My day started at 5:30am.
I walked down to the Ganges, down past a faded temple, past souvenir stalls that were yet to be opened like Venus fly traps, dodging wandering cows and half sleepy sadhus, until I came to a chai stall.
What caught my attention was an elderly man, dressed in white and wearing a turban. He had a low great pointed beard, piercing eyes, and a golden dot between his eyes.
I asked if I could take his photo and he noddd his acquiescence – but first he needed to re-tie his turban. He did this swiftly and deftly, and with turban tight and tidy, he then presented himself for the camera.
He had an extraordinary dignity.
I directed him so that I could get exactly the shots I wanted, and he was agreeable always – wanting to please. When I’d finished I offered him some money, but he resolutely refused.
He seemed quite offended that I would offer.
Instead he said I should join him in a chai, so from the old and dirty stall his friend quickly made me a fresh chai. He handed it to me in a glass that had only moments before been filthy – until he’d washed it in a pail of water.
I drank the chai and it was truly delicious. Twelve hours later my tummy is yet to react adversely – I think by now with all my traveling in India, I’ve developed a Delhi Belly immune system.
I offered to pay the chain maker – ten rupees, which is generous for street chain. Bit again he refused. He looked to the old Sikh, who tutt tutted sternly and indicated that it was his shout.
I clasped my two hands in the prayer position, bowed to his generosity and dignity, thanked him and moved on.
I made my way down to the river, and shot some footage in the early morning light. There’s something magical about Mother Ganga, particularly at sunrise and sunset.
I then climbed back up to the wire suspension bridge – the Laxman Jhulia bridge, and crossed over to the other side. As I was walking over the bridge I looked down and way way below me I saw a young man doing yoga on a landing by the banks of the river.
I made my way down and set up my camera. I was behind him and to one side – a perfect angle to get him doing his poses with the river in the background, looking upstream to where the early morning light was striking some ancient buildings.
The young man went through a series of serious yoga asanas. I know my yoga, and he was doing twisty headstands which requires strength, balance, and full concentration.
While he was going through his series of impressive poses, the Sikh gentleman at the chai stall came down for his morning wash. That’s how they clean themselves of a morning – by washing themselves in the river.
He took off his turban, and stripped down to his underwear, and entered the water. He was thin as a rake, but strong. He must have been mid 70s, but perhaps even older. Yet he moved like a young man.
I took his photo and he posed for me in the water, standing to a attention like he was on parade. Again, he radiated a dignity – even though he was half naked, his hair and beard dripping down his thin lined face.
By this stage the light had ceased to be interesting, so I made my way back to the hotel room, where Jennifer was still asleep. She’s capable of sleeping four days straight, I’m sure, if I didn’t wake her of a morning.
As I was downloading the footage there was a sharp knock on the door. I opened it to find one of the young hotel staff holding a newspaper, with a photo of myself on the front page.
This is you, he said, pointing proudly to the picture of me. You Re. Very famous man, he said, straightening slightly in my hallowed presence.
How did I get on the front page of a national newspaper?
North of Rishikesh is a city called Dehradun. It’s like India’s Boston – full of the country’s best universities and colleges. My producing partner on DEFIANT, Anupam Sharma, comes from Dehradun and several years ago he’d introduced me to Satish Sharma, the owner of the local newspaper.
Satish and I became friends, and when he heard I was coming to Rishikesh he drove down with his wife and daughter to meet me. He also took my photo, which went up on his paper, and was then syndicated nationally – for reasons that I can’t fathom.
Anyway, the young hotel worker left me the paper, believing that I would no doubt want to keep it and frame it, then scuttled away – no doubt intimidated to be so close to real star power.
Later as I checked out, the manager and his assistant wanted to have their photo taken with me – as if I was a Bollywood star. It’s the only time I’ve ever checked out of a hotel where the manager has wanted to grab me for a photo op.
Jen and I then took a cab to the ashram where we’re to stay for the next three nights.. We’d walked there the other evening and it was a 3km hike. By taxi it was fourteen kms, half an hour, and 500Rp.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with the ashram. I haven’t stayed in many ashrams in my life. In fact I’ve never stayed in an ashram, nor stepped foot in one. But after the crazy hotel, I was ready for a new experience.
Jennifer and I walked through beautifully manicured lawns and gardens, dotted with Hindu statues of gods and mythological figures, and made our way to the registration desk – housed in one of many large buildings.
Registration was like checking into a hotel – passport taken, forms filled out, papers to sign. While all this was happening I went through a range of wildly oscillating thoughts:
- what sort of room are they going to give me?
- Will it have wifi?
- If I don’t like the room is it cool to go back and ask for another?
- Why am I worried about the room? I should be grateful for whatever they give me…
- You’re a pilgrim after all…
- Will it have sea views? Err, I mean river views?
- Will there be enough power sockets to charge all my batteries?
- Bill, you’re going into an ashram. And it’s only three days. You can survive without all these things you think you need…
- Yes, but what about wifi?
As it turned out we were allocated a glorious room with views that overlook the River Ganges. Later Jennier and I walked around the grounds, and I felt an immediate sense of calm. Parmarth Ashram is regarded as one of the great yoga retreats of the world, and I could see why.
I asked later how much it was going to cost, and I was told it was on a donation basis – whatever I wished.
I know that two days here is not nearly enough time. It’s the kind of place where I could happily spend a very long time…
(Only iPad shots, because there’s no wifi…)