Lakshman Jhula

When I was a child I listened to my granduncle describe how he spent a vacation walking from Uttarkashi to Rishikesh. The one thing that stuck in my mind was that he crossed the Ganga at Lakshman Jhula on a swaying bridge more than 20 meters above the water. In my mind the bridge he described was mixed up with a 19th century bridge here which was made of ropes, and crossing this bridge became my touchstone for adventure. I went to see the bridge a couple of times later. When you see the same thing again, it seems to become mundane. So it was good to see it with fresh eyes, those of The Family.

We drove up from Rishikesh along the right bank to the village of Tapovan and parked the car. The sun was still pretty high up, so we thought of sitting down for a coffee until the day was a little cooler. Two decades ago I’d found a nice German cafe near the bridge, serving warm rolls fresh out of an oven. We looked for it, but it had changed hands a long time ago, and looked very characterless now. It had a good view, so we took the time to take a few photos. We found a more interesting cafe in the large marketplace which has sprung up here in the twenty years since my last visit, and waited the sun out. What we didn’t know was that the ninety year old bridge is officially closed for almost two years. In early July of 2019 the state government closed the bridge and declared that they would build a new one a little way downstream.

When we walked up to the bridge there was sign saying DANGER, but crowds streamed past it. There was no sign saying that the bridge is officially closed or condemned. We crossed, stopping on the bridge that my granduncle had crossed a lifetime ago, to take photos upstream towards the mountains from which the Ganga descends, downstream where a raft was headed back to town from the white waters upstream. The sun was setting behind Tapovan village, giving it a nice halo. Jonk village, the east bank was bathed in a wonderful golden light. It was no longer possible to walk along the river, as I had done on an earlier trip here.

Hardly any of the locals wore a mask. Barely 5 kilometers away, in Rishikesh, areas of town were being sealed into quarantine as the pandemic struck, but the lives of the locals had not changed. The road was not too crowded, and we were masked, so I did not think we were particularly in danger that day. Most masked people seemed to be tourists. Of course, even among them there were those who were not masked, such as the white-water rafters in the Ganga. I chatted with the vegetable vendor, his vegetables here come from Haridwar. There were no takers for the chai or the chana. People seemed to prefer sugarcane juice. We took our photos and walked back the 140 meters to the village on the other bank, crossing the river 20 meters up in the air.

In Heaven

Heaven is abandoned. The Family and I walk through the shaded path where immortals once strolled, and speculate about when everyone moved away. There’s still magic here. A small group of hip city youngsters give us lessons on how to take selfies. The Family gives me a warning look, and I behave. I move where they ask us to go, let them suggest how to strike an attitude, thank them as they go away. Human contact with strangers after a year can be disconcerting for everyone, even in Swarg Ashram, which was briefly, half a century ago, the most famous place on earth. That’s when the Beatles spent time here, between releasing the contents of Magical Mystery Tour and the white album.

The bungalows next to the yoga center carry warning signs. I’m used to distancing now, and I manage to peer in, let my camera do the walking. Nice murals. Not half a century old, I think. By far not, The Family agrees. A signboard says this is where “distinguished visitors” stayed. The Beatles would count. So would Mia Farrow. Peter Saltzman talks about listening to George Harrison play the sitar on a rooftop terrace. That would be one of these, I guess.

An abandoned garden and what looks like two apartment blocks lie between this line of bungalows and the distant cliff edge overlooking the Ganga and Rishikesh. Peter Saltzman mentioned a place overlooking the river where the Beatles sat and worked on the words and music for songs which eventually appeared in the white album. The Family has already crossed the garden. I follow. We laugh at a sign that says “Do not write on walls.”

We skirt the apartment blocks for now. I spot a couple come out to the path from behind a little house. “Let’s go there”, I suggest. The Family’s okay with it. Temple, or meditation center, you take your pick. I walk through the door, and some dark chambers to the paved area behind. Beyond it I see an open space overlooking the river. I walk out to stand there. Mentally I subtract the apartments, keep the bungalows. I try to match the description I remember from Peter Saltzman’s interviews. This must be it. This is where the Beatles came repeatedly during those weeks to put words to ob la di. This is where the music for Dear Prudence came together. There is magic here. Briefly the tiny blue flowers on the ground look like the Himalayan Gentian.

In my life

When you pay your money, walk through gates at the side of a road which winds through a forest, and you see a sign announcing a tiger reserve, you may be a little surprised if you thought you were visiting the ruins of the Swarg Ashram, the place where the Beatles composed large parts of their best album. That was the opinion then, and it remained the opinion of fans when the queen of England was fifty years older. Are you in the right place?

The disorientation persists as you walk up a steep paved path, with a high wall on one side. A large butterfly stares at you as you pass. I haven’t been in a tiger reserve like this. Perhaps you need your elephant and gun. Perhaps, in case of accident, you should always bring your mom. But continue, look around round, look around round round.

Strange. The path leads past a ruined bungalow. No Bill, no children asking if to kill was not a sin. The ruin is full of interesting looking graffiti, so we walked in to look. But it is only a distraction, perhaps a structure built and abandoned by the forest department which now owns this land.

I’m at the top of the slide. I stop and I turn and I go for a ride. “Right?” The Family suggested, and I agreed. Into the helter skelter maze of strange domed structures. A notice tells us that they were built as meditation huts in 1978. We walk into one: a round room on the ground floor, a tiny toilet and bath on one side, and stairs going up the wall to a domed platform, presumably the place where you sit to meditate. The first one we walked into had some beautiful work on the walls. The dome had an interesting piece in colour, which was very hard to take a look at because the stairs were not terribly safe. I stood on one of the safe lower rungs, stuck my phone up, and took a panorama. Unfortunately the phone needed more of a revolution than my precarious perch would allow.

We followed the path through these domed apartments, and saw the Ganga in front of us. Lovely view of Rishikesh on the other side. The place where there river turns is Triveni ghat, where the arti takes place in the evening. We seemed to have reached a dead end. It was time to follow the signs to the canteen and get our bearings.

The canteen was attached to some kind of an art gallery; I like the view through a series of doors which is an unmistakable sign that of one. The displayed work was not a surprise. They were photos of the Beatles in the ashram taken by Paul Saltzman. It was late in the morning, and getting warm. We hadn’t found the Swarg Ashram yet. We had a tea and went is search of Swarg.

Watching the Ganga

A mere twenty years ago, I’d stood near Triveni Ghat in Rishikesh at dusk, enchanted by the lovely sight of diyas floated by devotees down the river on little boats made of leaves. As the twinkling flames floated into the dusk and disappeared, I watched and wished that I had a camera with me. They reminded me of a time in my childhood when the crowds were even smaller, and people sang their own hymns as they floated their offering to the river. When crowds increase you have to change your ways, but the orchestrated spectacle of the modern Ganga arti does not appeal to me.

The Family decided to join an arti arranged by the hotel. Six people joined in. I stood by the banks of the Ganga at this uncrowded spot outside the main town. Flowing water is hypnotic. I wished I’d brought a tripod with me to do some long-exposure photos of the water, but restrictions on baggage are killing. I’d happened on an interesting spot. A region of choppy flows merged into a smooth undisturbed sheet of water which broke into cascades as it passed through a series of rocks.

On a reef in the middle of the river I saw some birds. The Family had noticed them a while ago. “They haven’t moved at all for a while. They could be logs.” Photos are free; I zoomed and clicked. They were grey herons (Ardea cinerea). They remained perfectly still through the evening, as long as we were there.

The arti progressed. More diyas were lit as the evening grew darker. The two priests officiating had marvelous voices, and their hymns and chants filled up the silence. Then, with the offerings of a few petals to the river, the ceremony was over. There was still light enough in the sky to go back to the deck above the river, and have a quiet evening’s chai.

The late evening had suddenly brought tremendous colour to the forest covering the slopes across the river. We sipped our tea and watched the light fade, until mosquitos drove us indoor. It was a wonderful beginning to our holiday.

Doorways in The Door

Haridwar means the door to Hari. And Hari is another name for Vishnu. Just before the river Ganga exits the Himalayas through Haridwar, it flows past the town of Rishikesh. On left bank of the Ganga, away from the recent expansion of the town, we stood inside the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s abandoned ashram, known locally as the Beatles ashram, and The Family took this photo of Rishikesh. The Maharishi leveraged the visit by the Beatles in 1968 into global stardom, and may well have a claim to be the person who firmly placed yoga and meditation in world culture. The ashram was abandoned some time after his move to Switzerland, and is now in the care of the forest department of the state. There was a coronavirus surge during our visit to this region, and we decided that abandoned open spaces were the safest. There were many visitors to the ashram, but it is large enough that it never felt crowded.

If you are not distracted by the strange ruins of the domed apartments that an entrepreneur built in the 1970s for the hordes of well-heeled peace seekers who never turned up, then the first thing you’ll find are the kitchens and the yoga hall of the ashram. They are full of graffiti and artwork by visitors who ignored the sign which urges them not to write on walls. From the weathering of the works, and some dated signatures, it is clear that people are still using these ruins as a canvas. Others works, especially the ones which give prominence to the Maharishi, are quite weathered, and possibly date from the 1970s. Twitter launched in 2006, so the work you see in the photo above cannot be more than 15 years old. That tells us how quickly the weather affects the paintings.

These four pieces come from the kitchen. The maharishi is painted on to a crumbling wall. I wish the person who’d started the Jai Gurudeva painting had gone on to finish it. I can imagine that the sun will be marvelous in full colour. Given its location, it is almost certainly a reference to Lennon’s 1968 composition Across the Universe.

The rest of these paintings come from the large yoga hall just beyond the utility complex. This is really the central vista of the ashram as it once was, with the main visitors’ buildings placed around a quadrangle with this hall at one corner. The architecture tells us how savvy the Maharishi was; yoga was the magnet to draw people in, but a good holiday in lovely surroundings was what you remembered after you left. Good enough to draw you back, or to have you recommend it to friends. Even though the Beatles left after a spat, their visit was good enough advertisement. I love walking through recently abandoned buildings, and this one was specially inviting, with its vibrant artwork, and the doors and windows reduced to specters which allow the inside to merge with the outside.

As we left the building we heard the squawks of a trio of oriental pied hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) which we had seen flying around. I’m not yet good enough at identifying birds entirely by sound. Just my luck then, not to have my camera when these things were flapping about asking for their photos to be taken. I was reduced to using my phone. The result is not great, but it does allow you to identify the bird with certainty: the cylindrical casque above the beak with a black patch at its tip, the white tip to the tail and the pale blue throat patch. “Nice place,” The Family murmured, perhaps echoing the hundreds of paying customers who came here in the 60s and 70s. A rufous treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda) cackled with laughter as it flew past us.

Living together

On the road again, we entered the lower Himalayas through Rishikesh. At an altitude of 340 meters above sea level, this is a town which is as well known as the doorway to the Garhwal Himalayas, as for its ashrams on the banks of the Ganga. We checked in to our hotel overlooking the river, and I had to scramble immediately to unpack my camera. Two sambar deer (Rusa unicolor) had come down from the slopes of the Rajaji national park on the opposite bank to water.

It is not unusual to find birds cleaning up large herbivores, but this was the first time I saw crows tending to sambar. The birds included large number of house crows (Corvus splendens), which can be told by the lighter colour of the feathers on the neck and breast, compared to the deep glossy black of the rest of the plumage. But scattered among them you can also see a darker bird with a stout and curved bill. This is the Indian jungle crow (Corvus culminatus). There has been a little rearrangement of this complex, with three species split off from what used to be one, but more of that later. I need not have hurried to unpack my camera; the sambar took their time being groomed by this murder of crows. Eventually, as the light faded, they waded off through the shallow water, up the little slope behind them, and were quickly lost in the gloom of the forest behind. A good start to our trip, I thought.

Once upon a time

Apollo 8. The Mexico City olympics. Martin Luther King Jr. Prague spring. The My Lai massacre. Dakar and Minerva sink. Mauritius becomes independent. The Baader Meinhof gang. Daniel Cohn Bendit. The Beatles learn meditation with the Maharishi. Yes, that’s the most famous yoga center of 1968, fifty three years later. This is inside the ruins of the Maharishi’s abandoned ashram. I don’t know how old these murals are. There are murals from the 1970s sharing space with at least one from a couple of years ago.