Rishikesh lies in the foothills besides the Ganges River, in one of India’s northern states, Uttarakhand. During my trip to India in 2015 I planned to pass through the city on my way to Punjab to break up the long journey from Kausani. However, within hours of arriving I knew that I wanted to stay for a month; so I did.
My arrival into Rishikesh like many other tourists is very early in the morning having travelled overnight. As I walk along the river during sunrise I feel calmness pour over me, drowning out the tiredness. There is something special about this place.
Over the coming days I meet people from every corner of the globe; some passing through, but most here for a significant period of time on a spiritual quest. Some are on their annual visit, others on a meditation course. Some reuniting with their guru and spiritual teacher, others just finding themselves back here again, to make sense of something they can’t quite articulate or understand.
One evening I have dinner with a German friend who has promised me a tarot reading. A local astrologer tells me about the stars and planets, and the importance of mantra meditation for inner peace, over coffee one morning. I go for pizza with an Australian born Chinese girl from Sydney. She tells me her story of travelling in India, and what lead up to her shaving off all her hair during her visit to Varanasi. She shows me a photo of her a week before, with long shiny black hair down to her hips. Everywhere I go people share a small piece of their journey with me, from their heart. I do the same. I feel a strong connection with those around me, and with the environment. Everyone here is looking for something; peace, connection, answers. For freedom. I soon realize that subconsciously, that is what has also lead me there.
I begin my days with a hatha yoga class. The other participants are Japanese, many of them yoga teachers. Today Rishikesh is known as the yoga capital of the world with ashrams and numerous courses to choose from. In the beginning I am nervous as I don’t feel or look as flexible as the others. But Sabbal the teacher gives me one to one support and does not force my body to do things it should not be doing naturally. It’s a beautiful way to start the day, connecting the body and mind. We take breakfast together after the session, laughing and talking as I don’t understand a word of Japanese, and some of them don’t speak English.
Rishikesh is a magnet for many people. Even the Beatles spent some time here to study transcendental meditation in the 60s. There is a great café restaurant in their name. I love percussion and particularly enjoyed tabla, a north Indian drum. I take a few lessons and soon realise why this classical instrument is practiced daily over lifetimes by the greatest maestros.
Without trying I seem to reach for my authentic self during this month. I stop wearing make-up, or heat styling my hair; the latter I haven’t done for almost 20 years. There are no bars here; it’s an alcohol free zone. The restaurants are all vegetarian. I love the German bakery in particular for yummy cakes and friendly staff. Everyone is my friend here.
One day I walk out of my hostel and my sandal breaks. Apart from a pair of dirty old trainers this is the only pair of sandals I have, and no budget to buy new ones. Before I start to panic I remind myself I am in India, and can get anything fixed here easily. The hostel tells me where to go for a local shoe-smith. I walk up the dusty graveled hill with the sun beating on my face. On arrival a fruit seller tells me the man is not there today and points me to another location. At my second destination again I am directed to another place, this time across the Lakshman Jhula Bridge. I arrive and am greeted by a middle-aged man, who fixes my sandal for less than £1 whilst I cool off with a fresh lime soda. I put on my sandals, and the sound of Snatam Kaur, one of my favourite artists of classical Sikh hymns starts to play loudly from a music vendor. I slowly walk along the bridge with the blissful sounds in my ears and the Ganga River below me, in my simple cotton Indian clothes. Monkeys grasp onto the metal frame and jump about; they look silly. A warm breeze brushes my hair across my face. In this moment I am free, and happy as can be.