‘No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild’- This was how Christopher McCandles described his solitary trip across North America. He was an American young man, who felt alienated from and disillusioned with the mainstream society. Immediately after his graduation, he set out on a solitary trip, abandoning all his familial and societal relations. For about two years he wandered across various states of America as a vagabond, before perishing tragically in the jungles of Alaska. Days after his death, his lifeless body was recovered from the Alaskan wilderness and the world came to know about his vagrant adventures from his journals. A journalist, Jon Krakuer, compiled them and published his biography as Into the Wild. That became an instant hit and catapulted him to a cult figure. Later, in 2007, a movie was also made on his life, also titled Into the Wild.
When I happened to read his biography during college days, I was not much impressed with his aimless wanderings, which were romanticized as an ‘introspective, soul-searching journey’ and ‘a silent rebellion against the hypocrisies of modern civilization’. I dismissed him as a disoriented youth, who lacked the courage to take on the battle of life and took out an easy escape route; or an indolent and self-indulgent dreamer, who did not want to take up the obligations of family and society and ran away from it. Although my heart went out for that young man who died tragically, I could not find any greatness in his impulsive misadventure.
But, as I was waiting for my bus to Rishikesh at Kashmere Gate Inter-State Bus Terminal, New Delhi, the thoughts of Christopher reverberated in my mind. I had decided to make a trip to Rishikesh; all alone! I knew that the never-ending demands of the profession and the mundane obligations of family were going to compete for my soul very soon. The flames of romance and passion were having their final vigorous blaze in the face of impending extinguishment. At such a juncture, I could really empathize with Christopher and could identify the impulses which impelled him to set out on his adventure. Maybe it is true that there is an anarchist in every one of us; that craving for absolute freedom, to break-free and fly-high – that is inherent in all of us, I guess. However, we suppress and repress it, out of fear and respect of society, and out of desire for its recognition. Nevertheless, at times, that desire gets so overwhelming that we pursue it uninhibitedly, despite all societal sanctions and despite even ourselves. I was at such a state and hence my decision to go to Rishikesh. Actually, the place did not matter much to me. Rishikesh, Dharamshala, Leh, Ladakh or even Rawalpindi- anything would have done for me. I wanted to indulge my own self, before it gets appropriated by profession and family; and wanted to have plenty of ‘me-time’, before it gets vilified by unwanted intrusions. Finally, I zeroed in on Rishikesh and Haridwar. No, it wasn’t a pilgrimage. It could be described as a sort of ‘honey-moon’; with my own self. Thus, the journey started, at 21:17 hours on 28.05.2012
After a long crazy bus journey, which gifted me jerky dreams even amidst my half-sleep, I reached Haridwar next morning. There I saw her. Ganga! Flowing serenely, with her lazy waves reflecting the rising sun. I felt a sudden urge to get down there and to indulge her. But I had taken my tickets for Rishikesh, which was some 40 kilometers ahead. So I decided to stay on; though I could sense Ganga beckoning me into her arms.
As the bus stopped at a railway crossing, I got down there without any second-thoughts. The conductor was yelling ‘bhaisaab, yeh rishikesh nahi hain. Hardiwar hain’. I very well knew that and that was why I got down there. Immediately I ran to the nearest bathing ghat and took a dip into it.
As one immersed oneself into her depths, one would realize that her coy appearance and docile demeanor were cleverly concealing her latent passion and intense vitality. It seemed that she’d been impatiently waiting for me. As soon as I touched her, she showered me with all her pent-up affection; with her wet kisses and damp hugs. Enchanted by her charms, I went more deep into Ganga, and she grew wild and possessive, with her frothy currents swirling me and cajoling me to be one with her and flow with her. Yes, a wild, passionate and possessive Ganga, who would not shy away from essaying a self-destructive love epic!
After that rejuvenating dip, I took a round in the city of Haridwar
Haridwar Railway Station
A bating ghat on Ganga shores.
Har-ki-pauri – A sacred bathing ghat.
Ganga, at dusk.
The evening aarti at Har-ki-pauri is a spectacular event. There is a temple devoted to Ganga there and special prayers are made to Ganga every evening. The devotees float diyas on the river, and Ganga would be looking enchanting, lit up by the flames of thousands of floating diyas. The ambience is so overwhelmingly pious that any staunch non-believer would be tempted to offer his prayers to Ganga Mata. The air got filled with the soothing smell of burning incense, and the holy chants of the devotees. A gentle breeze brushed against my face; may be the blessing of Ganga mata and I found myself in one of those rare moments in life, where one felt a sort of oneness with everything and everyone.
That night I stayed at Haridwar. Getting a place to stay at night was a great difficulty. No one was willing to give me a room. It seems that there were many instances of young people coming alone to Haridwar to commit suicide in hotel roams. Since then, the hoteliers are unwilling to rent out rooms to young men who come alone. But I tried convincing them that I didn’t belong to such disgruntled group. But it didn’t work out. Finally I took out my trump card. I showed to one hotelier my Bar Council Identity card and tried to act in a lawyerly manner. Then he categorically said that no rooms were available. Finally, after a lot of search I found a place. But the manager wanted to speak to my parents to ensure that I was not a run-away! I told him that my parents in Kerala would not understand Hindi and somehow convinced him against it. Thus, I got my abode.
Haridwar is a city which never sleeps. The chiming of temple bells, pious bhajans, holy chants of the devotees, and above all the mild rumbling of Ganga’s flow – all these concocted a sweet lullaby and prodded me to sleep.
Next day I set out to Rishikesh, my original destination. As soon as I got down at the bus stand, the autowallahs flocked me, offering me to take to the various landmarks of Rishikesh. I ignored all of them and waded my way out, deciding to find out the places myself.
The only landmark places of Rishikesh I knew were ‘Ram Jhula’ and ‘Laxman Jhula’, two suspension bridges built across Ganga. I decided that I will discover these places with my inherent sense of Geography. I have a vain feeling that I have a great sense of geography, which would take me to places without any external aid. It has a history of turning out right in one out of ten occasions. Since it had gone wrong in all the previous nine occasions, I felt that the moment of success had arrived at Rishikesh.
Thus, I walked along the shores of Ganga, in pursuit of those jhulas. As I walked I reached another place, Triveni Ghat. A beach like shore of Ganga filled with pebbles.
I had my customary dip there as well. After that I continued my walk again and I reached the highway to Delhi. Then I realized that I was getting lost and decided to shed my ego and ask for help. And I got to know that I had been walking exactly in the opposite direction! But my crazy, egoistic adventure took me to Triveni Ghat, which otherwise would have escaped my notice.
Rafters on Ganga
Lord Shiva, Paramarth Niketan.
Laxman Jhula and Thrayabeshwar Temple
Rishikesh has got a hippie ambience as well. Once, the rock band ‘The Beatles’ had come to Rishikesh to meet Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and had spend many days. John Lennon even recorded a song titled ‘Happy Rishikesh’. Since then, Rishikesh had been quite famous in the occident. So one can see a lot of foreigners, clad in saffron and wearing rudraskh roaming around the place. Anglicized versions of Om Nama Shivaya and other chants blare out from the speakers outside various ashrams, which offer ‘ yogic ecstasy and tantric bliss’(whatever that means!).
Rishikesh also offers a lot of adventure acts like river rafting, bungee jumping, camping etc. But those did not attract me. My existence per se had become very edgy and I did not find the need to resort to physical exertions to experience thrill and adventure.
Despite all that, Rishikesh failed to impress me. It could not match up to the delight which Haridwar had offered. There was air of phoniness hung in there. The ‘wannabe’ foreign sanyasis, the institutions selling yoga and tantra to exploit the gullible foreigners, rock versions of holy chants – everything appeared phony. I kept on walking the Ganga shores, feeling sick and tired. As I kept on walking through a wild path along Ganga, I found a defunct temple.
I went inside that temple and sat there, thinking what to do next. I thought of going back to Delhi. Risikesh had tired and sickened me. The sweet memories of Haridwar were getting eclipsed. Then, as a revelation, a thought occurred to me. Why not go to Devprayag? On a mile stone in Rishikesh, I had seen it written –‘ Devprayag 70 KM’. That was the first time I came across that place name. I had absolutely no idea about the place. But, for some strange reason, the seeds of that idea got planted in my mind. And gradually the seed sprouted and was growing rapidly. Devprayag was beckoning me. However, I was also aware about the stupidity of my idea of going to an unknown place without any prior information or pre-made plans. Finally, I made reconciled my reason and my intuition and decided that if I get any bus to Devprayag within thirty minutes of reaching the main road, I will go there; otherwise, it’s back to Delhi. And you would not believe it. Within five minutes of my reaching the main road, an Utharakhand State Transport bus going to Devprayag ‘appeared’ before me. And trust me, Devprayag was the best part of my trip. This is what they call the ‘divine wish’.
Hum jo chalane lage, chalane lage hain yeh raaste
Manzil se behtar lagane lage hai yeh raaste
(As we started traveling, the paths too started moving
And the journey seemed better than the destination)
When the destination is unknown, one tends to enjoy the journey. That was my state of my mind en route Devprayag.I had no idea what awaited me there. But, the journey by itself was enchanting and my heart was filled to the brim with joy and excitement. The curvy roads convoluting their way up the contours of Shiwalik hills; the adolescent Ganga playing hide and seek through the zig-zag ridges of the hills; skeletal trees devoid of all their green tresses giving an ominous welcome to the passengers; and above all the long array of hills, devoid of any trace of vegetation, standing stoically like large mounds of soil – all these provided much delight to my senses.
The divine chariot which incarnated in the form of State Bus
As I was soaking myself in the sensory delights of the journey, I happened to see that mind-blowing sight through the window of the bus. One of those rare sights in the world which genuinely takes away your breath; which makes your heart swell with awe and astonishment. That it was totally unexpected and uninformed added to the intensity of the bliss. Deep down there, I could see two rivers, flowing through rocky ridges, joining and flowing as one single river. One of them was crystal green in colour. The other one in a brownish earthy colour. Both of them joins and flows down, retaining the earthy colour. That was Devprayag!
The green river is Bhagirathi, which originates from the Gangotri glacier. The other one is Alakananda, which has a muddy colour due to its high sediment content. Both of them unite at Devprayag, and from here onwards the river is called ‘Ganga’. So technically speaking, Devprayag is the originating point of Ganga.
Like Devprayag, there are five more prayag( confluence) upstream Alakananda. Rudraprayag, Karanprayag, Vishnuprayag and Nandaprayag were various rivers unite with River Alakananda.
The mandir at the Sangam
It is saddening to see the green colour of Bhagirathi getting lost in the earthy waters of Alakananda. Bhagirathi flows with a lot of vigour and passion; its roaring sound could be heard even from kilometer away; whereas, Alakananda is more peaceful and composed in its flow. However, after their union, Ganga flows with passionately and vigorously. Thus, Ganga takes birth at Devprayag and flows down with the complexion of Alakananda and the composure of Bhagirathi.
Ganesh Maharaj Baba
That night I stayed in Devprayag. Unlike in Haridwar, I had no difficulty in finding rooms. I got a small, lovely cheap room overlooking Bhagirathi river. Next morning, I got up early to feel the dawn’s ambience in Devprayag.
A street in Devprayag
A suspension bridge over Alakananda
After roaming around that small sleepy town, I went to the temple at the sangam point. As I was loitering around there, I happened to befreind a curious character – a baba, sanyasi.
That sanyasi came near me and asked about me. He said that he had been seeing me since yesterday and was curious to know more about me!! As I started speaking he asked me whether I was from Madras( caught by the accent). I said yes. And I also told him my name as ‘Srinivas’. ‘Srinivas Iyer’!!. I don’t know what made me act under a fictitious indentity. Anyway, it happened so. And I told him that I was an advocate practictising at the Supreme Court and was on a pilgrimage to Badrinath!.
Entrapped in my web of lies, the sanyasi invited me to his ‘home’. Not exactly a ‘home’.It’s a cave on the banks of Ganga. A cool, damp, dark cave with water dripping from itsroofs. The sanyasi started talking. Though he seemed to be living an ascetic life, he wasin the know of the happenings of the world. He ranted on and on about the recentpolitical developments, judiciary, fate of nation etc. He skidded easily from one topic toanother with utmost ease. In between he would do names-dropping. He would say heknew Justica so and so, or this minister or this IAS officer etc. Apparently, all of them were his disciples. At times, he would get very stoic in his tone and would philosophiseabout life and universe with abstract thoughts. In short he made a goodconversationalist. But even while talking piously, the baba would suddenly lose histemper and would shower the filthiest abuses at the world at large; and would abuse theTatas and Birlas who pollute Ganga; the foolish devotees who throng at the temple; andthe world at large. In between he kept on telling that he was the Vice-Chancellor of
Ganga University. Slightly unstable indeed!!The sanyasi evaded all my queries about him. He claimed that he had been living therefor past ‘500 years’. After a lot of prodding, he revealed his name. ‘Ganesh MaharajBaba!!’. After conversing a lot for a while, Ganesh baba did a curious thing. He took outa chillum( a conical smoke-pipe made of clay) from his sackbag and filled it with ganja.
Then he lit it up and started smoking. The haunting smell of burning ganja filled thatdamp cave. That maddening smell had followed me even in the streets of Haridwar andRishikesh. Pot-smoking sanyasis are a very common sight in these places. It is another irony that alcohol is not available in these ‘holy’ places and ganja is available at every nook and corner.After a while two more vagabond sanyasis came to the cave. Ganesh baba immediately offered them the burning chilllum and they too inhaled the holy fumes. Like we commoners offering tea or coffee to guests, the sanyasis express their courtsey by offering ganja!!. Then one more sanyasi joined- a foreigner turned sanyasi. He was a German national( I forgot his name. Kohler or something) and he too joined the party ofsmoke. And I was sitting amidst all those crazy people!! A young man clad in teeand jeans sitting amidst saffron clad stoned sanyasis must have been a curious sight to the onlookers.
Ganesh Maharaj Baba
I wanted to leave the place. But Ganesh baba would not leave me without having food.Another disciple of his came to the cave and made rotis and bhindi sabjee and I wasobliged to have them. Yes, the food was very tasty. Before leaving, the baba asked formy phone number and gave him(fictitious ofcourse). I was shocked when the baba tookout the latest model Apple I-phone from his bag to save my number!! There was something really enigmatic about that person. And someday someone will have to attend to the call of Ganesh Baba and respond to queries regarding Srinivas Iyer!!
Anyway, the life style of Baba impressed me. No job, no family, no worries. The devotess of the temple give him liberal offerings and he make a living out of it. He can live his life happily, sitting on the shores of Ganga and smoking his holy fumes.Asceticism seemed to be a very blisfull state of being.
After bidding my farewell to Ganesh baba and to Ganga river, I made plans to return to Delhi. For a while I thought of going further north and visit all the other prayags and Badrinath if possible. But I decided against it. My heart was very content and Devprayag provided a perfect sense of ending. Morevoer, I was running out of cash. So I decided to go back. The return journey was very tedious. It happened to be the Bharat Bandh that day and many bus services to Haridwar got cancelled. After a lot of wait, I finally got a lift in a small tempo-truck and I had the most horrible journey experience in my life. I had to sit on the metal floor, crammed in between other passengers. The sun was blazing at 45 degrees and the tempo driver was the worst driver I had ever come across. Severely dehydrated and nausetic, I managed to reach Haridwar after a three hour long mad journey. Upon reaching Haridwar, I took my final dip in Ganga and all my travel-lag disappeared in a moment. With a heavy heart, I bid adieu to her. Ganga- flowing peacefully carrying the sins of men and pollutants of cities in her womb without any complaints. When will I get to meet her again? If time and money permits, one day I would undertake a journey, chasing Ganga. Right from its beginning at Gangotri, through all the holy prayags, through the holy ghats of Haridwar and Varanasi, thorugh the Gangetic plains of UP and
Bihar, through Bengal where it splits into Hooghly, and through Bangladeh where it flows as Padma and then as Meghna after joining Jamuna and ends it long journey at the Bay of Bengal. So till my ‘Chasing Ganga’ plan materializes, she will have to wait for me. Wait sweetheart, wait.
It is said that there is only a thin line of difference between foolhardiness and adventure, which becomes clear only after the result of the act is known. Though my unplanned trip was inherently an absurd idea,prompted by joblessness and dictated by casualness, it turned out to be a memorable adventure due to the positive results, for which I cannot take any credit. I was a mere reactionary to favourable circumstances. Impulsiveness and ad-hocism were the hallmarks of my trip. And yes, lady luck blessed me a lot throughout my journey. The intensity of desires and sincerity of intentions created some favourable circumstances and I merely reacted to them. Being reactive, instead of being pro-active has largely been my approach to life and that reflected in the trip too.
Before the start of the trip, I found myself to be in the shoes of Chrsitopher McCandles. Someone wanting to experience the passion and independence of youth all alone with a sense of abandon. Upon reaching Devprayag, I felt impressed with the life style of Ganesh Baba. Someone unburdened with the worries of mainstream life and someone who could afford to philosophise of life sitting in its galleries. But now I dismiss both the said modes of existence. I don’t want to be an escapist like Christopher McCandles and experience absolute independence; just to persih unknown and earn posthumous glory. Nor do I want to float in fumes like Ganesh Baba and live in abstaractions. Life has to be lived through concrete deeds; and not in abstract philosophies.
I know, a tough and competitive world is awaiting me. And a ruthless and selfish society is too awaiting me with its chains; to curb by freedom and creative spirit. But I don’t want to run away. I will face it and will make my way through it. My trip, if at all it was anything, was actually an ordeal by fire for me; and I emerged unscathed; and filled me with courage and resolve. The unknown is not to be feared; but to be known and mastered. True happiness is shared happiness and it happens only through fulfilling one’s karma. Solitude and self-indulgece is good; but only at intervals. One can’t make them one’s permamanent state of being. Life, here I come, with the blessings of Ganga