- A HITCH-HIKER'S TALE'
An account of hitch-hiking from England to Europe,
North Africa, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan & India in 1970
by Paul Mason
© Paul Mason 2004, 2006
Chapter 17 - AT THE ROOTS OF THE MOUNTAINS
A stray beam of sunlight glances across my face, gently waking me. The stillness of the room counters my urge to rouse my fellow traveller. At length though she stirs and smiles softly as she spies me gazing at her.
'What a lovely bed, pure luxury. I haven't slept so well in ages,' Yolanda announces, languishing contentedly.
When we sort ourselves out and are ready to leave, we search out the servant who we find downstairs resting on a mattress.
'We go now.' I announce, 'Thank you. The card please, we need the card.'
He looks uncertain.
'The card please!' I demand, making the shape of the card with my hands.
Hesitantly he lifts his pillow and passes me Vijay's business card before taking to his feet and going to unfasten the front door. He stands courteously placing the palms of his slender hands together and bowing his head, so I do likewise and then pick up our bags to leave. From the road outside comes the sound of the tinkling of a bicycle bell. Hurrying to the doorway we are in time to catch sight of a Western couple astride their three-wheeler bikes pedalling at an urgent pace, their loose clothes billowing out most comically.
'I wonder if they're staying with the Maharishi?' Yolanda suggests.
'It's possible I suppose. Let's get going shall we?'
A short walk soon finds us in the centre of Hardwar where we tread the wide walkways, bringing us to numerous ornate and attractively painted temples. A notice on some railings informs us that we stand before 'The Footprint of Lord Vishnu'. Stopping here also affords a panoramic view of the distant hills. My heart rejoices realising that we will shortly be in sight of the Himalayas proper. Onward we walk, stopping only to gain directions from a small office of the National Tourist Bureau.
Reaching the Rishikesh road it is soon evident that hitchhiking is not an option for there are no private cars. Instead we just put our best foot forward but venture no great distance before finding an excuse to stop, for standing in the shadow by the road's mossy grey rock wall an old man rests himself against a boulder beside a gurgling stream.
There is something familiar about him, the bald head and broken John Lennon type glasses tied on with string perched on his wrinkled nose. His skin hangs in leathern folds, a white thread diagonally across his chest. Bunched up sheeting clings round his bandy legs, dusty feet poked into over-sized scratched shiny black lace-up shoes. He holds before him a tray of snacks that he has strapped to him after the manner of cinema usherettes. Curiosity concerning his unfamiliar wares forces me over to try first one, then another, then another of each kind of snack. The snacks vary in price but all less than the equivalent of an English penny. Soon I have sampled his entire range of savouries, samosa, pakora, bel puri and many others, including a puffball containing water. For reasons better known to herself, Yolanda does not indulge, contented just to watch.
Narrowly missing us, a single-decker coach grinds and swerves around the corner. We jump up and gesture. Luckily it stops and I find that Vijay our patron has got it just right. His fifty-rupee gift pays for the fares to Rishikesh with only paisa to spare. But the fact that since our arrival in India we have not yet got a 'proper' lift worries me.
I ask Yolanda about the quaint little man back in Hardwar.
'Gandhi, he looked just like Mahatma Gandhi,' she opines.
'The very man!' I marvel.
The bus journey is pleasant enough with the verdant tree clad slopes of the hills constantly uplifting my eyes. They vanish from view as we arrive at a small market town. Turning off the road the bus pulls to a halt at the Rishikesh Bus Stand.
Alighting I seek out someone to point out the way to Maharishi's abode.
'English no speak,' a bystander explains. 'You are Tourist Office go.' All the while pointing down the road.
We find the building easily enough and after scaling the outside staircase we enter a darkened room. The ascent of the very steep stairs leaves us puffed, wheezing and coughing and we are temporarily blinded by the almost total absence of light. From some distant corner of the office arises a voice, a cultured voice, only faintly audible.
'Yes please, what it is I can do for you? Please, come take seat. Yes you sir. Yes kind lady.'
As my eyes grow accustomed to the unlit room I notice a young man sidling over to us. Slowly, almost ceremoniously he shows us around his office pointing out the piles of brochures, the map stuck on the wall. He shows the visitor's book. He then slumps back in his chair after his exertions and peers over at us from behind his desk. At his repeated request we too sit down and small talk with him awhile. Of a sudden comes a flash of sunlight from the doorway and through it enters a visitor. He greets us enthusiastically.
'Good morning, how are you? Where are you coming from, France, Germany?'
'England actually,' I answer not without pride. 'I say. Could you leave the door open please?'
'This is good! No problem! You want tea? You come from London?'
'Proper London,' I answer (somewhat tongue in cheek), and ask, 'Do you mind if we smoke?'
'You like sigrat?' He produces a pack of 'Wills' (expensive cigarettes) and offers them around.
After smoking one of his cigarettes I slowly get up from the chair and indicate our intention to leave.
'You need horse tanga. Maharishi Ashram is too much distance,' informs the official. Turning to his colleague he says with an air of authority, 'Please find tanga for our friends.'
Without word he sets off on his errand and soon returns. The horse and carriage taxi awaits us below.
Bidding our farewells to the Rishikesh Tourist Office we descend and climb the up onto the swaying steps of the horse carriage and seat ourselves on a hard wooden bench. The suspension lurches and creaks uneasily. The roguish looking owner of the carriage joins us on the bench and tugging at the smooth leather reins cracks a whip across the hapless horse's mane. Notwithstanding my concern over the creature's welfare, for the driver drives him hard, a feeling of exhilaration floods my senses, increasing with every step of the horse's hooves. The driver beats the horse to go ever faster.
'Don't do that,' I shout above the sound of the galloping hooves.
Grinning and determined, the driver averts his bloodshot eyes and ignores us. Yolanda then shouts at him, but also to no avail.
I scan the way for sign of our destination and I ruminate as we speed along the tree-lined lane with lush hills rising up on all sides, about the Maharishi and his followers. What was their belief system? Would we find that they believe in independence? Do they grow their own vegetables?
A sign points to somewhere named 'Yoga Niketan', probably the barely visible white building set far up the forested left-hand side of the road. That sounds promising, though the tanga slows not a little but continues at a brisk canter. At a forked crossroads we swerve across to the right-hand turning where our driver reins in the panting, frothing horse. There are other horse tangas here stood about and forming a semi-circle, their masters seated atop or reclining in a corner of the yard, talking and puffing at bidees held tightly in clenched fists. Our driver signals for us to get off and climb down. I go to pay him the fare.
'Ek rupee chaar annas,' he calls out gustily and helps himself from the coins displayed in my outstretched hand.
Taking the cluster of buildings beyond to be our destination, we stride forward purposefully but when we arrive we find the doors locked with no sign of life within.
Further down the pathway I catch sight of a well-to-do Indian gent shuffling about aimlessly. Drawing close to him I ask him why everything is shut up.
'They are closed, they are eating no doubt. This is Shivanand Ashram, the Divine Light Society. What do you want here?' he asks softly.
I notice that we now stood close by a sign reading, 'Shivanand Nagar'. I answer the stranger; 'this is not the right place I think. We are looking for the Maharishi.'
'Ah, he is over the river. I too am crossing; I am waiting for ferryboat. You disappointed will be, I am thinking Maharishi at present not there. He now in Europe is.'
But I had only recently entertained the notion of dropping in for a mug of hot chocolate and a chat with the old sage. Therefore I am adamant that this man has got it wrong, I let the conversation drop. Up comes a khaki-clad figure sauntering along the riverside path and produces a large bunch of keys, opens up a post office, the smallest post office I have ever seen.
I should write a letter to Vijay, I think, so I now set about the purchase of an inland letter card alongwith the necessary stamps. The presence of the pot of glue on the counter is explained when I discover the postage stamps have no gum on them. A timelessness fills the air, an easy restful feeling. Through the tranquil silence I sense activity behind me. Turning I notice that a boat has moored at the foot of the wide steps; I hasten down them in order to climb aboard. The long ferryboat rocks gently as Yolanda and I tread its boards, sitting ourselves by our lone fellow traveller.
The blistered paintwork reveals portions of smooth sun bleached timber, my hand absent-mindedly picks at the flaking paint. The ferryman, yanking at the rope tied to the outboard motor, jerks the engine into coughing spluttering life, fumes blast forth from the exhaust pipe. The ferryman's friend unties the mooring line and we are off, puckering the near-still mirror like surface of the water with rushing waves.
Tracing an arc on the waters, the ferry throbs it's way towards the opposite bank, the reflections of the buildings there dance on the river's silvery surface. Jumping athletically from the boat, one of the boatmen makes fast the craft and we step carefully off, wary should our footsteps falter.
'You for some refreshment with me will come,' the Indian gentleman addresses me hopefully.
Unhesitatingly I nod and happily follow him along the concrete path, worn smooth and strewn with glinting sand.
'You like Indian clothes I see,' he remarks to the pair of us. 'Very nice,' he adds with an evident note of satisfaction.
Coming to a narrow walkway bristling with business. Behind the first stall hang many s brightly coloured printed calendars. Our friend from the ferry crossing leads us to a spacious restaurant in front of which are displayed trays of appetising sweetmeats.
'You my friend meet,' says our new friend, introducing us to another gentleman who is eager to shake us both by the hand. 'Also you would like some food?' he offers.
'Thank you no, just Fanta Orange, that will be fine. Thanks.'
So there we all sit before a red alabaster table cooled by the several electric fans that whirl above our heads. An eager young man dressed in soiled whites, a towel draped over his shoulder, takes our order. Waiting for his return we help ourselves to chilled water that is thoughtfully placed on our table along with spotless gleaming stainless steel beakers.
'In Swargashram you will stay?' our friend asks, 'I give you name of place. You will not have money to pay, it is for all pilgrims. You paper give me. For you I write.'
On the back of a leaflet given to us on Buddhist shrines given to us courtesy of the Rishikesh Tourist Bureau, he writes for us the following information; 'Vaid Nikaitan Ashram'.
'I walking that way am. I will show you!'
Walking the path towards the ashram I see for the first time since coming to India, cows, sacred cows wandering loose, idly grazing on weeds and any edible rubbish. Calmly we amble past the structures that line the pathway, buildings of white trimmed with deepest pink, containing numerous rooms and sporting grand entrance places, the signs tell us we are passing Gita Bhavan and Parmath Niketan. On the other side of the walkway, backing on to the river is the odd teahouse, shops selling wares such as cloth and vegetables. Past these shops is the clocktower, of the same reddish rusty pink stone, topped by an onion shaped dome. Beyond this, the River Ganges comes into view again and across it, at some goodly distance, the sleepy town of Rishikesh.
'I must here leave you,' announces our guide apologetically. 'Your ashram a little further is, on banks of Mother Ganga. May you benefit from your stay here, very holy place it is, much peace you will find. When to Maharishi's ashram you go, walk on, not far into the jungle it is.'
I like the sound of that! Jungle eh?
The feeling of well-being that I have sensed since my arrival in Rishikesh forges in me a determination to make the most of this opportunity of respite from our endless travels. I make up my mind to stay here a while, maybe as long as a month. My only hopes are that we will find lodgings and be met with a warm reception.
The buildings and the pathway simultaneously peter out; I pause to take in the scene. Ahead of us but still some way off is a cluster of low flat-roofed buildings that I take to be our hoped-for resting-place. Beyond these buildings are ranged the thickly wooded slopes of the hills and to the right are spread the impressive sun-drenched silvery sands and sparkling waters of the Ganges.
Deep drifts of sand slows our progress but the views and the constant music of birdsong dispels any fatigue I might have felt.
As we arrive near to the buildings, a lady garbed in faded orange cloth walks towards us. Of slight stature and short hair, she has an air of peacefulness, perhaps even holiness about her countenance and demeanour. However, for the first time since our arrival on this side of the river, anxiety besets me. Behind this lady and definitely in awe of her walk a small group of people, resembling a shadow. Their presence is not lost on the lady who strolls forward with an air of self-importance, that I find slightly offensive. Establishing eye contact with me, she hesitates as if reading my thoughts.
No great lover of game-play I immediately seek to break through the phony baloney.
'There is room here?' I ask.
'English nahin,' she whines spinning her petite hands in a flurry.
A studious looking Indian gent spoke forth:
'What it is you are wanting?' he inquires.
I show him the scrawled name of the ashram, which is writ clearly on the leaflet just above a depiction of the crossed-legged Buddha;
'There is room here?' I repeat.
Maybe she understands my words, for the lady of orange grips me by the arm and pulls me forwards, first past one row of doorways and then past another. Pushing open a slatted door she ushers me inside a small room.
'Ek rupee,' she states loudly, clasping her hand upward to reveal one waving finger.
I falter for a moment, we have been told that accommodation would be free, but who were we to argue? There was no bed and no furniture here, just an empty cell of a room.
'Bed?' I enquire. 'Something to sleep on? A lock, we also need a padlock.'
'Nahin, Nahin ... Lock nahin. Lock Rishikesh men.' her high-pitched voice soaring ever higher.
At this she shoots away as agile as a young fawn. The cluster of 'fans' who have been watching the proceedings now disperse and presumably go off about their business. Yolanda and I wait in the room. We wait and we wait. Eventually the lady returns carrying two thin mats of rush, which she dramatically throws to the floor as if anxious to be rid of their weight, before turning on her heel and is off again.
'She's a holy woman isn't she?' Yolanda asks in a hushed and bemused tone after our landlady has quite disappeared from view.
'She didn't give us a padlock,' comes my thoughtful reply.
We settle down to the task of laying down the mats, unrolling our sleeping bags and extracting towels and toiletries from the rucksack.
'Let's look the Maharishi up,' I suggest, 'I do hope he's in.'
After closing the door, I jam a stick in the iron clasp, a symbol of our wish to lock the room. Through a low wooden gate and past a small but well-planted vegetable patch our path takes us straight into the jungle where the sunshine struggles to penetrate the dense foliage. Creepers wind themselves up the trunks of the many tall trees that line our way. The sounds of wild animals and birds, the variety of colour, so many shades of greens and browns, along with the sweet smell of the undergrowth fairly intoxicates my senses. Abruptly the path brings us into a clearing. Only with difficulty can we venture forth for all around us fluttered butterflies, hundreds of exquisitely patterned butterflies engulfing us and fairly blocking our way.
The jungle from here on becomes ever less dense. We halt at the remains of an ancient building. On the smooth grey-stone foundations are strewn the remains crumbling walls on which cling splendid mossy growths. I stand amongst the ruins and try to imagine what the stonework once formed. A temple perhaps for the spot feels special, as though it might have some rudimentary sort of awareness of its own. Close by is a corrugated-metal hut near which stands a group horned white cows grazing, lowing softly and glancing up as we pass. With no path to guide us we now hesitate. Maybe we should go back, or then again maybe we should walk on just a little bit further.
'Can you hear the monkeys?' Yolanda asks softly.
'I think so, but I haven't seen any yet,' I answer.
' Just at the point of deciding to postpone our visit I catch sight of a low stone wall in the distance and head for it only to find affixed to a overhanging tree, a notice proclaiming; 'Shankaracharya Nagar, Spiritual Regeneration Movement, under the guidance of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi'.
There is a steep path cut into hillside, reinforced with staves of wood. The climb proves interminable and difficult, we clutch at the low stone walls to the side of the path to make the going that much easier. Periodically we stop to regain our breath but after climbing upward for some time, we at last we make it to the top. There is a white fence inset with a gate upon which is a notice; 'JAI GURU DEVA - PLEASE NO SMOKING'.
There are sounds of building work coming beyond. Therefore we take the left-hand path instead; past several simple and pleasing looking buildings. There is another sign in white paint on a wooden pointer nailed to a tree, 'OFFICE' it reads.
A knock at the door pays off. A European dressed in white shirt, casual trousers and open sandals opens the door. He stands silently before us, his eyes full with curiosity.
After introducing ourselves I state the purpose of our visit.
'We've come to see the Maharishi,' I say simply.
'He is in Canada since some weeks,' he answers me eyeing me quizzically all the while.
'That's amazing Yolanda. We come all across the world and come to see him and he goes off to Canada. Is he due back soon?' I ask the man.
'That I can't say. Whereabouts are you staying?'
'Ved Nika something, down by the Ganges.'
'Yes I know it. Tell me, do you meditate?'
I think for a moment and then answer shyly.
'Well.. , yes, I suppose so. The journey from England has been a meditation.'
Evidently my answer does not please him. Frowning darkly he asks if I have been taught to meditate. Though I suspect that this is an attempt to belittle me, I admit that I haven't. His expression rapidly clears; he begins to radiate a warmth not evident before.
'Perhaps you would like to talk with someone, you could come back tomorrow. In the meantime take this to read, you might find it of interest,' he suggests handing me a pamphlet.
'The Beatles, they came here a couple of years ago?' I ask.
'Beatles?' he asks, frowning for a moment. 'Yes, that's right, they were here,' he adds distractedly.
He doesn't seem too interested in the Fabs, a generation-gap problem I suppose.
I turn my attention to my fellow traveller:-
'Let's get back now Yolanda, we haven't had a proper meal yet today.'
'Then come back tomorrow, say mid-afternoon, if you can't find me ask here at the office, Andreas, Andreas Müller.' he repeats.
'Thanks we'll be back.' I assure him before turning to find our way back to our accommodation.
With no wish to lose ourselves in the surrounding jungle we keep strictly to the paths that brought us to the Maharishi's ashram. Coming again to the steps we take them in leaps and bounds and soon find ourselves again in sight of the sandy bank of the river. Here I pull off my sandals.
'The sand feels amazingly soft doesn't it?' Yolanda observes and then with some concern, 'Paul, your feet look really sore. Still they'll soon heal up, new shoes always take a while to break in, mine really hurt at first.'
Nice to know she cares.
Instead of going back to our room just yet we decide instead to make for the restaurant, back in Swargashram village.
'I hope they've got vegetable pilao,' Yolanda exclaims excitedly in anticipation. 'Oh look, look at that dog, isn't he sweet? He's just like my dog Titi back in Italy.' she proclaims in an animated voice as she stoops over a tail wagging mongrel, all too grateful of her attention. The sound of cloven hoofs diverts my attention.
'But look at the cows, it's so nice to see them walking free, see how noble they are, they look healthy too don't they?' I ponder.
Ambling along, soaking up the peace and tranquility of this holy village beats the noise and clamour we have encountered in Delhi. The local people here seem so very friendly too, smiling at us warmly, sometimes even bowing their heads. Of the people we pass a good half of them wear robes. Occasionally the robes are white but more usually of a variety of shades of ochre.
Rediscovering the little street and the restaurant we had earlier visited, we stride in and wait to be served. Menus are thrust into our hands, which list lots of interesting sounding foods but do not include Yolanda's sought after dish.
'This sounds like it. Peas pilao.' I suggest, 'What do you think?'
'Yes. Okay. But just look at that picture over there, the picture of the boy,' Yolanda says in an embarrassed whisper.
I look over at the wall to which she was pointing, at the photograph of a corpulent boy wearing nothing but a loincloth, a wide grin on his heavily made up face and a very fancy hairdo. A projection of long hair forming a long spike stood at the crown of his head.
'S-s-s strange!' I hiss.
Next to this picture are others, framed hand tinted colour photographs, stills from Indian films, all of the same actor. I turn back to Yolanda; she looks relaxed, even beautiful. Her thoughtful brown eyes, unusually alive and shining. So much of our journey we have travelled side by side, now facing her stirs a realisation that though we have been together we have been paying but scant attention to one another. Our food arrives.
With a pinch of pepper and a liberal sprinkling of salt, the pilao tastes simply delicious, piping hot and tasty, we finish every morsel.
'Mmmmm that was scrumptious. Almost like vegetable pilao at the Eagle in Delhi,' Yolanda states, a compliment indeed.
When the waiter returns to gather up our plates and the steel water he asks: -
'You want sweets? Barfi? Jelabi? Gulab jamun?'
Neither of us knew what he means, so we instead opt for a hot drink instead.
'Hot milk please,' Yolanda requests.
When it arrives Yolanda claps her hands together with glee.
'Lovely lovely, it's got the thick creamy milk on top. I love it like this,' she confides scooping off the froth with a teaspoon.
Supper over, we pay up and leave and slowly make our way back to the ashram. On the way we halt at an enclosure to the side of the path, containing a group of colourful statue figures, surrounded by a pool of water lay in which countless coins have been deposited. We add a few of our own, pressing them through the netting.
'Do you know the meaning of this?' a voice asks. 'It is the story of creation. Here the blue skinned Lord Vishnu lies on the many-headed snake Ananta Shesha while Mahavishnu's consort Lakshmi Devi attends him. From his belly rises a lotus flower in which sits the god Brahma, the god of creation, holding the holy Vedas the most ancient of Holy Scriptures. There worshipping Mahavishnu, Garuda the eagle.'
'Those two at the back, who are they?' I ask. 'Why has one got a horse's head?'
'That one to the right that looks to be a horse is divine musician, one of Gandarva. The one on the left is sage Narada.'
'Thanks a lot for telling us.'
'You are English?'
'Very good, you are staying where?'
'The ashram just beyond the path here. We arrived today.'
'I am guide here, Mr. Singh. I can show you many things. I can take you to caves where yogis are. Maybe you come to see very holy Swiss lady, she has been in jungle cave for many years. She is very holy person.'
Absorbed with the flow of his words we stand nodding and making appreciative sounds. In point of fact the ideas presented being so new to me, so very different, I have no reference point from which to speak.
'I must go now, we shall see each other again,' he says before promptly disappearing into the buildings nearby.
Taking to the path again we soon arrive back at the ashram. In a doorway sits a lad with long straight corn coloured hair wearing only a piece of cloth tied around his waist and a generous smile.
'Welcome, my name's John.'
Introducing ourselves I ask where he is from and why he is here.
'Southend,' he replies simply.
All at once fractured recollections of daytrips on steam trains with my grandparents tumble into my mind.
'I used to go to Southend when I was young,' I remark.
'So you understand why I'm here then,' he says with an air of finality.
'Mmmmm and you're on your own here are you?'
'My friend Rob is around somewhere, you'll meet him some time; you're staying here aren't you? I caught sight of you earlier.'
'Yes that's right, our room is over there,' says Yolanda pointing, 'Is there such a thing as a toilet about?'
'There is, but you can always go in the jungle,' he points out.
We relieve ourselves squatting amongst the undergrowth, fresh leaves making reasonably effective toilet paper. This getting back-to-nature feels great. I yearn to explore the jungle further, the place throbs with life, insects, birds and from somewhere not far off comes the screech of monkeys accompanied by the sound of rustling leaves and cracking of twigs. What other wild animals lurk deep in the undergrowth? Elephants? Bears? Tigers even?!
I sit down on a tree stump in this enchanting place and recall my disappointment at not meeting with the Maharishi. I fish out the pamphlet that the German has given me. Entitled 'Right and Wrong' it is a curious little message, which seems to be the thinking of the Maharishi. The contents of the pamphlet boil down approximately to this: - Following the rules we believe we will find happiness, but disappointed we sometimes break the rules and find the outcome also to be unhappiness, sometimes.
I am reminded of an instance on Notting Hill Gate railway station in London when I followed the 'No Entry' signs and discovered a shortcut upstairs. I then wondered if I had inadvertently discovered a secret of the universe, that other signs of no entry might lead to shortcuts and more; a philosophy of sorts. I finish reading the text then slowly fold it and slip it in my pocket.
Yolanda's voice rings out, 'Paul are you all right? It's getting dark.'
I stand up, stretch and suddenly feel extraordinarily tired. Returning in the direction of her voice I find her standing in the half-light. She looks relieved to see me.
'Shall we turn in soon?' she asks. 'It's dark and we don't have any proper light in our room.' I discover that she has discovered and lighted two candle stubs, which now flicker uncertainly. After a hurried brush of my teeth at the standing pipe outside, I undress and slip into my sleeping bag on the floor, (not forgetting of course to tuck the passport pouch inside the 'pillow' I make from). I kiss Yolanda goodnight and blow out the flickering candles.
'I hope there are no mosquitoes in here,' Yolanda murmurs 'I thought I saw one earlier.'
'Ah ha,' I yawn, 'Sleep well.'
Chapter 18 - WELL BEYOND THE WORLD
After waking up naturally and doing our ablutions we set about making our room as clean and comfortable as possible. We open the shutters wide and having borrowed a brush, a rudimentary handmade straw effort, we throw a bucket of water across the floor and scrub it from wall to wall. The water drains through a conveniently placed vent, which we afterwards block with a stone to prevent any unwelcome scaled or furry visitors. The warm air soon dries the floor and we then proceed to unpack our rucksack for the first time in almost three months. Two sets of shelves have been built into the plaster walls and on these we place our spare clothing, books and other nick-knacks. I remember how recently the temptation to be rid of them had almost overwhelmed me, how I had almost thrust them into the River Yamuna. I was glad now that I hadn't succumbed.
In the right hand corner of the room about two-foot off the floor, projecting from the wall is a concrete shelf large enough to lie on. I feel sure we are safer on the floor. A fall from that would be enough to crack ones head open.
'Can we go to the shops?' Yolanda asks sounding unusually enthusiastic and efficient. 'We need candles, fruit, a cooking pot and some potatoes, we can't go eating at restaurants all the time you know.'
It is a welcome idea.
'We need another one of those paper packets of Surf, oh and some cigarettes and some shampoo. I could do with a cuppa too,' I chip in.
On the way to the village we meet with John who obligingly explains that we can get our mail sent to the local post office.
'The address is 'Post Restante, Swargashram, Via Rishikesh, Uttar Pradesh, or U.P. for short.'
'Why 'Via Rishikesh'?'
'Because the post comes via Rishikesh?' he suggests quizzically.
We go to pay our rupee rent to the orange lady and find her in an office, a room full of curiosities, statues and pictures. She points to a large wooden box marked 'Donations', whereupon I push a blue rupee note into the slot.
Our trip to the village not only yields the desired items of shopping but also the chance for a much-needed glass of tea and toast (long and narrow, ideal for dunking).
Later, remembering our commitment to return to the academy on the hill, - we arrive to find Andreas working in the office alongside a beaming and hirsute Indian dressed in a spotless white cotton robe. Andreas smiles expansively and directs us up the path.
'Just keep walking up there and you will come to some rooms. You want to speak to Bevan Morris, a young Australian. He knows you're coming.'
Out of his sight Yolanda and I exchange grimaces.
'First a German, now an Australian,' I complain. 'I would much prefer to talk to an Indian, wouldn't you?' to which Yolanda readily agrees.
To one side of the path are water tanks, one built higher than the next, a sort of waterfall but at present disused and clogged with silt and twigs. We come upon to a line of buildings from which a figure draped in white steps out.
He greets us pressing his palms together, almost religiously. 'Hello, you must be Paul, and you Yolanda. Do step into my room and sit down, my name is Bevan,' he says slipping off his flip-flop sandals.
'Pleased to meet you,' I mumble.
I can't take my eyes off him; it is as if I was having some sort of revelation. All the religious books I'd seen in my childhood had cemented an impression as to how he would look, Jesus that is. Shoulder length black wavy hair and long beard, white flowing robe and that certain look in his eyes, humble, compassionate, yet strong and dependable.
We listen with interest as he tells us a little of his beliefs, of which the most compelling is that 'Psychology tells us that we use only a small portion of our conscious mind, no more than fifteen per cent. Maharishi shows us how we can harness the full potential of our minds and live in bliss,' he reassures us.
I hang upon his every word as he tells us more about his beliefs; his voice is soft and gentle, his words always reassuring. When at length he asks if we have any questions, I find it almost impossible to speak. However, I try. 'You say it is easy, so why aren't more people using their whole minds?' I ask, stumbling on my words.
'Simply they have not received this teaching. Now whatever it is that we already enjoy, we will enjoy more. When we listen to music, we hear much, much more. Our enjoyment is maximum.'
All the while Yolanda stays mute whilst wearing a look of rapt amazement, almost devotion in her eyes. Evidently for her too Bevan seems a truly remarkable person.
A shout from outside followed by a knocking at the door interrupts Bevan who excuses himself and goes to an adjoining room. When after several minutes he comes back and gently resumes his position, sitting crossed legged on the rug, I ask him if everything is all right.
'Only a snake in their room,' he answers matter-of-factly.
'I hope you didn't have to kill it,' I respond. Yolanda gives a nod.
'That wasn't necessary. I removed it with a stick and placed it out of the window.'
I am impressed by the way he is so calm and collected when most people would get into a complete state in the same circumstances. I am also curious to find out who the other Europeans are, who are staying here.
'I think we saw some people from here when we were in Hardwar, they were riding on tricycles,' I tell him.
It transpires that this is the same couple that is having trouble with the snake; they are due to leave the next day.
When Bevan rounds up the chat he informs us; 'Andreas would like you to see him before you go. I hope we meet again soon,' he adds with evident sincerity.
When Andreas catches sight of us he sidles up and asks what we think.
'Think about what?' I wonder.
'You can be initiated tomorrow morning, come at ten o'clock. Be sure to bring some fruit, some flowers and a new white handkerchief'.
'I don't think I know what initiation is,' says Yolanda breaking her silence.
'Tomorrow all will be explained. Either Bevan or myself will talk to you again. Come here to my cottlage at ten o'clock. Incidentally don't take any breakfast tomorrow,' he tells us.
On the walk back I puzzle about what we have heard I puzzle too at the pronunciation of cottage, perhaps this is the Indian or German form of the word. I puzzle not least as to why we must forgo our breakfast, though we have long since forgotten about such niceties as regular meals, least of all full breakfast.
We do not hurry ourselves. We walk slowly and at the bottom of the hill we meet with an elderly Indian couple.
'Friends hello, are you disciples,' (pronounced dis-sip-pals) 'of Maharishi Ji?'
'Are we? I don't know. Maybe? We must go now, maybe we'll meet again.' I answer vaguely.
That evening after gathering some firewood from the jungle (a task I discover I relish) I light a fire in the rusty brazier outside and we boil some potatoes. Having no plates or cutlery, we must eat the salty vegetables off a plastic bag with a penknife, trying hard not to stab ourselves in the process. After sitting some moments and smoking our cigarettes by the light of the candle, we watch as our shadows dance about. How wonderful it is to be here near the jungle in this holy village near the River Ganges, in our own room. Our cosy sleeping bags await us it is not long before we blow out the candle to enjoy an early nights sleep.
I awake to an unfamiliar jingling sound - loud snorting, and the noise of hooves scrunching on gravel. I lie here just coming-to and puzzling over the sounds. Getting up I open the shutters and look between the bars that separate us from the jungle, enjoying the sunshine, feeling the fresh air on my face.
'What was all that noise?' asks a sleepy voice.
'I don't know, I didn't see anything, it sounded like an animal didn't it?'
Yolanda agrees and now joins me at the window.
'Are we going to Rishikesh today?' she pleads. 'You said we would go yesterday. I'd like to see the shops there. The ones over this side don't sell much in the way of new vegetables.'
'Sure, I want to go there too.'
After freshening up and tidying our room we set off with the intention of catching the ferry over to Rishikesh. The path into Swargashram seems busier than usual and for the first time I notice beggars to whom I lose a little change. A group of people stand outside one of the big buildings near to the riverfront, the Gita Bhavan' and near them sit vendors selling little pellets of food wrapped in cones of newspaper.
Moving as one the waiting Indians descend the steps to the river. A ferryboat scuds towards them.
In a flash I remember that we are meant to be elsewhere!
'Yolanda. What about the fruit, the flowers? Andreas Müller?'
Yolanda's hand clasps at her mouth.
'Oh my God. Yes we'd better hurry. Where can we get flowers here? I don't think they sell them.'
After buying some bananas. I enquire at a stall nearby which sells jars of honey, peanut butter and medicines. 'Handkerchief? Where to buy handkerchief?'
Directed to a cloth shop I ask there but receive only further disappointment. But sensing my frustration the owner shows us a bale of white cloth and makes as if to tear some off.
'Better than nothing,' I answer him. 'Yes okay. Shoukria,' I add, a word I picked up in Pakistan meaning 'Thank you'.
As we look for other shops where we might buy the other things, Yolanda points out: -
'It's too late to look for flowers now, let's get up there quick or we'll be late,'
The steps, difficult enough to climb at any time, prove even harder to climb today. Miraculously though we make it to the 'cottlage' in the gee nick of time. Andreas responds to our knock at the door, coming to the door clutching a file of papers.
'I have done no teaching of late, I'm a bit rusty,' he explains with a far away look upon his face. 'Please wait for me I won't be long.'
'We have the fruit but we couldn't find any flowers,' I confess.
His brow creases and he stares into the sky.
'Then pick some from this garden. You have handkerchiefs though?'
We nod obediently.
As we gather a few delicate blooms from the rocky beds, a calm falls on the garden. We are like children in a fairytale wood, butterflies flitting about, birds watching us from the trees. Time stands still.
A footstep behind me tells that Andreas has rejoined us.
'Good, you have the flowers. Would you both come with me? We will go to the bungalow.'
He leads us up a path; a hedge-bordered neatly swept dry soil path that leads to a newly constructed building. Just before the 'bungalow' the path continues a low bridge and through a garden boasting a lotus pond skirted by grassy lawns.
'Here are your forms.' He announces with an efficient air. 'I would like you both to fill them in. Do you have pens?'
I rummage deep in Yolanda's black suede shoulder bag and find us both a usable pen each. The forms, academy registration forms, ask many questions. After the usual name address and age come others ones concerning health, what spiritual literature one has read. Regarding the latter I include the Bible for one and Christian Science's Mary Baker-Eddy's book 'Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures'.
When we have completed the forms Andreas talks in turn to us on a one-to-one basis. His patient and interested attention l find flattering.
'Are you sure you wish to learn?' he asks quite suddenly. 'Are you sure you are serious? You know that one prerequisite for learning your technique is to be abstaining from drugs?'
What a cheek he has! I have spent so much of my time searching for the truth and here is this German doubting my suitability to learn these teachings.
'I have never been more ready. We gave up drugs ages ago before leaving England,' I answer emphatically.
'In that case which of you would like to receive their technique first?' he inquires with a smile. 'Incidentally, normally a donation of one weeks wages is offered but in your case I think it can wait until your return to England.'
He slips off his sandals and we follow his example. Courtesy requires that I allow Yolanda to learn her 'technique' ahead of me. The two of them disappear down a staircase and I am left alone to contemplate. The longer I wait the more uncomfortable I start to become. Suspicion begins to rage within me. What if this man's intentions are less than pure? Perhaps right at this moment he is making unwelcome advances towards my girlfriend. I can't help but wonder what is going on? But I control an urge to peep through the fanlight window.
Instead I force myself to think of something else, I try to relax. Looking about me and espying some easy chairs I decide to sit on one. Something stirs in my memory. Didn't I once see a photograph of this very terrace? The recollected image settles in my mind. Yes, I think it was Paul McCartney who sat reclining right here. I strum my fingers on the arm of the chair and nestle back comfortably losing myself in the hum of nature. No sounds emerge from downstairs; I take this as a positive sign, for I assume that Yolanda would shout out if she found herself in trouble.
So it seems that we have come here to learn to meditate. But what was all this meditation stuff? I recall that when I was about eleven years old I had asked Bashir an Indian boy in our class at school how people meditated. He replied willingly stating involved closing ones eyes and thinking about something, a cow perhaps. I was intrigued but did not pursue the idea thinking it unlikely that such action could produce much result. Much later I had once experimented trying to 'clear my mind of thoughts' and to that end stared intently at a candle to see if I felt any different. I did. Quite emptied, not at all an uplifting experience.
A click of a door opening and then the sight of Yolanda's head rising from the stairwell cause in me a wave of relief.
'He wants you to go down now,' Yolanda confides, her manner distant and withdrawn, a slight smirk playing on her lips.
I fairly bound down the stairs and find my feet sinking into the deep pile carpet as I enter the dimly lit room.
'Please, the offerings,' he says extending his arms for me to give the piece of cloth, bananas and flowers, 'Sit down if you would, make yourself comfortable.'
Checking that the door is firmly closed he moves to the end of the room and places the 'offerings' on a tabletop. The table resembles an altar with candles burning, little brass objects and a vase containing fresh-cut flowers, all on a pure white linen cloth. Behind the table resting against the wall is an oil painting of an aged crossed legged Indian, attired in an orange robe, hands clasped, his austere expression framed by long grey hair and bushy white beard gazes out benignly.
Andreas busies himself at this table, now lighting a stick of incense, now moving his hands slowly about. Dipping a flower in a tureen of water he sprinkles the droplets on the fruit and on the handkerchief. Lighting a dish of camphor he rotates it gently and sings to himself in a deep low voice. Snatches of sound float across the room to me, melodious and strange, though I can't quite catch the words.
Sat on a foam mattress and leaning against another I watch this strange spectacle. At length Andreas seats himself opposite me, becoming motionless, his eyes closing. I watch him with increasing interest as his mouth begins to twitch. He then proceeds to repeatedly intone something, ever increasing in volume until the sound fairly fills the room. He then opens his eyes and asks me to repeat these words, first with my eyes open and then to myself with them closed. I do as I am asked and sit there, back straight, chanting the sounds within my mind.
'Slowly open the eyes,' a voice says, it is Andreas of course.
He then asks me to say the sounds out loud again, he urges me to repeat them.
He seems satisfied, and explains to me that these are special sounds that emanate from a very subtle level of creation, that they can connect me with the very source of sound, of Being, that some call God.
'Now sitting comfortably close the eyes,' he directs me.
Though I do as he says, I can't help wondering where this is all leading, I feel tempted to take a peep to see what he is up to. He speaks again:
'Again slowly open the eyes.'
I open my eyes and find him still seated opposite me.
'Did you have any thoughts in the silence?'
'Yes,' I answer.
'Did you notice that thoughts come naturally, effortlessly?'
'Yes, I think so,' I answer again.
'This time when you close your eyes, sit easily for a about half a minute and then think the sound, your technique, in the same effortless and natural way.'
I do what he tells me. I wonder how long he wishes me to do this and am glad when I hear his voice again, calling upon me to open my eyes again. Raising himself up, he walks to the door and returns accompanied by Yolanda. We exchange looks as she sits down on the sheet-covered mattress a little way from me.
He now instructs us in the use our sounds or 'mantras' as he calls them, warning us to avoid pushing other thoughts from of our minds.
'Let the thoughts come and go, take no notice of them. Do not be held by them. Do not concentrate. Effortlessly repeat the mantra but do not hold on to the mantra. Do not mind it getting fainter or disappearing. As we dive we appreciate the mantra at subtler and subtler levels until transcending thought we arrive at pure Being the source of all creativity. '
After he imparts further instructions we settle down to our first proper experience of meditation. It seems easy enough, though I am not sure how I am getting on. Nothing startling happens yet. What had he said? What has he been telling us? A stream of thoughts come to me: 'Take it easy', 'Take it as it comes', 'When thoughts come just gently return to the mantra', so I return to the 'mantra'. After a time, the sound of an insect, maybe a grasshopper, catches my attention. The sound fascinates me, but I remember to return to my 'thought', the sound Andreas has given me. I begin to wonder what this 'mantra' means? But, I remember Andreas said 'The sound has no meaning for us, it is a vehicle to take us to Being'. I repeat the sound which becomes ever fainter, when suddenly, from within me comes a rush of activity. A vertical pillar of light appears within, containing countless beautiful Indian-looking women bedecked with jewellery and garbed in shimmering coloured robes and spiralling upward within myself; they appear to be checking me out!
Reluctantly, as per instruction, I return to my 'mantra'.
I remember that I am being directed towards an experience beyond thought, so I let go of the mantra, let go of all thought. There is a conflict.... - should I attend to the mantra or attend to having no thought? Having now sat for quite a while, without going beyond thought I am not convinced that using the mantra will take me beyond thought, so just as an experiment I decide to let go of the mantra. Initially I am momentarilly confused, without a clear guide to what I should DO. I hear the sounds seeping in from outside, the chirruping birds and insects, I can hear a gardener clipping away at the grass.It seems that I was successful in letting go of thought - all thought became erased leaving a pulsing eternal now, a marvelous tranquil stillness. A thought stirred ... Who am I? I sense a body, my body, sitting. I am delighted to be conscious, to be alive, to discover that I am alive and in this body. I sit enthralled with the wonder of the stillness, my own consciousness, I witness.
When again I hear Andreas's voice I am puzzled, I wonder where I am. Totally and completely relaxed I very slowly open my eyes and contentedly stare at my teacher. I remember Yolanda and turn to her. In an instant I realise that the bonds that have tied us too tightly have loosened, as though a spell has been lifted.
He asks how long we think we have been sitting there. I haven't a clue, time out of mind
As we answer our teacher's questions, my heart overflows with happiness and I find it hard to stifle my merriment.
'...So this is how we shall meditate morning and evening for fifteen to twenty minutes,' the German continues. 'We do not tell anyone else our mantras, they are to be kept secret.'
'I never agreed to that,' I muse.
A knocking at the door takes Andreas's attention. Hesitantly he opens the door to the very Indian couple we met the day before. I beam at them. I sense my self-control slipping. I laugh long and hard, it has been so long since I laughed as much.
After they go Andreas invites us to stay for lunch. He also returns a flower, banana and a handkerchief to each of us.
'Don't drop the peel, throw it over the hedge, there it will soon return to the earth,' he states in school master voice as we return along the same path as we came.
'Cheek!' I think to myself, I had been meaning to save the banana for later anyway'.
After washing our hands at the small white sink, we enter the dining room and tuck into a very simple meal of lentil soup, vegetables and small round flat breads. The custom throughout the East is to eat with the right hand (the left reserved for dealings in the toilet); spoons are also laid on for the use of.
'I could live on food like that all the time,' I spout eagerly to Yolanda as we later leave the ashram.
The afternoon is spent happily washing our clothes on the banks of the river and drying them across the smooth boulders there. The events of the day have put us both in high spirits. It is therefore odd that I begin to review our 'initiation' in the most critical terms. Have we been the victims of hypnotism or something? The words of Mary Baker Eddy come to me, 'Let hypnotism, mesmerism and necromancy be denounced'. No, I it isn't anything like that I feel sure, though maybe there is a touch of autosuggestion involved. I turn the subject over and over in my mind until at last, convinced that I am not been the victim of hocus-pocus I let the subject drop, relieved that all appears to be in order, after all.
A glass of hot milk and a portion of melt-in-the-mouth fudge from Choti Wala rounds the day off nicely.
When again I hear that jingling sound I quickly leap out of bed and pull open the shutters in time to see a heavily laden mule accompanied by his stick-wielding driver. From what I can see the poor beast carries a huge quantity of shingle and is heading towards the village.
Andreas had indicated that we should return to him for further sessions at which time he would check our experiences and give us further instruction. On the way to see him again, hearing the chatter of monkeys coming from the jungle, we go to investigate. We spot a group of monkeys playing in a glade; at least a dozen of them are disporting themselves in the warm sunshine. A newborn baby clings to his mother's belly. I watch as others chase one another about, climbing up into the branches of nearby trees and generally cavorting about. An 'uncle' figure swings the younger ones from his spot on a long branch. The message of family unity is not lost on me; it is time to write home. I will get down to it just as soon as I can.
Our session with Andreas goes well. I ask him what we should do if we couldn't find the peace and quiet to sit for meditation.
'Whatever sounds we hear, let them come and go, they are just thoughts. We do not try and push them from our minds. Innocently we take up the mantra.'
'Mmm... Easier said than done,' I think to myself.
This morning when we come to the moment he says 'Open the eyes.' I realise that something has really happened to me. I am literally agog at the sight of my own body. I lift my arm and lower it once more. What a gift this body and this mind too. I sit absorbed, enjoying the moments, the fullness of my existence. After all the thrills and experiences in my life I now discover the value of 'not doing'. I ask Andreas if there is a book I can read about this meditation. He warns me not to be unduly influenced by what I might read but agrees to find such a book for me later.
I purchase two copies one for myself and one for Yolanda. Clutching these we make our way to the gate. Closing it behind me, I notice at a point a way down the steps a tea stall has materialised. Eagerly we order tea and current buns from the Nepalese couple who run the stall. On our previous visits I had noticed a bench there but never suspected what the adjoining wooden structure might be transformed into. After another tea and another bun, we set forth for a belated visit to Rishikesh proper.
The ferry is this time full of people, some clutching the newspaper cones. As we near the middle of the river the boat slows and from all about come fishes slithering and sliding over each other, silver and gold shining and shimmering in the sunlight. The cones of food are broken open and tossed to the fishes who literally leap out to catch them.
Arriving on the opposite bank we make our way to the road. The way is crowded with beggars amongst whom I note are many suffering with the symptoms of leprosy. Though these unfortunate people with their deformed limbs and open sores beg for alms, they grin and joke amongst themselves and cajole us to give them cigarettes. The people of the East seem subject to all too many diseases. So many we meet with have appalling problems with diseases of the eyes and teeth. We all too often take our health for granted. They know nothing of the concept of National Health.
Walking past the taxi stand near which the tangas also wait we set forth on foot towards the town. After a short while a car slows and stops, someone invites us to share the taxi. Though we at first decline, we soon found ourselves seated in the back of the vehicle. The vehicle starts and almost instantly I regret having accepted the lift, the taxi chugs slowly but not slowly enough for me. We balk at the speed, too fast at ten miles an hour and us well-seasoned hitchhikers!
'Vegetarian Restaurant' a sign proclaims.
'My father would have liked to see that, he was a vegetarian well so was I until a few years ago,' I tell Yolanda.
'We could go there on the way back,' Yolanda suggests, looking very interested.
At the market in Rishikesh we buy ourselves some fresh fruit and vegetables. Surprisingly, when Yolanda asks where she can buy eggs, the stallholder looks about shiftily. With much gibbering and fuss he finally produces two small eggs and palms them to Yolanda. Although we have by now gathered that in this area people don't seem to eat meat, I hardly expect to find eggs to be available only on the black market.
We stroll about the bazaar and find that we desire to buy almost everything we lay our eyes upon, but in the event settle on two shoulder bags being very practical for carrying the shopping back in. It is nice to be in Rishikesh for it too has an air of holiness though not to the extent apparent in Swargashram, even though it has many ashrams and temples.
Our shopping is done for the moment, and after promising ourselves another trip soon, we make our way back to the vegetarian restaurant. Now much enamoured with lentil soup I order a bowl, which is duly delivered along with a plate of sliced white radishes, sweet chutney and a round of flat bread. A very nice lunch it is. After slaking our thirsts with glasses of water I go to pay the bill.
'But you haven't charged me for the soup,' I confess.
'Han, that is correct. Only chapatti you must pay, no charge dhall is.'
I make an instant decision to come back here again, soon.
The walk back to the ferry point proves most pleasant in every way. We can see in the distance, across the river to our own ashram. I catch sight of the clock tower and the rest of Swargashram. It has already become like home to us now; I can't wait to get back.
We spend the afternoon pottering about our room where I take the opportunity to read my new book, the 'Science of Being and the Art of Living'. There is a picture of the white-robed author (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi') and also one of Swami Brahmanand Saraswati of Jyotir Math, Badrikashram, the austere face of whom I have seen in the painting in the bungalow. Whilst the book says literally nothing about 'how' to meditate, it is however a relaxing read, a dissertation on just how life might be made better by meditating regularly, claiming that if one percent of mankind follow this dictum world peace would be achieved. He wants one per cent of the world's populations to try this idea? I believe that he would be lucky to get a few thousand at most. After all, how many people are likely to be attracted to this practice? Most people seem to look for exterior experiences. On the contrary I hope to find in meditation a way to live in a state of inner contentment. One can only hope!
We become very settled in our little room and enjoy exchanges with our neighbours. The Indian couple at the end of the row of rooms offer to get regular milk (doodh) delivered from the milkman (doodhwala). In the rooms next to us are on one side an Indian schoolmaster and on the other side, a newly arrived hippy-couple with dog. John, the chap from Southend, has by now introduced us to Rob who gives me some back issues of Rolling Stone. It's great to suddenly have a bunch of 'instant' friends. Sharing a cigarette, a cup of tea or some food, we all find we have something in common, sharing our thoughts and lives together, not least is that we all like being here. For me this is a rediscovery of something too long lost to me, the enjoyment of normal everyday domestic life.
Chapter 19 - MONKS AND MONKEYS
Clutching toothpaste and brush, I open the door to a bright new day. I notice the morning air carries a scent I can't immediately place. As I clean my teeth Yolanda sidles up to me with an attitude of extreme confidentiality and whispers; 'Fleas, their dog has fleas.'
I now peer into the room next door to ours just in time to see them dousing not their dog but themselves with a tin of flea powder.
'Want some powder Man?' my neighbour asks.
I pass up the offer easily.
The situation reminds me that only yesterday I felt so guilty for not having befriended one of the stray dogs; now my conscience no longer oppresses me.
'By the way Man,' he adds, 'We're moving back to the caves, drop in sometime, yeh?'
I hide my ignorance about my not knowing of any caves hereabouts, by maintaining silence.
Later Yolanda and I take a walk and meet with a young American lad. 'Hari Om,' comes his greeting, 'I'm staying in the caves, why not come and see us?' He tells us the whereabouts of these caves, which border the river at the foot of the hill on which the 'academy' stands.
'We learnt to meditate up the hill there,' I tell him.
'You got a mantra you mean?' he asks directly.
'There's more to it than that,' I answer, a touch flustered.
I receive an interested but skeptical look. 'The Maharishi people, are they cool? Yes? Well maybe I'll check them out sometime. See you later Man. Hari Om,' he adds smiling as he wanders off.
Walking to the village we notice a little stall there selling inspirational books, this provides us an opportunity to learn more about Indian beliefs. In addition to purchasing some booklets we also buy an attractive set of illustrations depicting deeds both by mankind and gods. At another stall, I buy a book of postcards and a white marble incense holder.
Back in our room, I place these purchases on a shelf. The incense holder has been hand carved to show four lions heads each faces a different direction. A photograph of this Buddhist relic known as the Lion Capital and dating back to the 3rd century BC appears in one of our tourist handouts. This image also turns up on the reverse side of virtually every Indian coin. I collect a mint example of each of these coins, variously multi-sided, scalloped, round, some with images of lotus flowers, wheat or some national hero. The currency has recently been decimalised, the rupee formerly being sixteen annas and is now split into a hundred naya (new) paisa. An Indian neighbour to whom I show my coins seems baffled and bemused to discover that I have placed these in a neat line along one of my shelves. 'Shops. Money for shops!' comes the response. The shelves with the pictures and nick-knacks on soon begin to resemble a shrine.
On a summer long, long ago our family holidayed a cottage nestled at the heart of a charming hamlet in Devon in south England, the buildings there dating back to the 12th century. In the cottage in which we stayed I discovered an arched niche. Long had I contemplated it, discovering that such attention bestowed unexpected calm and happiness upon me. Such and more is the happiness I feel before these shelves in our whitewashed cell. Whilst packing the rucksack back in London I had thrown in a few strings of beads from my hippy days. Amongst the holy men in the village many wear necklaces, as such I now feel it reasonable to again wear mine.
In my entire upbringing India's ancient history and its religious beliefs have never been spoken of. Suddenly as I become daily better acquainted with them I wonder that given time I will discover mention of India somewhere in the Old Testament of The Bible. The presence of a local Christian mission run by an Indian monk adds weight to this hope. On appearance alone it is extremely difficult to differentiate local peoples beliefs for most of the monks here wear their hair and beards long, the exception being the few who shave their heads entirely, as if disgusted with hair rather than proclaiming a particular faith. It is gratifying that the various faiths and sects hereabouts apparently live harmony free from conflict.
Reading my little books I learn of the concepts of karma and dharma. I have come across this latter word before in a song entitled 'Dharma for One' by the rock act Jethro Tull. This booklet defines dharma, as that which one ought to do, that is, right action. Living virtuously in non-violence, non-attachment and truthfulness, one must also avoid any temptations that might impede fulfillment of one's destiny. The other word, karma, on the other hand relates to the physics of action i.e. that for every action there is a reaction.
Right now I figure that my dharma lies in gathering firewood (or lakri as an Indian neighbour calls it) for cooking our evening meal. This task takes me on a walk through the jungle where I scour the floor for kindling and fuel. These walks take me ever further into this uncharted and magical place. All too soon though, I have enough wood for our needs. On my way back, I raise my eyes to the higher reaches of the forested hill and convince myself I see the shape of a tiger in the far, far distance.
Returning to Ved Niketan ashram I find Yolanda singing happily as she tidies our room.
'Let's go into Swargashram again. I need to buy some rice,' she says.
On our way to the shops the same kindly person who told us so much about the statue now stands in our path. He wants to know what we've been up to. Hearing of our involvement in meditation he tells us:
'Not everyone is pleased with the Maharishi. They say these mantras are only for monks. I am only telling you their opinion.'
I listen carefully, wondering what he means.
'Tell me,' he continues, 'Have you seen the bridge at Lakshman Jhoola yet? No? You must go there. It is beyond the Swargashram village and along the riverbank and through the mango trees, but be careful of the monkeys, the ones with red faces, they are most unfriendly. Do you know that in these parts we have no record of crime? Only there was the case of the elephant who strangled a man, we have to be mindful of the animals.' Thanking him for this information we make our way past the numerous sadhus (holy men) and beggars on the way. Most of the old men clad in orange cloth with varied markings on their foreheads, sit on the path and seem to spend their time peacefully reading religious texts, sometimes chanting whilst fingering their beads. Many nod and smile as we pass. Only the beggars will sometimes raise their hands for money, though we give to beggars and sadhus alike.
In the village a little shop sells basic provisions, newspapers fireworks and cigarettes. Of the many cigarette brands they sell such as Charminar, Gaylord, Gold Flake, Esquire and India Kings, our favourite is Simla, having as it does the silhouette of Himalayan mountains printed in green and being fairly low priced too.
I also buy matches here, an Indian variant of the Ship brand in wooden box with blue paper covering, a blue of such astonishing richness and vibrancy as begs the question of it's source. Yolanda buys some rice, which is duly weighed and bagged (the bags being made of re-used newspapers and old exercise paper). I thumb through the calendars, which almost invariably have the picture of gods printed on them. I have come to be able to identify gods from men with a very simple rule-of-thumb; gods and goddesses usually are depicted as having more than two arms. I realise I have no quarrel with the idea of gods; In fact I like the notion that divine beings dwell on higher planes.
Back on earth only a little farther up the path stands the Choti Wala restaurant.
'Time for tea,' I proclaim.
Here cafes and restaurants have no need of windows and, being totally open-plan, one can watch the food being prepared and even talk with the cooks.
'Namastay,' calls across one of the cooks, who stares intently into my eyes. Since I don't know what he means to communicate I merely smile as pleasantly as I can. We order a pot of tea from the waiter. Now ordinarily I might order a sweet bun but today I am feeling adventurous, I order an Indian snack.
'Not too hot,' I say, meaning not too spicy. The snack soon arrives; a pyramid of pastry containing potatoes and peas in a tasty sauce. The waiter has taken me on my word; the samosa is not too hot at all, but stone cold!
At the local post office nearby I buy a couple of aerogrammes, having told myself I should settle down to some writing soon. Just a little way up from the post office sits a Nepalese woman or perhaps she is Tibetan (Yolanda guesses her to be Nepalese) who is selling sweaters. Though the days are very hot, the nights are certainly getting colder. It will soon be time to press the homemade one I brought with me from England into service.
Over the ensuing days, we spend much of our time busying ourselves about our room and exploring the general area; with trips to Rishikesh and Lakshman Jhoola. The days seem incredibly long, time passes very slowly and very happily, few things happen to upset us. When they do occur, I feel indignant.
Wandering along eating a banana; I am about to throw the skin down when I feel a nudge from behind me. Turning round I find no frowning Mr. Müller but a cow eager for the peel. A long fleshy tongue winds its way around the offering and is soon becoming tomorrow's milk. A little farther on is a group of Indian tourists gathering for a photograph, a dog strays into the picture and is dealt a hefty kick. Incensed by the unnecessary brutality delivered to this pathetic creature I give his aggressor a bit of karma. Hopping around on one leg this upstart asks why I kick him. 'Simple,' I answer, 'You kick the dog, I kick you.' One thing I learn here is that unlike cows, dogs are not considered sacred, nor are monkeys, (as I discover soon after when we are offered to purchase a baby monkey).
On our trip to Lakshman Jhoola we spot several gingery-brown coloured monkeys prancing about. As we have been warned about them we kept our distance. This is just as well for on the jhoola or bridge, (an elaborate suspension bridge over the rushing River Ganges), we witness a child robbed of his banana by such a creature. Stealthily creeping up behind the boy, the monkey grabs the fruit, and bounds away with his prize, leaving the child to cry out in fright.
The bridge sports a curious notice advising:
S T O P
ELEPHANTS AND CAMELS ETC.
This message is accompanied by a statement in Indian script, (a striking form of alphabet with flourishing letters with lines running over them).
The pathway through Lakshman Jhoola village takes us past several institutes of yoga where muscular Indians strike difficult looking poses. Yoga, I have read is the Sanskrit (an ancient Indian language) word meaning 'union'. This form of yoga looks too much like hard work, like some sort of religious gymnastics. How it can offer enlightenment is quite beyond me, but I try to keep an open mind.
Of late I have been experiencing far greater clarity of thought and fluidity of speech, a mixed blessing for whilst there is lots to talk about, I also find it difficult to stop talking. This condition spurs me to think of increasingly difficult questions to confound Andreas. These questions he generally deals with, with disarming ease. However, on one occasion he resists the temptation to reply, choosing instead to give me a long penetrating look. Surprised at his response, I introspect on my question and at once discover its answer. Over the next few minutes we continue to converse in silence and very satisfying it is too.
Whilst sitting on the banks of the Ganga (Indian pronunciation for Ganges) another altogether different phenomenon begins to occur. The accumulated store of music I have heard becomes available to me. It is as though there is a record collection contained in my mind. All I have to do is to select and play. This works so efficiently that once in action I find that I can listen not merely to the words but to any background accompaniment on these records as well. Of the discs I take to playing are Tim Hardin's 'Hang on to a dream', the Vanilla Fudge version of 'You keep me hangin' on' and the Beatles 'I am a walrus', all of which soon become firm favourites. 'I am you as you are me as we are all together.... Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun.'
'Can we buy a mosquito net?' comes Yolanda's surprising request.
'What? Are you kidding? Surely only people in films have those don't they?' I laugh.
'Mosquitoes, they carry diseases, I don't want to catch malaria, you can die from that you know? I'm sure we have mosquitoes in our room, I hear them at night.'
I start to take her seriously, very seriously for by now I have open sores on my toes where flies land for feeding (my sandals haven't really worn in yet), I haven't been particularly concerned about this until now, but malaria, now that sounds decidedly nasty. It sets me a dilemma. Should I stomp on them? Our lives or theirs? I stomp on them! One can take this non-violence ideal too far, but I nevertheless give this Hindu teaching a good deal of thought.
In personal terms I wonder where my 'destiny' lies. I begin to suspect that it involves my swift return to England and rapid re-entry into the hurly-burly of everyday life there. It occurs to me that later in life I will take to writing. On one of my lakri expeditions I take to thinking about my fondness for music. I find myself in a clearing and stand composing my thoughts when all of a sudden a very curious spectacle materialises. There in front of me stands a figure playing a black custom Les Paul guitar in front of a Marshall amplification set-up. The figure is me.
I study the spectacle carefully, even down to stooping and examining the unusual foot pedal being used. Though less than solid this 'vision' proves very durable, lasting many minutes and surrendering a wealth of detail. When at length it fades, I make my way back, infused with a glow of exhilaration. I think better of telling Yolanda of the incident; instead I tell her that I plan soon to return to London. I ask whether she wishes to return with me to England or to break company instead.
'But I thought we were going to visit some of the Buddhist holy places. Are you sure you want to go back? But of course if you're quite sure, I'll go wherever you go,' comes her reply. In those moments our relationship hang in the balance.
Ever since leaving England with so little money, I'm always a touch concerned about our finances. But it obviously makes a lot of sense to try to live as cheaply as possible. Apart from obvious economies like sometimes cooking for ourselves I seek even to reduce normal expenditures like the price of our cups of tea. Since a pot of tea at Choti Wala costs 30 paisa and at the chaay stall a glass of tea cost 25 paisa, I wonder couldn't we get the cost down further? Close to the Choti Wala we discover a tea stall where we can get tea for 20 paisa. The Afghan owner of the stall readily agrees to lower the price even a couple of paisa more. He sells the buns and long toasts on his stall we generally eat and to my surprise I find out that it is he who actually supplies the Choti Wala with all their tea. It seems we have cut out the 'middle man'. The nearby cigarette vendor confides with an air of pride, 'This Chaay Wala, he is muscle man.' Confused I ask another Indian what he means.
'This man is mussalman or muslim. All religions are welcome here,' he informs us. This particular chaay shop becomes a regular haunt for us; his tea and hot milk are unequalled locally. He boils fresh water in a pan, adds tealeaves and sugar, and then eventually blends with boiling milk. Tipping the resultant concoction from pan to Pyrex pot until it is nice and frothy. He allows me the use of his open fire cooker to toast the long strips of bread to perfection over glowing coals.
One afternoon we decide to walk along to Lakshman Jhoola and there we discover a sadhu playing a most peculiar musical instrument being perhaps a most distant relation of my favoured instrument, the guitar. Under his right arm the sadhu holds a hollowed gourd, at the centre of which and attached by a button is a solitary string stretched to a piece of wood in his left hand. This he plucks with a sliver of ivory held in his right hand. The tension between the gourd and the piece of wood varies the note. He gestures me to try for myself. After initial difficulty I master it and soon sit strumming happily. The sadhu passes me an earthenware conical tube wrapped around with rag and holds it to my lips. 'Chillum,' he murmurs. The scent of hashish fills the air and soon has me giggling merrily as I resume my playing. Passers-by throw money on the cloth upon which I sit, my first wages as a busker. I leave the money there, and in gratitude add a few coins of my own.
On our way back to Swargashram we stumble by a tailors shop. Outside is a man with an old-fashioned smoothing iron flattening out some material. He opens the iron to reveal glowing embers on which he blows. I marvel that he doesn't burn the cloth and say as much. He asks me if I would like him to make clothes for us, I just smile, I am doubtful. He responds by gesturing for me to wait for him whilst he gets something. He slips away and soon returns with a hard-backed exercise book with a picture of the Maharishi on the cover. Fanning over the pages I find drawing of shirts, skirts, trousers and the like. 'Look at these Yolanda. These ones were drawn by Cynthia Lennon and these here by Donovan. They're good drawings aren't they?' I marvel. 'I'm sure I remember pictures of Donovan in that shirt.' Hooked, we decide to have some clothes made for ourselves. For me it will be an orange cotton trouser suit and for Yolanda one in turquoise. At little over an English pound per suit, we figure we can just about afford them. The tailor promises they will be ready within a week or at the most ten days.
The smoke with the sadhu takes its toll, for the following day when I awake I am surprised at feeling a touch gloomy. Thankfully the effect soon wears off but I nevertheless decide to steer clear of the stuff in future.
The 'orange' lady pays us an unexpected visit and presses a book into my hands, a copy of 'Bhagavad-Gita Gita' or 'The Lord's Song', a record of an alleged conversation between the affamed Lord Krishna and Arjuna his charioteer. Lord Krishna I have been informed had been a teacher of meditation. In the text Krishna exhorts Arjuna to fight in the coming battle, Arjuna however is far from convinced. He is confused. Me too. Whatever happened to non-violence I wonder? I wonder that our landlady has somewhat similar confusions, for on one occasion I spot her berating a troupe of monkeys that have clambered onto our roof. Her patience soon is spent; she picks up a stone and tosses it near them. But they don't budge, 'Haa-reee Raaa-maaa!' she moans.
It is John who tells us about the room. It is located above the office on the other side of the ashram and soon to be vacated. Yolanda and I go to investigate. A staircase leads to the roof on which a solitary room stands surmounted by another smaller structure. The American couple that are staying here turn out to be very friendly. As they are moving out shortly they eagerly encourage us to take the room. I ask what they think of our landlady.
'Oh, a personality, definitely.' the girl answers. When asked what she means, her partner gives me a grin.
'Well for instance, we have a bowl full of fruit here right? When we go out, she comes and helps herself. Hey we don't mind, she's okay.' he re-assures laughing.
Yolanda tries hard to convince me about the benefits of the room. It has its advantages for sure, an electric light and an adjoining bathroom with a loo too, but it will cost us an extra rupee a day. I reckon that if we do take the room, we should treat ourselves to a padlock. As it happens I don't really want to move but I do feel that yielding to Yolanda repays her a little for the unwavering support she gives me. Besides, I don't want an argument over it.
On the 29th of October, the evening before our move, the crack of fireworks sounds from over the river in Rishikesh. Going through Swargashram village I am horrified to see the 'servant' of our favourite stall in the village exploding a particularly nasty firework in our path. It leads to some very heated words.
There comes some sort of explanation, for evidently tonight is to be 'firework night'. Suddenly, the clusters of electric lights that dapple the valley at night are all extinguished and from out of the resultant darkness flickering stars of candlelight appear. On the riverbank figures stoop to launch their candles upon the waters, I watch them bobbing away down the river until they disappear from view. The wife of our neighbour (who I once discover feeding her baby raw chillies) pays us a visit and daubs a fingertip of red dye, containing grains of rice, on our foreheads. 'Tilak,' she explains. Then she presses us to accept sweet puffed rice and sugar coated liquorice sweets. She tells us that this is the festival of 'Divaali' and wishes us a happy New Year. This is the first day of the two thousand and twenty eighth year of the Vikraami calendar.
Rob comes across asking us if we have some hashish, for it seems to him a good time for a smoke. In this I disappoint him. It has been a few days since he gave me the Rolling Stone magazines. After a half-hearted attempt to read them I give up on them and wonder how to dispose of them. Since Rob doesn't want them back I make a decision to take them to the jungle to return to the earth (merit mark from Andreas!).
Late the next day we move into the new room. The Americans have been asked to remove the lighting cord before they leave, they warn me of this, explaining that the landlady has a 'thing' about it and thoughtfully show me how it can to be re-connected. Also the light bulb has disappeared and a trip to Swargashram fails to remedy the situation. But it doesn't matter that much and our attention soon drifts to more urgent matters, namely our rumbling grumbling shrunken stomachs. We dine this evening quite lavishly at the Choti Wala on thali, 'eat as much as you like' trays of curried vegetables, dhall, salad and yoghurt (dhaiee) and a choice of rice, or chapatti breads. The yoghurt we decide to eat with sugar for dessert, though the Indians eat theirs with the vegetables and rice). Before leaving I pay a visit to the toilet, here, a spare light bulb virtually begs to be liberated, I fight the temptation, I might have succumbed if perhaps I hadn't already pocketed a dessert spoon. Before we leave we stop to buy some barfi (melt-in-the-mouth fudge), which they serve upon banana leaf plates.
'Namastay,' the cook shouts, his hands placed tightly together. As ever I reply in confused and inhibited style. As we return to the ashram we have a terrible shock as we all but trip over a herd of slumbering cows lying in the darkness.
Evidently a luxury item, a replacement light bulb is hard to find. We eventually track one down and buy one in Rishikesh at the pricey sum of Rs. 4. In Rishikesh we also visit a jewellers, an open shop run by an elderly old man wearing a white turban and sitting cross-legged on a carpet. In Swargashram, I have seen a sadhu wearing a worn silver coin with the image of Queen Victoria on it. I ask here about such coins and am rewarded by the owner digging out a silver rupee. On one side it has embellished attractive floral patterns around the words - ONE RUPEE 1913, on the other is the profile of 'GEORGE V KING AND EMPEROR' in crown and full regalia. At the top edge, two clasps have been conveniently affixed; all that is needed now is a chain. The old man cuts a length of shiny plaited links and ingeniously fashions a fastener from silver wire. Around my neck it hangs as a token of the achievement of hitchhiking to India.
Yolanda has her eyes on an antique ring of heavy silver with deep red stone set across it. 'Hakeek,' the jeweller explains when asked what sort of stone it is. Another ring in the shape of a clover also catches her eye. 'This for marriage and good luck,' comes the old man's voice. Needless to say she buys it along with two cheap but pretty rings set with reddish brown glass, one for each of us. I ask if we could buy some metal polish, he ignores me and instead takes Yolanda's ring and energetically rubs it across the carpet. It sparkles as good as new. Neat trick that!
Before leaving Rishikesh market we stock up with cooking pots, a frying pan, oil and foodstuffs. We also buy a padlock. Whilst in town we also meet up with a young westerner. When he hears where we are staying he looks horrified; 'But there are wild animals over there,' he says grimacing. 'Why don't you stay at the Swiss Cottage here in Rishikesh?'
On the road back to Shivanand Nagar, a lady stops us to present us with a little honey. I make a mental note to buy some soon. Back at our room we joyfully examine our purchases, we have really pushed the boat out, so to speak.
The flat roof around the new room provides us with space to lounge about, prepare and cook food. Throwing together a fruit salad, I then leave Yolanda to cut up the tomatoes and potatoes, which we later intend to cook. Meanwhile I go in search of wood. Being closer to the river than to the jungle I go beach combing for driftwood. Meeting with success I return and climb the stairs that lead to our new room, whereupon I notice our landlady's stock of coal. 'She's got all the mod-cons,' I think to myself.
The fry-up goes well, as does the fruit salad. If I have to fault the meal, I would prefer to have been able to get normal cooking oil rather than mustard oil. We try to re-create the delectable dhall soup we sampled at the academy but with depressing results. We can't quite guess the necessary ingredients. We tend to augment our frugal homemade meals with lots of chopped fresh vegetables and of course occasional visits to the vegetarian restaurants locally. I make up my mind to resume the vegetarian diet I have only a few years ago strayed from. When I mention this to Yolanda she, far from being surprised, says that she too will not eat meat again.
Nothing much comes to disturb us up in our 'ivory tower', though all manner of birds come and go, sometimes flying straight into our room. Solemn mysterious crows often visit, cloaked in shiny black plumage; they make their mysterious sonorous calls. There is sound of the clock chiming on the path to Swargashram; the far off barking of a dog otherwise all is still and silent. In ancient Sanskrit the word swarg as in Swargashram meant heaven. Yes. This was some sort of heaven here.
Chapter 20 - MAD DOGS AND ENGLISHMEN
'I've got another cold coming on,' I moan.
Yolanda looks a little concerned for me.
It feels like being a heavy cold, but I hope for the best that it won't get a grip on me. After traipsing along to Swargashram to buy a couple of aspirin, I have a brainwave.
'Let's go over to Shivanand Ashram, they have a pharmacy there.'
At the pharmacy I search through the ayurvedic medicines and find a box of tablets designated for flu and colds. I pay for them then turn the tablets over in my hand. These are not the normal bleach white sort but large pellets of crushed Himalayan herbs, I take a couple and hope for the best. Picking up a leaflet I scan through 'Sivananda's Renowned Himalayan Ayurvedic Products' and feel fortunate not to be suffering any of the terrible ailments for which they are intended, foot-fissures, wind-humour, joint pains and the like. I settle on a bottle of Brahmi-Amla Medicated Oil, 'an excellent Himalayan herbal medicated oil. Ensures healthy hair and prevents it's fall. Cools the brain and eyes.', which turns out to have a distinctly nutty smell. Hair oil it seems is very popular in the East, used by men and women alike. I decide to pass up the opportunity of sampling the Divyamrit Vasanta Kusumakar with it's gold, pearls and musk for 'body building and new strength' and we return to base camp. I am astonished that by the time we arrive back every trace of the cold symptoms has mercifully vanished. Paying in our donation at the office, I then pass a nook I have not noticed before. Within it is the image of a god reflected in mirrors to either side leading the viewer to see a whole host of the god's reflected images.
A local monk befriends us giving us newly picked flowers every single day; occasionally I wear these through the clasps on my rupee. One time whilst presenting us with a flower he looks me straight in the eyes and with an awkward expression murmurs 'Chadda,' without giving the slightest clue as to what this might mean. I reckon it is time to take Bevan up on his offer to lend me his copy of 'Hugo's Hindi'. At the ashram I discover Andreas in the company of a tall middle-aged American man, carrying a copy of the Bible. He is questioning Andreas concerning the likely whereabouts of his missing son. Our calm German listens patiently and suggests various places that the man might try. It transpires that this man has searched far and wide. He has precious little to go on for he is in possession of only one clue; that the youth has decided to go to India! They are well matched these two men. Andreas has a great interest in redirecting wanderers to their countries of origin. Recently an English girl appeared on the scene, got herself 'initiated' by Andreas who has already dispatched her back to England before you could say 'Hari Om'. Talking of 'Hari Om', our friend Hari Om has by now also found his way up the hill. He has even persuaded his mother to join him in India and after a brief stay at the ashram she jets off home together with her son. Andreas seems to have charged himself with the responsibility for those lost and found.
Today I meditate with him again and during my sitting I have one of those rare flashes of inner vision. This time within my gaze I discern a line of Buddhas, statue-like but giving forth a living energy, 'just another thought' I say to myself and they are gone. On another occasion sitting in utter silence in the room below the bungalow I am surprised to see no lesser person than Beatle George Harrison sitting opposite me. His hair and beard are by now grown extremely long. We observe each other for a time before I realise that I have my eyes closed and have become distracted in my meditation.
Later I observe Andreas go into the upstairs room of the bungalow where he rearranges some flowers. On a low seat sit a small pair of sandals, wooden soled, austere, no doubt belonging to the absent 'master'. I find myself trying to imagine how the Maharishi's life is like. Since he seems to lay great emphasis on wish-fulfilment I sense that he must exert an enormous influence on those about him, I decide that a meeting with the Maharishi is not what I want. His teaching is the meditation and since we have learnt this, I consider there seems little point being drawn into the power sphere of this man. Besides, from all that I hear here at the ashram leads me to believe that after meditating life will 'automatically' get better. Yolanda asks Bevan what food is conducive to a spiritual way of life. He answers that the food that does not disturb the meditation is the best food, and this can vary from person to person. Effectively the individual must make his own decisions, which suits me to a tee.
Apart from his self-elected social role at sending wanderers home, Andreas also wages a campaign to tidy the ashram. He offers us to go through the shoes that people have left behind. Not even the chance of stepping into discarded Beatle shoes induces me to accept his offer. He doesn't pressurise me but instead asks me if I have seen two longhaired German lads about. As it happens I have lately seen young guys fitting this description sitting on rocks by the Ganges wrapped in blankets meditating in the light of the setting sun.
'Would you tell them to come and see me?' he requests.
Instead of walking back down the hill path, today we choose to find out what lies beyond the ashram and we make our way up the footpath adjacent to Bevan's lodgings. There I espy a gate and a lane that lead off into the jungle. Also making their way towards the gate, are a very curious couple indeed, a couple of monkeys! Quite unlike the chattering 'red arsed' variety they move with dignity and grace, these were the other sort, langur monkeys. Walking so close to one another that they touch hands, these charming and apparently exceedingly gentle spirits shyly glance away and lope off into the undergrowth. Resembling aged monks with bearded faces these beautiful monkeys affect me greatly.
Down in Swargashram one morning, intent on visiting the Afghan chaay wala we pass the stationary figure of a yogi who stands in our path, wearing nothing but a loincloth. He doesn't communicate with us nor indeed does he speak to anyone else, seemingly content just to stand erect and to Be. Coming to the teahouse we find another such yogi. He on the other hand smiles at me and nods gently. Like his friend his small muscular body exudes health and power. His skin resembles highly polished supple shoe leather. His long hair and beard greying is streaked with puffs of pure whiteness revealing a clue to his age. I offer him a tea; hesitantly he accepts but declines the offer of a current bun. He emanates an air of sanctity and peace. Though awe-struck by his presence I nevertheless engage him in conversation. His answers are in a mixture of Hindi and English. He explains to me that until recently he has been in Kashmir but has come to Rishikesh on account of the weather.
'The people are dying of the cold there,' he tells me. 'I must admit it was chill some,' he adds, smiling.
With a physique like his it seems he usually has no need for clothes. On the subject of health, he mentions that a midday meal is all that is required to sustain the body. He speaks with a singsong lilt to his words, at times his words cascade into sheer poetry as he explains spiritual matters. Addressing Yolanda and myself and also addressing his God, he sings, his eyes focused within himself, 'On the altar of my heart, in the temple of my soul, the almighty is with me always.' No doubt attracted by the presence of the yogi, the teahouse now becomes filled with customers and bystanders. Our conversation lulls a while.
I recall that some months earlier, back in London, I had unravelled a packet on incense and to my surprise I found that the packet was constructed from re-used sheets of printed-paper. Characters of the Indian alphabet danced before my eyes, enticing me to understand them. Perhaps one day I would learn this language, I thought. I mention to the yogi that I wish to learn Hindi. Enthusiastically he exhorts me, 'Come back to my ashram, there I will teach you the Hindi.' I thank him but so much in awe of him am I, that to expect him to fulfil this offer is totally out of the question. The onlookers remain mute as if they recognise that they have intruded on us. Placing my hands together, I bow slightly before him. With a waggle of his head he returns the gesture.
From the roof outside our room we can see a very long distance in all directions. Today I notice a group of people walking from the direction of the academy. In their midst, sun glinting off his bald pate, strides Andreas, garlands of orange marigolds draped around his neck. As he approaches, I note his expression is one of jubilation, he beams me a radiant smile. I greet him as he passes.
'Is there anything you wish to know before I leave?' he asks. 'I go now to Delhi for I am due to fly back to Germany.'
Yolanda and I both wish him a very safe trip.
'All the best,' I shout down.
'Jai Guru Dev,' he answers.
For many the Ganges is sacred. I notice the monks from the academy come to fill pitchers with the crystal clear and refreshing waters of this fast flowing river. Pilgrims come to collect the precious water. It is believed that this water has healing properties and unlike tap water, will not support bacteria even when sealed and kept for a long period. The devotees of Mother Ganga sing hymns to her in praise, inspiring me thus: -
Ganga Ganga, Holy Ganga
Hearing chanting voices
singing, praising you.
Ganga Ganga pray thee tell
What it is that makes man get sick
when you can make them well?
Ganga Ganga, Holy Ganga
Ganga Ganga Ganges blue
Alone I came to sit with you.
Bathing in the river, a must for all devout pilgrims, the holy men can be observe ritually sprinkling water over their shoulders whilst singing and muttering mantras. The everyday folk 'purify' themselves. The men would take a dip stripped to their shorts. The women cheerfully submerging themselves, re-emerging with their sarees (Indian style dresses) in a state of disarray.
The many cows would often claim pilgrims' interest; I even notice the urine of the calf being dabbed on the forehead with some eagerness. The cow is honoured here, and for good reason for it provides milk and turn ghee (butter oil), yoghurt and paneer (Indian yoghurt cheese), even their dung is used, burnt as fuel. Hence their 'holy' status.
Yet another trip to Rishikesh yields another chance to rummage around the marketplace and to explore the back street shops more closely. In the market a kindly old couple who tell us they have chosen to spend their retirement in Rishikesh promise us the pick of their allotment next time we visit the town. In the back streets we are today rewarded in finding a shop selling brightly coloured pictures of gods, gurus and saints. To my amazement amongst these prints I find two that form the basis of Jimi Hendrix's second album cover 'Axis: Bold As Love'. We buy a good selection of pictures, which veritably glow with saturated brightly coloured inks. There are some few prints less gaudy, survivors of an older subtler style, beautifully conceived in pastel shades. These pictures are but a few pence each so we decide to buy ourselves a reasonable amount as souvenirs to take back to England
We have also decided to buy a second rucksack to pack away our extra purchases. This we soon find in the market, a khaki number, strong but cheap. In a Hindi primer I buy, I discover the meaning of chadda, and we set about buying a cotton sheet for our friend to wear. My only concern is that I have heard him correctly! On a trip to the bank where we cash another of our precious ten pound notes, almost our last. Whilst we are in Rishikesh we also take Yolanda's suede shoulder bag for mending by one of the many cobblers. He surprises me by using white string to sew the seam up, but he makes good by staining the string with black boot polish. Is this an unacceptable bodge or just common sense on his part?
Returning we walk the road from Rishikesh to the ferry point, we pass an ashram where holy men are congregated. This is the Baba Kali Kamliwala Panchayati Kshettra, a mission which administers free food and lodging to sadhus and swamis. This facility is perhaps like an Indian version of an old folks home though the major difference is that, since holy men are meant to travel, a maximum of three days can be spent in such lodgings.
Before returning over the river we buy some honey and an Indian version of a small cut loaf. As it turns out the loaf tastes little like it's western namesake but nevertheless it goes down a treat with the honey.
Life ticks away very slowly here in our Swargashram haven. On our frequent walks, exploring the byways and footpaths we familiarise ourselves ever more thoroughly with the area. On these walks we sometimes talk with the sadhus and monks, other times we just observe them. For some of the holy men control of their breath features large amongst their self imposed disciplines. One such practitioner appears bashful, maybe even a little annoyed at being watched and sits himself in the opposite direction and covering his head with a cloth before resuming his breathing exercises. Yolanda becomes intrigued with the believed properties of this technique and encourages me to breath 'properly' and in consequence soon becomes obsessed with the idea of giving up smoking.
The axis of life in this area appears to be about acquiring closeness to God and nature, thus encouraged we seek to acquaint ourselves with all the practices in use. Apart from the techniques of hatha yoga (conventional yoga exercises), pranayama (breathing control), dhyana (meditation), and bhakti yoga (union through faithful service) there is also ritual worship and tapasya (self control) to be considered. In the temples sadhus busy themselves prostrating themselves before their favoured deities, elsewhere others subject themselves to physical endurance in attempts to raise themselves higher. But all these paths target the same goal; that of becoming spiritually enlivened and even enlightened. Perhaps the least acceptable are those who, after having daubed themselves with ashes place themselves on public view, beside them their begging bowls. But perhaps these too feet that sought after inner glow.
The need to keep our clothes clean takes us to the quiet silver sanded beach close to the Ved Niketan Ashram. Here we bathe in the freezing waters and dash our soapy clothes against the smooth black boulders. After stretching them out in the sun to dry, I take the chance to write my notebook, sometimes trying my hand at crafting songs and poems. Beside the gurgling eddies of water, I contemplate and sing to myself.
Prophets, seers and sages, coming through the ages,
singing of the love, singing life's sweet song.
Buddha, Jesus, Krishna, enrapturing the listener,
Swamis, sadhus, saints and rishis,
coming as though guide lights, anchorage in the storm.
Cynicism blunts the heart, prevents us making our new start,
the holy hand that gives, can also take away.
'Born in God's reflection', the Bible says of man,
what a vast potential lies dormant here at hand.
Listening to the wise, listening to the holy,
giving off reminders of the hidden cosmic mind.
I notice that we both look pretty healthy, the constant sunshine deepening our tans as the days pass. Not since we travelled through Spain have I deliberately set out to get a tan, but one day I decide to venture out onto the roof and lie down on a long discarded table there. Though the breeze takes away much of the discomfort of prolonged exposure to the sun, in time I begin to feel less than comfortable. Sitting up, I realise that my skin feels very sore indeed.
'A little longer then I'll go in' I decide. But the sun is now at it's zenith and is grilling my tender flesh, so I sit up again wondering if perhaps I am overdoing it.
In the distance a dog howls, all at once I remember that oft spoken but little understood phrase; 'Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun'.
The postmaster of the little post office in Swargashram, and of course the chaay wala too, both become accustomed to our frequent visits to the village. In time both Yolanda and I receive letters from home. Since we have been on the road for many months, these are of such momentous importance to us as to occasion enormous anticipation and great excitement. To read letters from my mum and my friend Henderson and his brother fulfill a need to tie past and present together. Henderson writes that he observed us from a bus as we straggled in the rain towards Putney station all those months ago. He asks me 'to pass on my regards to Raja the elephant'. The thrill at seeing the envelopes addressed to us and to pore over their contents borders on the obsessional. I really want to get back to London and re-discover the world I have left behind; convinced as I am that after our trip it will appear a changed place. Although not a major worry I can't see how we can get back 'home' on the money that now remains. The postal orders we gratefully receive do little other than slightly bolster our funds. We realise that it will take a brainwave or a miracle to scrape together enough for the airfare. The prospect of hitching back to England holds no appeal whatsoever. Can it be that my sense of adventure has all but deserted me?
On a visit to the post office one day we meet with an elderly gentleman by the name of Frank Burkhill. Having reached retirement he has decided to come in search of mystical India and is enjoying himself hugely. With tales of horse-riding in the mountains and participating in curious rituals, his eyes sparkle as he recalls his exploits. With his rolled-up black umbrella he strides along the riverfront path at Swargashram with an air of authority and importance, lecturing us on things Indian. I confide in him that on after cutting my foot one day, someone had tended it by painting the wound with a red liquid.
'Mercuric oxide, standard practice, they do it all the time; they don't seem to realise that mercury is a poison, some people die of the stuff. On that subject, don't make any enemies in India, you might end up having ground glass put in your food!' he states with finality.
I catch the eye of the man who runs the cigarette stall, the one whose servant almost blew us up with the high explosive firework. Perhaps he is still upset that I took the young boy to task? Apparently not.
'I see you have silver rupee,' he says, 'you would like other old coin, I find for you, come back soon.'
I look at the newspapers on display, the Hindustan Times, the Times of India. I buy one, after all if I am to return to the West I would have to get used to its predilection with 'news'.
We have committed ourselves to staying in our 'Shangri La' for a month but with the lure of returning home ever growing in my mind I find myself increasingly at odds with my environment. Why, even the impenetrable sanctuary of our ivory tower is even assailed. After taking a dip in Ganga a lone tourist takes it into his mind to join us and enjoy the view from our rooftop. Emphatically we tell him that this area of the ashram is not open to visitors, but cheerfully he ignores us and sits himself down and proceeds to dry his waist length hair and then wind yard upon yard of cloth around his head. His turban finished he departs as cheerfully as he has arrived.
On another occasion our landlady berates us for dropping a cigarette butt over the edge, the breeze that cools us through the heat of the day, now has us in trouble. Though we apologise with all sincerity, the incident definitely puts a strain on our relationship with her. On occasion words are exchanged concerning the 'off-on' situation with regard to water supplies. Since we have paid a rupee extra for the luxury of the bathroom, I make it clear that I will only contribute the one rupee whilst the water is turned off. 'Paani nahin. Paani nahin, do rupee do,' (no water, no water, two rupees give) she crows. With the help of the book (Hugo's Hindi) that I have borrowed from Bevan, I give her as good as I get. But she has her own way of getting back at me. When I visit the little meditation chamber above our room some days later, I discover it has now been padlocked.
The next time the water is turned off I again put only one rupee in the donations box. Barely a minute later, I hear the orange woman screaming up to me, I hadn't realised until now how closely she watches the flow of contributions.
Next time I see her, in an attempt to better relations with her, I ask whether tigers live in the nearby jungle. 'Ji, jungal men,' (Yes in the jungle) she affirms. She goes on to gesture and babble excitedly explaining that in the rains all the animals come out of the jungle and down to the river, elephants, tigers and all the rest of them.
In truth, the closest we are likely to come to a tiger is by looking at the reverse of the red two-rupee note, which perhaps is just as well.
We maintain our regular visits to the post office, ever hopeful of receiving more letters from home. A typewritten envelope from England awaits me one day and after failing to guess the identity of its sender I at last open it. The mystery typist proves to be none other than my eldest brother rendering his advice. Evidently my mother has informed him of our whereabouts and asked him to help us. Having thoughtfully digested the contents but being short of kindling, the high-grade paper comes in useful to start our fire.
From our rooftop we observe the progress of building works at the ashram, sporadically undertaken and presumably funded by the dribble of rupees into the wooden box below. As evening comes the labourers have still not finished working before we retire to our room. As we sit to meditate, a knocking at the door brings me face to face with our landlady, who smiling benignly fairly orders us to loan them our light. I suggest they come back the next day but as her voice soars unbearably, I relent and drag the cable and light to illuminate their nocturnal labours. Hopefully this will mean that we will now back in favour with our landlady?
Another visitor to our eerie is John. It is nice to see him again. I have missed the casual fraternisation possible where we were staying down below.
'Do you know where I can find the Psalm about the 'Lord is my shepherd'?' he asks.
'Sure, it's either the twenty-third or the hundred and twenty third. I've got a Bible here, I'll look it up for you,' I answer easily.
'Thanks a lot,' he says sounding particularly humble. 'By the way I came to tell you that a friend of yours is staying here, a girl, an Italian I think.'
The new visitor turns out to be none other than the Brazilian girl we encountered in Pakistan, in Islamabad. Donna is here with a swami, an aged fellow who she has struck up with on her travels, swami or no swami he is very much 'in tow' to this thoroughly modern miss.
Thinking that the clothes we ordered must, by now, be finished we make a visit to Lakshman Jhoola, but on finding the shop closed we take a wander, with the intention of returning later. As we walk I notice a group of people up ahead, but I can't quite believe my eyes, for it is as though I am travelling back in time, to the last century. The ladies are holding dark parasols and bustle with ankle length black crinoline dresses. They are accompanied by a gent in dark overcoat and wide brimmed black hat. In the flicker of an eyelid they have all disappeared from view. We resume our walk silently contemplating this strange sighting.
As my eyes survey the ground before me, I spot a piece of carved marble attached to a piece of string.
'It's a minaret like the one on the Taj Mahal,' volunteers Yolanda. 'Someone's lost it from around their neck. The Taj is one of the seven wonders of the world, would you like to see it?'
I muse on this idea, but not for long, as my attention is taken at the sight of a sadhu nursing a cow. The cow has a crooked jaw; its dedicated human friend cuddles the huge animal as though it were a pet.
Returning to the tailors we find the shop open and our 'suits' are ready. They have done us proud, for not only have they followed our designs but they have also included a bra-like garment for Yolanda and a loincloth for me. I can't wait to get back and try mine on.
'Ram Ram. Namastay' the cook at the Choti Wala shouts out to us as we pass. He is making jelabi sweets, squeezing the mixture into crazy patterns in the cooking oil and producing mounds of brilliantly orange confectionery. Completing the preparation of another sweetmeat involves throwing the sticky doughy mixture on to a long hook on the wall and stretching it again and again. We decide to stop for a meal, as it will save us coming back later. A young lad, daubed with pink body paint, with a little tuft waxed into a long spike atop of his head, paraded around the restaurant. It transpires that he is the 'choti wala', choti referring to the pigtail of hair worn in exaggerated imitation of Hare Krishna monks. On finishing our meal I go to pay the bill and discover we have been undercharged. On informing the owner that he has not charged us enough he angrily denies it, as though he is affronted in some way. With the little money we have left, it is ironic that we should have to persuade a wealthy man to take our coins. On our way back to the ashram a fruit vendor shouts his ware. 'Amrud, amrud,' he cries.
'I think they're guavas,' Yolanda suggests. 'Let's buy some.' We do, but regret our decision immediately as the pips of this sour fruit stick uncomfortably between our teeth.
That evening we observe a lovely young couple desporting themselves on the shore of Ganga. Intoxicated with each other's company the young lovers seem quite oblivious of their surroundings. I wonder how long it will be before they too begin questioning? How long before they would go off in search of answers to their spiritual dilemmas?
I have another concern. Yolanda's period is late.
To make ourselves some money we decide to sell our wristwatches. Yolanda never wears hers anyway since she has the peculiar property of stopping any self-respecting watch dead just by wrapping it around her wrist. For hers we receive R/s 35 in Rishikesh market and to celebrate visit the vegetarian restaurant and take a taxi back to the ferry crossing. Mine a grander item an Oris with a black dial goes for R/s 110 to a shopkeeper in the village. Of its saleable features is the broad green suede strap that I purchased at Kensington Market. Seeing him wearing the watch a few days later I ask him where the strap has gone, for he now wears a cheap plastic substitute (mind you plastic is held in pretty high esteem in India).
'My mother has told me it is better not to wear that strap it maybe comes from cow,' he tells me accusingly.
'You can take these things too far,' I remark later to Yolanda. 'I remember that he was the one who gave me a funny look when he noticed the feather I was holding the other day. Anyone would think I'd ripped it out of a birds wing!'
The sight of Bevan racing along the foreshore, white robe billowing, his long black hair streaking behind him, begs a question. He is obviously pointed in the direction of the village but what is the urgency that takes him there? On his return I ask him whether everything is all right. His expression registers a note of guilt as he holds up a leaf with the remnants of some fudge.
'Maharishi instructed me to buy them,' he states.
I puzzle how this could be so. Did he telephone all the way from Canada or do they have some other method of communicating? We now hassle Bevan to invite us to lunch soon; it will be our last chance to savour the delectable bread and soup of the academy's kitchen.
The following day we make our way towards the steps up the hill casually smoking our Simlas and happen upon a group of swamis huddled in the bushes smoking bidee cigarettes. We smile at them cheerfully and made our way up in time for lunch. The old swamis also come for lunch and give us grudging glances for no apparent reason. Bevan later explains to us later that they have berated him for allowing us to eat. 'Was it the fact we caught them smoking or that we have superior weeds?' I wonder. We chat to Bevan about many things. Like us, it seems, he can't understand the Indian attitude towards dogs. 'There is one dog,' he tells us, 'who alone can guide us through the jungle when we wish to visit a certain place, I call him St. Peter.'
The topic turns to Bevan's brahmacharya (vow of celibacy and monkhood) he takes this opportunity to explain the reason for his long hair. This is a part of the experience of the tradition, of this Order rather than his personal choice. He explains how being a monk does not mean renouncing all worldly associations, hence the presence of his record player.
But to my mind I figure that if he wants to grow his hair, if he wants to listen to sounds. It is up to him. Also I don't share his unquestioning belief in this particular style of meditation and it's attendant beliefs. When I point out that meditating has rekindled my interest in Christian Science he gives me a look like I failed the test. It seems like only the Maharishi and this style of meditation must be given any particular attention. But, I like to keep an open and questioning mind, after all the meditation is but a means to an end that is common to all faiths and beliefs. The awe that at first I held for Bevan has now levelled out somewhat.
'How is the lad at your ashram?' asks Frank Burkhill.
'Who do you mean?' I reply.
'One of them, the one with long blond hair is ill. Urine the colour of Coca-Cola, could be jaundice I reckon.'
'We'll go and see him soon,' I assure him.
'Careful, it can be very contagious,' he warns.
The orange lady receives few outside visitors; sometimes the local constable with baton under his arm will pop by for a chat with her. One day when I spot someone checking the ledger book I figure that an official of the government is inspecting the ashram. Paying our two-rupee donation we are nabbed by the orange one and brought before this visitor. He checks the details of our stay and asks how much longer we are staying. I merely shrug my shoulders. At this he speaks to the lady who with one eye on us mutters her response. He turns to us and asks us, 'What are you doing here?'
During the whole of our stay here in this area I have never questioned once what we are doing here. I take exception to a question that in a moment takes on a level of profundity, which finds me, unequal to answering it on any level, profound or otherwise. As it happens our month is almost up and we plan to leave in the next couple of days.
Over the last week we have been gradually packing, wrapping the books in newspaper and the smaller items inside empty cigarette packets and matchboxes. We have done our research and found out the time of the first bus to Delhi; we have even sent word to England of our new address (c/o Post Restante, Main Post Office, New Delhi). We are almost ready to go.
I decide to make a lasts visit to John and take along a present of our saucepans. I find him lying down in his room; he seems pleased that I have come over. I small talk for a while and wish him a speedy recovery, but lying there on his mattress he looks most desperately weak. I am concerned that he can afford to stay on here; does he have enough money to stay at the ashram? He brightens a little as he explains that he is staying courtesy of the management. I am glad for him, so at least he doesn't have to worry about accommodation, but I get a sinking feeling when I realise that after Yolanda and I leave tomorrow, in all likelihood our pots and pans will end up in our landlady's clutches.
It seems strange that after coming halfway across the world in search of spiritual stimulation, and after spending a month in such idyllic surroundings here in Swargashram, that we should be leaving here on a sour note with the lady who runs our ashram, but to me her money grubbing ways are not in the least okay. Maybe I am just getting uncomfortable about the unknown future, which is about to start unfolding itself tomorrow. I wonder how well the meditation we have learned at Maharishi's ashram will help us to cope with the everyday up's and down's once we are out of this holy area. I have high hopes for the future, I am determined to face my past karma as best I can, and live in a state of clarity. The Maharishi speaks of cosmic consciousness, an all-time state of living in blissful happiness forever more, I confess I hope that in my life I will come to live such a life. Well, let's face it, that would be more fun than getting down and dejected wouldn't it? Oh well, better get some rest as we have an early start tomorrow.
Yolanda and I eventually made it back to Britain, but before doing so we had to endure a long hard overland journey during which we travelled virtually penniless. Once we had left India (with only a few rupees left between us) we met with mixed fortunes before getting kidnapped by tribals in Pakistan. Whilst travelling through Afghanistan we were still wearing summer clothes (have you ever tried wearing open-toed sandals in the snow?). In spite of the harsh winter climate we got through the days reasonably well and arrived in Teheran on Christmas eve, and were able to celebrate after a fashion (with a lipstick we wrote Christmas greetings on the hotel mirror & and on Christmas day we had a plate of salad and chips at a café). As we travelled I became progressively weaker, until at death's door I was rushed to a hospital in Tabriz. Believe it or not, my life was saved largely due to ingesting large quantities of plain yoghurt, (a local remedy for dealing with viral hepatitus), and by Yolanda reading me chapters from Boccaccio's 'Decameron'; and naturally, when I was alone, spending long periods in silent meditation.
Since the trip I have maintained an interest in things spiritual and in particular have focussed on trying to understand more about meditation. It appears that the real object of meditation, whilst seated comfortably with the eyes closed, is to attain a state of no-thought whilst retaining awareness, a state of alertness of being. When such periods of no-thought are experienced the mind becomes very satisfied and when the meditation is over and one gets on with one's daily existence, the benefit of this brush with superconsciousness lingers and gives one a big lift.
I felt drawn to investigating the life story of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and as a comprehensive biography had not been written I eventually decided to write it myself; 'The Maharishi: the Biography of the Man who Gave Transcendental Meditation to the World', first published by Element Books in 1994, (now available as a paperback from Evolution Books). I have also spent a lot of time researching the Maharishi's guru, Shankaracharya Swami Brahmanand Saraswati and have compiled a book on his life and teachings under the title of: - 'The Teachings of Guru Dev - The Roots of TM' currently viewable online at http://www.paulmason.info/gurudev/gurudev.htm
My website exists to make several of my writings available, I do hope you find something there to interest you; at http://www.paulmason.info/
>>>>>>>Contact details: - firstname.lastname@example.org
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