Gurus and Ganges in Rishikesh

Rishikesh is a town in Northern India set on the banks of the Ganges and is known for being the Yoga capital of the world. We arrived the day before Prince Charles and Camilla were due and preparations were under way for their arrival.

The town itself is completely vegetarian (by law) and alcohol-free. Streets are lined with medicinal and health stores, as well as signposts and flyers for all the ‘hippy’ things you might expect like reiki, laughter yoga (I’d have done that if I’d had time) and something to do with chakras.

But a ceremony called Aarti, run by a guru on the banks of the Ganges, is what many visitors come for, and what Charles and Camilla would be seeing too the next day.

guru aarti rishikesh

The ceremony commenced with teenage boys playing drums and singing; something they continued for over an hour. Spices were thrown into a fire pit by the river as offerings to the gods, and oil lamps were passed around – clearly an important part of the ceremony as the locals were scrambling over each other to hold them and make circular motions in the air with them. A lovely local man made space for me then signalled for me to hold it too; I duly obliged wondering if it was supposed to bring luck or please the gods in some way.

For the end of the ceremony the guru arrived and sang in harmony with the boy singer, creating an atmospheric sound. I forgot where I was for a moment then looked around to see the sun setting over the river and a sea of faces lit by the oil lamps all staring in the direction of the guru.

The next day we left the town to go camping, and what a place to do it! The camp was set right next to the river and an open canopy with a circle of seats was positioned next to the tents for sociable meal times.

camping by the ganges

We went for a difficult walk up a rocky, overgrown stream and joined another family and the camp owners around the camp fire in the evening. In our group we had former Girl Guides and Boy Scouts leaders who led us in camp songs as we eagerly opened the beers we’d managed to get hold of after the enforced dry spell in the town.

the ganges

The image above is what we woke up to. The beautiful, refreshing Ganges. It was such a simple life down here by the river but one I could spend more of my time living.

I sat on a rock and contemplated what I was going to do with my life. This was the end of my Indian adventure, but also the end of my whole Asian adventure. Just as my life changed dramatically when I left the UK for Burma in February, my life was now entering a new phase. Time to return home and figure out what to do next.

 

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A Bizarre Ceremony on the Border with Pakistan

When I heard we were going to visit the border between India and Pakistan I was a bit nonplussed. What would be so interesting about a border? Only afterwards I understood why we went, and why hundreds of people flock to the border for 5pm every day.

But first, another oddity to experience here in Amritsar – a hindu temple designed to replicate the wonders of a hidden, mystical and hard to reach temple somewhere in the mountains. Except this one was made out of papier mache and foam, and made you crawl through tunnels, wade through water and walk through giant ape mouths to learn about the gods and make offerings.

hindu temple amritsar

I was in awe to be honest. It felt like a fun house at a fairground, but one with moral themes guiding you through.

hindu temple

hindu temple

Before lunch we took the rickshaws back to the Golden Temple. In the blazing sunshine and a crushing queue we shuffled slowly along the walkway for an hour before entering the heart of the temple and witnessing men reading from the holy book which was, quite frankly, enormous (no photos of inside were allowed I’m afraid).

daytime golden temple

Ladies in the queue chatted with us, telling us that devoted worshippers come here at 2am and most Sikhs come here as many times as they can. There was a men’s queue and a women’s queue but a young teenage boy was behind me and took the opportunity to grope my arse as many times as he could get away with. Hello India.

At last, the time came to see what all the fuss was about at the border with Pakistan. I was amazed to see how many people turned up to the Wagah border ceremony, or lowering of the flags, but it wasn’t long until I saw why.

Wagah border
The crowds at the border

Men and women in uniforms with funny hats lined up in front of us and the music boomed over the tanoys. All of a sudden a huge cheer erupted and two women officers marched to the border gate. Then cheers erupted from the Pakistani side too as I presume the same thing happened over there. Then, one by one, each male officer performed a series of high kicks, leg sweeps and shouts as they too marched to the gate. Once again the same thing happened on the other side to the delight of the Pakistani crowds.

india pakistan border
About to perform a high kick

The Pakistani officers were wearing black or navy blue but their hats were the same as the Indians’. It’s a ceremony that’s taken place every day since 1959 and it’s enjoyed by visitors the world over when they come to Amritsar. Infantrymen from both sides shook hands and the flags were eventually lowered simultaneously.

Everyone filtered out of the stadium trying to digest the oddity of what they’d just seen. A woman from our group grabbed my arm and said in a hushed voice, “I thought we were just going to see a fence with some barbed wire!” I laughed.

 

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Diwali at the Golden Temple of Amritsar

“Happy Diwali!” people on motorbikes shouted as they sped past us on our cycle rickshaws. Our drivers were pedalling hard to get us to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Fireworks were being let off in the street and our drivers dodged the bonfires in the roads.

The Golden Temple was abuzz with excitement when we arrived in the evening. It’s a Sikh temple but the Sikh new year coincides with Hindu diwali so celebrations would be huge. We removed our shoes, covered our heads and entered the outer part of the temple. “Wow” was all we could say as we turned the corner and saw the amber lights reflecting off the holy water surrounding the inner temple. Thousands of people were pushing in and out and it was difficult to keep the group together.

golden temple amritsar

diwali golden temple amritsar

This was the first time I’ve ever eaten a meal in a Sikh temple and what a time and place for it! Crowds filtered into the dining hall where we collected our trays before lining up and sitting cross-legged on the floor. Men with buckets of dalh and rice pudding slopped it into the compartments of the tray and we were handed chapatis to mop it all up with. Eating was frantic and noisy but the whole experience was fascinating and something I’ll never forget.

eating at the golden temple amritsar

There were overwhelming sights and sounds from every angle: fireworks in the night sky, chanting from the holy book over the tanoys and eager local families begging for photos with us.

golden temple

It really felt like we were part of something huge on this night; the biggest celebration of the year in the most special and holy place in northern India. Tomorrow we’ll get to see the temple in daylight and witness the reading of the holy book.

uniformed sikhs

 

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The Search for the Dalai Lama

At the beginning of this trip, knowing I’d be visiting McLeodganj (the home of the Dalai Lama) I checked his schedule. He’d be in the USA the week before and Japan the week after, but there was a gap in his schedule where I knew he’d be returning to India at around the same time I would be in his hometown. The wonder started to brew – what if? What if he’s home? I know that if he’s home you can line up and meet him, something our tour leader confirmed…. so now all I had to do was hope and pray he really would be home.

tibetan art
Tibetan religious art

Two days before we arrived in McLeodganj our tour leader phoned our hotel. “He was seen in a car in town yesterday but no one knows if he was arriving or leaving” was their reply. My hopes increased again. I’m a lucky person, and things like this always fall into place for me. It was going to happen. I WILL meet the Dalai Lama I thought.

When we arrived at the Dalai Lama’s residency I stared at his house looking for any glimmer of hope. I half expected his face to appear at one of the windows. As I leaned on a railing overlooking the town and mountains our tour leader came over to me. She stared out into the valley, sighed, and said “maybe next time”. She was dying to see him as much as me, and she’d just found out he wasn’t home. I was deflated. I went and sat in the gardens allowing a beam of sunlight to warm me while I let the news sink in. It was silly to have convinced myself it would all fall into place. And being on a tour meant I couldn’t just extend my stay for a few days until he came back.

norburlinka institute
Taken at the Norburlinka Institute in Dharamsala

I needed some time alone and went for a walk around town. Seeing the many monks and the Tibetan people picked my spirits back up again – I didn’t make it to Tibet this year despite my best efforts but at this moment I was glad of it, I was in a Tibetan town anyway, where people could talk about Tibetan life and I could learn about their culture and aspirations.

tibetan nun dharamsala
Embroidery by a Tibetan nun at the Norburlinka Institute

A little while later I bumped into some of the group and had tea and cake in the sunshine. Me and three others decided to go and find a monastery and stumbled upon the day’s prayers being recited in a grand room containing a Dalai Lama shrine. We were invited in by the head monk and sat entranced for two hours. Half way through we were offered a cup of Chai to keep us warm as the monks stopped for their tea break. The drumming was mesmerising and I left feeling refreshed and calm.

monastery mcleodganj

inside monastery

Meeting the Dalai Lama just wasn’t meant to be, but I truly believe everything happens for a reason so I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for the next opportunity.

 

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Dining with a King in Mandi

Arriving at the hotel in Mandi we were greeted by a lovely old man in a woollen cardigan who mistook me for the Indian tour leader and started asking me questions in Hindi (my tan must have been superb at this point). Not knowing who he was or what was going on, I stared blankly, feeling utterly confused, until someone else jumped in and pointed him in the right direction. “That’s the king”, said a porter with a smile on his face, “he’ll be eating lunch with you shortly.”

I was still unclear about the Maharaja in India but later found out that this kind and funny 86 year old man would have been a king of sorts if not for the changes that came about after independence from the British. Instead he travelled, studied and worked abroad, living an exciting and varied life. He still loves to tell his tales, baffle his guests with riddles and play practical jokes to keep himself entertained; a real joy to be around.

Mandi is a town on the banks of the Beas river. Primarily Hindu (as with much of India) it is filled with Hindu temples, both old and new; the older ones being made from stone and the newer ones painted brightly.

kid_temple_mandi

We explored some of the older temples and I once again took photo after photo of the patterns carved into the stone.

temple carvings mandi

temple carvings mandi

The markets were bright and busy with Diwali fever increasing as the 3rd November approaches.

colourful street corner mandi

creepy dolls mandi
Creepy dolls in the markets of Mandi

Mandi was only really a stop between Shimla and Dharamsala but it was a great stop; we enjoyed dining with the king, relaxing in the hotel’s gardens and taking in the atmosphere of this riverside town.

 

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Scenic Shimla

I awoke in Shimla to a crisp and beautiful day, with views of the sun rising from behind the mountains. The temperature here is in stark contrast to my last week in India and I’m not sure the one fleece I’ve been dragging around with me all year will be enough.

Shimla Porter

Shimla is not only hilly but much of the town is pedestrianised too, so sights of porters carrying huge objects like the one above become quite frequent here but never cease to amaze me.

Hindu God Shimla

Our morning walk was up a very steep and challenging hill to a hindu temple at the top with a statue of the God Hanuman. Monkeys are everywhere in northern India and here beneath the monkey God were a gaggle of them. A lovely old man in our group had his glasses swiped off his face by one and no amount of coaxing could get them back!

shimla_hilltop_view

The town itself, a former British hill station, has a laid back vibe and is noticeably more wealthy than other places I’ve been so far. A visit to the Viceregal Lodge showed us its history and grandeur, and a magnificent sitar concert was put on for free at the Gaiety Theatre by the ministry of culture.

sitar_player_shimla

ShimlaThe main hotspot of town is the Indian Coffee House where the waiters wear grand uniforms and serve up delicious dosas for next-to-nothing. The old men of Shimla come here day after day and it’s a fascinating place to people-watch, with friendly and eccentric characters all around.

 

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