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To be honest, I was fairly skeptical about the commitment I’d made to my yoga-instructor mother to spend a few days at an Indian ashram with her when she and my father met us in India this month.  Looking at the ashram’s website, which featured an orange-clad guru surrounded by orbs of twinkling lights and informed would-be participants that their days would start promptly at 4:30 a.m. (a morning person, I am not…), did nothing to calm my nerves.  I made my way to Rishikesh, the home of the ashram–and, incidentally, the place to which the Beatles retreated during their new-age phase–repeating the mantra “I can do anything for three days.”
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I had no idea that those three days would be so enjoyable.  The ashram lifestyle proved to be a lot more flexible than I’d imagined, particularly for short-termers like me.  I could choose among the center’s offerings at will and spend the rest of my days exploring our nearby surroundings.  Derek and I had a great time wandering around the town, which sits on the banks of the much-revered Ganges.  The people-watching alone made the trip worthwhile: mellow, dreadlocked backpackers shared the narrow streets with a collection of even-more-mellow sadhus, a wide variety of souvenir hawkers and a truly overwhelming number of cows, monkeys and dogs.  The menagerie ensured that getting from one place to another was always an adventure.

From Rishikesh, we made our way downriver to Hardiwar, a city that is sometimes known as the spiritual (if not the actual) source of the Ganges.  Every few years, Hardiwar plays home to the Kumbh Mela, a festival that attracts millions of pilgrims and is reported to be the largest religious gathering in the world.  The next one won’t take place until 2010 but, even without it, Hardiwar had plenty to offer.
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We spent the day exploring area temples, each one of which seemed more colorful (and, frankly, more Disney World-like) than the last.  Never before have I entered a house of worship by stepping into a gigantic, paper-mache cave.  Never have I received holy water by means of a coin-operated religious figure.

In the evening, we joined hordes of people on the riverbanks for the nightly aarti, or river worship ceremony.  Along with so many others, we placed in the Ganges a leaf basket filled with flower petals and a glowing candle and watched it drift away with the current, past pilgrims washing away their sins in the holy river and off to other cities made holy by the river’s mere presence.