flowing with no clear direction. There are many gurus and yogis offering cosmic solutions of universal enlightenment to all our worldly problems of planetary existence. There, I have used as many astronomical terms as possible in one sentence, Rishikesh is really rubbing off on me. I don’t really understand how there are so many solutions on such a cosmic universal level. If you talk specifically, solving each problem separately, than there are probably as many solutions as there are problems. But if you talk about a one fix-all solution, one thing that will solve all of civilization’s problems, I would think that there would be two or three of these multi fixers maximum. I mean how many ways can you screw in a light bulb? But maybe I am oversimplifying. Here in Rishikesh every guru seems to have his own all-in-one solution for the world, and there are many many gurus. But the solutions ring with similarity. The one element that seems to subsist in all the above mentioned solutions is the fight and distraction of our self, the annihilation of the ego. It seems, to destroy ourselves we haven’t the slightest problem but with our self it gets tricky. So here are all these gurus telling you, join me, join my ashram to fight your self (if you bring a checkbook better still). Our odds look pretty grim against our self. But I am getting cynical. There is much good in yoga, meditation and obsessing less with one’s self. During our stay here we try looking for a meditation class. But destiny does not want us to enter the realm of calmness quite yet, postponing our enlightenment for a later date. We tried a few times, once going to a place and finding no one there, once finding something that starts only after we would have left and once we mistook the time and arrived about an hour after it all finished. The cosmic right time and universal right place did not meet with any of the courses we tried to attend. That is saying a lot because not being able to participate in a meditation course in Rishikesh is about as hard as not being able to find any sand in the Sahara desert.

    rish3But not all rivers run on the ground here, there is a river of birds going through the sky as Rishikesh lies in a thick jungle region. We went up to Nilkanth, a small village about 9km up the hill. It has a very colorful temple, something like a house out of Hansel and Gretel, where lord Shiva, according to legend, swallowed poison as part of a bet he had with the demons. 2 minutes out of Rishikesh you are surrounded by jungle. Away from thoughts and theories of enlightenment, you are submerged in nature. The path takes us through thick vegetation with tons of parrots, wild peacocks and we even see a few specimens of the very elusive hornbill among the many colorful winged fauna. On our way back from the bubblegum temple as we are approaching town, a local fellow traveler tells us we better hurry up as dusk is when all the elephants, boars and tigers come out to drink and it is dangerous to stay out in the woods. Hearing this, of course, the two of us plant ourselves right by the first stream we come across and decide to wait till dark. We do not want to miss out on nature’s cocktail hour, and are excited about this chance of sighting large mammals. We see some more hornbills, many birds and monkeys but no tigers or elephants.

    But going back to the main river that runs through Rishikesh, the Ganga. Water is the liquid of life thus making rivers an essential source of life, the IV of civilization, carrying with in it the base of our existence. It is no wonder all great civilizations developed on the shores of rivers, everything our civilization is, every invention, idea, belief can be traced to a riverbank. We can’t quite pinpoint where civilization started, but we know it was next to a river. And here by the holiest river in India we decide to end our trip. They say a river is timeless, at its beginning and end at the same time. That is a romantic look at the macro level. In the micro, every molecule goes through each stage of the river, through its different temperatures, different tides and different directions. Every molecule is in one specific stage at a time. Such is our trip, timeless in our memories but at its end stage in reality. We have made many plans but the trip always seemed to go in its own direction, taking us along. And now as it is writing its own final scene, on the shores of the Ganga, we say goodbye to India, these two molecules are going home.

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