It's been a hectic 24 hours in Rishikesh. My romantic notions of coming here and sitting with a philosophy book for hours on end, sipping masala tea, studying Hindi, learning the harmonium and taking several yoga and meditation classes a day...will have to wait for another visit. This visit, I've already discovered, is more about fulfilling some of the responsibilities I've taken on over the past year here.
Upon arrival last night, I found the Green Guest House near Parmath Niketan Ashram. Though I much prefer staying in the Tapovan area, what with its beautiful expansive views of the Himalayan hills, I wanted to select a location more convenient to the Children of the Ganges school. I checked into the guesthouse and quickly walked to the Ganges to take part in the Parmath Niketan's evening sunset aarti ceremony - devotional songs, prayers, and a fire ceremony. I made an offering of flowers and incense, keeping a sick friend in mind as I lit the candle and set it to float down the Ganges.
Dancing with the Devotees
The ceremony concluded and the sun was setting. I can go back to the hotel, order dinner and have a relaxing evening, I thought, or, I can walk the 20ish minutes across the bridge and go to the Krishna temple. I decided to set foot across Ramjullah bridge and take part in temple festivities. After all, Tuesday, September 2nd was Radhastami, the celebration of the appearance anniversary of Srimati Radharani, Krishna's greatest devotee. I knew this because we'd just celebrated the holiday in Kazakhstan as well. Approaching the temple, I heard the sound of the Hare Krishna Maha Mantra accompanied by drums and harmonium. Taking off my shoes, I entered the temple to the overwhelming scent of jasmine and roses - there were fresh flowers in all colors of the rainbow everywhere for the occasion. Among the huge crowd of devotees, I saw several from the Russian-speaking world; otherwise, all looked local and the excitement was palpable in the air. I listened to a lecture in Hindi and then took the chance to admire and pay respect to the deities. As the chanting started again, I swayed to the music and couldn't help jumping up and down with the crowd. Later on, walking back to my hotel, I couldn't help but hum the Hare Krishna mantra as my flashlight helped me to avoid cow dung, mud and sleepy cows and dogs on the path ahead.
This morning, I woke up and tried to figure out how to charge my various gadgets in a room without electricity. I solved the problem by taking my computer and phone to a cafe at the next hotel over, where I charged them in as I enjoyed a breakfast of pancake with fresh fruit. I spent the morning with the Children of the Ganges' head teach Swati, talking about some of the issues we'd work on over the next few weeks. She took me to her home, where her mother-in-law insisted I eat two bananas and smiled widely as I took her up on the offer. After Swati's, I looked at my watch. It was 11:35 a.m. Should I go to a yoga class that I know starts at 12:00? Yes, I thought, and ran back to my hotel room to change into shorts and a gym shirt.
Ashtanga Vinyassa Yoga in India: Sweat, Sweat, and Sweat Some More
I entered the yoga shala right on the river to find one guy already on a mat. I took a seat across from him, until he beckoned me to come over to his side. "These mats have towels on top of them and believe me, you'll probably need one,' he chuckled. Was he ever right - the sweat starting dripping off my brow before the first pose! Deepak, our young instructor clad in white, entered the room and started giving detailed instructions for poses. Thank goodness I've been doing yoga regularly over the past week, or else this would have been one tough class to follow. Five sun salute a's and five sun salute b's into the practice, a pool of sweat had formed around my body. My only consolation was that I was keeping up with the poses, and thoroughly enjoying the view of cows wandering right outside near the Ganges river. Deepak gave us a good 10 minutes in relaxation pose, which was magnificent. "Eat well, sleep well, and drink lots of water," he said to conclude the class. After yoga and a quick lunch at my favorite Buddha cafe in Laxmanjula, I decided to go for a 50 rupee haircut before going back to the hotel to get ready for the evening with the school.
Children of the Ganges: Year 4 Begins
The main purpose of my trip to Rishikesh this time around is to help out with the school my dear friend Truike founded 4 years ago. We've done two fundraisers over the past year together and I wanted to make certain that we make cards of thanks for donors…friends and strangers who've shown their generosity the world over to help the school function. I also wanted to spend some time getting to know the new group of children. Imagine my surprise when I've learned that we've grown! We now have 2 groups - younger children from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. and the older group from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m each day. We've also moved recently to occupy several rooms of an ashram that requires a short walk through the woods to find. Two months into the new location, we are still adjusting to the environment. The major goal over the next week is to set up the computer laboratory for the 10 computers that were recently (very generously) donated, and start teaching the children some basic computer skills. There are lots of other issues to tackle as well. The senior children were in good spirits this evening as they worked on their English grammar lesson with Swati and her team teacher. Yogi ji, another board member for the school, was also there this evening to negotiate the computer room issues. We'll have to fit the room for electric sockets, establish an Internet connection, and then assemble the computers before introducing the children to them. We hope to do it in the next several days!
Nightcap: An Ayurvedic Thali to Complete the Evening
The walk from the school to my guesthouse was about 20 minutes, and by that point in the evening I was pretty hungry after all the walking and yoga today. I couldn't help but notice that the Vedanga cafe next door was advertising an 'ayurvedic thali,' displaying a picture of several scrumptious vegetable dishes accompanied by rice and chapatis. "I'll have that," I said to the cafe waiter, pointing to the poster. The serving was enormous and I couldn't possibly eat the whole thing, but it was a beautiful culinary experience to finish the first 24 hours in Rishikesh.
To tell the truth, I feel like I've already been here a week. It's my fifth visit to the town over the past five years and despite the humidity, the somewhat haphazard and slightly chaotic way life operates here, I absolutely love it. From the temples and stunning views of the Ganges to the devotional sights and sounds everywhere, Rishikesh definitely earns its nickname as one of the yoga capitals of the world. And there are a number of friends here I need to see over the next few days. So...the adventures begin!