bhajans, Hello To The Queen, Hindu ceremony, Hindu gods, Hindu ritual, Hindu temple, Indian weddings, lingam, Maha Shivaratri, Parmarth Niketan Ashram, Rishikesh, Shiva temple, World Toilet College, yoni
Feb-Mar 2019 and Feb-Mar 2020 Rishikesh, India. Back in August I wrote this to close a post about India:
In India you will be confronted with your humanity: in the face of an old man in a filthy dhoti using a long stick for balance as he shuffles along the street; in the faces and strong but tired bodies of the women carrying bricks on their heads at construction sites; in the face of the severely deformed beggar-woman whose smile lights up the sky as she recognises you from previous days and knows you see her humanity; in the inscrutable faces of the sadhus who have given up everything in the hope of gaining it all; in the faces of the tribes of young men who swagger down the road to loud bhangra music; in the unrestrained joy of the dancing guests of a wedding celebration filling the street; in the unrestrained colours of the women’s saris; and in the shining face of the woman who speaks little English but nevertheless wants to know you and wants you to say hello to her mama on WhatsApp.
India will reflect back to you both the best and worst of humanity in hundreds of strands, millions of hopes and dreams and disappointments, billions of heartaches and joys that can never be separated, that coalesce into a ball that can never be unravelled. India will rip you open and tear you into a million pieces, and then grab your heart and reform it into a golden radiant flower. There is nowhere else on earth quite like it.
It felt like a coda, as if I was summing up all I had to say about our time in India, but I guess I’m not quite ready to let it go. I still have more images to share and stories to tell.
There are temples, big and small all over town. Every day on our wanderings up one side of the Ganges and back down the other we pass this one.
One day I finally go inside and am immediately transfixed by the serenity, and the unexpected shabby-chic beauty of it.
And then there’s this temple right at the level of the sidewalk.
Every day there are loud bhajans blasting out from it, some that I’m familiar with: the Gayatri Mantra, Govinda, Hare Krishna, and I sing along with whatever is playing as we walk by. One day I go in and sit in the back behind the priests and absorb the uplifting devotional music. Bhajanam means reverence, and bhajans tell of legendary epics, stories from the scriptures, the teachings of the saints, or loving devotion to a deity. They are songs of reverence and devotion, but they also feel like fun, and are great music for dancing.
4 March 2019, the date of Maha Shivaratri. But we don’t know what day it is, let alone that it’s the date of this annual festival to Lord Shiva. By luck we happen upon it anyway, and of course the doors are open to everyone. It is the Indian way.
In Indian mythology the Himalayan Mountain Range is the home of Shiva, one of the three main Hindu gods, and devotion to Shiva is strong in Rishikesh, sitting as it does at the foothills of the Himalayas. Maha Shivaratri means The Great Night of Shiva and signifies a focus on overcoming darkness and ignorance in life and in the world. It is a solemn ceremony centred on a huge lingam that dominates the room.
A lingam is an abstract representation and the primary devotional image of Shiva. It’s basically a giant phallus. It is usually accompanied by a yoni at its base, which is a vagina and represents the goddess Shakti. On the floor next to the huge lingam there is a small lingam with its yoni base. Devotees are taking turns to pour milk over it. The base is filled with devotional offerings of money, fruit, sweets, and the like.
But it is not the flowing milk, nor the yoni offerings that first get my attention; it’s the flowers. Hanging straight down, and strung in huge loops from the ceiling, and patterned all over the lingam, the entire place is richly decorated with strand upon strand of colourful flowers. Every ceremony and celebration of any kind in this country has garlands of flowers. It is the Indian way.
Maha Shivaratri can include all-night vigils and prayers, all-day fasting, and meditative yoga. What we get to see is a priest on the balcony pouring milk onto the top of the lingam as another priest reads from the scriptures.
The scriptures are read; prayers are uttered; milk is poured from above and down below; people sit chatting in groups on the floor as others come and go. It gets a little crowded from time to time but people make room for each other and despite the devotional nature of it, it all feels a little like a party. We get a swift glimpse of the enigmatic guru in the inner sanctum,
before we go back outside and find the real party happening all around the huge glorious garlanded statue of Lord Shiva,
where someone is handing out small cardboard dishes of food. And when the contents are eaten the dishes are dropped on the ground and the cows move in to finish them off. It is the Indian way.
Parmarth Niketan, situated on the banks of the Ganges is one of the biggest interfaith spiritual institutions in the country.
Pujya Swamiji, shortly after becoming the president and spiritual head of Parmarth Niketan, advocated the placement of public garbage bins at the ashram. One of his detractors accused him of trying to make the place too western! This is the kind of prejudice that is slowly being overcome in India. Pujya Swamiji however, had much bigger plans than garbage bins. He’s been advocating for toilets since 2012, hence the World Toilet College on the grounds of the ashram.
November 19th is World Toilet Day! Who knew! I suppose it’s easy enough for us lucky westerners to be amused by this because we take access to bathrooms and proper hygiene for granted. It’s actually a significant problem for much of the world and Swamiji is committed to bringing about change. On World Toilet Day at the World Toilet Summit he said this: It’s wonderful to be together on World Toilet Day! Who would have ever thought we would gather for toilets? We gather for peace, we gather for parties, but for poop? However, this is what is needed! We cannot have real, meaningful peace in the world as long as there are children suffering and dying due to lack of clean water, lack of sanitation, and hygiene.
From poop to weddings. Hindu weddings in India typically last for three days, and one of the most important parts of the ritual is the groom processing through the streets on the back of a white horse. Presumably so he can swoop in and rescue his bride and they’ll live happily-ever-after. Sorry. Couldn’t resist the sarcasm. The symbolism really is a bit much for me. Anyway the groom on his white horse is surrounded by a brass band and dancing relatives. That part is awesome! We first encountered this in 2012 in Agra and were invited to join in. So much fun! If you spend any time at all in India it’s likely you’ll run into a wedding procession. So of course it happened again in Rishikesh.
Indian weddings are lavish. An “average” Indian wedding could cost between two million to fifty million rupees (27,000 to 675,000 US$). According to Reliance Money a person in India is estimated to spend one-fifth of the total wealth accumulated in his lifetime on his wedding. Crazy!
From crazy to heart-breaking. Poverty in India is probably even worse now than it was pre-Covid. I could just gloss over it, or not mention it at all, but sadly, this too is the Indian way. People live on the streets. These men in Rishikesh have their “homes” on the shelf of a concrete embankment next to a main road with its roar of constant snarling traffic and rising dust. No doubt they go elsewhere when the monsoon rains come.
Almost every day we walk past this man’s “home” on the ghats by the river underneath the balcony overhang of a car park that’s up at street level.
It intrigues me because I’ve struggled financially in the past and know exactly what it is to make a home from scraps and old broken down things, and how to “live in poverty with dignity” as my friend Ilene described it. I love that he has lines strung up with pegs for his laundry, and if you peer inside you can see his water bottles hanging up, and tiffin bowls on the shelf. I want to go inside and see what else he has in there to make this little place a home but of course I can’t. Best of all for me is his garden! He has about a dozen pots there each with a thriving plant. This was in 2019. Sadly when we returned in 2020 it was all gone.
And now for a little backpacker lore. We eat at several of the backpacker restaurants and every one has a dessert on the menu called Hello To The Queen. It takes us a while but finally we cave. We have no idea what it is but with a name like that we simply have to try it.
Although it can vary from place to place the most consistent ingredients are graham crackers (similar to tea or marie biscuits to you non-North Americans), caramelised bananas, ice cream, warm chocolate sauce and whipped cream. The more, um, sophisticated, versions also have marshmallows, chocolate chips and nuts. And a significant feature is that it comes in enormous portions. It can be found on the menu at most backpacker hangouts all over India.
Here’s the story: In Pushkar, a long long time ago, an Israeli backpacker had been indulging in the local weed, and he had an epic case of the munchies. In a local restaurant he asked for ice cream, with chocolate sauce, bananas, whipped cream, cookies, and marshmallows. And lots of it. Then, being stoned and his creative juices flowing he gave it a grand name. I can just imagine him sitting at the table and when this enormous dessert is placed in front of him he looks at it and says Hello to the queen!
Another account I read is that he had an upset stomach. Yeah. Just no. This was not a case of an upset stomach.
Anyway we try it three times at three different places. They are all a little disappointing, though the ice cream is always good. One has Graham crumbs instead of crackers,
one has no bananas at all but instead has apple slices prettily arranged around the ice cream with pomegranate seeds on top – lovely but not really Hello To The Queen,
and I don’t remember the third since I didn’t photograph it.
I’ll finish with a series of images without any explanation. I include them because there’s something I like about them – the light, or the subject matter, the colour, the framing, or the quintessential Indian-ness, or all of the above.
This finally concludes my series of posts about India. Four visits ranging in length from one month to three; a total of seven months over a period of eight years. We fell in love with India, but I doubt we’ll ever go back. At this point we don’t even know if we’ll travel again. Once there’s an effective Covid vaccine we probably will, but our first choice will likely be to countries we’ve not previously visited. So much world, so little time.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.