Just as I have a list of places I want to travel to, I have long held in my head, a tentative list of places I really don’t want to go to. Not because I’ve been there and didn’t like them, but because I feel they hold no interest for me. Given that I’m only going to have a finite number of travel experiences, I’d rather not spend time at certain places. Several of the destinations on my mustn’t-visit list are connected to religious pilgrimage. While I respect the sentiments of pilgrims, I haven’t felt the need to plan a trip to Tirupati, or Rajasthan’s Karni Mata temples, or numerous other sites, for one reason or another.
This summer I was in Narendranagar, a small village in Uttarakhand’s Tehri-Garhwal hills, enjoying a bit of quiet time. The young man at my hotel’s reception desk asked me if I wanted to go to Rishikesh, 17 km away, for the Ganga arti that evening. Not being one for religious ritual, I declined. I’d seen some photographs of the Ganga arti elsewhere earlier, and had decided that it wasn’t something I wanted to spend time on. During the course of the day, three other hotel staff mentioned the arti, recommending it highly. By late afternoon, I began to consider it. That evening before sunset, I reached the steps leading down to the River Ganga in front of the Parmath Ashram in Rishikesh. It was swarming with freshly scrubbed young men in yellow kurtas and orange dhotis, who looked like they were in training at the nearby ashram. Suddenly, there was a buzz in the air. Everyone stood up and I heard loud whispers, “Swamiji is here, Swamiji is here.” I stood reluctantly, and turned my head to see a man with a long beard, half-dyed, half-white hair and bright orange clothes walking towards us. I rolled my eyes inwardly wondering what I had signed up for. We all sat down and Swami Chidanand Saraswati took the mike and immediately started singing. Unexpectedly for me, a mellifluous voice rose gently over the mike, and though I could not understand the actual words of the bhajan, I could feel the pleasant vibrations of the singing. I noticed the soft breeze coming off the Ganga, the gorgeous evening light as the sun fell behind the horizon, the river a dusky orange. As darkness fell, I found myself enjoying the energy and rhythm of the evening, closing my eyes and savouring the calm.
And then he started speaking. I had wondered, sceptically, what he was going to say, quite sure the religious babble would not resonate with me. I was in for a bit of a surprise. He spoke of “human social responsibility or HSR.” Why do we only hold corporates responsible for society, he questioned? Why not each one of us? Start by keeping your home and neighbourhood clean, and please don’t dirty the Ganga on the pretext of religious ritual, was his advice.
Come back tomorrow, he said, to donate. Ah-ha! I thought, that’s what this is all about. And then he continued: Don’t bring any money. Come and donate blood; we need people to participate in our blood donation drive. And then, before leaving he made a simple, grounded request: that everyone in the audience commit to spirituality by planting a tree, and more importantly, by taking care of and nurturing it.
As the Swami left, a buzz of voices rose as everyone started the jostle to leave the venue. I lingered on the steps a few minutes longer, taking in all that I had just experienced. I walked down to the Ganga to acknowledge the spirituality of the place. It was the same feeling I’ve had when hiking in the Himalayas, when driving through vast, untouched Ladakh, or staring up at a star-filled sky—a feeling of connectedness and calm.
Back home, as I looked back at my three days in the area, this evening stood out for its unexpectedness, and for the fact that it made me feel good. It provided insight into something I’ve been sceptical about—how religious fervour translates into action that makes a difference. Since then, I’ve been a little careful about adding any more places to my mustn’t-visit list. Who knows what eye-opener lies in store at the spots I’ve belittled.
Appeared in the December 2015 issue as “The Mustn’t Visit List”.
Niloufer Venkatraman ’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through the wilderness or the by-lanes of a city. She is obsessive about family holidays and has already instilled in her young daughter wanderlust and a love for the outdoors. She is the former Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.