Rishikesh: The City of Sages

Rishikesh: The City of Sages

the City of Sages. Where hymns and tales of
all-seeing men were written and then whispered across the
continent. Where the Ganges (affectionately named Mother Ganga), in
great, languid sweeps of her neck, rests against the many temples
and statues that stand facing her banks. Paying homage to the great
river – the serpentine mass of melted glacier that carved its way
out of the
and drew its belly across India’s shoulder – the
monuments stand like concrete giants. Imposing bodies of mortar and
reinforced steel that pulled themselves from the earth, so as to
dip their foundations in the water.

Like that of Temple Kailash Niketan, its 13 stories wrapped in
bands around the body of the building. Painted in sacred saffron
with strings of golden handrails, the building looks like one
massive viewing platform, solely designed to permit one simple
indulgence: to marvel at the river below.

The Lakshman Jhula (“jhula” meaning bridge) is an iconic expanse
of white iron that reaches over the river. The bridge lashes
together the town of Tapovan – the curled finger at the end of

northeastern sprawl – and Jonk, a tight conduit of
busy shops. There, stacked buildings create a bustling corridor,
overrun by competing signs, each one trying to twist your path
beneath low doorways or up across the confusions of stairways that
branch out onto the road, their steps sliding into one another, as
though locked in a constant battle to be walked upon.

Ayurveda clinics
, music shops with Bansuri flutes descending
into the street like vines, clothing stores dressed with saris,
fabrics and hooded shawls woven from thread walked down from the
mountains all shout over each other.

In shaded alleys, food vendors reach at you from beside their
tiny wheeled kitchens offering steaming foil trays of anything and
everything. The ceaseless hiss of spitting onions fidgeting on
faces of heated steel is accompanied by a percussion of popping
corn and a constant chorus of happy bells. The scene is held
together by an unending passage of incensed smoke – the only
stillness – that pulls this frantic hysteria of opposing actions
and competing colours into one intense single frame.

The heat of the hot plates and cooking flames smearing their
light on perspiring cheeks in little flickering slaps; the heavy
stench from the layers of a thousand spices; and the flow of people
moving with the same gradual viscosity of stew. The street feels
like the finale of a factory conveyor. A baking chamber
consolidating the tempered ingredients of a rich feast and applying
the last dramatic flourishes. A feast not for the stomach but the
eyes, the nose, the fingertips. Flourishes, not for the palate, but
for the atmosphere. It is a sensory banquet.

Infamous for its unpredictability, India never fails to pull an
otherwise normal day across into absurdity. One such occasion for
me was in Rishikesh, when crossing the Lakshman Jhula. There, in
the footsteps of a hundred others, I watched as the lady in front
of me (aged 60-something, tiny and dressed loosely in a loud,
sequinned sari) threw a plastic bottle over the edge of the
railing. The very instant the plastic departed from her weathered
hand, the lumbering mass of a passing cow immediately and
unexplainably became rigid with distress. Up until that moment, it
had been completely docile, desensitised like all the other sacred
cows to the torrents of merchants, gatherings of tourists and
impatient motorbikes. But now, with the conviction expected as if
somehow the cow recognised the woman and could recall some foul
crime she had once committed against it, it turned on her, cutting
into the air with violent sweeps of its horns. Erratic fits of
motion that looked as though the animal were frantically trying to
erase her. Running and desperately trying to place people between
the horns and herself, the woman squealed in small panicked yelps,
thrown out in intervals separated by the manic twisting of her
head, stealing looks over her shoulder to see if the beast’s
aggression had abated. The cow did stop, eventually. Seemingly
satisfied that the lady was sufficiently startled, heaving and
shaking in the arms of several bewildered men, lesson learned.

Like a clot of blood, rapidly upsetting the internal environment
of a capillary only to dislodge moments later, the cow continued
into the stream of people and the whole bridge relaxed. In
Hinduism, the only deity ever to take the form of a cow is the
goddess Bhoomi; she represents the Earth.

Another day in Tapovan, accompanied by a young German named
Martin, I left the shade of the hostel in exchange for the heat of
the bazaar, and the promise of my daily thali, a classic Indian
lunch of bhat (rice), daal (lentils) and tarkari (vegetable curry).
We joined the main road connecting our hostel to the hubbub of the
town below and started working our way through the buses and cars;
the jeeps carrying parties of excitable New Delhi students going
water-rafting with their inflatable boats, and the uncountable
number of pushcarts laden with sweet jalebi, beads and mangoes.

One such cart – a tired wooden deck supporting a block of
chipped ice and a garrison of glass bottles spilling with lemon
juice, manned by an impossibly frail lady – passed us on the road,
continuing up a hill that twisted out of sight and on, seemingly
forever. The manic clinking of the bottles emphasised the frailty
of the woman and the difficulty of the task to be surmounted.
Martin and I shared a look, both admitting to the same feeling of
impotence as the lady continued away from us. Without a word we
started back the way we came, offering a “namaste” as we approached
the peddler, who looked momentarily dismayed and irritated that we
should want to kill her momentum for a drink. We waved our hands,
dismissing her reproach and pointed instead to each other, then the
cart, then the hill. The lady’s eyes wilted shut. She smiled and
nodded slightly, holding the cart for us both to take a handle. The
woman was humbly indifferent, seemingly resigned in having any
attachment as to whether the cart was pushed by us, or by her; she
wore a face of relaxed understanding. It needed to be done – and it
would be.

Before we’d made it more than five metres, almost as though
chaos lay in wait beneath the tarmac, the street pulled itself into
a frenzy of horns and shouts. From the windows of the idle traffic
– dozens of the dormant white jeeps containing dozens of stifled,
volatile Indian students, all waiting to escape the imposing heat
for the cool, clean northern waters of the Ganges – came calls of
appreciation. People hung from windows leaning out into the road
and motorcyclists blew their horns as they passed.

Manifesting in the immediate fire of fleeting camaraderie, the
uproar enclosed the street in an ecstatic shawl – the surreal,
consuming sensation of a dream. Embarrassed, we were suddenly the
focal point of a hundred smiling faces.

When the peddler decided we had pushed far enough, she gently
placed her palm upon the flat of my fist. Nothing more. There was
no great thanks, no applause. In fact, there were no words at all.
She simply commandeered the handles with the same delicate motion
that she had relinquished them – with a gentle tilt of her head –
before continuing up the road and out of sight.

Just as quickly as the bridge had resumed its calm after the
commotion with the cow, the road easily settled back to the
continuous and uneventful justling between car, van and lorry. That
is to say, normality unpaused and the surreal moment was washed
away by the unperturbed chattering of horns.

The depth to which India
accommodates the unexpected gives it the weight of an ocean. Like
rocks being cast from the shore, each moment of disturbance has
force enough only to cause a ripple. Moments of shrill excitement
pull bystanders into participation with the single-mindedness and
vigour to be expected as if they were actually submerged in water
and fighting for air. Only to dismiss them seconds later, carrying
any mania back below the surface of an unshakable whole.

Just as it is beneath the water that calm holds its ground,
despite even the greatest of tempests, it is not simply India’s
ability to showcase the storms that woos visitors, but the grace
with which it weathers them. The fact that the peddler with her
cart did not offer gratitude is testament to this wisdom: to single
one action out is to undermine the whole. Everything that arises
from the depths of this place – her country – no matter the
consequence, the magnificence, or the suffering, will return to the
same depths on its passing. To attempt to clutch onto a singular
thing is like trying to take a fistful of water; it is to deny
yourself the splendour of the next moment.

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