Visit the photo album here.
In contrast to many people’s expectations, Shantimurti didn’t go to India for a spiritual experience. He went there simply to hang out and see what happened. He and his travelling companions – Charles and Yogashakti – agreed not to seek out gurus and ashrams and temples, but rather to establish themselves somewhere and get into the local scene. They knew that by staying out of organised institutions they would discover a different side to India that they wouldn’t find otherwise.
They chose Rishikesh as their base camp – a small, ancient town at the foot of the Himalayas on the banks of the Ganga (Ganges River). The population is tiny by Indian standards – only 60,000 – and the local laws prohibit the sale of non-vegetarian food, alcohol and plastic bags.
Rishikesh’s main attraction is its ancient spiritual traditions. It has been home for countless saints and yogis over thousands of years. For a long time it was a remote village without any provisions for ordinary travellers, but now modern India and its commercial ways have arrived with many guesthouses, restaurants, internet portals and even river rafting.
In Rishikesh they stayed in a guest house built over a 500 year-old temple, which relieved them of the need to go looking for temples. Their room had a balcony on which they performed evening kirtan (chanting).
Word got around that they were in town and that their kirtans were really good. Their music could be heard on the opposite side of the river and it didn’t take long before other people were joining them. By the end of their stay they were quite well connected.
Mixing with locals opened a lot of doors for them. Sadhus (wandering holy men), shopkeepers and neighbours welcomed them and made their stay very interesting.
Yogashakti was popular wherever she went. Her kirtans, accent and personality attracted interest from all quarters. She made friends with some of the young sadhus and gained a real insight into the life that they lead.
Pilgrimage to the Source of the Ganges
The main excursion was a journey to Gomukh – the source of the Ganga – approximately 300km north of Rishikesh. The final 18km is not accessible by car – only by a rough and difficult walk. At an elevation of 11,500ft Gomukh is 10,000ft higher than Rishikesh.
They stayed several nights at Gangotri, which is a small town for pilgrims on the way to Gomukh. Shantimurti said it was full of sadhus but not the type that inspires him. He says he did meet a few sadhus who impressed him, but not many. Overall he says the sadhu scene has changed. It isn’t like when he lived with them many years ago. He says the old traditions are giving way to modern influences.
However, there was one sadhu who impressive him a lot. One morning in Gangotri, Shantimurti awoke at his usual hour – well before sunrise – and went outside. The temperature was brutally cold – way below zero. In the dim light he could see a sadhu wearing nothing but a loin cloth sitting on a large rock in the Ganga pouring cold water over himself with a pitcher. Shanti was intrigued and wrapped in his warmest clothes went down to the river to watch.
The sadhu eventually stopped pouring water over himself and without drying himself he sat in padmasana (the lotus) and faced up the river and began to meditate. Shanti also began to meditate. After an hour he opened his eyes and saw that the sadhu was still sitting on the rock, in the freezing cold, meditating. After a while longer the sadhu got up and left.
Shantimurti only saw him once and didn’t see him around town. But he was very impressed by this asceticism – a feat that cannot be accomplished without a lot of yogic training.
The Swami at Sivananda Ashram
One night they decided to go to the Sivananda Ashram for kirtan. The Sivananda Ashram is a highly respected school of Yoga and Vedanta in Rishikesh that was established by the great Swami Sivananda in the 1930s.
When they walked in the chief swami beckoned to Shantimurti from across the crowded room to sit next to him. Shanti made his way over while the swami directed the other two to some seats.
Shanti joined in with the chanting and then became aware of a very beautiful and very intense energy coming from the swami next to him. The swami was sitting in vajrasana (kneeling), not chanting, just sitting with his eyes closed. Shanti could feel that energetically the swami was not doing anything – he was just being.
This experience had a profound effect on Shanti because this kind of energy is extremely rare. Shanti says that there have been very, very few times in his life that he has been in the presence of somebody with that kind of that intensity. For him that is what spirituality is all about. The swami didn’t have to do or say anything – he was already whole and complete in himself. He felt very fortunate to sit in his presence for a while.
Outwardly the swami had a soft look about him, but that didn’t stop him from bossing people about and telling them what to do – after all he was in charge of running the kirtan. Shanti said that with a superficial glance it may even be possible to mistake him for a grumpy old man!
Shantimurti didn’t get much of a chance to talk with him, so he is not sure exactly what kind of yogi he was, except that he was a Sivananda swami who has been there a long time.
It didn’t take long for Shanti to work out who was genuinely in need and who was not. He and Charles bought meals and shawls for the hungry and cold and were rewarded with genuine gratitude. Others who just wanted money were not so friendly and tried to threaten them with curses and stand-offs.
He says that some of them had psychic powers that they would use to influence people to give them money. But Shanti would see this immediately and deflect them – letting them know that their tricks wouldn’t work on him.
The locals do not like people giving money to beggars. They say it perpetuates the problem. There are many very distressing beggars such as young women with malnourished babies. But as long as begging is profitable then it will be a problem. One shopkeeper said that beggars could make 1500 rupees a day which is more than him.
India has Big Challenges
Shantimurti says that India is sick on many levels. The Himalayan glaciers are receding, the Ganga flows are half what they used to be and there is a lot of pollution.
The population is massive, traffic is impossible and belly bugs are more prevalent and harder to treat. India is a shocking country for visitors – culturally, socially, environmentally. It is impossible to go there and not be affected. But there is one advantage that still remains – your dollar goes a long way.
The local government has also prohibited the sale of plastic bags in an attempt to clean up the environment. Locals know that they face a lot of challenges around population, pollution and scarcity of resources, and accept the need to make changes.
The government is putting a lot of effort into raising India out of poverty – mainly by way of education (they met many Indians with perfect English). But still the average life span is 42 years and hundreds of millions are hungry and live below the poverty line.
Apart from Rishikesh, they spent some time in Dehli where they met some very interesting characters including a multi-lingual shopkeeper who picked Shanti as an Australian after only four words. They visited music stores and purchased some instruments, including a number of high-quality travel harmoniums. (If you are interested in purchasing one, please let us know.)
Shanti says that Dehli was extremely crowded, very hot, polluted and dusty. He says the temperature reached nearly 50C and was very difficult to escape. Sweat poured into his shoes.
He also mentioned that the local shopping bizarre was truly bizarre and filled with westerners buying overpriced goods.
Overall they had a great trip full of fun experiences and interesting people. Being established in one place made the trip much easier. Shanti says travelling in the extreme heat is hard work. But now he has renewed his connections in India and may take another group there in the near future. If you are interested, please let us know.