I procured my rickshaw in Hardwar after asking all the various drivers there, ‘How much to drive to Rishikesh?’ He was not only the cheapest but he spoke good English and so I chose him. We settled at 400 rupees.
When we got to the very edge of the town of Rishikesh, he stopped the car and said that he wanted more rupees to go further. It was a masterful ploy. After all, he did drive me to Rishikesh. He was making a bet . . . after all, we now had some kind of relationship, he knew I was a stranger, with my luggage, in the midst of all the honking horns and cows and carts and people and a terribly busy road, and so, he won
I agreed to the extra money, and
mainly to protect future travelers from this scam
told him forcefully that I did not like the way he did it.
Actually, I found it amusing.
It was only 300 rupees more to take me slightly on the other side Rishikesh,
to where I told him I was going originally, that is less than $10USD,
but, I must admit,
I was still was kind of pissed at the way he did it
and pissed at myself for not being more specific.
One of the things that the persistent scams and differences of the Indian culture have taught me, is to make very, very clear and specific exactly what it is you want and to clarify what the other person is offering.
Still, even with all attempts at such clarity, it will be impossible to keep up with all the ploys and plays that will befall you,
nonetheless, this must be one's practice.
Hardwar is one of places that the sacred amrit or nectar of immortality fell to earth after the churning of the ocean of milk by the gods and the demons, and every 12 years the Kumbha Mela is held here. Here, the Ganges has come down fully onto the plains of India and the sacred river flows east over a thousand miles to enter the sea near Calcutta.
Hardwar (Ghats on the Ganges)
Rishikesh, several miles above Hardwar, is the place
where the Ganges comes down out of the mountains,
flowing out of the steeply rising valleys of the Himalayas onto the flatlands.
As such, Rishikesh is a transitional town,
a door between two strikingly different 'worlds' of India.
Rishikesh (early morning)
The next day, I hired another driver to leave Rishikesh,
and head up the Ganges towards the Himalayas.
As we passed beyond Rishikesh,
the road became dramatically uncrowded.
After months on the plains of India
in bumper-to-bumper traffic,
loud, honking, hectic, ugly, dust, smoke filled,
crowded with people, taxis, businesses,
signboards, monkeys, dogs and cows lining the roads,
now, as we drive up the Ganges out of Rishikesh
we pass into a quiet, silent, beautiful, ancient India,
the India one reads about in the epics
such as the Ramayana or the Mahabharata.
Banks of the Ganges 15 miles above Rishikesh
Here is the beginning of the Himalayan foothills
where Arjuna went during the thirteen-year exile of the Pandavas.
These are the mountains where hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have made their way up
to holy places such as Kedarnath and Badrinath, the abode of the saints and siddhas
for time immemorial.
Rishikesh stands on the border, where the ancient Rishis came
when they sojourned at the lower elevations
safe from the freezing Himalayan winter.
These holy men did not descend down onto the plains,
but stayed above the dirt and crowds of the plains.
Rishikesh reminds me of that place,
where a sadhu once said to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi,
pointing to a bend in the river below the cave where they sat,
“Beyond there we do not go. It is all mud”.
When you pass above Rishikesh,
You see what the ancients saw and treasured
the peaks rising up all around you,
some of the hills shaped like Mt Kailashian Lingams
and always at their top a temple.
The beautiful ancient holy rivers flow
between steep-sided huge hills in a vast valley.
The scale of things, the sheer size of these mere foothills,
cannot be explained, only experienced.
You hear what they heard, always the sound of the Ganges -
sometimes more quietly,
as the river seems glasslike in its downward slide,
sometimes it roars in the excited rush of many falls,
as it passes quickly,
blushing in white waters and waves.
the Ganges appears without the pollution
that exhibits itself so terribly as you pass through the Indian cities
on the plains below.
(This so-called 'pollution' is simply 'not there' to many Hindus,
imbued with vision born of the time honored myths of their religion.
Almost every Hindu I spoke to
found the Ganges absolutely pure, everywhere it appeared.
So, let this last description be mine and mine alone).
This is a sacred river
and, to me, it also stands as a symbol of what has become of the 'sacred'
through misuse and neglect.
(The Ganges at Benaras)
the Ganges flows and rushes and shines and delights.
When you are by the Ganges,
you feel cleansed and the mind becomes quieted with the rush of the waters
all conspiring to Shanti, to peace.
I saw the forest with spiders larger than my hand hanging in the trees.
I saw the large tracks of tigers that had come down that night
to the very same beach
where I bathed in the morning
by a small Shiva Temple.
The groves of bamboo,
the freshets of small springs rushing toward the Ganges.
The tops of the high ridges outlined in trees.
I felt the evening fall and the chill, cold air
rush down the valley to the river
from the higher mountains above.
I understood how important it is to have a fire at night
or in the nearly freezing mornings.
I looked at where the tall trees rise up above the river
and the hills rise up steeply beyond them for a long time
and for a long, long ways beyond the trees. . . .
And, as I continued to look, here and there,
I could see the snow covered Himalayas,
the 'laya' or place of eternal snow-'Himal'.
Beyond that is only the sky.
As we drove further up the Ganges into the foothills of the Himalayas,
we came around a bend and passed a timeless tableau-
three nearly naked sadhus, sitting in the sun,
with a large red trisul, the three pointed spear sacred to Shiva,
planted next to them,
all of them bare-chested and barefoot.
I told the driver to stop and back up and he did so.
When we came back to where the sadhus were,
I got out and approached them.
I felt a mutual recognition between us
and I raised my camera in the gesture I use to inquire
'If it might be all right to take a picture?'
They shook their head affirmatively with a smile
and waggled their heads back and forth
in the Indian style of saying 'everything is OK, Yes and Fine'
I expected that they would want some rupees,
as every sadhu I had met up till now had done,
they asked for nothing.
It had been a cold night and they had spent it outside,
like all the nights they spent.
Now, the sun was bright and full where they were sitting
and I took care not to block that sun for an instant.
They were eating some rotis (Indian flatbread)
spread with green herbs and tomatoes.
I said ‘Namaste’.
They looked at me and smiled and said ‘Namaste’ back.
I asked them where they were going, "Dev Prayag?
(Dev Prayag, the divine confluence, where the Bhagirathi and the Alakananda Rivers
meet to form the Ganges)
Uttar Prayag? Badrinath, Kedarnath?"
These were all pilgrimage sites, further up the Ganges,
up into the Himalayas.
They were tirthas (holy places) that sadhus had wondered to and through
for thousands of years,
following this very path or 'road' up the Ganges.
They smiled at my English pronunciation of these great holy places
and waggled their heads at all of them in affirmation.
One of them offered me some of the roti they were eating,
breaking off a piece and offering it to me.
I had not been feeling very well in my stomach and so I passed
(I later wished I would of taken it
as I now know that it means so much to share food with someone in India).
I like to take it slow, to simply ‘hang out’ with anyone I found interesting.
I especially practice this with anyone whose pictures I am taking and I liked being with these sadhus.
They represented an ancient order of religious practitioners
who desired to 'experience' the Divine,
not just 'believe' in God.
For them, a philosopher was a hypocrite
if he did not experience what he talked about.
They had left their homes and family and died to their life,
indeed, sadhus actually perform a funeral for themselves
as part of the ritual initiation into their order.
They did all this to gain personal experience of liberation.
This order of religious wanderers
has been around India for thousands of years.
like so many who came before them,
were wandering up the Ganges,
on a pilgrimage to the high, quiet, sacred mountains above.
They meditate in caves and forests,
bathing at tirthas (pilgrimage spots) along the holy river
(Vasishta Gufa- site of the cave of Vasishta)
praying and praising God and life.
It is as if they are on vacation in God for their whole life.
They accept as grace whatever is given or not given to them,
taking only what they need, giving away any excess to others.
Now, with only what they were carrying,
they were going to spend the winter in tapas (austerity), prayer and meditation
somewhere in the high Himalayas.
These guys seemed happy and different
from almost all the sadhus I had met up until that point.
They were calm, clear, clean and happy.
They each had little bags to carry their meager possessions and needs.
They are called 'Baba' bags,
(Indians often call both the Sadhus and Lord Shiva- 'Baba'
which among other things means 'Father')
and you see the small bags on many of the wandering renunciates.
Their hair was worn 'sadhu style',
long, matted, uncombed and loose.
Their skin was beautiful and clear and their eyes were bright.
Every one of them wore some kind of small brown Rudraksha bead,
a sacred representation and reminder of Lord Shiva,
the supreme Master and inspiration of all sadhus and yogis.
One of them had a small drum.
Pointing at it, I asked him,
“What is the drum for?”
“Do you do Bhajan (singing the names of God)?”
He appreciated that I knew the term and had noticed the drum.
He lifted it up and tilted his head back and forth
like there was music playing and smiled.
We all smiled and there was a happy shared silence.
My driver was uncomfortable.
For me, it was nice to just hang out with these guys.
For him, they were no better than bums.
He was a 'westernized' Hindu
and, as many of the modern Hindus often do,
felt some embarrasment at the still living representations
of their ancient, 'non-western' culture
and especially at these sadhus.
another of the Babas,
the one who had offered me some roti,
pointed to the sun and waggled his head,
put his hands together and then raising them over his head,
smiled at me.
“Surya Namaskar”, I said
(I salute/worship/give thanks to Surya, the sun).
I put my thumb and forefinger together
to join in an expression of the humble delight of life
and we all smiled and again were silent.
I told them that I was an Ayurvedic practitioner.
That I had come to India to study Ayurveda.
They must of understood some English
and seemed to like what I had said.
One of the Babas said something back to me.
I asked my driver to translate and he said,
‘They want 10 rupees’.
I knew this was not accurate
and with a stern and scowling voice I said to him,
“That is not what he said!”
He was chastened by that and then translated:
“He said that Ayurveda was good work. It is a noble thing to do.”
After he said this, they looked at me and smiled.
We sat in silence for a while.
I took each of their hands and held them.
Then I gave one of them 100 rupees.
It was rolled up and he did not even unroll it.
He just gestured at the sky and the sun above seeming to say,
“It is a great and wondrous mystery.
We are always fed from the day of our birth.
There is nothing to worry about.
We are happy and blessed.
God is great and there is nothing but God.”
I agreed with them in a shared intimacy.
I looked each of them in the eyes,
all of us smiling together,
and then I got up and left.
"Now, sitting by the side of the road, I look for them.
Remembering these sanyasis, tears well up.
They were so very kind to me.
They radiated brightness.
Yogis are many,
but it is these wandering sadhus that I love"
– the Sur Ramkali of Latif
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