India Day 4: Mata Ganga

Can weather follow a person from country to country? As I opened the curtains on rising yesterday morning, I felt a sense of ‘deja vu’, as the skies were light grey, a stiff breeze rustled the sturdy bamboo growing outside, and a distinct dampness touched our faces as we headed for breakfast. Ian and I have ‘form’ with holiday weather, as a Spring weekend trip to Jersey several years ago extended to a week after the worst snow in 30 years closed the airport! As I read my morning copy of The India Times, forecasts of unseasonably low temperatures and even hail and snow dared us to be careful what we wish for – though a week in Ananda is just too short!

The early part of our day, ignoring the weather, followed a schedule of yoga practise, relaxation and a healing Reiki treatment at Ananda spa. However, in the afternoon we were ‘ let out for good behaviour’ and we joined our driver at the steps of the palace for an escorted visit to nearby Rishikesh.

The half-hour journey we had made was the reverse of our dark, mystery tour of a few days earlier. This time in daylight we were able to fully appreciate the height of our steep path, the drop to the valley way below and the colour and vibrancy of the hamlets we passed through on our descent. These included the former palace stables, now reinvented as a buzzing array of tiny shops, selling every imaginable home, grocery or travel requirement.

Mother Nature is all around you in India and respected in a way that would shame other so-called, animal-loving countries. Our driver kindly paused twice, ignoring the warning toots of other road users, so that we could photograph differing types of monkey on the roadside. Cows and oxen in a multitude of shapes, sizes and colours wander as freely as the pet dogs in the residential and shopping areas.

Arriving in Rikishesh, we were escorted on a short tour of the sights, including paying our respects at the shrine of a local swami, in his own dedicated Ashram. Passing the local charitable hospital, with the poor and homeless sleeping along the road on either side, one couldn’t help reflect that the UK’s rapidly rising, and increasingly conspicuous, homeless population has sadly numbed us to the shock of such a sight. As Rikishesh is acclaimed as the yoga capital of the world and also very popular for trekking and rafting, hopefully the wealth of international visitors might help alleviate the conditions of these unfortunates.

The river Ganges, worshipped in Hinduism as the goddess Ganga, is the third largest river in the world and emerges from the mountains at Rishikesh, flowing south and east through the Gangetic Plain of North India into Bangladesh, where it empties into the Bay of Bengal. It has a history of being very polluted, but efforts are being made to clean it up, not just because of its importance to the populations living along its course but for the hundreds of species of fish and amphibian and the endangered Ganges river dolphin who also depend on it.

The sacred Ganges is also regarded as the mother, the Ganga Mata (mata=”mother”) of other gods and the Hindu people, accepting all and forgiving all. Hindus use it for bathing, for ceremonial homage and spread the ashes of the deceased on its waters. Nearby stalls sell small plastic bottles, with which to carry home some water for use in ritual.

Each evening in Rishikesh locals and visitors alike may witness the evening devotional ceremony of Ganga Aarti, so curiosity brought us to the riverside too. To add to the experience we first crossed the river on a traditional, wooden river boat. We then entered the Parmarth Niketan Ashram passing a huge statue of Lord Shiva, one of the principle deities of Hinduism. Everyone must remove their shoes, leaving them in the equivalent of a cloakroom locker, before taking a seat on the steps overlooking the ceremony.

The ceremony commenced as dusk fell, with the singing of bhajans (devotional songs) and prayers – a most haunting spiritual sound. Below us, by the river, a group of more senior residents of the ashram performed a hawan (a purifying and sacred ritual) around a fire, making offerings to Agni, the fire god. As a final part of the ceremony, ornate gold lamps in the shape of a cobra are lit and passed around the crowd, who circle them in a clockwise motion before passing them on . Young male students of the ashram, who are taken in as school boarders, assisted in the whole performance. Clad in their striking saffron coloured robes, they sang along with the spiritual head of the ashram in the way that reminded me of a group of young choristers. Finally, small diyas filled with flowers and candles were lit by many and floated down the river.

We moved away to find our way back to the car as darkness enveloped the river. Walking back through narrow arcades, flanked by brightly lit stalls, and over the springy suspension bridge was another unforgettable experience. Homeward-bound scooters were driven erratically up and down the passage, weaving their way noisily around pedestrians, cows, dogs and stalls on their way, tooting raucously. Vendors called insistently for us to stop and view their wares. Every sense awoke to the vibrant sights, sounds and smells of the area.

Tired but exhilarated, we sank gratefully into the waiting car which carried us back up the mountain to our sanctuary. As we walked to our room to relax for the evening, the morning’s winds had settled and Mata Ganda promised another beautiful day to come with dawn.

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