The narrow streets are crowded: saturated with whirring sounds of scooters and trucks, pungent sandalwood incense trails and the scent of freshly fried banana samosas; lazy soot-covered animals, orange-clad sadhus smoking hashish packed chillums, clanging their begging bowls, bidding “Namaste! Hari Om.” For a mere three hundred rupees, you can buy yourself enlightenment, through prayer sealed with a vibrant crimson kumkum tilak.
Little shops selling Tibetan jewelry, singing bowls, tapestries and prayer flags line the streets; interspersed with cafés and restaurants offering vegetarian fare and free wifi. Rudraksha seeds and massages, every form of Ayurvedic treatment and product, spices, purses, shawls and the entire gamut of yoga supplies readily available.
The sadhus, or holy men, are almost as prevalent as the divine bovine who languidly stroll through town with full reign over flow of traffic, both pedestrian and mechanical. These holy cows are at the top of the vegetarian food chain in Rishikesh, India. Free to wander as they please, they dine on leftovers found or fed to them by tourists dressed in yogic whites, and horrifically, on garbage that lines every nook and cranny of the cracked pavement.
Momo stands selling steaming vegetable-stuffed Nepalese dumplings are a popular hangout for the cows, who happily lap up what remains in paper plates bearing succulent pockets of deliciousness. Calves navigate the streets in the company of their mothers, often venturing on their own, in search of full bellies and gentle pats of passerby.
The only competition for the cows are gangs of monkeys usually found policing the two bridges connecting opposite banks of the Ganges’ rushing waters– from Tapovan to Laxman Jhula and Ram Jhula.
There are two types of monkeys in Rishikesh: the dark-faced, long-haired grays– slow-moving, patient and sweet; and the smaller, mischievous, brown ones with petite wrinkly faces– looking for any excuse to get into trouble. Thievery, vandalism and unabashed fornication are their specialty. Avoiding eye-contact, head down and feet forward, is the best way to pass unscathed.
I stand at the Tapovan side of Laxman Jhula bridge, reveling in the quiet of early morning tranquility. The foot bridge is bare of pedestrians, a rare sight, only experienced at the break of day or late into the night. To my left is the coveted German Bakery, boasting a million-dollar view and fresh-baked vegan treats, a favorite indulgence of the local tourist populace.
Sharing a wall with a closet-sized bookstore teaming with favorably-priced publications, the German Bakery is a one-stop-shop for a steamy cup of spicy chai, delicately sweet cinnamon roll, and spiritually-inclined reading material. Hours spent at the bakery pass unnoticed, an oasis from the bustle of either side of the Ganga.
I am on a mission. My team of Kaivalya Misfits has disbanded– the girls to a school in Ram Jhula and my Canadian Vipassana compadre off to the mountains to find his truth in the company of a plain-clothed Sadhu leading the way.
The task of finding my home in Rishikesh is not an easy one, but in my heart I know where I belong. The question is, will fate send me hurdling over very tangible obstacles into the warmth and community of the ashram, or will timing and circumstance lead me down a prolonged path of wandering inquiry?