A walk along the Ganga


It’s been years since we had a pet of our own. But since we’ve been traveling, we’ve had a surprising amount of affectionate interaction with animals. I spent a fair amount of time holding puppies at an animal shelter last year, and since then, we’ve had quite a few random encounters with animals of one kind or another.

Today we set out late in the morning for a walk along the Ganga, intending to get onto the river beach and walk upriver until we got tired or ran out of beach to walk on. It was a bright day, but not too hot. The wind that rushes down the Ganga River valley early each morning, blowing sand into our faces, had already subsided, leaving just a light breeze playing in the tops of trees.

We headed down the sloping dirt path that leads from the road to the riverside, and were immediately joined by a medium-sized dog.  Dog on Ganga Beach, Rishikesh, UttarakhandI noticed his beautifully marked brindled coat immediately – that, and the fact that he stopped to eat some lantana leaves. He also gulped down one of the bright orange flowerheads. “Alan, that dog just ate a flower,” I called down the slope, as the dog raced ahead.

I took a while to make it down to the bottom, where  I found Alan chatting with a tall man in athletic gear. His accent sounded American, and sure enough, he is a transplanted American, now living in Canada. He had assumed the dog was Alan’s, and asked about it, starting a friendly conversation about meditation, ashrams, politics and samsara.

We parted after a few minutes and continued upriver, climbing beautiful rocks deeply scored by wind, water and weather. The dog raced ahead, came back to us, nudged his nose under my hand a few times and trotted beside me for a while, before racing off again. He got particularly excited whenever he spotted bandars (chunky brown monkeys) or langurs (black-faced silver-furred monkeys) bouncing in the high branches of the trees that grow along  the beach.

We passed groups of people enjoying the beach and the water, some splashing around, others reading quietly on the shore. Raft after brightly-colored raft of whitewater enthusiasts passed us, floating on the fast current in the center or pulling out to the side to drift. And all along the river were huge boulders here and there, and the views of the forested Himalayan foothills above us.

Boulders in the Ganga River, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand

After we’d walked for 15 minutes or so, the beach became very quiet, nearly empty of people. We came across a couple of sadhus, one napping in the sun and the other washing his clothes in the river. The dog visited with each sadhu in turn, but then bounded forward to join us as we continued up the beach.

Eventually we came to some huge boulders, ending that stretch of walkable beach. We found a nice flat place on a sort of shelf above the river’s surface, where I spread out a flowered cotton blanket. Immediately, Dog plopped down and settled himself on the clean surface, scattering wet sand everywhere. “Why don’t you just make yourself comfortable?” I asked, and Alan laughed.

Dog steals beach blanket. Ganga River beach, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand

I couldn’t exactly lie down in for a sunbath as planned, so I changed into my bathing suit (discreetly, of course – a skill learned on beach days in my Southern California childhood), and ventured down to the water’s edge.

In case you were wondering, the Ganga is stunningly cold this time of year. “How is it?” Alan asked. I noticed he hadn’t gone beyond taking off his socks and shoes. “Freezing,” I said. “Well, it was probably snow about 12 hours ago,” he informed me.

I decided to be brave and get as far into the river as I could stand. This meant up to my waist. It was so cold I could stay in only by moving around. As I kicked out each leg, fresh currents of even colder water washed over my skin. It was both too much and kind of an interesting feeling. After a few minutes though, I feared the cold would affect the old injury in my lower back, so I got out.

Clambering up the sandy bank in the sunshine made me warm again. I wandered to where the water was shallower, and got in again. It wasn’t exactly warm, but it wasn’t freezing now, either. I stood in the water and watched it drifting around the rocks and my body, the surface rippling and the shadows of those ripples on the sand below. I looked out to the deep channel of the river where the current runs fast, to the white foam where currents collide, and to the quieter channel where the crests of tiny wavelets sparkled in the bright sun.

Returning to Alan and the blanket, I found Dog had left to race up and down the beach. Ignoring the sand he’d left behind, I lay in the sun and luxuriated in the feeling of sunlight warming my cold skin. When I got warm enough I sat up to watch the river again, its surface and the light on it ever-constant and ever-changing.

I don’t know how long we sat watching before Dog came back to us, ready to rest in our company. I scratched behind his ears, first one then the other.  Dog relaxed on Ganga River beach, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand After a while we noticed the light had changed angles, the shadows of huge boulders lengthening their reach out into the river. Evening was approaching; it was time to head back to town, find a meal and settle down for the night.

The walk downriver was as pretty as the walk up, but the beach was much emptier of people now. As we headed back up the steep slope towards the road, Dog joined us. He stopped for another snack of lantana leaves.

Dog trotted with us to where they’re building a new yoga ashram alongside the river, the place where the little tourist restaurants cluster. I didn’t notice when or where Dog left us, but I did see a lot more dogs around. I guess he picked us up when we entered his territory, joined us for the afternoon, and stayed in his own territory when we left it.

I still wondered about the dog eating the lantana. The odor of lantana is strong – it always reminds me of my childhood, and of the little brown butterflies that used to cluster around it. I wondered how a dog could possibly enjoy eating it. Maybe, I thought, lantana has medicinal properties, and Dog is eating it for his health? So I looked it up on the internet, and sure enough, lantana is good for all kinds of things: cancer, itchy skin, leprosy, rabies, measles, asthma and other respiratory ailments, chicken pox and ulcers.  Thank you, Dog.

I couldn’t resist adding these shots of the beautiful patterning on some of the boulders on the Ganga river beach.

Haridwar: a walk to Kankhal and the Ma Anandamayi ashram

Some interesting old buildings we spotted in Kankhal during our walk to Ma Anandamayi's  ashram in Kankhal, a suburb of Haridwar.
We spotted some interesting old buildings in Kankhal during our walk to Ma Anandamayi’s ashram.

Today was the third of a six-day visit to Haridwar, a break from Hindi classes and the rains of Mussoorie. We decided to have a morning walk to the Ma Anandamayi Ashram in Khankal, just over four kilometers from our hotel. There are, of course, many Anandamayi ashrams, including Ma’s ashram in Almora, where we spent a fair amount of time in July and August. The ashram in Kankhal is where Ma’s samadhi is located. For those of you not familiar with Indian terms, the samadhi is the place where a guru’s bodily remains are housed. Samadhi actually means the state of eternal bliss, the merging into oneness that takes place when a teacher’s work on this earth is complete, and the body is left behind.

The walk from our hotel to the ashram is about 4.5 kilometers. Despite being a center for Hindu religious practice, Haridwar is not a particularly peaceful or relaxed place. The roads are mostly quite narrow, at least for all the traffic they carry. Rickshaw, vikram (a larger type of rickshaw) and scooter drivers are constantly blaring their horns. It makes any trip along the streets exceedingly noisy, sometimes to the point of actual pain. I keep forgetting to tuck my earplugs into my bag, so I walk down the street with my hands by my head, one finger on each side firmly pressing the flesh of each ear across its opening.

This morning was different. We started early enough that the traffic hadn’t built up yet. Google Maps showed us a route going southwest on a narrow street that eventually ran right next to the Ganga canal. The British built this canal many years ago, and curiously, this is where Haridwar’s famous ghats and clocktower are located, rather than on the banks of the natural river channel.

The Ganga canal with the famous clock tower and temples. Haridwar, Uttarakhand.
The Ganga canal with the famous clock tower and old temples. This is where people gather for the evening aarti puja every night, and the clock tower is what people rely on to tell when the auspicious time for bathing begins during the Kumbh Mela that takes place here every 12 years.

As the street joined the edge of the canal, we noticed more and more large dharmashalas (pilgrims’ rest houses) and huge private homes along both sides of the street. It’s natural, of course; people have always come to Haridwar to bathe in the holy river, and bathing in the early morning is an especially good thing to do. Staying right on the river’s edge gets you as close as possible.

To our left, I looked into the big open entries of some dharmashalas and houses. Imagine huge open doors like the opening to a medieval castle, and you’ve got the picture. I expected to see courtyards, but to my surprise and delight, I found myself looking right through a hall to the fast-flowing waters of the Ganga itself, sunlight flickering on its surface. From these houses and dharmashalas, you can walk right down into the waters of the Ganga itself, and come back to a cup of tea. What luxury! Not to mention the beauty of the early morning light reflecting back from the water into a marble-floored hall. It was one of the most romantic sights I have ever seen, and coupled with the peeling paint on the outside walls of most of these buildings, gave the feeling of walking through ancient, timeless tradition.

It’s good I got to see such beauty, because much of the rest of the walk was noisy with morning commuters on scooters, and as we got closer to Kankhal, the horns of vikrams carrying visitors to the Daksh Mandir, a large temple complex just over 100 meters from the ashram.

We had another great find before reaching Daksh Mandir: an old, grand building with beautiful painted decorations, now fallen into disrepair, with what looked like many families living in it.

Entryway to magnificent old mansion in Kankhal, Haridwar, Uttarakhand
The ladies sitting in front of this magnificent entryway to an old, beautiful mansion were very friendly, but my Hindi wasn’t equal to getting much information about the place.
Painted archway of magnificent old mansion on way to Ma Anandamayi Ashram, Kankhal, Haridwar, Uttarakhand
Detail of the painted decorations on the arched entryway.
Front of magnificent old mansion on the way to Ma Anandamayi Ashram, Kankhal, Haridwar.
The front of the mansion.

The two ladies chatting in front were friendly, but I certainly don’t have enough Hindi to ask them the history of this building.  If we have time before we go back to Mussoorie, I’d like to walk past it again and see if I can figure out when it was built, and look for any lettering saying who its owner was.

By the time we reached Daksh Mahadev Prajapati Mandir, we’d been walking nearly an hour. We were tired from the noise and dust of the road, and the heat was building up towards 38° C (100° F). So we went into the temple grounds for a while to rest up. The complex is large, with a number of separate buildings for shrines to different gods and goddesses, including Sri Ganga, the mother goddess embodied in the river itself.

Entering the main complex of Daksh Mandir, Kankhal, Haridwar, Uttarakhand
Walking into the main temple complex at Daksh Mandir.

The temple atmosphere was peaceful, despite many visitors wandering through. There are several large old trees offering shade, and the priests at each shrine were friendly and welcoming.

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We walked down some stairs to the Ganga where worshippers were already scooping up water, pouring some over their heads, taking some into their mouths and praying to the goddess. Instructed by the priest, we also scooped a little of Mother Ganga’s blessing onto our heads, and touched the marble carving of her feet. The cold fresh river water felt good on our own bare feet after the walk.

By the Ganga at Daksh Mandir, Kankhal, Haridwar, Uttarakhand

We spent a little more time visiting the various shrines, then put our shoes back on and walked the short distance to Ma Anandamayi’s ashram. We shuffled off our shoes as we entered the ashram office and asked if we could visit Ma’s samadhi. A gentle older man told us to put our shoes back on, then walked us back out the gate and up the road a short distance, to re-enter the ashram precincts through another gate.

Ma Anandamayi's samadhi at Ma Anandamayi Ashram, Kankhal, Haridwar, Uttarakhand
The building housing Ma Anandamayi’s samadhi.

Ma’s samadhi is housed in a large white marble mandir, beautifully made with well-tended plants all around. It is very different from the ashram in Almora, but like that ashram, it is filled with a feeling of serenity. Silence is required inside the samadhi, but I think one would want to be silent there in any case.

The stone tomb is enclosed by a metalwork screen, and is covered with flowers. Beyond the tomb, in a large alcove, is a white marble statue of Mother. A small, very old woman clad in a white cotton sari moved silently around the tomb, placing and rearranging flowers with care.

Both the tomb and the statue seemed to be at a great distance from where we seated ourselves, almost as if I were looking through a telescope toward a faraway mountain range. I watched the old woman for a while, and then another old woman emerged, and a tall man. Both women seemed to be instructing the man about some kind of maintenance that needed to be done to a ceiling beam. They were so far away, I could see only their gestures, not their facial expressions, like being in the top balcony of a large opera house, watching actors or dancers without the benefit of binoculars.

I watched the movements, heard the loud honking of car horns from the road, and looked at the white marble representation of Mother’s face before me, far away and gleaming like the full moon. My mind, as usual, was filled with thoughts when I entered the place – everyday minutiae, scattered and uninspiring, one thought crowding on another. As I gazed to Mother’s white face, there came a point when my eyes grew tired and stung. I closed them, and after a moment or two, everything went silent. I no longer heard the traffic, nor electric fans, nor whatever other sounds surrounded me. The thoughts were replaced with one phrase, heard not with my ears but with my mind: “The being that one is.”

I stayed that way for some time, then opened my eyes. Ma’s white marble face was before me, and I saw it had changed. It was still far away, but every feature had sharpened into fine detail, so I could see her face, her eyes looking towards me, her  cheeks and forehead alive, her wide mouth relaxed into an almost-smile.

Her clear distinct presence lasted for some time. Then I became aware that Alan had stood up and was getting ready to leave. I held Ma’s gaze, then everything receded again into the distance. I stood, made my pranam and went out into the sunlight.

People who write about ashrams where the teacher has already left the body often talk about “the power of the presence.” Today I saw, in a new and different way, the endurance of that power, and the presence.

A photo of Ma Anandamayi in the shop across from the ashram, where we had a cold drink.
A photo of Ma Anandamayi in the shop across from the ashram, where we had a cold drink.

About Ma Anandamayi - a plaque on the side of the samadhi building, Ma Anandamayi Ashram, Kankhal, Haridwar, Uttarakhand


House building in Kumaon

Photo of neighbor's house with new addition in progress and cow, Papershali, Almora, Kumaon, Uttarakhand
The cow doesn’t care.

We live on a mountainside (or hillside, if you like) that slopes steeply down to a river valley. The village we’re staying in is small enough that we can see every house in it. So when we first noticed that one of the nearby houses had some rebar sticking up out of the rooftop, we figured the owner planned to add on someday. It wasn’t until we saw a line of thin, wiry men walking down the hill with loads of bricks suspended from their foreheads that we realized “someday” was “right now.”

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Kasar Devi Mandir: the peak of Almora

Kasar Devi Mandir, Kasar Devi, Almora, Uttarakhand
Kasar Devi temple at Kasar Devi Mandir. The boulder on the right shelters the cave where Vivekananda meditated.

Kasar Devi Mandir is one of the most popular temples to visit in the Almora area, and indeed in Uttarakhand. We’re lucky that we have been living just three kilometers from the temple for the past few weeks. But even before we moved to Papershali, we walked the seven kilometers of uphill road from Almora to Kasar Devi a few times, drawn by the beauty of its setting and the peaceful shakti of the place.

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How we travel (including Delhi to Almora)

Passengers on a bus to Hubli, Karnataka
On the bus to Hubli, Karnataka

India is a big country, and getting from one place to another can be complicated. It can also be really fun. Some of my most memorable experiences in India have happened on trains and buses.

Tourists and travelers here are constantly exchanging information about how to get from one place to another, where to book tickets and how much you should pay for a taxi ride. Recently, some friends who are thinking of coming to India have been asking about how we travel. So I figured it was time to write something about our travel style, and offer a few tips.

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Mushrooms of Kumaon

Yellow mushroom between Paparshali and Chitai, Almora, Uttarakhand
No. 1 – Found in pine woods between Paparshali and Chitai Devta Golu Mandir.

The monsoon seemed to begin in earnest about 10 days ago, with heavy rains occurring every day for at least a couple of hours. The rains have greened up the forests, and brought forth many lovely wildflowers. I love the flowers, but I enjoy the mushrooms and fungi even more.

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In the presence of Ma Anandamayi, and a meditation on meditation

Anandamayi Ashram, Patal Devi, Almora, Uttarakhand
Ma Anandamayi ashram during the monsoon.

Alan first pointed out the Anandamayi ashram to me one day when we were walking down the Binsar road from Kasar Devi Mandir. I saw a group of orange-red buildings tucked into the hillside below Chota Bazaar (or NTD, as it’s more properly known), with a very old stone temple just below the ashram complex. It looked intriguing, so we decided to visit in the next day or two.

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A hidden valley, a sky temple and a natural lingam-yoni

A typical lingam and yoni arrangement for worship of Shiva
Lingam and yoni in a temple, with lingam-like rocks found in nature arrayed on the shelf behind.

Over the years I’ve seen many examples of Indian religious symbols that occur in nature – things like the coco-de-mer, or rocks that resemble a Shiva lingam arranged in a temple and anointed with vermilion, just like formal sculptures of gods.

But up to now, I’d only seen these things in photographs, or displayed in a temple or museum. So it was special to discover for ourselves, a few days ago, a symbol of Shiva-Shakti in a mountain stream.

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