I finally made it: the Gateway to the Himalayas, Rishikesh. I know that today will be a day full of wonder and amazement as I remember that I don’t miss the big city with its intrusive lights, bustling traffic and earsplitting noises. I take a deep breath of fresh air; I feel complete and ready to thrive along the banks of the sacred Ganges River.
I cross the suspension bridge. My eyes gaze toward the left bank of the Ganges and my feet begin to follow. Situated in picturesque surroundings at the foothills of the Himalayas, I am cast into the spiritual community of Swarg Ashram. Ancient temples, ashrams, meditation centers and the bathing ghats where spiritual ceremonies are performed each sunrise and sunset await my exploration.
As I take hold of my camera hoping that I can capture all of the magnificent beauty that is set before me, I feel someone observing me. I make an adjustment with the scarf around my neck, feeling very pleased wearing the traditional salwar kameez I purchased in New Delhi. I turn around to see an old man draped in long white garments gently smiling at me, offering a slight wave of his hand. Our eyes meet and I sense something caring and special about his presence…I have to meet him.
As I slowly approach, I notice his long white hair perfectly complementing not only his attire, but also the faded white paint lightly stroked upon the middle of his forehead. His long white beard is sprinkled with strands of gray and somewhere in there was his mouth, which I find as he introduces himself as “Free Cool Baba.” He explains that his mission is to help travelers, to learn from them the journeys they have come from and to learn about the journeys they will continue to embark. I trust my instincts, I feel at ease and I know at this moment I am ready to share my afternoon with Free Cool Baba.
We exchange our colorful life stories while sipping the chai tea that we ordered from a teacart situated on a narrow path. As we stroll through Swarg Ashram, Free Cool Baba quickly becomes my tour guide and my friend.
He details Rishikesh’s rich and ancient history of being a center of spiritual activities and a place for religious pilgrimage. He tells me the mythical legend of Lord Rama and how he meditated and did penance here after the execution of Ravana. He explains to me how the Ganges River has become known as holding sacred waters, how many Hindus believe that one dip in the river can wash away their sins. Rishikesh’s legends soon come alive and I begin to see this small serene town through the eyes of a magnificent storyteller. I feel lucky to be alive, to have the ability to truly capture the beauty and the grandeur of this land and its people.
He tells me how today many travelers know Rishikesh as the “world capital of yoga.” He explains how yoga is described in ancient Hindu Scripture, blending the practice of obtaining an everlasting state of peace of mind with the divine. This information is apparent as I notice that I am surrounded by several ashrams and meditation centers.
Before I know it, we are at the Dashashwamedh Ghat along the bank of the Ganges River. Dawn is coming towards us and I see hundreds of people sending flowers and metal plates adorned with candles and incense afloat to drift downstream.
As I inhaled the incense floating in the air, I learn that each evening at sunset priests perform Worship to Fire, “Agni Pooja,” a dedication made to Lord Shiva, the Ganges, Agni, Surya and to the entire universe. The ceremony acts as a time to give thanks, an action to remove the strains of everyday life and to move individuals to a feeling of bliss, enlightenment and spiritual connection.
Just as I learn the incense represents a purified state of mind, I too feel a sense of peace. I am fascinated by my adventures of the day, sharing them with my new friend. I take a photo of Free Cool Baba and myself, hoping to never forget this moment.
As I stand in wonder trying to take in everything that I learned today, we happen upon the two other travelers that Free Cool Baba assisted the day before. He introduces all of us and I know that I am among like-minded, kind people. We stand together, we talk, we laugh and we give thanks to not only our friendly guide, but to all of the gifts that Rishikesh has dawned upon us. We make plans to eat dinner together and I know that my first day in this spiritual town will result in a magical evening below the starlit sky…with adventures soon to follow.