I had made Rishikesh my next stop, flying domestic from Bangalore because I had wanted to come to the Dayananda Ashram to stay, as well as, to pick up books on Vedanta and Sanskrit. In my pocket was a letter of introduction from Prashanti Kutiram.
Rishikesh is one of my favourite places up north. I loved the climate and the north indian cuisine of breads, naans and rotis matched with subtly seasoned vegetable and paneer. I really liked how quiet and natural the whole place is with its no-car zone and the Ganges river running down the middle. Trees and quaint buildings and simple folks. There is a lot happening at the town centre but I usually find myself going the opposite way across the bridge to the other bank where it is a lot quieter. There aren’t that many shops and even if there are, they are smaller niche-in-the-wall sorts. It’s more likely to see stalls set up by the side of the lanes or else displayed on a sheet on the ground. Eating places serve wholesome and non-fancy vegetarian meal sets that are really good value for money.
Dayananda Ashram in Rishikesh
The ashram is run by the Saraswati Vedanta monks. And the place sees a lot of groups and individuals coming through. But it’s not like a drop-in. I went with a letter of recommendation from Prashanti Kutiram and there was another guest there who came with a letter from the Sivananda School. Actually, I didn’t think the place ever stopped being busy. While I was there, I met several different groups dropping in for a couple of days’ stay each. That always made mealtimes interesting when we sit together at the same table and talk. Despite the buzz, everyone knows they are within the grounds of an ashram and hence there is always that quiet and respectful air about the place. Yes, it’s important to observe the ashram etiquette.
I had a go-to person assigned to me in case I needed any help. A novitiate in his mid-thirties, Subhas had left behind work and career to consider the religious life. He was very friendly and helpful but also knew when to leave me alone. There was a routine to follow but I still had time off for myself. As a result of which, I had time to take nice walks everywhere to photograph, sketch, or write. There is the river bank, as well as the off-roads on the other side of the bank. These are my favourite places to roam.
Then come 5 p.m. on some evenings, I would take the bridge over and be seated at the ghat that is just outside the Parmath Niketan ashram. When evening arati is over, I might stop for a light dinner before making my way back to my room.
Evening arati on the ghat
In my opinion, this has got to be the most uplifting highlight of the day when one stays in Rishikesh. You would know what I am talking about if you have been there and sat on the steps of the ghat as the day draws to a close and dusk descends early. You have taken up a spot with the others on the steps. Now you wait for the monks to show. The boy monks file in first in their crisp saffron robes, and ash on their foreheads. Then comes Swamiji from Parmath Niketan Ashram. Arati can now begin. Meanwhile, the fire has already been lit in its sacred hearth down at the edge of the ghat, as close to the river as it can get. Swamiji says a few words and as he runs his gaze over the crowd, it made me feel like he is really connecting with each and every one of us despite so many folks there.
Very soon, the music and chanting begins. People clap and sway their bodies along with music. One or two have even gotten up to dance. All around us, the evening increases in darkness and the river surface shimmers from the reflections of the many lights along the ghat. It is both a sight and sound experience that is unforgettable. That’s how it was for me. Somewhere inside me was a memory that responded. It brought forth such a deep sense of yearning. Like as if I have lived a life before that included all of these and which I desperately wanted to return to. Nothing haunted me as much as the arati on the ghat of Rishikesh.
Deep and soul-stirring
Do we all carry something deep inside us that is never-changing, that feels very ancient, and which also gives a sense of something that is ever-lasting? Because that’s exactly what I felt moving within me. Maybe it was just that the entire atmosphere was super-charged from the chanting but omg, the goosebumps! It was the same with the chanting of the Bhagavadgita. The first time I heard the gita chanted was at the yoga ashram at Prashanti Kutiram. It was part of the daily routine to attend the chanting but the first time I heard it it made my heart literally stop. It made me sit up straight and and I kept asking myself where have I heard this before? Why? Why did I feel this deep sense of yearning? Why did I also feel like I have come home?
Sivananda Ashram at Rishikesh
There are also teachings available outside of the Dayananda Ashram. Me and a Japanese girl who was also travelling alone and staying in the dorm outside the gates, we used make daily sojourns to the Sivananda Ashram just down the road. There is a marvellous library and bookshop there where I spent time reading books I knew would be hard to find back home. This is also an extremely peaceful place to be in. On the whole, I count myself to have been extremely fortunate to have been able to make this trip to the holy town of Rishikesh and gained so much from it. I am so glad I went without even a single bit of fear of the unknown. God was truly with me all the way. That said, I am glad I went when I did. There was nothing to fear back then even though I was a lone, backpacking Asian Chinese female. Please take the usual care you would whenever you are on the road if you are ever thinking of making your way to Rishikesh.
All photos that you see on this page were shot with an Olympus camcorder on HD tape which is why they aren’t as sharp as they could be. Now I know better to bring along a dedicated camera as well.
~ ॐ ~