This is one of the more unusual articles that I have written in my 31 years as a professional journalist. The series it introduces, “Postcards from the Edge,” will describe experiences, people, and perspectives on the edge of the mundane and supra-mundane life. This is a frontier separating everyday life and the renunciation of ascetics in the upper Himalayas.
The ancient Himalayan gateway town of Rishikesh exists as such a dividing edge between the mundane world and renouncing the world. Rishikesh is the last stop in the Garhwal Himalayas for adventure-tourism companies, Taj and Lemon Tree luxury resorts, Maruti, Tata and Hyundai car showrooms, multinational pizza and cappuccino chains, waffles and Black Forest cake bakers, dotting the road from Kailash Gate market to Ram Jhula, Laxman Jhula and Tapovan.
From Mumbai, I have visited Rishikesh often more than once a year since 2005, except the past two pandemic-plagued years. Rishikesh is my Himalayan base to practice Vipassana meditation in the upper Himalayas, a part of unforgotten memories.
I was in Rishikesh in 2011 when India won the Cricket World Cup in Mumbai. I was here when I received e-mailed news of the early passing away of Tony Allison, then editor of Asia Times and a gem of a human being.
“Lucky fish,” Tony would say when I informed him I was in the Himalayas, in his typically two-to-five-word e-mails. This series is partly a tribute to his memory – remembering his kind-hearted generosity, those happy days of writing, with him at the helm near the sunny beaches of Hua Hin, Thailand.
I found a different pandemic-battered Rishikesh since December, in contrast to the past two decades. A severe, unusually cold winter made life worse. A tourism-dependent local economy was left tottering on the edge without tourists, particularly Western tourists.
Rishikesh in December-January usually looks like a United Nations town, with visitors from dozens of countries. It looked more like wintry Kashmir in northern India: heavily wrapped-up pedestrians, tea vendors with tin drums of blazing wood fires to warm cold hands. Paradise was the early-morning hot tea and the embracing warmth of the noontime sun.
This year I have a different Himalayan base to practice Vipassana meditation, before leaving for the upper Himalayas. I live in the forest near the village of Lodsi high up in the Garhwal Himalayas 25 kilometers beyond Rishikesh.
From here I have a spectacular view of the River Ganga (Ganges) flowing about 300 meters below, with misty clouds below eye-level floating past mountains.
I wrote most of this article in the home of Sanjay Singh Mahar, 27, and his cousins Rakesh Singh and newly married Mukesh. Their hospitable family has origins in Rajasthan, a state with which my life is connected. After 10 days with Sanjay’s family this January, I have since called their house open to donor guests as “Be Happy! Himalayan Stay.”
“Be Happy!” was the blessing in English from my Vipassana teacher Most Compassionate Sayagyi U Goenka (1924-2013). “Be Happy” is with which notices are signed in Dhamma Giri, in Igatpuri near Mumbai, and Vipassana centers worldwide.
The cycle of history is returning with more serious practitioners of Vipassana wanting to meditate in the Himalayas. It’s a significant development for India and the world. The Himalayas serve as a unique distributing radiator of good vibrations for all beings.
After the “Be Happy!” stay, my current and temporary residential address is a sturdy tent belonging to friends, in the forest below the Mahar home. A few villagers pass by the pathway nearby during the day; in the night perhaps tree spirits and protector devas (gods) in Uttarakhand, the northern Indian state with the official tagline Dev Bhoomi (Land of the Gods).
Life in a solitary forest tent, which becomes very cold at night, especially on rainy nights; a hot meal once in two or three days; and bathing out in the cold mountain air with icy water may not be easy – but becomes ideal for a meditator who has chosen such a life to work seriously in solitude.
Pain barriers have to be crossed for quality in every field. But physical discomforts are more than compensated with the mental comfort, the strange but strong happiness experienced when coming out of comfort zones.
Last month, my school friend Raj Dharmaraj sent me an image (shown at left) about leaving comfort zones – and go beyond the edge dividing the ordinary and extraordinary.
Contentedly out of comfort zones is another India, a rural Himalayan India of modest ambitions and simple living. Rice and dal (lentils) serve as the staple midday meal – sufficient carbohydrates and proteins for daily duties in higher altitudes.
Life in higher altitudes revolves around bare necessities like minimal cooking. Gas cylinders and firewood, household goods and building materials, the bedroom door and wooden cot – all have to be carried by hand and shoulder for 2 to 4 to 10 kilometers up steep trails. On trails that have city dwellers like me and inexperienced trekkers gasping, panting breathlessly for oxygen, local women and children breezily carry 15-to-25-kilogram head loads of firewood and cattle fodder.
Plans are afoot to turn into a road the forest pathway leading to the national highway. The much-needed road with streetlights will bring life in Lodsi to another edge: easier transportation for people and goods, more development and prosperity, but with it the precipice of greed and endless craving – a precipice into which Rishikesh has fallen during the past 10 years.
The costs of writing this article were donated by the Class of 1985, Don Bosco, Egmore; the series is in association with Red Chilli Adventure, Rishikesh. Raja Murthy has been a Mumbai-based contributor to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and earlier for The Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com, The Hindu and others.