Tuesday, 28 February 2012


Haridwar, one of the holiest pilgrimage centres in India, is best known as the place where millions come for bathing in the Ganges every 12 years at the kumbala mela, and it is truly a city built for an army of pilgims, with vast camping grounds, numerous ashrams anmd temples, and a massive 40 foot high statue of Lord Shiva welcoming one and all.

It is one of Lord Shiva's places, and all of the ones I've visited have a particular quality about them that is hard to describe... a sort of hidden contemplate iciness hidden as a primal layer underneath the usual noise that is India.

Destiny had it that on the holy day of Shivarartri  2012 I found myself mingling with the crowds and glorying in the profusion of noise, smells, colours as Indians of every persuasion stripped down to their underwear for a quick immersion in Mother Ganges... which at this point in her journey was beginning to look muddy and dirty.

Having spent time at Rishikesh in the preceding days I preferred the Ganges as she looks further north, with a startling light turquise colour and a real liveliness. But the crowds were loving the occasion. Whole families were happily sitting at the bathing ghats while hawkers tried to sell plastic sheeting to keep them dry.

A little further from the hubbub I sat on the banks, and the place reminded me... just a little... of the River Cherwell at Oxford, England, where I went to university. Just a hint of a memory and association.

The air was still pretty crisp, but what I love about such places is the "unedited" version you actually see in the flesh. Thus, any documentary on Haridwar would focus on crowds, matted hair ascetics and the rest, but in fact the things I loved about it, aside from the tangible spiritual atmosphere, was how modernity crept in round the edges of the place, yet neither old or new seemed at odds with each other.

The one ash-covered Shaivate brave enough to sit in the middle of the crowds looked more than a little irritated by the crowds simply gawping at him or taking photos on their mobile phone. Haridwar even has a multi-story car-park tucked away out of sight on the main road (not something you'd ever expect to see in India), with what it advertised as "western-style" toilet... a urinal simply dripping onto the ground. Bless.

Where I sat to meditate a small collection of clay murtis awaited either immersion or worship - I could not tell which. I closed my eyes and the low hum of thousands of pilgrims permeated my awareness, plus some other noises I could not easily identify. The noises continued just behind me and in front.

After a while I opened my eyes again, and looked around me. One noise was a cow, placidly munching on the sparse grass and nosing around for something to eat. The other noise was two teenagers merrily washing their motorbikes clean using Ganges water and wearing English premier league football shirts. "That," I thought to myself, "sums up India in two easy visions!" Off to my left, an Indian mother absently patted her young daughter's back as she simply squatted and defecated on the ground.

All places of pilgrimage has crowds of beggars waiting for alms, some of whom can be insistent. But there are also plenty of ashrams - some pretty opulent - who also provide rest, shelter and nourishment. It's one of those places where spiritual movements or leaders want to make their mark, and this has resulted in a sort of ribbon strip of new ashrams on the road in Haridwar. The city is small, but has a good rail connection, too. I passed through it, as well, on my way to and from Delhi to Dehradun.

I'm a lover of silence and solitude, Haridwar is the anthithesis... but to a western Hindu like me, often shunned and rejected by orthodox Indian brahmins let alone westerners, it was an indescribable buzz just to see the main elements of my faith so joyfully and openly expressed. Yes, it is dirty, confusing, gritty. But this is life in the raw, this is the heartbeat of humanity and there was no violence, no nastiness. Om Namah Shivayah!

Friday, 24 February 2012


"The path of Yoga is full of wonders" is one of  the sutras - short phrases to be contemplated at length - of the famous Shiva Sutras, and anyone who pursues the spiritual traditions of meditation, yoga and the teachings of the Indian masters and Gurus, will experience this basic truth again and again. There are high peaks in spiritual practice, there are low valleys and troughs. And occasionally the stars align to create memorable experiences which can inspire our whole life.

We can accept them as they come, bid farewell to them as they inevitably pass, but they become part of our life's journey, part of our own utterly unique pilgrimage. They do not bolster the Ego, that's not the point. They are like the flowers that we create in our Soul's garden, and they emit a fragrance that extends into our future - and past.

This particular peak I'd like to share took place on a visit to India, in a cave in the hills of Rishikesh. And for me, it doesn't really get much better than that.

The trip also took in a short stay at the Dehradun ashram which used to be one of Sri Shivabalayogi's ashrams but is now the residence of  one of his disciples Shivarudrabalayogi (see separate post), as well as a visit to the sacred city of Haridwar for Mahashivarartri - the very definition of a crowded occasion! So read the other blog posts.

But the highlight without a doubt was the time spent in the cave on the banks of Mother Ganges, above Rishikesh, the city of yoga, one of Shiva's special places. It was an event so meaningful to me that it really filled my heart with such joy - and sorrow because I knew the precious time would pass and I would once again have to return back to the west.

Rishikesh has evolved into a strange place in many ways, a mixture of culture and influences. Back in the days of the late 1960s when the Beatles stayed at Maharishi's ashram, and Swami Sivananda Radha stayed at Sivananda's ashram, westerners were very scarce, and the place abounded with sadhus and renunciates of every description. It still has a huge number of ashrams, but it is now also crawling with westerners mostly taking yoga courses or back-packing... and young Indians going for white water rafting down the Ganges.

Add to that the inevitable cows, noisy mopeds, stalls selling every kind of spiritual aid the most determinded spiritual materialist could want (there was even someone selling tarot card readings!); the usual Indians carelessly squatting anywhere they pleased to go to the toilet; the cacophony of a very noisy society... the clanging of temple bells...unforgettable.  

The temples and ashrams still dominate, but this sacred place also seems a little spoilt and commercialised with its embrace of western spiritual tourism. If you can get over that, and leave the main town(s) behind, then the magic is still there. And there is something in the pure air that removes care and sorrow.

I wandered upstream some way out from the Laxman Julla part of Rishikesh, across the suspension bridge with its troupe of monkeys looking for hand outs. I turned left, past some of the big temples, looking for a good place to meditate.

Later, after a longish walk, and just round a bend in the Ganges, hidden from casual view by a tree, and in one of the high rock-faces, I saw a flash of saffron... it looked like a decorated cave entrance. I looked up. Yup. A cave...

I carefully climbed up the loose scree, wondering what or who I would  find. As I got nearer, I saw another flash of orange. It turned out to be a meditation shawl inside the cave. Otherwise this beautiful cave was empty, apart from three postcard pictures of  Divine Mother, in the forms of Durga, Lakshmi and Kali.

The cave was small, but neat and clean, dry and warm, and it looked out on to the Ganges, and the tree - on which a brightly coloured woodpecker was carefully picking at the bark. 

The sound of the Ganges below me, its startling light turquoise colour and foaming life, filled my senses. Looking from the cave - and just from that one spot - you could see down below a natural lingam being continually bathed by the river.

I sat to meditate, bowing before the Goddesses. At this stage in my India travels I was wearing the robes of a sadhu, by far the most comfortable type of clothes to walk around in India! So as I sat, I could not help contemplate this extraordinary turn of events: "I am in a cave by the Ganges, meditating!". Time slowed and slipped away.

I contemplated all the footsteps I'd taken which had led up to this point...starting with the young 13 year old boy reading in 1967 in England about the Beatles and their meditation, amazed at how mysteriously colourful they looked at in those famous posed photos.  I  thought of my 2 years spent on staff working to beocme a TM teacher in the swiss Alps, of my meeting Gurumayi, my dreams and visions of Baba Muktananda, the years of seva, meditation, chanting... the difficult years of divorce and poverty and the beauty of my 3 young daughters who grew up so well into adventurous young women... the loves and friends I'd met along the way. And always, always, this yearning for India... for the life of a sadhu.. of dwelling in a cave in Rishikesh.

And here I was! Was I dreaming my former life? Had I been in the cave all along? Everything seemed so familiar. I was in the womb of the Mother, having darshan of the sacred Ganga. Then visions of Shri Shivabalayogi filled my awareness. There he sat just above my head, as usual, only this time he wielded Shiva's trident, which, in my mind's eye, I saw him ground the staff into my brain. And I was lost in the moment for a long while.

Every moment passes, it is part of our lot as we live in time, and I knew that I would have to get up, leave, resume my life once again. With a heavy heart I left that cave, but it fwelt to me that I'd been given an inexpressable love-gift, maybe a gift that could only mean something to the recipient, a gift that healed a part of me that had begun to grow bitter and cranky over the past few months. The gift was the darshan of Gangamayi, the goddess of the river, and it envelloped me in love, in surrender, in acceptance... in beauty.

"Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou," I whispered in that cave. I whisper it still, and it seems to me, sometimes, that I'm still in that cave, and always will be. Truly this was a wonder I shall never forget. Hari Om!!!