Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Transcendental Rishikesh

Aarti bowl of flowers and oil votive I floated on the Ganga
In typical Sophie style, my departure from Bangalore was dramatic. I had miscalculated the departure time of my train by two hours. Cue panic dash across the city on the back of a dodgy Indian guy's moped trailing cashew nut cookies, mobiles phones and yoga mats in my wake. But the universe was smiling on me - I made it onto the train with approximately 20 seconds to spare before it pulled out of the platform to wend it's slow chugging way from south to north India. The journey was an epic 45 hours: 2 x nights on one train, 9 x hours on local buses and 1 x rickshaw ride later, I arrived in Rishikesh. Despite being exhausted, I was elated to be there and at sunset I quietly celebrated my arrival with my own personal aarti, offering flowers and flames to the river as the sun set over the Holy Ganga. I had come home. 

Devi music ashram where I studied harmonium & kirtan
Rishikesh is dubbed the ‘yoga capital’ of India and I found plenty of diversions in the spiritual consumerist capital, including asana classes, Osho dance meditation and music lessons at a local ashram where I learnt how to accompany myself on harmonium to the kirtan singing I had been practicing in Auroville. Literally meaning 'praise' in Sanskrit, kirtan is call and response devotional chanting. Ever since I had arrived in India I had felt the aspect of Saraswati (goddess of music, knowledge and science) flowering within me and music, in particular kirtan, had become important as a way of expressing my creativity and my spirituality. 

Crossing Ram Jhula bridge 
I was keen to continue the practice in Rishikesh and, having heard good things about the music in Sasha Dam ashram I attended the satsang of the living guru Prem Baba and his followers. Prem Baba happened to be at the ashram whilst I was there. I enjoyed the music, but I found the experience to be deeply unsettling - full of privileged westerners in pristine clothes and full make up, worshiping at his feet. The ashram seemed like a resort - a far cry from the sweaty corporeal nature of worship that I enjoy, packed up amongst Indians in dark musty temples. In addition to this, some of the followers appeared to be so far gone into guru worship that they were losing their minds completely - dancing, shrieking, crying and having to be forcibly held back from Prem Baba and the rest of us. I had heard of the phenomenon of devotees-gone-mad but not witnessed it until here. I realised after this experience that guru worship is not for me. Although I appreciate the words and wisdom of self realised individuals both living and dead, I am fortunate in that I feel able to access the divine directly without need for a human conduit.  

View from Ram Jhula
But please do not be put off by these lurid descriptions of devotees. Rishikesh was a study in pure beauty. It flanks both sides of the beautiful green of the curling Ganga, pure and unspoilt this far north. Two bridges, Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula cross the Ganga and connect both banks. I found a peaceful place of rest up in High Bank in the hills overlooking the river - a bougainvillea strewn terrace, a spacious room and two beautiful dogs and one puppy to keep me company. From this peaceful vantage point I looked over the Ganga, worshipped Shiva, read, reflected and wrote. Every evening I would wander down the hill and sit on the silver sand of one of the beautiful beaches of the holy mother river and watch the deep orange orb of the sun set over the water.

Offering incense during the nightly Ganga puja 
My favourite thing to do was to attend Ganga puja – each evening five ashram boys, led by the chants of a priest offered rice, petals and coloured powder to the river in a beautiful, stylised ritual. I stood with them and threw rice and petals into the water as well as pour holy water into the river from conch shells. As night fell we lit incredible flaming torches and the music would become progressively more dramatic as we chanted to Shiva, the flames licking out of the serpent shaped votives as the boys swirled them in the night sky. The puja finished with offering fire in the traditional way to the river - circling oil lamps back and forth over the waves and taking sweet prasad. 

Hanuman Chalisa on the banks of  the Ganga
Offering fire after the Hanuman Chalisa
Hanuman worship in Rishikesh is extremely popular and one evening I attended the Hanuman Chalisa on the banks of the Ganga with hundreds of Indian people. This is a devotional song consisting of 40 verses in the Awadhi language, dedicated to the monkey God. We sat there on the white marble steps, with hundreds of other Indians chanting and clapping. It felt the very essence of India. 

Shakti and Shiva: me & Steven had a beautiful connection
Regular readers will already know that in Bangalore I had undertaken a meditation in which I was told by a spirit guide that I would meet a man named Steven, ‘writing abroad’. On my first night in Rishikesh I was standing on the street looking around for a puja and Steven literally walked into my life.  He was randomly introduced to me and within moments we realised that we were both Shiva followers and loved to sing kirtan. I couldn’t believe it when he told me his name and that he was an investigative journalist from the states. Here he was in India, 'writing abroad'. Steven and I formed an immediate, intense connection. That night, at dinner I challenged him to walk to the Neelkandth temple - the temple of the blue throated Shiva - with me the following day.

With a Shiva devotee at Neelkanth temple 
We met in the middle of Ram Jhula bridge at 6am as Rishikesh was waking up and started our pilgrimage. Whilst we still have no definitive idea of the distance (this is India, after all and differing reports were conflicting) we hiked for the best part of 4 hours, accompanied the entire way by a faithful doggy friend we picked up at the beginning of the trail at Swarg Ashram. It was a gorgeous walk through the peace of the forest path as the sun rose higher in the sky. Wild peacocks flew over our heads and the view expanded and became more breathtaking as we climbed higher and higher. We took in a few stops for chai and biscuits for the dog, encountering friendly Indian Shiva devotees en route who were very excited to see us making the trek up there. I don't think that many tourists see this temple. 

Darshan plates to offer at the Shiva temple 
On the way in we bought a beautiful darshan plate containing gifts to offer to Shiva - fresh hibiscus flowers, sweet sugra prasad, honey, incense, holy water and pictures of the god. We entered the inner sanctum and offered the flowers and honey, pouring the water on the holy Shiva 'lingum' or phallus. We rolled the sticky incense into linga and lit them outside. In another room we took tikka from a priest and bowed to the sacred fire (agni). The room was dark and dense with energy and filled with metal Shiva forks. Standing in there, once again I was overcome with the full force of the divine  – it felt as if Shiva had entered me. Full of energy I was almost reeling. We sat outside quietly in the sun and shared tales of our lives, then silence - an intimate act which requires familiarity to be able to do this comfortably. I had only known Steven for a matter of hours but somehow our souls were totally connected. 

Steven takes a dip in the Ganga after our temple trip 
The journey back down to Rishikesh was a typical Indian racket. Refusing to take the usual tourist taxi route and be ripped off, Steven and I travelled 'Indian style', which entailed a share jeep with 15 other Indians. As we descended the windy mountainous bumpy roads, I knew that Steve suffered from travel sickness so I put my hands on his chest and gave him reiki all the way. He felt my 'Ma' or nurturing mother energy and was thankful for the fact that he made it down unscathed. As we sat together in a chill out cafe later, we shared a beatiful and intense tantric exchange of love energy through the eyes and then both walked into the Ganga fully clothed under the setting sun. No drugs, no alchohol and yet I was the highest I've ever been, dancing amidst the yogis of the Himalayas. Blissed out. 

Me and 'Mush' the puppy at the guesthouse 
But just at that moment I saw two dogs fighting on the shore dangerously close to my camera. Fleeing to rescue it, I tripped on both wet trouser legs and fell, sickeningly and painfully on my wrist. The next day I also became ill with a stomach parasite. These injuries necessitated a few days of sweating and recovering in bed, where I was forced to meditate on my own body and my treatment of it. I had undergone many realisations in Rishikesh and it seemed no coincidence that I had developed a problem with my digestion. I knew from my healing work that that these kinds of illnesses often accompany the integration of new ideas that are 'hard to stomach'. I realised that I needed to take better care of myself - slow down and listen to my body. It wasn't an easy lesson for a high achiever such as me, who hates to be laid low by anything at all. However, I did quite enjoy a dramatic journey to the local government hospital where I received an XRay for my wrist. It all felt rather third world, with stained walls, crowds fighting to see the doctor and the radiographer spitting on the XRay room floor in front of me! 

Krissy, one of the beautiful souls I met in Rishikesh
Shakti energy: three dunks in Mother Ganga
In Rishikesh, just as in Auroville, I seemed to be a magnet for beautiful, spiritual people who gave me further reassurance that this sattvic path was the way for me. All of these people were American, further convincing me that a future calling might lie for me in the States. On one day when I was craving some Shakti (female) company, I opened my door to find Krissy, a lovely American, had moved in next door. We shared some interesting conversations together and on Easter Sunday we  took three dunks in the river  with another lady who had opportunely appeared on the banks of the Ganga, one each for past, present and future. And the ongoing partnership with Steven was beautiful. Although there was no romantic connection, we were both able to communicate with each other so openly, we both felt that our relationship enabled us to see what we were looking for in a future partner. 

The deserted ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh yogi 
Steve on top of one of the turrets of the Maharishi Mahesh yogi ashram
And there were yet more coincidences. As well as having undergone NVC training (the same that I had done in Auroville which had changed my life) Steven had taken his initiation into Transcendental meditation or TM - something that I had been interested in since childhood. One night when we were eating together, by complete chance we had met the youngest ever TM teacher in the restaurant. She had grown up in Fairfield, Iowa, in the TM comunity founded by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I was really interested in spending more time with this divine being but I was physically weak and although Steven went to see her again (they had much to talk about, having known the same people), I stayed in bed. I had read somewhere that "it takes courage to pause" - another important lesson I was beginning to learn. One day Steven and I visited the derelict buildings and meditation chambers of the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi - the ashram where The Beatles had stayed and written many songs for the White Album and Abbey Road. It was magical to walk in their footsteps and feel the latent spiritualism of the place. We wandered amongst the atmospheric ruins, singing Beatles songs, hearing them echo in the empty rooms and crumbling walls. 

Rishikesh was full of cheeky monkeys
Long ago in Bombay I had signed up for a ten day silent  vipassana meditation. However, I had still been unsure if I was brave enough to go through it without going insane. I had heard a few horror stories about people losing their minds. I was also worried about my many physical ailments and therefore my ability to endure 11hrs meditation per day in the cold of the mountains. However, I woke up one morning and realised that it was now or never for vipassana. Having drunk alcohol on only three occasions in the past three months and given up smoking, I was the purest I had ever been. I felt on a different spiritual plain the entire time in Rishikesh - totally high and energetically elevated. 

Steve meditating in one of the Vasishta caves
On my last day, Steven and I drove on his scooter out to the mountains. We undertook a deep and profound meditation in the Vashista caves and after this we both knew that I was ready. And I was. Before starting a very laborious journey further north to Dharamsala, via Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple I was seen off by my new friends. One of the men I had met here, a shaman who facilitates ayahuasca ceremonies in South America, sat me down and unexpectedly played me a song to bid me on my way for vipassana."Sweet soul, your journey's just begun. Sweet lover of the light, your time has come. In the circle of the heart, the white bird flies. From time to time she rides the wave, she's never born and never dies. Like the wind, like the wind she flies. Across the endless, across the endless skies. Sweet soul, your journey's just begun. Sweet lover of the light, your time has come". 

Me and Krissy on the banks of the Ganga
As I approached Haridwar, tears of joy and disbelief at the beauty and generosity of those I had met were pouring down my face. I hiked, without fear, in the pitch blackness a couple of kilometers to the bus station and then was given a free ride in a Rickshaw by a poor and lame Indian man who refused to accept my ten rupees, instead insisting that wanted to welcome me to his 'chair'. Entirely overwhelmed by the beauty of life and the universe I began my journey to the unknown. To vipassana. 


  1. Sophie Sophie Sophie... so brilliant... the universe is really in love with you! love your writing... looking forward to reading more :)

  2. Ah my lovely! Thank you for your kind words.. So good to hear. Sign up for email updates and keep watching this space...Vipassana is the next installment! Hope you're doing well now that it has all sunk in. Sending love and light and Om Namah Shivaya xx

  3. Sophie, thank you for your wonderfull blog! Lots of love and hugs, Roos (Rishikesh, Namaste Cafe and a Hello To The Queen)

  4. Hello Sophie! It was nice to read your interesting story about "Rishikesh". I am looking forward to read your thoughts about vipassana. I am happily back in Finland. It was great to meet you and share Sadhana and vipassana-course! Be happy and keep on writing! Saija

  5. Roos!

    So wonderful to hear from you and thanks for the feedback! It was lovely and unexpected. I hoe that you are enjoying your time back home now and making the changes that you wanted. Our Hello to the Queen was certainly the healthiest I have had in India...I tried a Hello to the King in Bhagsu, Dharamsala, which had Bhagsu cake 9a kind of caramelly millionaire's shortbread) instead of biscuit base. Deadly! xx

  6. Hello Saija

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments, which mean a lot from a fellow writer. How was your one day encounter post vipassana? I'm afraid to say that I got dumped by my suitor to be on the Indian / Nepalese border before I had even got to meet him. But vipass helped me to deal with it... equanimity and annicha and all that!

    I'm now in Nepal, having had to deal with high dramas on the border - being caught in the midst of political demonstrations. So I am now processing and integrating it all - the vip blog will be up in a couple of days time. Send me links to any of your writing if it is in English! xx

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