RISHIKESH – The River Ganges sets the pace for life in this city at the foothills of the Himalayas, just as it set the pace for our day of markets and aartis, puja and performance.

Even though we arrived in Rishikesh after midnight, a few early-risers took to the river with the break of day. Along the banks, local volunteers filled buckets with water to wash out the last brightly colored dregs of Holi from gats along the river. One man sat in the Lotus position and meditated. Two women in pink and turquoise saris cupped their hands around an aarti’s flame and sent it out across the water. As the sun rose higher, we sat on the hotel balcony with chai, watching the light catch on the swells.

We boarded our bus for the ride to the sister city of Hardwar, also along Ganges, where we saw murti – religious figures of deities, persons and icons – smiling out from their watery abode. Hinduism forbids the destruction of murti by burning or disposal, leaving people to dump their broken or “incomplete” figurines in flowing water like the Ganges. Gurus and politicians, noting that the murti add to the fouling of the river, condemn the practice, but, short of a clear alternative, it continues.

Hardwar seemed like part water park and part temple. We watched as hundreds of devotees, many of them with families in tow, bathed playfully in the river, the men in their underwear and the women in their saris. This bathing is one part of the washing away of sins – one step along the path to moksha. Meanwhile on the shore, the poor held out their hands for alms, some of them selling aarti boats of flowers and camphor wax. Young men approached us for selfies along the banks of the holy river.

Daily Dispatch: Day 6
Daily Dispatch: Day 6
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We made our way through Hardwar’s bustling market, pausing to buy beads or finger textiles. Wooden prayer beads are as they always were – but there were signs of modernizing, too. A teashop sold chai with frothy milk from an automatic machine, while another stall sold key rings in the shape of the Facebook logo. Like Rishikesh, the holy town of Hardwar is “pure vegetarian:” no eggs, meat or fish is allowed. Stalls on the ground sold every vegetable imaginable, but the only animals in the market were alive and well. Monkeys swung from electric cables while cows walked moonily up and down the streets.

From Hardwar, we took a bus, a boat and finally a rickshaw to Parmarth Niketan, an ashram down by the banks of the river. The leader of the ashram is Chidanand Muni and his second-in-command and designated successor is Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswatiji. Bhagawati, who was born to an American Jewish family, stumbled across Rishikesh while traveling in India while pursuing her PhD some 25 years ago. In a talk to our group, Bhagawati recalled first walking into the river and feeling a “deep spiritual awakening.” Through tears of “truth and homecoming,” she said, she knew she needed to stay. Bhagawati spoke to us about the challenges of being one of few women spiritual leaders in her field, and how it motivates her to continue public speaking and attending events.

“At least by being there,” she said, “I’m going to be able to be a model [for other women].” Eighty to ninety percent of those who come to volunteer and live at the ashram are women, most of them from overseas, she added.

As the sun set over the Ganges, we returned to its banks for an aarti among well over 100 devotees. Many were not Hindu – two clutched Dalai Lama bags – and still more had come from far away. A young man with blond dreadlocks shut his eyes and rocked from side to side as the guru, Chidanand Muni, chanted. It was Bhagawati’s spiritual birthday, he said, and the anniversary of her first visit to Rishikesh. As devotees threw flower petals over her, tears pooled on her cheeks and she closed her eyes in joy. The water, which had been calm and still in the morning, rushed past us in full, ecstatic flow.

By the end of the night, at our hotel, it was too dark to see the river – although we could hear it rush along into the dark. Two classical Indian musicians, one on violin and the other on tabla, performed on the balcony of our hotel, their song competing with the far-off vibrations of rickshaw horns and the Ganges, flowing on into the night.

Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang