At The Beatles Ashram in Rishikesh
This blog is dedicated to my older brother Matthew. If it wasn’t for his Beatles obsession in the late 60s and early 70s, I might never have come to India. I used to follow him around when we were children, which meant listening to a lot of Beatles music. I remember looking intently at the pictures of the Beatles — especially George Harrison, my fave — wearing long hair, flowing shirts and marigold garlands. I had always loved anything “Oriental, exotic and mystical,” and when the Beatles went to India, I was entranced. I secretly wished I was old enough to be a “hippie” and join them.
And this year for the first time, I actually made it to the “Beatles ashram” — the former ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi — on the outskirts of Rishikesh. It was a very hot day and I was stupidly not carrying water or a hat, but I was determined to go. When I got there, a very enganging Bengali sadhu was sitting at the entrance with two middle aged German men, also Beatles pilgrims. The gate was closed and the gatekeeper was not going to let me in until I waved my magic talisman at him — my letter of introduction from the Ministry of Tourism.
So I went in alone, and walked up the path towards the main building with the gatekeeper’s warnings about wild animals foremost in my mind. The ashram has been abandoned for many years and is overgrown by jungle and very creepy. But you can tell it must have been a beautiful spot and it still commands one of the best locations in Rishikesh.
However, after only a few minutes of picture snapping, I noticed a tree nearby waving ominously and thought: “It’s either monkeys or an elephant and in either case, I’m outta here!” But in those brief moments I think I closed a loop, opened when I was a child. So much of my India experience has been about living my dreams, many of them first conceived when I was a “pensive” girl. I still really love so many of those India-inspired Beatles songs, such as Within You, Without You, Dear Prudence and Across the Universe (apparently the Beatles were extremely prolific during the weeks they spent in Rishikesh, writing more than 20 songs). So it was fun to connect to the spirit of the music through the place.
In the abode of Shiva
I actually spent only one night in Rishikesh this year, camping out on the floor of my friend and teacher’s living room. His ashram, Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram, was full, but as it turned out, I think I had the best room in the place as its big picture windows faced towards the mountains. All night I felt the rush of wind coming down from the foothills of the Himalayas. The Himalayas are the abode of Shiva and I really felt his presence in this scintillating wind, unlike any other wind I have ever felt.
Normally I love the peace of Rishikesh, and the natural beauty of its setting at the top of the valley, where the green Ganga river tumbles out of the mountains. It’s a gorgeous place, and at the top end of the town (Tapovan and Lakshman Jhula) are white sand beaches lining the fresh, clean, cool river. But this year, the entire area was overrun with Kumbh Mela pilgrims and I couldn’t wait to get to peaceful Aurovalley Ashram. So after walking through town and taking pictures of the Beatles ashram and the alabaster-white statue of Shiva, I was ready to leave.
Going to Rishikesh was part of the “loop-closing” nature of this trip to India. I have come to realize the theme for this trip is “coming down to earth.” I fell in love with India on my first trip (2005-2006), and on this trip, my fourth, the honeymoon ended and the relationship began. It has been a bit of a bumpy landing, but I am open and accepting of this stage in the process as I know it will lead to a more balanced and realistiic view and experience of India; more clarity; and more reasonable expectations. Just like in any relationship, when the stardust evaporates from your eyes and you see the person as they really are.
Okay India bye bye
I’m writing this in Delhi, during my final week in India on this trip. I’ve been here for about three months this time, and in some ways it feels like a lifetime. I’ve been to Bangalore, Goa, Mumbai, Kolkata, Darjeeling and Sikkim; and more recently I spent almost a month at Aurovalley Ashram, which lies halfway between Rishikesh and Haridwar — home of this year’s Maha Kumbh Mela. This blog is not about my whole trip, but about the time I spent in Rishidwar (Rishikesh-Haridwar), and the realizations I gleaned from my meditative time there.
I deliberately scheduled my introspective time for the end of my trip, to try and process everything I saw, felt, learned and experienced. Whenever I spend time at Aurovalley Ashram, I always feel that I have healed some part of myself; and I always feel my consciousness has grown. It’s hard to explain, but I always feel different. Last year for example, I realized that I had become vegetarian. It wasn’t a conscious choice; I had just evolved into being pure veg. It just felt right. This year, I turned my attention to my digestive problems and by eating slowly and consciously, I did a lot of deep healing work. And I also spent a lot of time just being with myself, and getting back in contact with my Self. This is probably the most important — and most underrated — activity of life.
In future, I think I will be much more discerning about how I spend my time and money in India. I have now been to almost all of India’s big cities and I don’t need to go again unless there is a good reason (except for my home base in Delhi). I also don’t need to go to big tourist attractions again, like the Taj Mahal, the forts of Jaipur and Jodhpur, the Victoria Memorial, the Gateway to India, etc.
My interests are in rural/traditional and wilderness areas (especially protecting the tiger), spiritual India, culture (music, dance, books, film) and the welfare of women and children. I am always looking for real people, places and projects in these areas for my blog or print articles, and I will continue to do so; especially off the beaten path (I am setting my sights on Gujurat, Madya Pradesh and Orissa for future trips). I want to refine and focus my travel in India, and my writing topics — and of course I will continue on my mission to share the beauty of India’s wisdom and culture with the world.
As ususal, I met a lot of amazing people on this trip. My community in India is growing and strengthening all the time, and my sense of having a second home is becoming more substantial. I am working in India for the first time (writing for several Indian magazines), which also helps to bring the experience of being here down to earth.
I am ending this trip with a stay at the Haveli Hari Ganga in Haridwar, living in the family home in Delhi, and an upper respiratory tract infection — which was exactly how I began my first trip to India in December 2005. It’s the end of one era and the beginning of another: my introductory or honeymoon period to India has ended and the real relationship has begun.
So thank you to India, to the people of India, for making my trip relatively problem-free, and full of memorable and magical moments that I will never forget. Enjoy the pictures. India is a photographer’s — and artist’s — paradise. It even turns amatuers like me into enthusiasts.
Upcoming on BreatheDreamGo
I will be publishing lots more India travel blogs after I return to Canada. I have lots of material — photos, interviews, adventures — that I haven’t written about yet. You will meet the director of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and the King of Darjeeling tea; you will have tours of some wonderful places to stay in India, such as Haveli Hari Ganga and the Windamere Hotel; you will be able to enjoy my interviews with several spiritual masters, including Sri Sri Ravi Shankar; and you will find out about some magical nights I spent in Delhi attending a Sufi music festival (where the star performer reminded me of Janis Joplin) and an intimate night of music and dance hosted by Pandit Ravi Shankar in honour of George Harrison’s birthday. Yes, that George Harrison.
IMPORTANT NOTE: In the wake of the conviction of yet another so-called “Godman” in India — Ram Rahim to 20 years in prison for raping two of his followers — I feel it’s important to warn women seeking spiritual guidance in India to be very careful. Unfortunately, these incidents are more common than we would like to believe. Spiritual teachings are powerful, worthwhile, and rewarding. However, spiritual teachers are just people. In the end, I believe we each have to be our own Guru.
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