The holy river Ganges takes its source in the high Himalayas. At its origin among the snowy peaks it is but a meandering stream, to gain pace among the greenery of the lower mountain range. When it reaches the foot of the Himalayas, it is already a proper river, angry and roaring during the monsoon season, peaceful and majestic after the rains have stopped.
‘Mother Ganga’, as Indians call it, attracts pilgrims from all over the country and from abroad who for centuries have flocked to the region between Haridwar and Rishikesh to bathe in the holy waters and be purified, to meditate by the shores or to practice yoga. The region abounds in ashrams, Hindu and Buddhist temples and yoga schools ranging from simple refuges to luxurious spa hotels. As it is a holy place, all meat and alcohol are prohibited.
With a mixture of curiosity and skepticism I head to Rishikesh for a week-long spiritual retreat at Parmarth Niketan, one of the biggest and best known ashrams in the area.
The ashram is located right by the Ganges and occupies a huge patch of land where simple facilities for the pilgrims are scattered among lush gardens full of birds and monkeys.
Most ashrams accept donations (whatever you can afford) for room and board, but Parmarth has adopted a very down-to-earth policy of charging fixed prices (while still calling them donations). Prices are still very low and the ashram is full of Indian pilgrims whose clothes reveal the regions they come from, with a handful of foreigners in baggy yoga trousers, objects of constant staring from the Indians.
The spiritual retreat has six participants: from India, South Africa, US, Italy, Northern Ireland, and Poland (me). When we go out to dinner the first night it transpires that ashrams attract very atypical travellers: many people spend months in India, they are on all kinds of spiritual quests and life bends, and are much more interesting than an average Western tourist on a beach in Goa. Take my roommate: at 42, she is starting her life from scratch after a few bumps, spending a year in India, including six months in Rishikesh, to train as a yoga teacher. I meet other Westerners in a popular juice bar in the main street of Rishikesh and every time I’m amazed at the mixture of backgrounds, life histories and reasons for coming to the shores of the Ganges, each of them unique and far from banal.
In addition to the usual ashram activities like prayers at sunrise and yoga, our little group has its own programme. The first rule is that we have to wear white at all times to better channel energy, which required an emergency trip to the market the first night.
We get up at 4.30 am to the chiming of temple bells and start the day with 1.5 hours of mantra chanting, followed by an hour of yoga asana and pranayama (breathing exercises).
At 8.30 we have breakfast in silence: sattvic (vegan) food consisting of fruit, toast and tea. After breakfast there is a bit of time to sit in the library leafing through one of the many books on Hinduism, Buddhism or the yogic lifestyle.
We then have a question and answer session with our teacher, a young woman with a huge smile who sometimes struggles to explain the religious and philosophical intricacies of the rituals we are asked to perform. We then learn Vedic chanting. We try our best to repeat the lines in Sanskrit after the instructor who sings in a clear angelic voice, but it often takes a full hour before we have mastered a few lines.
The last activity before lunch is karma yoga, which is nothing else but sweeping and mopping the hall in which we practice.
Lunch, again in silence, consists of dhal, potatoes with cabbage or a courgette-type vegetable, rice and roti. Dinner is the same as lunch, and the same combination gets served day in day out.
At 1 pm I’m so tired I take a nap before heading to the general yoga class to which all ashram guests are welcome. I’m surprised to see that the few Westerners are much more disciplined and generally better with the asanas than the Indians. The latter tend to come late, sometimes a few minutes before the end of the class, they struggle with the poses, talk to one another, laugh and take pictures during class. Perhaps that’s the reason why the teacher is often as much as half an hour late and seems bored.
In the afternoon our retreat continues with one more round of mantra meditation, sitting cross-legged in a circle facing an oval-shaped crystal, passing rosary beads between our fingers and chanting. The mantra is my least favourite part of the day. My back hurts, my feet go to sleep, my mind wonders. Three hours of mantra chanting a day is too much for my liking.
In the evening we attend puja by the Ganges, a ritual whereby we offer our faults and ailments to the cleansing fire. Puja is followed by spectacular Ganga Aarti that Parmarth is famous for: hundreds of people siting on the ghats, the stone steps leading to the Ganges, united in prayer and chanting. People bathe in the river and send flower bouquets onto the water, each flower a prayer. The Aarti culminates in lighting several cobra-shaped chandeliers that get passed from person to person in the crowd, accompanied by hypnotic chanting. The music, the fire, the sun setting over silver waters of the Ganga, all this is enough to send one into a trance. Every Aarti is a magical moment.
After Aarti I wander around the narrow streets of Rishikesh, full of fruit and veg carts, perfectly stoic cows that you have to push out of the way in order to pass, honking motorbikes and old men with long beards dressed in monk attire. I’m told that some are really monks and some are fugitives from the law seeking refuge or maybe atonement in ashrams, or simply sleeping rough on the ghats.
The atmosphere is peaceful and friendly. People smile, stop to talk to one another. Indian pilgrims all seem to want to take a picture of or with me, one family even thrusts their baby into my arms. There are old men and young kids begging, but without the urgency and determination that I saw in Delhi. You can stop and talk to them even if you don’t give them any money. I tend to always have a few rupees in my pocket to give to the elderly or to buy some food for the kids (I never give money to children).
Before turning in I spend a few minutes by the Ganga. I watch the river flow by and cows gaze silently into space, I sometimes immerse my hands in the cool dark waters. So peaceful, so serene.
The day finishes with dinner at 8 pm, after which I head straight to bed and sleep like a log until the temple bells wake me up at 4.30.
By day two I’ve fully embraced this new routine – the repetitive structure of the day has a soothing effect. While my back still hurts during mantra chanting, I often find myself immersed in the rhythmic sounds, rocking from side to side, eyes closed, my mind completely still.
Everything about ashram living contributes to one goal: calming and cleansing. I feel the stress of my London life subside; my head clears, my heartbeat slows down. I love the sunrises and sunsets over the Ganga and the mountains behind the ashram, the chirping of birds while we practice yoga and the screeching of monkeys. My white clothes (not so white anymore by day three) also seem to be helping – there is no distraction, just pure whiteness. The ashram food, however dull, is light and nourishing. My new waking hours leave me full of energy. I slow down and relax. If breakfast is delayed, I close my eyes and just sit there. If the yoga teacher shows up half an hour late, I focus on watching the macaques chase one another on the lawn and don’t allow myself to get irritated.
So have I found Enlightenment by the Ganges? I wouldn’t exactly put it that way. But I certainly spent a wonderful week, met interesting people and recharged my batteries. And that’s worth a lot in our frantic world that is a complete antithesis of a Himalayan ashram.