By Satish Aparajit
Idyllic Rishikesh, surrounded by forests and the majestic Ganga running alongside, was a veritable paradise. However the crowd, noise and commercialisation have taken their toll. Hosts of pilgrims and foreigners abound. Indians and foreigners, including the famed Beatles, have spent time here to find themselves. It is a land where the seeker is bound to find an answer.
Thousands of people arrive at Haridwar and Rishikesh from all over the country. The common thread in such a diverse country is faith or ‘Shraddha’. Loud chants of “Jai Ganga Maiya, Har Har Mahadev”, fill the air and the crowd moves in a hypnotic trance as though it is regulated by a remote-control device. The waters are freezing, but a plunge or ‘Dubki’ is a must. Shaking like a leaf in Autumn, it is only Shraddha that prevents people from falling ill. Thousands of litres of Ganga water is sold in plastic jerry cans and bottles to be used in homes for performing puja or any other auspicious occasion. Fast food of all sorts is sold on both sides of the narrow street which abound with flies, insects and exposed cow dung. But the food is devoured by the people with the least caution. That’s the faith that nothing will go wrong as they drink Ganga water after eating. Isn’t that unique?
We decided to become a part of the multitudes and expose our young grandchildren to the spirit of the eternal land and took them to Rishikesh. Five year old Leo, who lives in London, was thrilled with India. He exclaimed, “In India, dogs, cows and people walk on roads, in England you can’t. I love it here.” We jumped into an auto from the hotel and once again the new found freedom of not being confined by a seat belt delighted the young lads. The master green auto driver skilfully snaked his way through the crowds. Then came the arduous task of negotiating the cows, people, two-wheelers and people in constant selfie mode crossing the narrow gently swaying Ramjhula Bridge. A two-wheeler rode over the foot of a person who was told off for not moving away. The hapless tourist didn’t protest for fear of inviting the ire of the local rider.
We slowly inched along and arrived at the Ashram. A sprightly young monk appeared out of nowhere and ushered us to some vacant places right on the banks of the Ganga. He kept checking in on us and handed us the diya for the Aarti. We were impressed and thought maybe our saintly appearance was the reason for this special favour. We were soon disillusioned as we realised a monetary compensation was required. In true Indian style, unsolicited advice was given and a passer-by pulled out the comforter from our 1.5 year old grandson’s mouth, saying it was bad for health. The parents gently but respectfully handled the well meaning gentleman.
The Swami led the proceedings of the Ganga Aarti. It was high tech and a drone beamed the proceedings of the Aarti. It was beautiful but the crowds belting out the national anthem and then saying ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, ‘Vandemataram’ and jostling against one another to scramble out of the premises took away from the solemnity of the moment.
The tourists flock to get a taste of rafting and other adventure sports. The Ganga lends itself well to this sport. Adventure and tour operators have mushroomed all over and there is scant regard for safety. A kayak is supposed to follow the raft, however, it is generally not the practice. Our son-in-law was involved in a rescue operation as one of the tourists in the raft lost balance and fell into the water, knocking him in with her. Fortunately, Kevin is a strong and excellent swimmer. The lady, a serving Air Force officer, could hardly swim. The guide and Kevin had to struggle to get her back on board. This is where the accompanying kayak comes in handy but who will ensure this? All’s well that ends well. The lady officer and her buddy from the forces who had come to heal her bruised heart were happy that they got a taste of real adventure.
The craziness and chaos notwithstanding, the trip to Rishikesh was an immersive Indian experience and, in the words of our grandson, it was an “epic holiday”.
Lastly, there is no monitoring by any authority and it’s a free for all battle on the roads, on the Ramjhula, no FSSI restrictions on the street food vendors, no proper landing area for the rafts on their return, everything is Ram Bharose, that’s the FAITH.
(Satish Aparajit is a retired Wing Commander)