I woke up at 4:30am and by 5am, a cab was waiting to take me to the Kunjapuri temple. Situated at a height of 1920 feet and 25 kms away from Rishikesh, I had heard that it offers a spectacular view of the mountains around, especially during sunrise.
So we set off, with the stars above and the stillnes of the dark night around. Save for a few trucks, there was hardly any traffic on the roads, and we had a smooth drive up the mountains. It was pitch dark when we started but by the time we got to Kunjapuri, the first rays of the sun had lighted up the sky and the last few kilometeres offered breathtaking views of the mountains rising above and the plains below, with the Ganga snaking through it. The cabbie had been playing some really nice devotional music throughout and I felt completely at peace as I took in the views.
When we got to Kunjapuri, it was cold with a strong, chilly breeze and I had to brave a really long flight of stairs before I could get to the temple. Especially with the altitude and the cold, I found that not an easy task. But once up at the temple, the breathlessness from the exertion made way to breathlessness seeing the gorgeous backdrop of the quaint, serene temple. The only sounds that accompanied the beautiful sight were that of the breeze, chirping of a hundred birds and the gong of the temple bell that reverberated across as I struck it.
I realized that I was the first visitor for the day. It was just me, a couple of priests and what seemed like their families on top. So in a way I had the whole temple to myself and I prayed to my mind's content. I had picked up a puja thali (plate) with offerings for the Goddess and once the priest took all offerings, he replaced it with a coconut and packets of puffed rice and sugar balls as prasad. As I walked out of the shrine, a darling little dog started following me, clearly for the eatables on my puja plate. I opened up the packet of the puffed rice and gave it to him, but he politely declined it and continued to follow me hopefully. Then I realized I had a dog with a sweet tooth on hand and what he really wanted were the sugar balls. So I gave those to him which he eagerly lapped up, after which he unceremoniously stopped following me.
I kept walking around the temple, taking in the views in all directions, and soon there it was - a huge red ball of the sun rising up from beyond the mountains. It was the sunrise I had so badly wanted to see. But when it started to happen, instead of watching it, I wanted to close my eyes, while allowing the warm rays to fall upon me.
I sat on a metal bench facing the sun, watching it rise, meditating and chanting in turns. At one point in time, while I had my eyes closed, I felt a movement next to me. I opened my eyes to see a baby monkey stealing off some of the leftover puffed rice on my puja plate! As soon as he saw me watching, the naughty little thing ran away. So I left the plate on the bench, got up and stood a short distance away and continued enjoying the sunrise and chanting. After I was done, I walked back to the bench and sure enough, the plate was now completely empty without even a grain of rice left in it. The little one had done his job well.
After spending a good hour in the peace and quiet of the temple and making friends with two little kids who helped me break the coconut prasad, I walked back down the stairs. Half way down there was a "Maggi Cafe" where I helped myself to a cup of refreshing masala tea and then it was time for the drive back. Now with the sun completely up and the skies fully lit up, the drive offered a different view and I enjoyed it thoroughly, wanting it to never end.
Back at the resort, it was time for my morning routine of yoga class, breakfast and shower and a short walk to the Lakshman Jhula and back. By the time I was back, I was completely exhausted from the early morning rise, the climbing of stairs and all the walking and I collapsed into my bed and napped right away.
I woke up just in time for the afternoon yoga class, which thankfully wasn't too strenuous. After two rounds of sun salutations on each side, he made us do different kinds of pranayama or breathing exercises and also got us to meditate.
And then I set off once again, this time for the Ganga Aarti. Different ashrams and temples around Rishikesh hold evening prayers to the holy river Ganga and the biggest prayer in Rishikesh is held at the Paramartha Ashram. The hotel arranged for an auto-rickshaw to take me there. From where the rickshaw dropped me, it was another flight of stairs and a walk of about 750 mts, which including walking through the Ram Jhula (the other long hanging bridge of Rishikesh), alleys of shops, temples and ashrams - all of which were alive and vibrant with pilgrims and tourists and yoga enthusiasts. I loved the energy!
At the beautiful Paramartha Ashram, the bhajans preceeding the Aarti had already begun and I joined the big group that had gathered along Ganga's shore. Again, I meditated as they sang, and then once I was done, watched the sun set beyond the river. Soon the Aarti began and several big lamps were being swung in a circular motion in respect of the holy river. It was a fascinating sight but I have to say that I was a bit taken aback by how much of it was "touristy" vs. spiritual. Even though many folks seemed to focus on the prayers, the vast majority, including a few sadhus and people donning the orange robes, were more interested in taking selfies or posing with the aarti lamps. I wished I was in a pre-camera era when the atmosphere would have been so different and I do think they should be banning videography and photography in those premises.
I was also heartbroken to realize that the huge Shiva statue that graced the waters in that spot before, had been washed off in last year's floods. I was really looking forward to seeing that utterly magnificent statue and had no idea it was no longer there. I believe the guy who passed on this information saw the heavy disappointment on my face, so he helpfully told me that, if I walk down all the way to the other end of the Paramartha Ashram, I can see two other white Mahadeva (Shiva) statues. I thought, might as well. So I walked in to the ashram in search of the statues, and I didn't see two but many more. They had a few really, really amazing statues of the Mahadeva in various Thandava (dance) postures. They were spectacular. I also saw the two white ones the guys had mentioned and at the end of it all, felt a little better and less disappointed.
By the way, I must also mention that I am really enjoying speaking Hindi here. I had picked up conversational Hindi in college from my future husband and our friends and this is the first time I am really use it left, right and centre. So when I hear new words which I have only learnt in school but never really used before, I feel excited! When the guy was explaining where I would find the Mahadeva statue, he said I had to walk across the "Bageecha" (garden) and I was so amused because the last time I had heard that word was in some story in class five or so! So I did walk through the bageecha and not only find the statues, but also saw a few people scattered across, practicing their yoga in the bageecha. Gosh, I love this place!
Soon I walked back the whole way - through the bageecha, out of the ashram, through the shops and alleys and temples (where there were more aartis happening and prayers and chants and gongs were vibrating all across the area), across the Ram Jhula, up the flight of stairs, finally to an auto rickshaw that was waiting for me. The temperature had dropped significantly and there was a chilly wind blowing, and even as I sat in the rickety auto rickshaw that made it a point to jump over every gutter and pothole (and there were plenty of them), I couldn't feel happier.
By the time I got back to the hotel, I was ready to drop from exhaustion but I first ordered myself some more masala chai and some hot kichdi and then got hooked on to my Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni book again (it's called "Oleander Girl, by the way). I went to bed only past midnight after I successfully finished ready it. I have lapped up three books so far on this trip!
Another wonderful day comes to an end.