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. Continue reading “Singing Prayers to the Sky: A Weekend in Rishikesh”

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Small, Sacred Things (or That Time I Could’ve Met the Dalai Lama but Didn’t)

I was sitting in front of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the sun warm on my back, musicians playing and singing hymns before me, on the day I could’ve heard the Dalai Lama speak in Dharamsala.

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Musicians at the Golden Temple

Three days before, we’d arrived in Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan-government-in-exile. While there, we found out that the Dalai Lama was actually in town (a rare occurrence with his packed, worldwide speaking schedule) and that we could sign up the next day to be present for his next public audience.

The only snag was that he would speaking two days later—when our tour was already going to be on the road for Amritsar, a city in northwest India, a half-day’s drive and train ride west of Dharamsala.

Two of my tourmates jumped ship to stay behind and hear the Dalai Lama speak, and I wondered if I should join them. I knew there were some risks that you should just take—especially on journeys like this. Continue reading “Small, Sacred Things (or That Time I Could’ve Met the Dalai Lama but Didn’t)”

Art and Soul in Dharamsala

Prayer flags trembling in the breeze. The firm, golden gaze of a seated Buddha. Artists’ hands at work, creating something holy. A single sign of imperfection, and hours—days—of labor would be cast aside.

These are the things I remember most from our visit to Dharamsala, India, the next holy site we visited on Intrepid Travel’s Mountains and Mystics tour.

When we arrived at the town that is home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile, I expected to be overwhelmed by the place’s holiness. Certainly, numerous pilgrims come from around the world to meditate or engage in in alternative therapies or to try to get a glimpse of the holy man himself. Others simply come to the temple that adjoins his house, offering supplications to Buddha alongside maroon-glad monks with shaved heads.

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And while we went to the Dalai Lama’s compound and enjoyed our fair share of Tibetan eats in the town around it (see recommendations below), it was the Norbulingka Institute that really caught my eye. Continue reading “Art and Soul in Dharamsala”

In the Shadow of the Taj

Monkeys chasing each other across rooftops.

The smoke from your cigarette.

The curtain of the night falling behind the Taj, its shadowy silhouette.

God is close.

Allah moves across the face of the stone, never seen, but always present.

Prayers called up to the night sky, shouted and sung from speakers like megaphones, echoing across Agra at sunset.

You say you wish they’d be quiet. That prayers are meant to be whispered, shared only between you and God.

A chorus of prayers.

A family of monkeys. A mother sliding down a wall to scoop up her child, who looks too afraid to climb.

In the street, a little girl plays with a yellow balloon, dodging motorbikes and the big, dark puddle in the middle of her street.

You tell me the Taj was more beautiful years ago. That now the pollution gets in the way.

You tell me that not all Indian men are like what they say but to be careful in Delhi.

You tell me about a French woman you took to dinner and showed around for three days and how she asked you to come see her in France and how, when her plane finally left, you couldn’t believe she was gone.

How you refused your family’s proposals for arranged marriages, put it off by getting degree after degree, and finally just said “no.” You were sent out from your family’s home. You only talk to your mother now, occasionally. Still, your younger brothers can’t get married until you do.

You say we are different. We are both different. That’s why you talk to me. That people here all go in one direction, but you go the other.

You believe in God but are not religious. When a bell rings—a Hindu sign for good luck—you don’t pray like your friend, but you place your fist to your chest and then to your lips, the same thing my friend did whenever we passed a Hindu temple on the road.

You say we are all connected. That race and religion can’t keep us apart. We are different, but we are connected. Continue reading “In the Shadow of the Taj”