Weaving past cars that honked like loud geese, dodging past staring pedestrians, and avoiding the advances of many a trinket-seller, Aardra and I finally arrived at the large, magnificent Hindu temple located right next to the holy Ganges River in Rishikesh. We took off our sandals and placed them in a cubby, ready to ascend the temple and experience what pilgrims from all over India seek in Rishikesh. I was awed and perhaps a little by the beautiful but haunting Devis, Shivas, Krishnas and Vishnus, their cheeks rounded and eyes wide like porcelain dolls, situated inside separate enclaves. But what struck me the most odd about the temple were the stores selling prayer beads, crystals and jewelry in enclaves adjacent to the gods and goddesses.
And as we climbed to the top of the temple, there was an idol of Krishna with a man sitting inside the enclave. He beckoned for Aardra and me to drink the holy water and palmed some sugar balls into our hands; he said something incomprehensible (as it was in Hindi) and used a chopstick-like wand to mark some red substance on my forehead – a bhindi. He then proceeded to place prayer beads on my neck and then once again mumbled something in Hindi. I had no idea what was happening or the significance of it all, but one thing was clear: after he was done, he motioned towards the bills of rupees on his mini-desk. He wanted money. Aardra looked annoyed and told me to walk away. I returned the prayer beads to him and left, unsure of whether this was a money-making endeavor or a spiritual ritual.
Rishikesh is a land of the holy for Hindus, a place of spiritual retreat for those who want to go on an Eat, Pray, Love journey, a location for pilgrims who are discovering and renewing their spirituality, a place to experience yoga and meditation at its peak. But it has also become highly commercialized, with plenty of tourist attractions such as white water rafting and backpacking, and plenty of people who want to make money off of pilgrims – it is in this place (a mini-travel journey from Chirag) that made me realize that India is a culture of juxtapositions: of beautiful and spiritual traditions, and of ashrams and peaceful meditation—existing right next to loud, disorganized streets with overwhelming smells and sights and aggressive shopkeepers. On one hand, a sense of peace. On the other hand, chaos.
And the two are even merging, intermingling “pure” faith and “corrupting” money, shops and sanctuaries into one entity: the temple. Which made me question: shouldn’t faith be the only thing that matters in terms of being religious or spiritual? Isn’t your connection to God determined by faith and mind alone? So why must I pay to buy prayer beads, or why must I be compelled to pay this man who coaxed upon me a bhindi?
But this leads me to another line of reasoning, an attempt to explain much that I am experiencing in India: that these people need to make money in any way possible – an endeavor that is not uncommon in as populous of a place in India. It is an endeavor that is not inherently wrong, as every human being needs to make money to buy food or at least be self-sufficient. But as I have learned, one needs to fill up the stomach before one fills up the mind (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shout out). Surviving and scraping up food or water trumps all, even if it requires you to tie a monkey to a leash or sell religious trinkets in a temple. And where there is a place to capitalize upon for money, even faith, people do it – not just in Hinduism but in all other religions as well. And people drive this market: they are willing to buy these items because they attach significance to them. We attach significance to worldly things.
Traveling, and being bombarded by experiences, sights and smells, gave me a lot of reflect upon. As I looked into the holy waters of the Ganges in Rishikesh, I saw not a reflection of myself, but a reflection of who I was not; a reflection of where I come from by standing in a place where I do not. And while it was an overwhelming trip in every way possible, I am grateful for seeing urban India in some more depth. At the same time, I am 100 times more grateful for being in the peaceful area of Odakhand, where the angry beeps or cars are replaced by singing birds and chirping crickets and where the hot, suffocating air has become a cool mountain breeze.