I recently decided to take a long weekend to see the Taj Mahal and explore Rishikesh, the ‘Yoga Capital of the World’ situated along the Ganges River. While I had used local transportation (trains, buses) on every other trip I took, I planned this trip too late and all trains were booked. So I decided I could treat myself to a driver and a car (which was actually relatively cheap). Although I always feel uncomfortable when I treat myself here, sometimes I just have to convince myself that it’s okay.
After being in Delhi for a couple of hours, eating an Indian dish I’ve come to like and finding the car company, I was on the road to Rishikesh (in the state of Uttarakhand). As we drove out of Delhi I was lucky to see a couple of elephants along the road! I recalled a time when I was driving around Mumbai with the JCC director on a search to buy items to use for the 10 plagues at our Pesach seder. We had driven past an elephant and I practically fell out of the car, foolishly ran through insane Mumbai traffic only to get a closer look at the elephant. Another time, when I was leaving the JDC run old-age home after Shabbat, I turned a corner to get in line for the rickshaws and found myself inches from an ENORMOUS elephant’s step. Now, seeing the elephants from the car window, I felt comfort knowing that my amazement at their grandeur and enormity was far from waning.
As we drove four hours northeastward, we reached the Ganges River and my eyes were glued to the rapids and the orange clad sadhus (enlightened ones/wandering monks) walking with wooden sticks through the surrounding woods. Every day here I consider how my Judaism relates to the overall tangible sense of sanctity in this country. It is a wonderful feeling to recognize the multiple means of connecting to the divine.
When we arrived in Rishikesh I began my usual search for a cheap, A/C, nicely located hostel. Only a few hours after settling in for the night, I was awoken to bells from the many temples along the river. Once the morning light seeped in through my window I quickly got dressed and began following the coaxing clangor. After a few minutes getting past chai wallas and people flagging me down for photographs with them, I met the 450 ft. long iron suspension bridge, Lakshman Jhula, connecting both sides of the river. I looked across and saw a riverbank flecked with ashrams and ghats where people were immersing themselves in the holy water. I could hear the bells more clearly than before and was eager to make my way across. However, as I stepped onto the bridge I stopped myself when I felt it swaying. I looked up and did not only see the narrow bridge covered with people, but with cows and swinging monkeys as well. After a couple of seconds I stepped forward and kept going, shielding myself from the monkeys and slipping past cows.
Once I reached the other side I realized that it wasn’t only the bridge that was populated heavily by cows- they pervaded the entire town. I remember during the first ten minutes of being across the bridge I thought I felt something touch my butt and I turned and slapped what I thought was someone’s hand. Turns out it was a cow’s head and though some onlookers laughed, others looked appalled. After laughing to myself I apologized to the cow I continued on my way.
I spent the day exploring the Trayambakeshwar Temple, taking a yoga class at an ashram and going white water rafting in the Ganges! This last activity may have given me diseases but it was really, really fun. (Don’t worry mom, I didn’t swallow that much water!)
In the evening I took another yoga class at the same ashram and traveled with a few other tourists along the river bank to Swarg Ashram to watch an aarthi (Hindi form of worship in which praises are sung to a deity and people light special candles which they let float in the river). I always find it interesting to learn stories of Hindu deities and to observe another religion’s means of worship.
My time in Rishikesh exposed me to a fascinating piece of India and left me in a meditative state in which I was aware of every chime of a bell and whisper of incense.
After returning to my hostel and repacking my bag, I fell asleep to the sound of bells- uncertain if they were in my head or across the bridge.
I woke early in the morning, excited for my long awaited visit to Agra to see the Taj Mahal!