“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest-a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” -Albert Einstein
There’s a special vibration that resonates through the green valleys, mountains and the heart of the Ganga river of Rishikesh, attracting thousands of pilgrims searching for spiritual truth and union with the Divine. Sacred Vedic chants rise up over the buildings, up over the heads of the chanting gurus, waking the spiritual devotees at 4am each morning, preparing the city for mornings of meditation and yoga. Howling winds whistle down through the valley, carrying the chanting to the far-reaching corners of the ashrams that fill the city, making it hard to find motivation to leave our warm beds. We rise, brush our teeth, layer our clothes to shield us from the biting wind, and trek out into the center of the ashram into the temple that houses the meditation quarters. The orange and yellow crumbling building, set in the middle of a green garden, is covered in Hindi texts with shrines inside the temple devoted to gods Vishnu, Krishna, and Ganesha. Taking our seats in the middle of the large, open space with the other devotees, we see the guru, draped in orange and white robes, lighting a candle on the center shrine for Krishna, beginning a chant to honor the god. He turns out the rest of the lights and begins leading the first guided meditation of the morning, asking us to empty our hearts of pain and suffering, forgive our enemies and begin our meditation with an open, clear mind. His thick Indian accent gives me a chuckle and at first, makes it hard to concentrate-it is charming and so darn cute! An hour later, the sun is up over the mountains, illuminating the room while the Himalayan birds have begun their morning chorus to welcome the day. Upon opening my eyes, I see the warm, smiling face of our guru: it is familiar, safe, kind, accepting. I immediately like him, his gaze comforting and calm. After of a barrage of unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells over the last few days, I am comforted in the presence of my fellow westerners basking in the light the guru casts upon us with his smile.
To accurately and thoroughly describe the majestic charm that Rishikesh possesses, I would need at least half a book and many, many hours of writing. The children hold the light of the city; their faces are bright and smiling, friendly and curious, my favorite part of India. They are unaffected by the hardships faced in this region. Rishikesh was partly destroyed by the floods in June, much of the city is still buried under five feet of sand. People sleep on the streets under wool blankets, stray cows and dogs roam the streets and monkeys steal bananas from men sitting on benches under the trees. The spiritual feed their homeless and take care of the strays (so they really aren’t strays at all, they are the animals of the city). The cohesion of the people hold the traditions strong and the lifeblood of the city flowing. There are ashrams on every corner, free yoga and meditation advertisements on every wall, delicious aromas from street vendors fill the air, cow droppings litter the ground. It’s an assault on your senses: one block smells deliciously appetizing and the next block reeks of cow pies. Knowledge is shared freely, encouraged by the locals, devoured by the foreigners. It took some time to find the other westerners hiding in their ashrams, hungry to share which cafes they enjoyed most and where to get the best deals on saris, clothes and jewels. We’ve begun building our community of foreigners, waving them over to our table at lunch, calling them over to our campfire in the evenings. Seeing them in the streets, we shout a friendly “Hello!” with a respectful passing nod acknowledging our newfound friendships. Tourism funds and fuels the city, keeps the locals fed and well entertained. A group of local school children laughed at me when I got caught between two cows in the street and a third head-butted my leg to get out of the way! Another group of children were walking past Kowboy and I when one stopped to ask if she could take a picture with me. My first thought was she was going to ask me for money after (they are relentless sales-people) so I said no at first. She persisted and I gave in, okay one picture. This released the flood gates and dozens of children surrounded me, snapping pictures, holding up peace signs, adjusting their hair, posing for the camera! Did they think I was a movie star?? Why was I being treated like royalty?! The cameras flashed and the line of swarming kids appeared endless! I began sweating, I was so embarrassed! What do I do with my hands? Do I smile, do I frown? How uncomfortable I was! Maybe they thought I was an American rock star, in my cool knitted pants, bright orange sari and yellow Barbara Streisand sunglasses! (Very likely) The teacher rounded the children up and pushed them down the street, not before taking one last picture with me and repeatedly thanking me, “namaste, namaste!” I thought I was hot stuff for the rest of the day, letting that frenzy of small paparazzi’s go to my head, charmed by their energy. The resonating vibration of the Universe is felt most in this magical, mystical city of charmed children and chanting gurus. It is this one heartbeat that connects humanity with the spirit, connects us to each other and ourselves, and tightens the kinship shared among its travelers.