Strange, surreal days at Rishikesh: the yoga capital of the world, close encounters with wild elephants and tigers, Swami Ji – the guru who eats three times a year

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Sunset over Ganga River

14 – 24.09

We stay one more night at the Gurdwara and then we relocate at the area where the ashrams and the temples are and where many pilgrims live. First we find a small ashram where they told us we can stay for free, but on the next day when we go there again, this time with our rucksacks, the superintendent says it is not possible. The foreigners here usually pay a room at the bigger, more commercial ashrams or are not let to sleep inside. We start to wonder what to do and think of sleeping under the trees as the Sadhu people do here when we see an old building that looks like an ashram. We go inside and ask whether we can stay. In the small room there are few Sadhu and a foreigner.

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Old Sadhu living under a tree

They answer us that there is no place, thinking we want to sleep at their room. At the end they understand we want a separate room and the foreigner tells us where the reception is. The process of registering turns out to be a real odyssey. After we find the place, which is a few blocks away, we have to wait for the boss for quite a long time. While we are waiting the people there ask us all the time if we are sure we want this room and don’t we want to see it first. Finally we arrange things here, but then we have to go to the other end of the city to get signature from some other boss. On top of this they tell us they will not provide us with a padlock because this is an ashram and not a hotel and say we should buy one. We never did and just tied some rope on the door when we went out.

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The Ganga Niketan hospice

So we accommodate at the Gangaha Niketan hospice that is part of the gigantic Swarg Ashram. The ashram is located in a tranquil area, far from the city’s madness, on the bank of Ganga River. In the room there is a big wooden bed with a thin mat, bathroom and a small kitchen that smells a little bit of must, but otherwise the place is clean and spacious and there is a painting of the Om sign on the wall – we liked it a lot. We pay 150 rupees (around 2,5 euro) which is impossibly low price for Rishikesh.

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Typical Indian street madness

The next several days we immerse in a totally new world that flabbergasts us, shocks us and makes us stay longer than planned. It is very difficult for me to describe the feelings it invokes. This is a world where thousand Gods co-exist. Praising and worshipping them is the main occupation of the people here. A world where all that inhabit it think that it has illusory nature and doesn’t exist. A world where the superheroes are the hermits who meditate in caves and have renounced the material world, a choice that here is considered to be the best one possible.

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Sadhu

India is at least dozen times more than we have ever imagined. Despite the economic boom many things seem to have never changed for the last three thousand years. Many women with colorful saris and pilgrims walk on the streets and around the ashrams of the holy city Rishikesh. Monkeys stalk passers by to steal some food from them. Huge cows that don’t belong to anyone elbow with the people on the streets. Brahmins who have three threads wrapped around their chests, which represents that they belong to the highest class, serve the evening puja at the bank of Ganga River.

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Evening puja at Ganga River

One can hear kirtans (religious songs) praising Krishna and Rama coming from some temples 24 hours a day. Sadhu people who renounced forever from the material world sit calmly under banyan trees and smoke hashish. Some of them had been engineers, businessman and the like, but had renounced this and now prefer to just be alone with the Brahman – the Absolute. Beggars and untouchables add to the many-faced atmosphere. The term poverty here takes impossible for the Western world and mind proportions. At every step we come across things we had never seen. Can you imagine the difference between the mind of person who grew up in a materialistic world and somebody whose mind is not even convinced that the world itself and the ego exist…?

We walk on the streets dismayed and can’t find even a clue of something known to us. Our stereotypes are falling apart. During our stay at Rishikesh we try to immerse fully into the atmosphere here. We wander about ashrams on the decline; we talk to gurus and people who renounced the materialistic world; we bathe in Ganga River; we attend yoga classes, meditation classes and philosophical debates; in the evening we participate in singing kirtans… strange, surreal days.

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First dip in Ganga

One of the most noticeable things that happen is our contact with the people who inhabit the room next to us. Swami Atma Ji has a small yoga school. He is also a doctor and heals and gives medicine for free. He emanates absolute goodness and tranquility to the extent I have never seen in anybody else. Every day at noon different people come to see him – ordinary people, friends, his students and they all eat together at his small room.

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Swami Atma teaching meditation

There are several people who live at the room and there are pictures of saints and teachers hanging on the wall – Jesus Christ, Osho, etc. The most amazing person here is Baba Ji – an old man with big white beard who wears saffron colored robe (this color symbolizes the renouncement of the world).  He spends his time meditating for hours without moving even slightly. The rest of the time he is singing the name of God. He almost doesn’t speak and when he does he usually makes jokes and laughs wildly. His eyes are closed most of the time and when he opens them they look enormous, sparkling and slightly ferocious.

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Holy Baba’s dwelling place

Baba Ji is followed by a younger Baba who is a very intelligent and nice young man whom we speak to for hours. In general we spend our days in close contact with the Baba and the gurus next door. Every day we hear them getting up at 4-5 a.m. to meditate. During the day we sit at the porch and gaze at Ganga in the humid, sticky air. In the evenings we eat together and sing kiratns. If before I had doubts whether enlightened minds exist nowadays, now I am sure they do and there are not so few.

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Maharishi Mahesh: yogi  ashram where the Beatles meditated

 

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Secluded ashram

 

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Parmarth Niketan Ashram

Like this the days passed in meditations, songs and laughter. Swami Atma is telling us stories of kings, gods, past times and gurus. In the evening we cook and eat together. In the afternoon we walk on Ganga’s banks in narrow streets with dwellings of saints and hermits’ huts. Till one day we felt we have to leave. 11 days have passed without us even noticing.

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Small Shiva temple on the bank of Ganga

24.09

After the morning meditations and mantra reading we decide to cook Chinese lunch together with our Chinese friend Jotti. Then we pack our stuff. Swami Atma gives us some gifts at the door. We have become close with everyone here and we feel a little nostalgic that we are leaving.

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Feeding an Indian bull

We plan to continue on a road we saw in Google maps that goes to Haridwar and passes on the not so populated bank of Ganga River. It passes through the east part of Rajaji National Park. We start walking in the forest above Rishikesh and after a while a car stops and takes us for 10 km. The car continues to the lower parts of Rishikesh and leaves us at the barrier of the national park. In the beginning the guards don’t want to let us enter because we are on foot, but we manage to convince them that we will hitchhike right after the barrier. A car passes by shortly after and takes us 20 km. inside the park. We get off, pass by some shabby hotels and decide to stay here because there are only 5-6 km. to Haridwar where the national park ends.

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Rajaji National park

Entering the forest and pitching a tent is forbidden in the park, but as you know we don’t pay much attention to these bans. After the main entrance, where the safari jeeps with the tourists start, we turn aside and enter a hundred yards (100 m.) inside the park. We stop at a place with some trees and no bushes.

We just pitch the tent and a herd of barking stags start “barking” next to us. They are really beautiful with huge antlers. It is getting dark and the animals become more active. I am sitting on a rock staring in the distance when 20 yards (20 m.) from me I see a gigantic silhouette of an elephant, then another one behind. The animals break branches with their bodies. Staggering I try to attract Mr. Shushtari’s attention. We see wild elephants for the first time in our lives and they are so close. We stay still and cannot even breathe. They seem really friendly and slowly, waving their big ears, pass by us.

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Wild elephants passing by our tent

It is dark now and we enter our newly bought tent. Around us we hear thousands of different sounds. We try to sleep, but with little to no success, when we hear the steps of a small animal right next to us. Mr. Shushtari peeks out with the lantern and after a few seconds calmly says: “I don’t mean to scare you, but I think there is a tiger or a leopard close by”. First I thought he is joking, but when he assured me he wasn’t, an adrenaline bomb exploded in my bloodstream. I peek out too, but the animal disappears in the dark. I never saw it, but Mr. Shushtari was sure this was some kind of a big cat. He saw the animal’s eyes and the way it stepped as a predator. We calm down and go to bed. In a few minutes something starts barking next to our tent and it isn’t a dog. Later some big animal starts snorting and puffing around, there is also a cacophony of other sounds, insects buzzing… and finally we fall asleep.

25.09

In the morning a bird wakes us up with its shrieks and when we go out of the tent a bunch of deer is watching us from the distance. Our bags are full of forest cockroaches and hairy caterpillars. Life here teems everywhere. And all this happens just a hundred yards from the road. I can’t even imagine what the situation is deep inside the forest.

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Taking a shower 🙂

We take a long bath in the river and position ourselves on the road. In 5 minutes a cars stops by and takes us to Haridwar. We decide to have lunch at the city. The ghats (stone stairs that lead in the water) of Ganga River are full of colorful people and many Sadhu, it’s the same as in Rishikesh. Haridwar is also a sacred city and every few years the Kumbh Mela Festival takes place here. During this festival each person does a scared dip in the river and this is known as the biggest human gathering in the world (in 2013 there were more than 30 million people attending).

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Ganga’s ghats

The atmosphere is different than the somewhat sleepy Rishikesh. It is quite an interesting place to walk around. After we had our lunch in a restaurant downtown we started looking for an Internet café. We walk over an hour in the heat of the day, but all cafés are closed. We feel like our heads are going to explode from the noise and the madness on the streets and finally some people in a hotel let us use their Internet and computers. We finish our tasks and are back on the road at 6 p.m. We go out the center of the city and then continue walking for some kilometers more and at that moment it seems like the city will never end. It is dark and nobody stops because the traffic is so intense. We hitchhike next to the Ramakrishna mission founded by the Indian spiritual teacher and leader Vivekananda.

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Street in Haridwar

Around us there are only hostels and temples agricultural lands so we decide to ask if we can pitch our tent under some tree. We walk for quite some time till we find someone who speaks English. The guy is a fat monk who denies us immediately. When we ask him if there is a forest close by he says that it is forbidden to sleep outside in the open in India. This is the funniest thing we have ever heard. Here you see people sleeping on the curbs everywhere – Sadhu, beggars, pilgrims, etc.

We go back at the main road and continue walking in the darkness. On one side there are only buildings and on the other is Ganga, but we don’t see any suitable place. After an hour and another negative response from one ashram, we reach a green island located between the highway and a motorway. Surprisingly the place is clean. We finally take a breath of relief despite the surrounding noise. Yesterday we were in the forest surrounded by wild animals, today we literally sleep on the highway – the experiences while one is hitchhiking are simply amazing!

26.09

In the morning we find a small ashram on the other side of the river and we take a shower. Then we hitchhike. We wait a long time because there are many buses passing by and tuk-tuks too, but nobody stops. After 40 minutes a man, who later turns out to be an engineer, stops and takes us directly to the place we wanted to go to. We want to visit the ashram of the guy who took us 10 days ago to Rishikesh. During the last few days he called us several times to ask how we are and to tell us that we really need to meet his guru. The ashram is close by and in our direction. In addition we don’t want to miss this “accidental” hint by fate. So Purkaji Village calls us.

The driver leaves us in some unknown town because the road to Delhi, where he was going, diverts from ours. Until we manage to orient ourselves in our surroundings we find ourselves in the middle of a noisy bazaar. We buy several glasses of mango and papaya fresh to calm down. Muslims are the majority here and there are many women with veils and black clothes. Luckily it takes us just 5 minutes to go out of the town.

Shortly and ancient American jeep stops. The driver and the boy with him are dressed with costumes from the colonial times (including the style and the fabric – I don’t know where they found these clothes). They open the door cordially. Purkaji is 14 km. away and they decide to divert 3-4 km. to take us there. The jeep doesn’t have doors and the wind is blowing in our faces while the driver is performing as a rally driver on the road. We barely manage to find the fork for Purkaji because it’s a dirt road and there are no signs. They leave us at the bus stop and they set off… maybe to some distant past 🙂

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The people who came from the past

We call the people from the ashram and they send a white, luxurious jeep to take us. The place is 7 km. away from the village, on a quiet road passing by one of the Ganga’s canals. When we arrive we notice the ashram looks much more like cow-house than ashram. There are dozens of cows, most of them saved by the Muslim butchers. One of their projects supports this cause exactly. They tell us that cow slaughtering is forbidden in some of the Indian states, but here in Uttar Pradesh there are many Muslims so it is still allowed. They joyously add that soon cows will be nationally protected and their killing forbidden everywhere in India.

The main teacher accepts patients daily for free and prescribes them Ayurveda medicines. The people wait for hours on a cue to enter. While we are waiting to speak to him they serve us ten bananas and something that has a thick texture, black color and is very sweet.

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Our lunch

 

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The Swami with his patients

After three hours the swami is free, but it turns out he doesn’t speak English at all and we have to wait for some of his students to come. They give us free room and then we go for a walk at the canal’s bank.

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Sunset over Ganga’s canal

In the evening we all gather in the yard with the cows. The young students also came. They are yoga students at the university at Haridwar and every weekend come to their guru to receive in-depth knowledge. They speak good English and we ask them what kinds of teachings and practices they follow. Then we start talking about food and we ask them how many times the guru eats. They said: “three”. But something about this is wrong because earlier they said the guru doesn’t have a dinner. We ask again: “three times a day?”. And the answer is: “three times a year”. We thought we misunderstood and ask again. Then they explain that he eats milk and fruits and doesn’t eat cooked find – well he eats, but only three times a year 🙂

The teacher has a muscular body, he is tall with light skin and blue eyes. If he wasn’t wearing the saffron colored robe one would think he was a European. With this body I don’t know how he survives eating only milk – when we heard it our jaws dropped.

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Swami Ji – Ayurveda healer and а great yogi

We agreed with the boys to get up at 6:30 a.m. to practice yoga and pranayama (breathing techniques). In the evening we have potatoes and chapatas for dinner and go back to our room. We were obliged by our hosts to drink a cup of hot milk each before we go to bed. In our beds we think: how the hell we came here and what happens to us! 🙂

27.09

6:30 a.m. we are at the yard with the cows. We witness intense physical activities – the place looks like it’s some Spartan camp. The guru who came back from several kilometers of jogging is jumping on one place, some lift dumb-bells, others stand on their hands. One Sadhu is training with a bucket hanging from a rope, other is back bending. We join the party and start practicing yoga.

When the lesson is over they give us breakfast – rice with milk. Then we go back to our room and sleep for two hours exhausted. Around 12 p.m. we prepare our baggage, have lunch and take goodbye. The boys wanted us to stay for some more days and the guru gave us a jar with the black, thick sweet thing and said it’s good for the eyes. Then a guy takes us to the village. We find a place where they sell papaya fresh for 15 eurocents the glass, we drink a lot of it and we leave Purkaji on foot.

First a truck stops and takes us 40 km. further. Then two crazy guys stop. All the time they are chewing betel and their teeth and saliva are red. At one point they stop the car, leave us and turn back. Things with them happened as if by magic because they didn’t speak any English. We don’t have a map for the roads after Meerut and we don’t know how we will manage to go to Agra instead of Delhi. We see a young couple who invites us to go with them. They speak good English and lend us their iPhone so we manage to find the road we are looking for. They leave us at the right place – we were really lucky to meet them.

The next challenge is to cross Meerut which turns out to be huge and it takes us more than two hours and a couple of buses to go out of it. We are in a hurry and don’t even manage to buy food. In the last bus we took there was a show. First some villagers tried to enter inside with their huge sacks. Obviously they were not allowed to do it because when they threw them inside the check taker started to push them back and throw them out. Finally he managed to do it. The next part of the show started when we said we want to get off in the middle of nowhere and that we will camp in the forest. The people inside the bus didn’t want to let us do it and the driver didn’t stop till we reached a small village. In the meantime we were talking with aplomb, trying to make him stop, but without success.

When we get off it is dark. There is only one shabby shop in the village and we buy cooking oil and salt. Then we go to a water pump and the locals gather around us. The fact that we drink the water from the pump perplexes them greatly. But when we say we will sleep in the forest they are flabbergasted. We head to the forest and one guy says we can sleep at his motorbike shop. The idea didn’t appeal to us, but he showed us to his back yard where there are 20 bulls. We see a flat place with grass next to the well and decide to stay here. We pitch our tent and the family invites us to dinner. We don’t want to bother them, but they insist.

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The yard of the hospitable people

When we head to our tent all are shocked we will sleep into the wilderness – which is 10 m. away from their house… They say the place is humid, there are snakes that could bite you through the tent etc. So we agree to do whatever they say.

The heat is unbearable and all sleep outside on rattan beds. They chose a secluded space for us, next to the bulls and give us a net against the mosquitoes. We spend an amazing night in a canopy bed next to the snorting bulls – a real village idyll.

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Our bedroom in the middle of the bull’s house

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