Houses of Worship: The Unintended Victims of Demonetization

By Andrea Januta and Ellen Ioanes

New Delhi -- Late on a cool spring night in Delhi, pilgrims and tourists from all over the world make their way to the Nizamuddin Dargah, a shrine which houses the body of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, one the most famous Sufi saints. The visitors sit on the floor in the large open area outside the mausoleum itself to hear the qawwalis, or Sufi devotional music.

First starts the tabla, a small drum, then other musicians join in with the harmonium and with their voices. Soon, the crowd is swaying to the music, captivated. To show their appreciation for the music and commitment to the saint some devotees walk up to the musicians and begin dropping rupees in front of them. Some are timid, with only a couple of bills to spare; others have a stack of bills and make an elaborate show of bestowing them onto the musicians.

In the two or so hours they spend playing these devotional songs, the qawwali musicians will bring in piles and piles of bills -- sometimes as much as 20,000 rupees.

In addition to listening to devotional music, worshipers lay garlands of roses and sweet candies around the tombs of the saints. Some purchase shawls to lay on the tombs in a thick tapestry of multi-colored cloth.

To support the shrine’s upkeep and charitable activities, visitors also leave cash on the tombs or in locked wooden boxes marked “Donations” in Hindi and Urdu.

 

70 Percent Drop

But donations -- to the singers or the shrine -- aren’t what they used to be. Religious organizations across India have seen significant decreases in contributions since the government’s sudden announcement last November that the two largest rupee bills, the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, were no longer valid. (In dollar terms, these bills are worth just under $8 and just under $16, respectively.)

Syed Hammad Nizami, a descendant of the saint and one of the shrine’s caretakers, estimates that donations to the shrine have fallen by 70 percent since November. His family has run the shrine for hundreds of years and relies entirely on cash offerings for its maintenance and operations, including charitable programs and workers’ salaries. The shrine distributes free food twice a day and runs a madrasa that serves 150 students.

When donations plummeted, the Nizami family had to find funds elsewhere to avoid scaling back these programs.

“At that time it was very hard for two, three months, so we organized wealth from our savings,” Syed says. They have seen a moderate recovery since, but cash flows are still far below their usual levels.

“Worship is not changed,” he says. “People are coming continuously. But people [don’t] have the money to contribute.”

 

Fighting Corruption and Crime

In November of 2016, the Modi government rolled out its plan for demonetization and remonetization. Overnight, the government took all 500 and 1000 rupee notes out of circulation and introduced new 500 and 2000 bills. Limits on exchange and withdrawal resulted in a severe cash crunch nationwide.

The government announced the move to attack and weaken a growing counterfeit market linked to terrorism and corruption, as well as a largely untaxed economy conducted in cash. “Demonetization is truly the first major frontal assault on black money,” said Arvind Panagariya, the Vice-Chairman of the government’s policy think-tank, the Niti Aayog, in an interview with India’s Economic Times. “It sends a loud and clear signal that the prime minister is serious about combating corruption, and there is not going to be any compromise on this front.”

Some also speculate that the announcement aimed to sway public opinion ahead of upcoming elections. But its surprise implementation -- with less than four hours notice -- upended the economy.

People scrambled to get their hands on usable bills, and businesses across all industries were hit as spending fell.

 

Effects Felt Across Religions

The Nizamuddin shrine isn’t the only religious institution feeling the crunch.

Five miles away at the Jama Masjid, one of India’s largest mosques, donation boxes are prominently displayed. But, these have yielded disappointing returns for several months. Tariq Syed Bukhari, a member of the leading Sunni family in Delhi and brother of the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid, says the mosque has cut operating expenses in response to the drop in contribution levels. “I would say, as of now, the position is a little bit improving,” says Bukhari. “But from November until January, [the drop] was more than 50 percent.”

But it hasn’t cut down on its charitable activities, Bukhari said. The mosque has continued feeding families in need, but to do so it had to negotiate to receive food on credit. The mosque feeds a couple dozen families every month and expects that soon donations will improve enough that it can repay the loans. Its most important charitable activity, however, is providing iftar, the fast-breaking meal, to over 100 people daily during the holy month of Ramadan. This year Ramadan begins in the last week of May. “We still have time,” says Bukhari. “Things will ease out by that time.”

 

Some Spared

Other groups have been luckier. Rushi Rathashriji, a Jain nun in Ahmedabad, says that demonetization didn’t impact her even though Jain nuns rely entirely on donations for their livelihood. “Everybody was giving just the usual. Nothing changed,” she says.

Jains are required to give one fourth of their income to charity as part of their religious practice -- and wealthier Jains give more. There are many causes for them to choose from, including cleaning the Ganges, supporting impoverished citizens, and paying for the care of animals. Rathashriji guesses that this predetermination is responsible for her stable income level. “Since people have already decided what percentage to give, they made up for it two or three or four weeks later when they had the cash.”

Many of the larger transactions, usually given to Jain nuns after weekly public sermons, are done by wire and are thus less likely to be affected by the cash crunch. As Jains are typically wealthier members of Indian society, this may also protect them somewhat from economic hardships of demonetization.

 

A Gift for Some

Shrivatsa Goswami, the guru of the Caitanya Prem Sansthan Ashram, views demonetization as a gift. “It was not at all a point of any suffering or any pain,” he says.

His ashram is located in Vrindavan, a town in the northern region of Uttar Pradesh. The town is over a hundred miles from Delhi and has a much smaller economy than the financial hub, India’s second richest city. He points out that this may be part of the reason that his town is less opposed to demonetization. Since the restrictions limit withdrawals to 4000 rupees a week, a sum that he says many poor Indians “will never see” in that period, he argues those below the poverty line are unaffected.

Instead, he believes that the backlash was created by corrupt officials and media hype. Ordinary people, he says, took demonetization as “a good intent for first step towards cleaning the system. It's not going to clean in one day, you know.”

As evidence, he points to the recent election results in Uttar Pradesh, which overwhelmingly elected the BJP ruling party responsible for demonetization’s implementation. If the policy had harmed most citizens, he says, the results would have been the opposite.

Goswami supports the government’s current reforms. One of his major gripes is the lack of taxpaying citizens: just over 2 percent of India’s population pays income taxes, according to the Indian government’s own figures. The burden disproportionately falls on working class Indians whose salaries are directly taxed.

“That wrong has to be corrected,” Goswami says. “And some harsh measures have to be taken care of. And now, because of this political stability, maybe more harsh economic reforms will come.“

 

An Uncertain Future

While this may seem like a needed reform for some leaders, others continue to feel the burden of demonetization. At the Jama Masjid, Bukhari says employee salaries have been cut, and he doesn’t know when they will recover. Approximately 25 people are employed at Jama Masjid, including the imams, ticket sellers and cleaning staff.

While the mosque does charge small sums for permission to take photos or tickets to enter the tower overlooking the grounds, it does not come close to meeting the mosque’s operating expenses.
Like many houses of worship nationwide, the mosque is looking for ways to cope with the unexpected financial hardship. But according to Bukhari, religious organizations face limited options because of their public and religious nature: “You can’t put an entrance ticket on the mosque.”


The Multi-Colors of Love: Holi is not just for Hindus

By Andrea Januta and Ellen Ioanes

VRINDAVAN -- On most days, the narrow streets of this sacred Indian city are teeming with all kinds of human, animal and mechanical traffic: ambling cows, barefoot pilgrims, darting motorcycles and noisy auto-rickshaws. But during the Hindu festival of Holi, all of that changes. Residents and visitors clog the thoroughfares and toss brilliant colored powders in red, pink, blue, purple, green, orange and yellow, painting everyone -- and everything in sight -- with rainbow colors.

Vrindavan is an important site for Hindus; it’s where Lord Krishna is said to have spent his childhood and the town is located on the banks of the Yamuna River, the second most sacred river in India.

Holi’s origin stories have become tied to Hinduism over time. The first day of the festival commemorates stories of familial betrayal and intrigue: the story of a boy whose father attempts to kill him for worshiping Vishnu instead of himself. The father enlists his sister to burn the boy in a bonfire, but the plan backfires, killing the sister instead of the boy. On Holi, many communities burn a bonfire at dusk to commemorate the triumph of good over evil.

Throughout the festival, people toss colors at one another and spray colored dyes, representing the union between the god Krishna and his consort Radha. Krishna, self-conscious of his dark blue skin, painted Radha’s fair skin to make himself feel less embarrassed. Says Shrivatsa Goswami, the guru of the Caitanya Prem Sansthan Ashram in Vrindavan, “In the colors of Holi, you know, you have fair skin, I have dark skin, [...] this skin or that skin." On Holi, he adds, “the color is one.”

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Holi in Vrindavan

Festivities at the ashram are unique; here, a troupe of young men performs the story of Radha and Krishna in the Phoolonwali Holi, or flower Holi. In elaborate costumes and face paint, the young men reenact the story of Radha and Krishna’s love, including their wedding, after which they are covered in a mountain of marigold, jasmine and rose petals. After the couple emerges, the audience is encouraged to toss handfuls of the petals themselves, culminating in a colorful, fragrant and unifying celebration.

John Cort, a religion scholar from Denison University, says that Holi is essentially “a neighborhood event in which everyone in a community is expected to participate.” Despite the strong presence of Hindu mythology in the festival’s origins, he says, “it is a joyous springtime festival, the celebration of which traditionally has not been tied to any one religious community.”

It is not at all unusual for people of other faiths to participate in Holi celebrations. “It is a part and parcel of our memories,” said Syed Tariq Bukhari, a member of the leading Sunni family in Delhi. There is even ample evidence that Mughal rulers like Akhbar and Jahangir celebrated Holi in their royal courts.

While India’s Muslim population is the third largest in the world, Muslims are still a minority in the country. However, says Bukhari, they don’t feel singled out: “We are proud of the multicultural society of India, we are very proud to be Indians, and as far as Partition is concerned, we are Indians by choice, not by chance.”He continues, “You can see that the majority of the Indians whether they are Hindu or Muslims or Sikhs or Christians, they want to live together in peace. And that will -- that will win.”

That sentiment is echoed by J.P. Anklesaria, a retired Army Brigadier and a member of Ahmedabad’s Parsi community. He belongs to the largest community of Parsis, ethnic Iranians who have lived in India for centuries and practice Zoroastrianism. The once-strong group has seen its numbers dwindle; Indian Parsis number only about 60,000 today, according the BBC.

Despite their challenges, they’ve become one of the most powerful and influential minority groups in the country. Its members include figures such as Ratan Tata, the head of Tata Industries, and Cyrus Poonawalla, who started the world’s largest vaccine producer, Serum Industries of India.

When asked whether his community faces persecution, he said: ”Never. Never. For the simple reason that we respect those other religions, whatever it is, Islam, Christianity, Jews, or Jains, or whatever. [...] It's simple. Why should you disrespect it? Why should you say that my religion is the greatest or your religion is this or that?”

When asked specifically about whether Zoroastrians play Holi, Anklesaria replied, “Of course we do. By all means. There is no restriction on that!”

Even small, distinct communities like the Jews of Ahmedabad, who number only 140, embrace Holi as part their culture. Benson Enoch Argwarker, a member of the Magen Abraham synagogue in Ahmedabad, says he participates by putting colors on others’ faces. This extends to other holidays, too. He continues, “If it is Christmas, I’ll bring cake, and enjoy. If it is Divali, our house will be full of sweet meats.” He stresses, though, that it’s not a religious participation: “That’s part of the enjoyment – culturally.”

Some religious traditions find it more challenging to integrate Holi with their beliefs. For example, many Holi practices, like the burning of bonfires, drinking intoxicating substances like marijuana-laced bhang, and singing obscene songs, directly contradict Jain principles and philosophy. The driving principle of Jainism is ahimsa, or nonviolence; burning a bonfire at dusk could harm insects, and saying scandalous words could offend someone.

However, as the scholar John Cort describes in his essay “‘Today I Play Holi in My City’: Jain Holi Songs from Jaipur,” some adherents have found ways to practice Holi while still maintaining their ethics. For example, the 17th-century Digambar Jain poet Chitar Tholiya wrote his Holi ki Katha as a way to explain how Jains should and should not celebrate Holi, even told a Holi origin story that aligns with and incorporates Jain philosophy and principles.

Of course India has experienced more than its share of sectarian tension throughout its history, particularly since Partition in 1947. Riots and revenge killings have taken the lives of thousands.

But despite historical tensions, which have only been exacerbated by the rise of Hindu nationalism, Indians of all faiths celebrate Holi. From Vrindavan, the birthplace of Krishna, the Goswami reminds his followers that, “What Holi does, it makes you into one color. In those multi-colors of love, all the shades of skin are gone.”


Daily Dispatch 8: A Journey to the Thousand-Year-Old Sun Temple

AHMEDABAD – India’s summer heat has finally found us. As we started our day, temperatures soared to 94 degrees in Ahmedabad, the largest city in the Indian state of Gujarat. The heat seemed rather appropriate given that our first stop of the day was the Sun Temple, an elaborately carved 11th Century structure that was built to line up with the sun’s path on the solstice. The temple lies on the Tropic of Cancer, one of the five major circles of latitude that mark maps of the earth.

We arrived in Ahmedabad late Wednesday night, so Yogi-Ji gave us the morning off to report, relax by the pool or explore Gujarat.

Pia and Gudrun’s post-breakfast stroll took them down to the river and across the Gandhi Bridge during rush hour. All along the riverfront park they saw couples and greenery, and an impressive assortment of colorful fashion. One newlywed couple hid together amid the leaves and giggled as the girl furtively pulled up her sari’s veil to reveal her face to her husband.

We all reconvened on the bus after lunch for our first journey to the Sun Temple. The ride was much smoother than what we remembered from our previous bus rides in New Delhi. It is clear that Gujarat benefited under the leadership of Narendra Modi, once the chief minister of the region and now India’s prime minister. Modi’s complex legacy is still reverberating through the country’s politics today, as demonstrated by the elections earlier during our trip.

Our first awareness that we were passing the Tropic of Cancer came in a big blue and white road sign about a mile from the Sun Temple. “Tropic of Cancer is Passing From Here,” it read. We got off the bus to record the moment in a group photo.

We were lucky to have Girish-ji join us for the Gujarat leg of our trip. When we arrived at the Sun Temple, he recounted its history and architecture. First, we came to the ablution tank, a green pool filled with swimming turtles and surrounded by detailed carvings along the edges. The entire temple structure, a UNESCO heritage site, was built over 27 years with the sun calendar in mind. Girish-ji told us that on the day of the spring solstice, there are no shadows at the Sun Temple. The rays of the sun run right through the elaborate structure.

Ninety-one small, carved elephants appeared to hold up each side of the temple, totaling 364 mini-elephants: the same number as the days in the solar calendar. The structure was carved out of sandstone from a nearby quarry, a material that absorbs heat. When our group stepped inside the temple, everyone gasped. The details which were eroded by the wind and rain on the outside were preserved in sharp images inside and told the story of the Ramayan.

“I have never seen anything like it,” Thea said. “I can imagine how spiritual it used to be. I loved seeing how meaningful the sun is across cultures,” she added, remembering how other societies have built structures lined up with the sun around the world, from Stone Henge to Newgrange.

“I found it interesting that the carvings were all done on-site,” Sylvia added. “It’s clear that location was very important to the architect.”

After a short stop for mango ices to break the heat, we traveled to another structure built of sandstone during the same century as the Sun Temple, but which lay forgotten and buried until its excavation began in 1958.

Rani Ki Vav, the “Queen’s Stepwell” is an underground construction carved seven stories deep, where people gathered and traders could do business out of the heat. Amid the columns, the air stays three to five degrees Celsius below the outside temperature, Girish-ji said, and we appreciated its calming coolness today just as the traders did a thousand years ago.

This monument was dedicated to Vishnu, and his 10 incarnations are shown in along the sides. Just as with the Sun Temple, the structure had no bonding agent and was instead held together with interlocking pieces, all carved with extreme detail.

When we left the Rani Ki Vav to head to our last stop of the day, the sun was starting to slant and bathe us in golden light. The drive took us through rural India at sunset before our arrival at Bahucharaji, a Shakti temple for Bahuchar Mata, the patroness of India’s hijra community.

The chanting, incense and stones beneath our bare feet brought back echoing memories of other Hindu temples we’d visited throughout the country. Couples desiring children make their pilgrimages here to pray to Bahuchar Mata for fertility. When their prayers are answered, the new parents bring back offerings of gratitude. One wall of the temple was a collage of baby photos offered as a testament the goddess.

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A young hijra shares her story

ANA SINGH

 

Some of our group interviewed a hijra seated alongside the temple, a member of India’s third gender. She comes to the temple daily, after the first aarti, and makes her living by giving blessings throughout the day until the last aarti at night. As our group spoke with Chaiyya De about her life, a couple brought their new baby. Chiayya De tucked the rupees into her purple sari, then placed her hands over the baby’s head as the family bowed.

Finally, with the sun now gone, we came back to our hotel for one last meal before it was time to head upstairs and prepare for Friday.

 

Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang


Daily Dispatch 7: An Unexpected Road from Rishikesh to Ahmedabad

AHMEDABAD – One of the lessons we’ve learned on this trip is that travel is not about the destination, but the experience. And what an experience we had today! Day Seven started in Rishikesh on the banks of the Ganges and ended 700 miles away in Ahmedabad, the largest city in the state of Gujarat.

We knew we were going, but could not have anticipated how we would get there. The plan was to leave Rishikesh at noon and arrive in New Delhi in time for our 8:10 p.m. Air India flight to Ahmedabad. But in India, traffic is painstakingly slow, the roads badly maintained, the honking horns loud and people often late. Our bus driver tried his best to speed through the traffic. Yogi-ji made countless phone calls to Air India staff at Indira Gandhi International Airport. But, as our bus finally approached the gate, and with our flight scheduled to take off around 15 minutes later, we knew our odds were thin.

If only we knew this in advance, we would have left Rishikesh earlier in the day. But Rishikesh is a hard place to leave. The city offers an interesting contradiction in Indian culture. A beautiful town on the foot of the Himalayas, it is surrounded by natural beauty. The turquoise hues of the River Ganges flow below colorful bridges and alongside scattered buildings and shops. This morning, a few of us leisurely explored that world for a couple of hours. We wandered, we shopped and we questioned this enigma of a place — a place of countless yoga practices, ashrams, Ayurvedic cafes selling vegan foods and scones to people who have come here from across the world, clad in baggy pants and with yoga mats under their arms, to embrace their spirituality in India.

After our free hours in the morning, we hopped on the bus to begin the journey to the airport. On board, I immediately questioned Yogi Ji about this place which, at least from my point of view, seemed like an almost inauthentic version of India; a place designed solely for international folks to find themselves, while also shielded from the country’s innate poverty and established as a Western construct of Indian spirituality. But, his response surprised me: “How is this not the real India?”

Yes, Rishikesh is international. It acts as a spiritual haven for the thousands who travel across the world in search of meaning, of purpose from the stresses of life and all its’ complexities. Yes, it lacks Delhi’s smog or slums. The stray dogs are plump and trash on the ground is almost non-existent. But, those are also blatant stereotypes of India propagated by the media. Rishikesh is India — it’s a clear example of eastern spirituality and Hinduism. India is a place of so many stories. Rishikesh is simply one narrative of many.

Looking out the windows on the bus from Rishikesh to Delhi, I am enveloped by a safety net. We pass small huts made of sheet metal, cows grazing on the side of the road, a woman washing her clothes in a stream as her naked toddler runs around behind her. I notice Coca-Cola signs attached to small huts — globalization at its finest — and a small child in a bright red dress skipping through the dirt and grinning from ear to ear. Our air-conditioned bus of foreigners whisks by fruit stands — oranges and bananas and papayas — and motor bikes honking horns and tea stalls and so much trash. We are in India, enmeshed in the country’s culture and rich history and ways of life. But, we will also always be at a distance, looking out the window as the country passes us by.

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Around lunchtime, we stop off at a Domino’s Pizza in a town called Roorke. At first glance, it looks like any Domino’s Pizza found in the states. But, it is also distinctly Indian, from serving a “pizza burger,” which Andrea described as two buns of pizza dough and spices with cheese and sauce in the middle, to the various vegetarian offerings. According to Natasha, it was “the best pizza I’ve ever had on the road from Rishikesh to Delhi.”

When we finally arrived at the airport and realized that we missed our flight, the mood was tense. We sipped our coffees and wondered if we would make it to Ahmedabad that night or if we would have to stay overnight in an airport lounge or, if we were lucky, in an airport hotel.

It was at this moment that our time together on the bus and our many conversations paid off. We found comfort in our group, our second family. We made jokes, checked in on each other and rejoiced when Yogi-ji was able to find seats for all 17 of us on an 11 p.m. Jet Air flight. We may have missed our flight, but we solidified friendships. We demonstrated that we could be there for each other; we reaffirmed our conversation on the bus from only a few hours prior – even though it felt like a lifetime – that we are a team.

That night, or possibly morning since it was around 2 a.m., our group feasted on pizza, pasta, soup and sandwiches at the beautiful Hyatt Regency in Ahmedabad. The staff of the hotel kept the dining service open late for us. The day was long, but we made it to our destination. We made it to Ahmedabad.

 

Photo by Ana Singh


Daily Dispatch 5: Waking up to Holi in Vrindavan

VRINDAVAN – There may be no better place on earth to spend the night of Holi than in an ashram in the center of Vrindavan, the city where Hindus believe Lord Krishna was born. It wasn’t the Holiday Inn (where we had stayed in Delhi) but it did have features that few accommodations can match, like the early-morning sound of monks chanting the Bhagavan Ghuran in Sanskrit. Our host for the night was Shrivasta Goswami Maharaj, the head of the ashram known as Caitanya Prem Sansthan.

Holi may best be known for its use of color – vast quantities of pigment powder is thrown by revelers into the air and at each other – but at its core it is a celebration of the love between deity Lord Krishna and his supreme wife, Radha. It is also marked by bonfires lit along highways and in the front of temples, symbolizing the burning off of hatred or vices.

A small group of students emerged from the Ashram early this morning to document pilgrims bathing in the Yamuna River and welcoming in the day with offerings or “puja,” small boats of orange and yellow carnations centered around a wick, that were pushed out into the river.

A particularly beautiful sight was a group of women with their long hair loose, slowly venturing into the river in saris and submerging under water. “You can tell they are from Bengal by the way they bathe,” Paresh Ji said, nodding to group. The fact that the Yamuna is polluted beyond purity did not seem to bother these devotees. For them this is the river famed as the playground of Krishna and Rhada. Another sight (and Vrindavan is a kaleidoscope of sights and sites) was the line of medicants, easy to discern by their orange dress, seated along the banks of the river with silver prayerful pots in front of them. They wore bright smiles. These men and women are devout Hindus and have chosen to denounce worldly desires and goods and they are as integral to the Vindravan landscape as the colorful boats on the river, the bathers and temples, which number over 1,000.

Daily Dispatch: Day 5
BY ANA SINGH
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In atmosphere, Vrindavan feels like a village. It’s mud streets and tiny alleyways cloak a population of approximately 57,000 people, and yet, in the history of Hinduism, its importance is profound. Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the Lord Vishnu, was born here. Radha, his supreme wife was born in a neighboring village. To celebrate their love and, in turn, love in general, Indians of all faiths spend a good part of the day pitching pigment at each other. Those of us who ventured out of the confines of the ashram came back splattered from head to toe in all the colors of the rainbow.

Part of our personal privilege as J-school students was sitting with Guru Goswami, a joyful-looking man with a round face, kind eyes and a choti, or ponytail at the back of his shaved head. While he began with the love story that is behind Holi, the conversation soon turned to something else on his mind: the devastation of the Yamuna River which runs through the town. “It is a stream of sewerage,” Goswami said. Every year, Vindrandan welcomes over 500,000 pilgrims to the town, which has limited septic structures. While some may claim that religion is the cause of the pollution, Goswami rejected that notion. “It is not about religion, it is about awareness,” he said.

And then we were off to Rishikesh! But not before a monkey pinched Nicole’s glasses off her face and scampered up a tree with them in his paws. A crowd gathered and various on-lookers offered solutions. One piece of fruit and then another and then a third was tossed to the monkey in the hope that he would drop the glasses. When that didn’t work, a youth with a stick followed the monkey to the roof of a temple and managed to retrieve the stolen item. The incident gave new meaning to the phrase “it takes a village.” It all happened very quickly and Nicole, glasses in hand, was much relieved.

We finally boarded our bus and headed north to Rishikesh. Some seven hours later we arrived in the village on the banks of another holy river, the Ganges. Hot showers were welcomed.

 

Photo by Ana Singh