Singing Prayers to the Sky: A Weekend in Rishikesh

We began our tour of northern India by shuffling through the busy Delhi streets, looking up at the spires of mosques and breathing in the heavy scents of Old Delhi’s spice market. From there, we trundled up the mountains to what’s become a honeymooners’ getaway, and then toured temples in Mandi, Dharamsala, and Amritsar. By the time we got to Rishikesh (about ten days into our tour), my head and heart were swirling.

So many places. So many people.

An introvert at heart, I could feel myself shutting down. Some quiet time our last morning in Dharamsala and some rejuvenation at the Golden Temple in Amritsar boosted me enough to make it to Rishikesh in one spiritual/mental piece.

And once there, my first thought was “Rishikesh is heaven.”

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Rishikesh is considered by many to be the “yoga capital of the world,” and as such, it is unsurprisingly filled with yogis from all over the world and, thus, a considerable number of tourists (for better or worse).

Indeed, there was something special about doing morning yoga at a studio on the banks of the Ganga (Ganges) River, songs rising from nearby temples and worshippers as we practiced, bells ringing. Even the honking and engines somehow made a chorus. Of praise, perhaps. Of life.

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And another memory: One evening, we went to a prayer ceremony by the river. Young Hindu priests with short hair and orange robes chanted and sang around a fire—a ceremony for cleansing and purification—and then they sang prayers to the river and Krishna and Brahma. After the sun set, the sky darkened to a deep blue, and we sent prayer boats with flowers and incense and camphor, aflame, down the river with our wishes. Ash on our foreheads, a tika like the mark of Ash Wednesday. The holy water water of the Ganga sprinkled on our hands and heads.

The ceremony made me miss my own traditions—the bread and the wine, the chanted creeds, the group prayers. That moment of reflection before the wafer is placed in my hands. Praying that God would fill this hunger and thirst inside of me.

I sensed the same hunger on the banks of the river, in the worshippers and practitioners who gathered there. In the music that swirled up into the quickly darkening sky.

And perhaps part of me was sated when, the following day, we returned to this holy river, but this time camping outside of the city in one of our first real jaunts away from the urban. After the noise of the cities, and the colorful temples, and the swarm of languages around us for the previous two weeks, the simple act of quietly watching the sun dip lower by the Ganga was striking.

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It made me think of my childhood, growing up in rural Illinois.

My therapist once asked me what I did when I was sad as a kid. And without hesitation, I answered “Go to the woods.” I’d go out to the woods on our ten-acre property, to the back part, by the cornfield, and just cry and cry or whatever I needed to do. And as my tears dried, I’d lie down on my back and watch the tree branches sway and feel held, somehow. The ground beneath me, the trees around me. A sense of the divine. That was my place, my comfort.

As I sat by the Ganga, the sun sending beams of light over the mountains, that salve of stillness touched me again. Allowed me to breathe and to look in on myself and at God as only stillness can do.

That night, back at the camp, we played Uno by lamplight under the stars—no honking, no motorbikes. Only our laughter and the joy we shared in this brief communion together. This dozen of us from a handful of continents, brought together for a couple weeks to be part of the same story. The next day, we would head back to Delhi and disperse to our various corners of the world, taking pieces of each others’ stories with us as we went.

The prayers sung to the sky. The flower-boats cast down the river. Getting lost in Old Delhi’s sari market and the oil of a paratha on my fingers and the sweet spice of chai as I drank it from a small, clear glass. The chai vendors calling out as they walked down a train’s aisle. Buying groceries for a woman on the Delhi streets who I later realized was probably running a scam with the shop the owner. Warily talking to a young man at the Agra train station, waiting for the other shoe to fall—the ask, the scam—but realizing that he simply wanted to practice his English and go work for Google and make sure I got safely on my train. Tibetan kids singing on a stage in Dharamsala and the laughter of new friends over a dinner table, a game of cards, the trundle of a train.

What if we viewed each moment as holy? Each connection as something sacred? Each being as one of God’s beloved?

Imagine what we could do for each other. What we could be for the world.

Imagine what we could become.

 

Travel Tips

  • Yoga: There are plenty of drop-in yoga and meditation classes in Rishikesh to choose from. A simple walk down the street will reveal ads and ashram/studio signs galore with times and prices. We went to Yoga Vini, right by the river. The teacher was wonderful but a little intense. Still, it was a good session and only 200 rupees (about $3USD). Drop-in classes are offered at 7:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. each day.
  • Food and Drink: I didn’t really explore that many places in Rishikesh for good eats and drinks, but that was mostly because we fell in love with Devraj Coffee Corner, a “German Bakery” (which basically just means a bakery+). Delicious food (Western style and Indian), good coffee, wifi, and a nice view over the river (looking right at Yoga Vini, actually!). Extra great after morning yoga!
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Devraj Coffee Corner, overlooking the Ganga River
  • Evening Prayers: Want to join in the evening prayer ceremony on the banks of the Ganga? Head to the Parmarth Niketan Ashram before sunset, and right across from the entrance (on the river) is a small area where they hold the ceremony. (Note that they rope it off before they are ready to begin, so we weren’t able to get in until about 5:30 p.m. or so.) Once you enter, head to your left to check your shoes, as you’re required to go barefoot. After that, simply enjoy your evening of prayer.
  • Camping: There are also a number of options for camping and adventure sports near Rishikesh. We stayed with Red Chilli Adventures, which has canvas tents all set up (with electricity, fans, bedding, etc., as well as well-maintained bathrooms and showers), delicous food, and can also arrange rafting and other excursions. I loved their camp and their kind staff, so I wholeheartedly recommend them!
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Camping with Red Chilli Adventures
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4 thoughts on “Singing Prayers to the Sky: A Weekend in Rishikesh

    1. Hi, lisamayLisa! I’d absolutely recommend it. I had a wonderful experience and a great leader/guide, and it was so well-organized. This was my first trip to India, and it was a great way to get introduced to Indian culture, history, and spirituality–with a little time in nature thrown in, too. Anyway, let me know if you have any specific questions as you make your decision!

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