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.

Treepies, not tigers

If there is one thing, just one thing, that every visitor remembers about Ranthambore national park, it must be the Rufous Treepie. They are common around the park and inside. The harsh call of a treepie is one of the loudest sounds you hear, and you hear it often. This colourful bird is a member of the crow family: clever, aggressive, not choosy about what it eats, and often flies away with a large amount of food, presumably to store it in a hiding place. When I visit Ranthambore, practically the only thing I’m sure of is that I’ll have a couple of good photos of this bird. Treepies are fairly common across India, and all the way south-east to Vietnam, but they perhaps interact most with humans in this national park.

Rfous treepies are pretty aggressive in Ranthambore national park

How aggressive is it? The photo above gives you an idea. Inside the park animals are very safe from humans, and some misguided tourists even feed these birds. The result is that whenever it sees a human it swoops down aggressively for a treat. At times this is dangerous, because monkeys have learnt to pay attention to these calls. Of course, monkeys are more intelligent and aggressive, so the appearance of a treepie is often a prelude to chaos, as a combined troop of treepies and monkeys attack a vehicle full of humans.

It turns out that humans are not unintelligent, and in recent years they’ve largely stopped feeding these birds. The fact that they still try to seek food is probably an indication that there are still some humans who continue to distribute packaged food to wild animals. A treepie’s normal diet largely consists of insects and carrion, and a little fruit. I wonder what the transfats and high fructose corn starch from biscuits does to the birds.

Walking by Khecheopalri lake

The path to the water at Khecheopalri lake

The lake near the village of Khecheopalri should properly be called Sho Dzo Sho, but every hotel, driver and web site calls it the Khecheopalri lake. Hem Kumar drove us from Pelling to the lake. The morning was bright and sunny, although Kanchendzonga remained obscured by clouds since before sunrise. There is parking above the lake, some stalls for food, and a toilet. These are ringed by notices which tell you that the lake is sacred, and lists things you must not do when you get to it. The lake is holy to Buddhists as well as Hindus. We’d read how this lake was considered as holy as Yuksom, Tashiding and Pemyangtse.