Sunday, April 02, 2006


The Spiritual Tourist
Rishikesh, Uttaranchal

My 12-year-old American friend Jason has come up with a description of the Great Indian Psychodrama in just one phrase. After watching some Indian TV, he commented, "it's all, like,
'You Ate Off My Plate!'

Out of the mouths of babes.

Jason was equally perceptive when I described the Indian tradtion of worshipping one's dead parents. Once the parent "expires," it is the custom to put their photo on your altar in a place of honour along with all the other deities, and pray to them daily. Later, I heard my young friend ennumerating "Jesus Christ, Mary Magdalene....""What are you doing?" I asked.Jason shrugged. "I'm just trying to imagine praying to my mom. Jesus Christ, Mary Magdalene... Laurie Nieves?"

A Family Affair
Just arrived in Rishikesh, and am wondering why. It seems to have the worst of both tourist worlds - Indian and Western. The Indian tourists are dour-faced, unsmiling families plodding round in large groups, looking like they are carrying out some heinous enforced duty instead of holidaying on the Ganges. I wonder if they are all thinking, "how come I have to do everything with my family and never get a minute alone or with other friends?" They certainly all look as though they'd rather be somewhere else.

Occasionally (very) you see a young, "mod" Indian couple who have managed to break away from the tyranny of their family and squeeze in a weekend on their own. They probably get a lot of guilt for it when they return home ("why didn't you come to Sunday dinner? Always you are running here and there. And I made this special gulabacchanikicchhori just for you. Now it will spoil").

(I wonder, does anyone ever say the first thing that popped into my irreverent Western mind when I heard this? - "Food will spoil? Mom, that's what the fridge is for.")

Tangent Mode On: "If you love someone, set them free" could never catch on here. You can see how much they love the gods...they lock them up in cages. Laurie was told to look for a certain ashram with "devis in cages." We were sure we had found it, till we found another. And another. All the ashrams seem to lock up the painted plaster statues of the gods in cages. (I understanding guarding the valuable gold statues, but these are just plaster and stone.) They lock them up to immobilize them, to make sure they can never, ever, ever go anywhere else. I think that's the Indian way to say "I love you."

Tangent Mode Off:
Then there are the Western spiritual tourists dressed in bright red, orange and yellow "yogi" clothes with big chunky rudraksha malas round their necks to show how austere they are. I've lived in every major ashram in South India, and never seen quite the level of commercialization that's evident here. Tiruvannamalai, Pondicherry, Amritapuri, Puttaparthi - they are all towns with one primary ashram, but in Rishikesh it's a town chock full o' yoga schools all in competition.

All the statue-mala-yoga book-crystal stalls, with bhajans playing from every corner, the rectangular, institutional buildings that feel more like public schools or government buildings than places of meditation - I tried to put a grimy, road-tired finger on what it all reminded me of. It was a cross between Satya Sai Baba's Prashanti Nilayam (pink square birthday cake buildings, lots of enlightened junk for sale) but without the devotional focus on one charismatic figure - a cross between that and Callaway Gardens or other mid-1960s resort towns in Florida. Most of the structures look as though they were built in the early 70s and that seems to be the last time they were painted or repaired, as well. Strangely, the pastel pinks and baby-aspirin oranges are the same hues popular in Florida. Their perky optimism compares poorly with the reality of cracked cement, peeling paint and worn-down marble steps.

A little vintage kitsch is lots of fun, but not when it has that dogeared, down-at-the-heels feeling. Decay is perfected to an art form in, for instance, Calcutta, where it seems kind of classy and old world. Here it feels depressing, like the old shopping mall that's lost its following to the big new Galleria.

It's hotter here than McLeod (had been led to believe it was cool here, but it only means cooler than the rest of India) and there are lots of flies. The flies mill about as aimlessly as all the lost-soul Yoga tourists (why do so many young people who come to study yoga and meditation puff cigarettes? seems counterproductive).

I did feel much better after dipping my feet and hands into the Ganges, which, though not flowing at full capacity, is still cold and clear here in the foothills. For those not clear on the geography (I sure wasn't), Rishikesh is not in the's not even in the foothills of the Himalayas. Rather, it is at the feet of the foothills of the Himalayas. After evening arati (the traditional fire-offering ceremony) on the riverbank, a delicious, invigorating breeze kicks up. At the Paramarth Niketan arati, they have a fleet of baby monks (in this case, dressed in saffron robes with shaved heads and tiny Brahmin tufts that gives them a whimsical look like a Dr Seuss character) singing and clapping along.

Maybe tomorrow I'll be rested enough to rise at dawn and have my first ritual bath in the holy river (can't believe I've been in India so long and still not had the cleansing bath in the Ganges).

Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream....
My dear friend Darkhorse will never forgive me if I leave here not having gotten photos of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi ashram where the Beatles came some forty years ago. I think the Beatles were bodhisattvas in disguise. After they made mind-blowing music and changed the world, one went on to promote peace (John), another to promote Eastern spirituality (George), and a third to promote vegetarianism (Paul).

I wonder what Ringo's mission was. Maybe just to show that someone has to be there for other people, be supportive, and stay out of the limelight. I think he will be the last Beatle standing. Maybe then the real Ringo will emerge and become a Starr.

Yes, it's corny. Way corny! I'm in RishiKitsch! It's compare and contrast: candy-coloured plaster painted statues of smiling caged devis vs. dour-faced matrons in technicolour saris living in the invisible cages of their families. Sickening sewage smells vs. sickly sweet incense. Indians wearing western clothes, who've come to see what the Westerners came to see; Westerners wearing Indian clothes who come to see something "Indian."


som said...

Good post...i have enjoyed it...keep on sharing.
Many Thanks

bluesman said...

stumbled on your blog..

The experiences of non Indians in India does make for interesting reading..

I really like the part about why I have to do everything with my family and never with my friends... not too far from the truth ;)

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Dear Bluesman:
Well, though I am intuitive and had sensed some of it on my own, I do have a primary source in my Indian friends and their complaints! Always wondered why they look so resentful (not like people having fun).

The mod couple in the restaurant looked a bit guilty holding hands, as though they'd be caught at any minute!

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

This week's SIRENMAIL:
From Nova in Australia:
I read your Feringhee blog as much as I can.
I admit I am time poor, and as such have not had the chance to develop my own blog as much a I would like..let alone keep up with others'. Kushala started as a 'store' but now I do other work (in other words - paid) so have switched to a blog.
Your life sounds amazing! By the way, originally I found you on Indiamike.
Best wishes,

Libran Lover said...

The deities (gods) are probably in cages to prevent the general public from desecrating them. I know, I know... the cages and hte deities are probably not all that clean, so you might be tempted to ask, "What desecration?"

On a real tangent, here's something that might be of interest to you for what it is worth: Just thought I'd share... whether it is of use to you or not.

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Thanks LL, that was my thought too - then I realized, desecrate a Hindu statue in downtown Rishikesh? Ha! I pity the fool!

No, no one's going to paint a moustache on Saraswati around here...I hope, for their own sakes.

Obviously, I know that a statue is not going to get up and walk anywhere. By extension, I was making a comparison with the behaviour of my Indian hosts; not particular individuals but as an aggregate over the last few years. This seems to be their reasoning - that by imprisoning me and monitoring my every movement, they are protecting me. (From ritual pollution? from living my life the way I've been living it - safely - for nearly half a century?)

Tangent mode back on!
And there is no middle ground - either you allow them to lock you up out of "concern" or you must go elsewhere.

While a statue could be said to be quite helpless, it is insulting to a grown woman to be told that anyone else is "responsible" for her. One can be "responsible for" a child, for an invalid, for a material possession or for your dog. You are not "responsible for" another adult. I resented being treated like a material object or child that had to be looked after and monitored to the point of being caged.

I suspect the real motivation is not concern for my personal well being, just concern for what the neighbors might think, and not wanting to end up in the papers ("the murdered/raped/assaulted American woman, who was not married, was a guest of X____ with whom she had been staying in ____. X_______ is a prominent _____ and the son of ___________").

After all, such things are far more important than my well-being (which I don't believe really concerns anyone for more than a reflexive moment).

Okay, Tangent mode off again!

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Oh ONE more thing about the devis in cages - even the ones not in public - that is, on the private grounds of an ashram where only members and paying guests are allowed - are all enclosed in mesh like a chicken coop. These figures are never exposed to street traffic, and there are vigilant security men and chowkidars around all the time. In fact it's hard to really see some of them for the wire mesh.

bluesman said...

hey... Indians can have fun - if we have permission ;)

I think what you said about people's reasons for your well being is quite a bit of a generalization. There are pretty strong societal pulls in normal Indian life, but concern for someone's wellbeing could sometimes be easily mistaken as acting under societal pressure. I guess in the end it all boils down to how you deal with stuff.

Shinu Mathew said...

WHat's up? No new posts for too long.
Hope you ar esafe and typing away on tawanda.