Meeting Ma Ganga and receiving Her Blessings

Continued from previous post –  Pilgrimage to Santopanth Tal

We arrived in Haridwar, the Gateway to the Lord, as the sun was coming up on our first day in India.  We had to get out of the taxi across the river from the hotels.  We hadn’t planned anything beyond flight tickets, but felt nothing but confidence as we grabbed our backpacks and sleeping bag and walked across the dusty lot to the walking bridge across the River Ganges.  I assumed we would be able to get rooms at the Hotel Teerth situated at the River’s edge.   It was simple and clean, even though the monkeys and grasshoppers were often a nuisance there.   We quickly checked in and came back out to do morning sadhana against the background of  morning chants and bhajans and the sounds of the Ganges.   Although exhilarated I was also exhausted so told Devananda and Randy that I would return to the hotel and sleep a couple of hours.   We decided to meet for lunch about one o’clock.    I asked that they wait for me to bathe in the Ganges.    They agreed as long as I didn’t sleep too long.  I promised I would only take a short nap.

Devananda and I meet back at 1’clock and had tomato uttapams and lots of steaming chai at a small restaurant a few doors down from our hotel.  He liked chai as much as I did.  It was nice to just sit by the River and soak in the energy.  Everything was so new to Devananda. He was so intrigued by the sadhus who sat under the ancient and spreading tree by our hotel, doing nothing alone sitting, all day long.   I recall too, that I had never seen that they ever left their tree.  They never seemed to  get up and walk around or go off to use the toilet or eat.  They just sat.    I never even saw them meditate.  Anway,  instead of taking a nap, Devananda had gone to sit next to them, to meditate.   I was surprised they allowed him to.

Randy had gone off to find  a friend of his who owned a jewelry store in Haridwar.   Randy had already eaten when  he finally arrived at the restaurant.   We all went to  visit his friend’s jewelry  shop.    Devananda ordered two neck malas made of gold and rudruksha seeds, and several wrist malas of the same, in addition to several other pieces of jewelry for his wife.    As soon as  the jeweler saw us he inquired, ” chai or coffee?”   Who were we to refuse, 3 more chais!

We walked abit through the town to do some more shopping.  I found an amazing drum that I just had to purchase.   I  had to have it,  not as a gift, but for our trip. I was going to learn to drum!  We went back to the hotel with our purchases and changed into bathing suits. We got our meditation cushions and shawls and went down to the ghat to take our first holy bath in the sacred Ganges.

The ghats were full of devotees.  Everyone in Haridwar  seemed to be taking their rituals baths just then.   There was only one section which was empty.   It was strange, everywhere else the place was packed.   I assumed the Lord Himself had cleared that particular part of the ghat for us and us alone.
Devananda and Randy stripped to their skivvies. I had a one piece bathing suit on and removed my skirt and blouse.  I noticed that many of the young men along the river had started to gather close to us.  I was quite put out.  What right did they have to be voyeurs to this sacred moment?  They all had their arms draped over each others shoulders and were pointing and chatting about us.  To bathe one walks down steps right into the water… There are poles in the water every few meters on which a metal chain is hooked.  The chain continues throughout the formal bathing ghat for protection as the water can be rather rapid.   But for the most part, the river in Haridwar is relatively slow moving.
For the most part,yes, but not at that particular spot, which we had chosen to bathe.  I was the first one in.  I step down and reached for the chain. The current swept me up and swallowed me whole. I went under and flipped twice over the chain.  I was caught in the chain under the water.   I swallowed a mouthful of the Ganges.   Randy jumped into the water, grabbed me and pulled me up to the steps, stunned and sputtering.  “Oh no! Randy had saved my life!”   I climbed onto a higher  step of the ghat.   Devananda was  sitting  next to me  laughing hysterically!

”What are you laughing at? I almost drowned! And you did nothing!” I said.   Not only did Devananda do nothing but laugh, the crowd of young boys that had gathered were also laughing hysterically. Apparently everyone but us, knew better than to enter the Ganges at this particular place where swift currents entered from two sources.   Why no one was bathing there in the first place!

Devananda said, “I thought it might happen.  And Randy had you in a New York second and I am a very strong swimmer, I would have gotten you, even if the current had taken you down stream!”  And, he laughed some more, “you looked so funny, you did two complete flips over the chain.”
“I’m glad I was able to entertain you!” And I too began to laugh. “What an auspicious beginning.” The idea of a bath is to wash away sins of the bather. My total immersion must have been as  good a  karmic cleansing I could get, especially since I had not drowned in the process.    Then Devananda and Randy jumped into the water and pretended to get caught in the current and then  stayed to play in the water for quite some time, egging me to come back in.

I wrapped myself up in my shawl, put my skirt back on and told the young men to go along and goggle some other hapless Westerner. They all laughed and finally left me to my embarrassment in peace.  I meditated and found myself fall quite deep. When I opened my eyes, both Randy and Devanada were seated on either side of me meditating.  I put on my blouse and went back to the hotel to change clothes.  When I came back out of the hotel, Randy and Devananda were coming to get me. We all went down to Har Ki Pauri for the evening aarati at the Ganges.
At a point near where we had bathed earlier is Har Ki Pauri where every night there is ceremony of worship of the River Ganges. This place is positioned exactly where the Ganges leaves the mountains and enters the plains.
Part of the Aarati is the song itself that is chanted with devotion as the highest form of love one can show God. The aarti to the Ganges resonates within and is unforgettable. Another part is the aarati is the offering of light. The practice is a form of an ancient vedic fire ceremony. The lights offered the River leaves a deep impression. I challenge anyone not to participate in this practice.   Getting caught up in the practice of the aarati, I always  light my own camphor wicks in small leaf boats, filled with fresh colorful flowers and offer it lovingly to Ma for Her Blessings.  Often a devotee will throw himself into the water and be swept along with the current,  perhaps to be cleansed of some evil.

The aarati had affected Devanada deeply. We sat for a long time by the water, as the crowds move on to the shops and restaurants.  This had been our first day. We were preparing ourselves for the pilgrimage to follow. Tomorrow we would order the taxi and buy supplies in Rishikesh, but today had been important.  The enthusiasm and excitement that we shared earlier over our adventure to Santopanth Tal to find Babaji was mellowing.  We were beginning to feel the deep importance of the inner journey we were about to take.  And we did not know where it would take us.  It began to rain.

The next morning, after ordering embarrassing amounts of chai with our breakfast, we left for Rishikesh.  Rishikesh was about a 45 minute auto-ricksaw drive from Haridwar.  We had to get two of them, for us and our luggage. We rode in one, our luggage in the other.  We checked into our rooms at the Tourist Bungalow near by the Sivananda  Ashram and got in another rickshaw saying take us to the nearest tourist agency, which as it turned out was about a block down from the Bungalows – a two minute walk at most!

We tried to plan for the whole trip to Santopanth with the agency, but all we could do was to rent a car and driver to Joshimath.  We would have to stop in Joshimath on the way up to get permission from the local authorities who had never before granted permission to Westerners to travel beyond Mana.  There in Joshimath we would have to arrange for porters and gear.  Randy had told us this already. He knew some porters and was certain that he could arrange everything there. All we needed was a car to Joshimath.   We arranged for the car to pick us up in early in the morning in two days. We would need two days in Rishiskesh to buy equipment and food stuff as very little was available in either Joshimath or Badrinath.  All was arranged and it began to rain.

It rained off and on the entire time we were in Rishikesh.  The streets are dirt and the rain made quite a mess of them.  We had so much to plan to buy, but also we needed to remember that we would have to carry this stuff in and out.

We bought heavy woolen clothing, lots of film and freeze dried foods and walking sticks and we meet all sorts of crazy sadhus and swam in the Ganges where it was relatively calm and we did postures together and meditated on Her banks and we lay on Her beaches and just watched Her flow over her massve stones. And we watched Her trees and birds and monkeys playing in the rain.  It was all so much fun. I remember we had a wonderful evening meal at some place in town, I would like to remember the name of.  I haven’t been able to find it since.

The morning we left Rishikesh, you could hardly see two feet in front of your face, the fog was so thick.  We left by 5 a.m.  It was pitch dark. The only lights were the blinking neon lights in the front and back of the taxi. On the front dashboard was a brightly blinking Ganesha and across the back window was a whole series of multicolored blinking Christmas tree lights. The driver had turned on his radio tape deck. And loud indiscernible bhajans were being blared from a squealing and distorted speaker system.  Devananda and I just looked at each other, totally dumbfounded by the absurdity that anyone would be okay with all this visual and auditory noise.  The taxi driver seemed totally unbothered by the fact that he couldn’t see to drive, or that his ears were being assaulted or his eyes distracted by the blinking lights.  And Randy was asleep in the front seat.
In addition, the driver must have some kind of internal navigation system, because he drove very fast and wouldn’t even slow down on the curves.  Devanada would suggest that he slow down and he would for about a mile. He speed up again.   I would tap him on the shoulder and say, “Please slow down now.”  And he would, for another mile before speeding up again.  The first hour we let him have his blinking lights and music as it seemed he needed them.  But, that was all we could take and had him turned it all off.   The first  hours of our drive were positively harrowing.  Once the sun came up and dried up the fog, it was easier, but still he drove way-too-fast for the dangerously curving, view obstructed mountain roads.  I was both nauseous and pissed most of the day.  Devananda seemed to take it all in stride and got back at the driver, by making him stop endlessly for each photo opportunity. Randy remained asleep for most of it.  Perhaps they were both more surrendered than I.

Our favorite stop along the way was at Rudraprayag in the Garwahl, where the Alaknanda and Mandakini Rivers converge.  There are many  beautiful Siva and Narayan temples, just above the point of convergence, and a friendly and inspiring old Tantric Yogini is the pujari at the shrine just above convergence. We walked down the steep steps to put our feet in the water. There is so much energy there and power that it is mesmerizing.  It is like being at one with the power of a hydro-electric dam. So much potential energy and you are seated at its center. I highly recommend the experience. Also worth seeing is the Kotewar cave which is filled with shivalingas and the point on the Alaknanda, where sages have taken jal samadhi in the past.

The taxi driver suggested that we spend more time here, but we wanted to get on with the travel.  And so we were off.  Not far from there were delayed for a bit, due to some activity on the narrow roads.  We thought there might have been a landslide which is almost an everyday event.  What in fact we discovered had occurred was that a bus traveling the night before had  gone off the road taking everyone in it to their deaths, everyone it seems except the bus driver, who had escaped unharmed somehow as the bus went over the cliff.  Not only that, but the tragedy escalated when a second bus full of people who heard about the accident went to help the first bus and they too went over the cliff. And again the driver, who like the first had been drinking survived.  Devananda, Randy and I thought of Linda, Devananda’s wife and her premonition and gasped.

As we slowly reached the spot of the accident, we could see both buses crushed at the bottom of the thousand foot ravine. Army trained specialists were on the scene, but no one seemed to be doing much of anything. Such tragic accidents occurred each year and attributed to speed, bad tires, poor bus and automobile maintenance, drunk driving, poor weather conditions, landslides and karma.

Before nightfall we had reached Joshimath and our hotel. We checked in, met to eat a small meal of Chinese noodles and went to our rooms to meditate and sleep.  We hardly spoke.  That night we all had powerful meditations with Babaji.  I sat for hours outside on my balcony overlooking the valley doing mantra japa. The importance of this yatra was beginning to sink in at deeper and deeper levels.  The giddy excitement had all but left me.  At some point in my meditation, I was pulled out of it by loud knocking on the door.  Randy was just outside, “Babaji is here, Durga!” Randy was saying.   I got up and opened the door.  “My meditation, Babaji was here!” He said excitedly.

I told him that I  had felt that too.   I had experienced Randy meditating as I meditated.  I felt my connection to him and the energy that was circulating around Randy and I too felt it was Babaji.   I was totally at peace, totally content and deeply humbled. Randy went back to his room to meditate through the night. I went out on the balcony again to continue my japa.  Sleep that night was very deep and restful.

The next morning we were all in the breakfast room by 8am. After copious amounts of sweet chai the three of us went off to the government office to get permission to travel to Santopanth.  The office would open at 9a.m. we were told, if of course it opens at all. One never knew.  We were still standing in front of the government office at 10 a.m. when a man came to open the door.  We were told that the official was too busy with the upcoming election to see us at all today!  At which point we all literally begged to the point of being so annoying that the gentleman said, well, wait here, if he has any time I will ask if he will see you. Devananda  and I said that we would not budge.  We sat on a nearby wall to wait.  Randy would go and find Deba, his young friend who had agreed to meet us Joshimath, go with us on the pilgrimage to cook, and would help us arrange for a guide and porters. We took his passport and extra photos and wished him luck.  He knew where to find us.

From time to time that day, Randy would come back to the government office to check on our progress and to relate his own.  It was a difficult day and closing time was soon approaching.  Finally, around 3:30pm, Randy came back with an obvious suggestion.  Baksheesh!  Why hadn’t we though of it sooner?  Randy asked Devananda for 200 rupees and called the official out for a moment, slipping it to him cautiously without saying a word.   A minute later the electricity went out.

Devananda and I did not budge a moment all day long. I don’t know how our kidneys held out so long, but neither of us left that spot outside the office. Tomorrow was the general election and once that began, who knows when we might get the opportunity to even see this official much less get permission. At about 15 minute to 5 in the afternoon, the official called us into his office.

There was still no electricity in the town and the office was darkening as we spoke.  Devananda had a strong flashlight with him and held it steady throughout the whole interview.  That light allowed the official to  read our documents and lit the room while he  heard our story.   The official said he was impressed with our persistence and would grant  us permission, although we were only the second Westerners to whom he had granted permission.   He showed us his  log book. The only other permission had been granted a month earlier to two other westerners.   He showed us their photos.  It was Govindan and Walter.   So next to their photos, our photos were attached and he began to typed up three permission letters to be given to the Army post station at Mana.  Devananda stood behind him,  his flashlight aimed on the typewriter.

Randy walked into the room just as the official finished pecking out the last letter on his old Underwood typewritter.  We all  signed the documents.    Randy had arranged for five porters and a guide  who would meet us in two days time in Badrinath.   We were elated, our trip to Santopanth was assured and even the official seemed to be happy for us.  We all had chais all around to celebrate!

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