Day 13 – Part 2
We arrive in Haridwar. We grab our bags and drag them past waiting trains and monkeys to the parking lot. There are no stairs and very few porters.
Shiva Ratri is tomorrow – the celebration of Shiva – and this town is exploding with color and a hint of the chaos that is sure to come. This celebration is taking place all over India, so we wonder what type of party we’re in for in Rishikesh. Here there are many people walking around with colorful trinkets hanging from bamboo bent into half circles held high above their heads. There’s some discussion of whether they are vending or on pilgrimage. We decide on vending. We don’t know if we’re right.
Once again on a bus, we are treated to the fresh air of an almost mountain town. It’s much cooler here, there seems to be less traffic pollution and the day is beautiful so our windows are open as we make our way through the masses. Along the way we pass various sites setting up tents for tomorrow. At one point we pass a giant white marble statue of Shiva. Our driver stops so we can snap a photo. I’m on the wrong side of the bus so I’ll have to depend on the photos of others for this memory. Just after Shiva, we cross the Ganges for the first time. It’s an indescribable blue green, like seaglass. A little frosty, not completely clear but beautiful and clean. Every now and then a highly decorated truck with individuals bouncing and dancing on top, rolls past playing loud, festive music. Punjabi, I am told. I like it, very Bollywood.
About thirty minutes passes and our driver stops again. He points to a huge white compound on the hill and says, “Your hotel.” Impressive. We have learned, however, to be cautiously optimistic when basing our assumptions about a place on its outward appearance. Or even its lobby.
We wind around another 15 minutes before we reach our lodging nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. We cannot see the great mountain range and in fact if we wanted to we’d have to drive at least two hours just to catch a glimpse of them in the distance. It almost seems worth it..
As our bus struggles to make it to the top of the long, steep driveway I take in the beautiful landscaping. The grounds are immaculate, full of bright green palm trees, flowering bushes and carefully manicured lawns. The Great Ganga Hotel. It sits high above the the Great Ganga herself. Each room has a view of the ribbon of sea glass and the steps into the river that make up her banks.
We are handed the keys to our room on the second floor and directed to go down the steps. The steps are marble and the hallway lit both electrically and naturally with screened openings wherever possible. It feels a little like walking through a castle. We walk past two doors then step down a few steps, pass another door, take two more steps down. There are one or two rooms per each landing, the steps continuing down the long hallway to the last room on the corner hugging the contours of the mountain.
Inside, our room is beautiful with high ceilings, big picture windows and our own little balcony. We have just enough time to rifle through our suitcases and freshen up before heading back up to the lobby. We’re going to satsang – a talk by a yogi – with Swami Muktananda at the Divine Life Society. The plan is to walk down the steep driveway – think Marcel Marceau being blown back by a windstorm, that steep – then walk a kilometer or so on the main road to the ashram.
When we reach the bottom of the hill we are assaulted by the dissonant orchestra of horns honking and rickshaw engines sputtering and revving. For the first time it doesn’t seem safe for pedestrians. The horns are more aggressive and space allotted for walking is less than single file. We opt to catch a few rickshaws instead.
We are dropped off at the bottom of a long flight of stairs into the ashram. Everything is a peachy terra cotta here, faded by the sun but warm and inviting. Once we’re on the landing at the top of the stairs we have options. There is what appears to be a temple to the right, a few buildings in front of us, one being bookstore, which is mercifully closed and more stairs and more buildings to the left. We head left to the auditorium. I say a secret little prayer for chairs.
The door is locked so we wait while Swamiji phones our teacher. We are a well-intentioned gaggle of magpies, the slightest shiny thing or in this case, another monkey, takes us right out of line. We begin to drift in myriad directions, some with cameras, some just curious. By the time Muktananda is making his way across the bridge toward us we have to be reigned in from all corners of the ashram.
This is a big man. He stands about 6’6″ is half African American and half French Canandian. He’s all welcoming love and smiles. I find his presence immediately grounding – exactly what this magpie and the rest of us need right now.
After a brief introduction we follow him inside, up a staircase and into the main auditorim where we are invited to sit. In chairs. There are personal belongings on these chairs; prayer shawls, a fresh flower, a personal cushion. We honor the items and work around them. This is where teacher training takes place. As I sit down facing Muktananda I note the window to my left. It is the best view of the Ganges I have seen so far. I want to photograph it from here, but the glass doesn’t open and I’m supposed to be listening to this great swami in front of me.
As soon as he starts talking he has my full attention. He has everyones. He doesn’t have a prepared speach or lesson, instead he asks us what we’d like to know. Once the first person breaks the ice the questions flow from us easily. He takes his time with each person, looking them in the eye and ensuring they understand before moving on to the next. When he’s sure you’re clear he does this thing with his eyes – widening them, then returning them to normal with a knowing little smile – to punctuate the end of your exchange.
He held all of us completely. We could have stayed and listened for hours, but alas we all had more places to go and more to do, as did he. As we were leaving, the shining, light-filled faces of the teacher trainees were returning for their evening lessons. How magical to take your yoga teacher training in Rishikesh, India. Sigh.
Another plan dissintegrates – go to the Ganges and take a boat across to Parmath ashram for chanting. But there was something pretty extraordinary happening right here – Arati – so we stayed. In the small temple we had passed on our way up the stairs, bells are clanging, a priest is blowing through a conch shell and the steady rhythm of a drum emanates. Arati is the celebration of a deity. As a priest offers puja, usually a representation of the elements, to the deity, the bell, conch and drums play. It’s too much to ignore. We kick our shoes off and enter, men on the left, women to the right to watch the offering and soak up the vibration of sound. As I watch, I am moved to emotion. The devotion and ceremony that have lasted thousands of years loses nothing over time.
As the ritual is drawing to a close, usually a total of 10 or 15 minutes, the bell clanging picks up urgency then suddenly stops. As per usual, we all move in separate directions drawn to different aspects of this event. Some leave, some investigate the temple and the rest of us advance to receive blessings and paste on our foreheads and part with a few coins in appreciation.
Freshly blessed we head to the river. We missed the boat – literally. The last boat across the river left while we were cemented in place by the temple pageantry. There is a bridge but that seems like a lot of work, so we meander toward a little gathering instead. It is the river blessing. This happens each evening around dusk. A holy man offers puja to the river, then offers the flame of a candle as way of blessing to all those who have come. To receive the light of the flame, a gesture of scooping it up with both hands as if beckoning it toward you, bathing yourself in its healing light, is made. Tonight we just watch.
This is the closest we have come to Ganga Ma yet, just a few steps away. The pull is too great to go back to our hotel so we find our way through narrow streets to another opening to the steps that lead into her. Small children peddle paper boats full of flowers to tourists and locals alike who wish to send prayers and blessings into the river. We did this into a lake in Pushkar last year. Karin and I each purchase a the paper bowl filled with marigolds and a tiny candle. A few others do the same. We light our candles, perch near the water’s edge and silently offer our prayers before launching our boats. It’s beautiful and if this were a movie the boats would be carried out to the center of the river gracefully as the waning daylight bathed everything in a golden glow. But this is reality and so the candles extinguish before the boats even hit the water. Of the five boats we set sail, one never made it out of the harbor, bouncing instead against the only rock around for miles, two ran aground and one capsized, the fifth just sort of sat there. Our inability to float paper boats, however, in no way diminishes our intentions.
We splash a little water over our heads, sigh and head back to the hotel. After an abbreviated yoga class we share a delicious dinner overlooking the Ganges reflected in the twinkling lights of the hotels and ashrams that line it.
Tomorrow is Shiva Ratri, another big day, so we turn in just after dinner. And it’s a good thing we did.