From Pushkar, Manik drove us to Jaipur Airport for our Air India flight to Delhi, but our luggage continued on by car with Manik. We arrived at the beautiful Oberoi Hotel in New Delhi, which is next to the Delhi Golf Club and had a great view Humanya Tomb. Our suite was a small apartment, complete with dining area, living room, office, and a luxurious bathroom. Manik delivered our luggage in time for us to dress for dinner. First though, we had a drink at the Club Lounge off the main lobby, which was relaxing and intimate.
Barry had made advance dinner reservations at Indian Accent, a restaurant he had read about in his Andrew Harper newsletter. It was a very sophisticated Indian restaurant at standards comparable to New York City. Our Delhi experience was a deep plunge into western comforts, made all the more enjoyable after our simpler accommodations at Pushkar.
The next day we made it through early rush hour traffic to the Delhi Airport for our Air IndiGo flight to Rishikesh. There our guide, Sadhir, met us at the Jolly Grant airport, and we drove through a small section of the Corbett Tiger Reserve (we saw a wild boar) to Rishikesh and then up the mountain to our hotel, the Ananda. On land still owned by a maharajah used for his family’s hunting palace, the Ananda takes up many acres. Most guests were here for spiritual and physical health rejuvenation, and everyone wears white pajamas while on campus, like at an ashram. There are yoga and meditation classes and lectures on Aurvedic medicine and the Vedanta way of life. At dinner a host asked us what the doctor ordered for us to eat. We thought he was kidding at first, and then quickly realized he wanted to know whether we had consulted Dr. Walker, the resident advisor, about the best diet for us. We hadn’t met him yet. The Ananda also had a six hole golf course that looked super challenging. One of the tees seemed aimed right over an amphitheater and through a small parting of trees to the green. They must have to clear the entire area before anyone can play there.
At our request, Sadhir took us upriver on the Ganges from Rishikesh. Sadhir also works for a rafting company, and the Ganges is his passion. We were thrilled at first look of the Ganges by its emerald green waters and swift current. Sadhir led us through his camp to the beach, which is lined with fine, white sand, and we sprinkled water on ourselves from the holy river. On the drive back to the Ananda we had a slight mishap. We had to drive along a new road under construction with a lot of heavy machinery. The hillside was newly cut, and as we drove along, a boulder the size of a basketball came tumbling down and clipped our van’s front light and fender. We felt really bad for our driver, but there was nothing anyone could do, and the car seemed to drive alright. So we continued on.
After a restful morning at the Ananda, we met Sadhir in the afternoon for our excursion into Rishikesh itself. The town is replete with ashrams, i.e., religious retreat centers. Many Indians come here for a vacation to visit the Ganges in ways both spiritual and adventurous, as there is not only rafting, but bungy jumping, zip lining, hang gliding, camping, and trekking. We were here to visit some ashrams and experience the evening devotions.
Sadhir led us to a pedestrian bridge to the eastern bank of the Ganges. It was crowded with so many people walking reasonably in both directions, accompanied by some curious monkeys. Everyone was surprised when a cow pushed by, making her way through the crowd. On the eastern side we walked on to admire a thirteen story temple, and then backtracking in the opposite direction through the busy market street to see some ashrams. The street was mostly pedestrian with shops and street vendors, but there were also lots of cars and motorcycles to dodge, constantly. The first ashram we visited was pretty simple and very calm, with a few visitors quietly sitting in the court. Ashrams, as our guide described them, are centers where visitors can go and spend as much time as they want to gain spiritual guidance from the gurus and swamis in attendance. Visitors volunteer with chores and/or donations.
The second ashram we visited, the Parmarth Niketan, was triple the size of the first. Everything was newly painted and very well maintained. As we were admiring statues of gods and goddesses in the courtyard, our guide started talking to these three animated young women. They were sisters, in their late 20’s and 30’s, visiting from Ayodhya, the very city where the recent controversial ruling was handed down in favor of the Hindu temple to Lord Rama. The women were so happy to meet us and we all had to have pictures taken. Then we sang something like, “Ram Ram” and danced a little. They were a fun group!
At sunset we went to the Parmarth Ghat for evening prayers. Around 5 pm, 50 young teenaged boys dressed in bright saffron robes walked down the stairs from the ashram. After they settled in, the rest of the visitors filed in and found their seats. Ceremonies began with music by a harmonium player, drummer, and singing, and a young man officiated at a fire pit. He, along with selected members of the audience, started a long series of prayers punctuated with splashes of something combustible that he threw into the fire. When the sun actually set, the Swamji appeared and took his place at the top of the stairs. His full name is Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswati, and he has an international following. Swamiji led more prayers and songs, and after a while he began to preach. I know he said something about “one use plastico” and its detriment to the environment. He preached about the worldwide need to stop global warming and take care of the environment.
When he was finished, the acolytes started passing out lighted lamps and people swung them around in circles or used them to light their own candle and flower offerings. Everyone in the congregation could participate. One woman near me lit her devotion and passed it down through the crowd for someone else to place in the river. The whole ritual was very moving and notable for its inclusion of everyone. There were no passive tourists in this crowd.
Afterwards, we made our way through the market street and back along another pedestrian bridge. I guess “pedestrian” includes motorbikes, because there were a lot of them going in both directions. One driver had two large milk cans straddling his motorcycle. It was impossible not to get grazed.
We made it home and left the next day for travel by Air Indigo to Delhi, then Kolkata. From there we travel to Assam and our rhino safari!