Escaping the Bam-Bholes

View Kasar

July 2008

It was raining season in Rishikesh; which means: PILGRIM SEASON! This is when thousands of pilgrims, many of them from Hariana, invade Ramjhula. Waves of young men clad in orange march 24 hours a day through town shouting: “Bham Bole, Bham Bole” to announce their presence to Lord Shiva. They carry holy water from the Ganges up to the Neelkanth Temple to offer it to the Shiva Lingam. One rule is that the water shall never touch the floor, so all the dhabas and chaishops on the roadside build improvised holders where the pilgrims can hang up their holy offering during their breaks. What I found very funny is that they come back from the temple wearing their underpants on their heads! ‘Strange rite’, I thought and then found out that they do so to dry their pants after having bathed in the temple compound. I wonder what the Indians would think I they saw a horde of Westerners marching through town with their underwear on their head…

Anyways, things get tough for a foreigner during this time of the year, as the pilgrims usually give them a hard time. The foreign tourists actually get evacuated by the authorities from the hotels and guesthouses next to the pilgrim trail and are sent to accommodations in more peaceful areas. So it happened to us and we decided to simply escape from all the turmoil. Baba and I had made friends with a girl from America and we decided to travel together. None of us felt like traveling too far, so we checked on the rarely used travel guide to find nearby attractive places. I hate to read instructions of any kind and also dislike reading guide books! We went through the section of Uttarakhand and stumbled upon Almora, which was only a one-night-trip away. I liked the melody of the word “Almora”. There was not much text to read about it, but as we skimmed it and read

“There is a nearby town called ‘Hippie-Land’ by the locals; ask for accommodation at the chai shops on the road”

it was decided: CHALO ALMORA!

As soon as we left the town of Almora after having survived another crazy local bus ride through the mountains and arrived in the village, I fell in love! It was simply beautiful! Peace, pure nature, village life, cool, fresh air and colorful flowers everywhere! I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland. Actually there is not much to do for tourists, life there is still pretty much authentic. No shops with tourist stuff to buy, no courses or classes, no distractions; it is the perfect spot to chill after having traveled through “Indian hard-core tourist places”. The scene really forces people to calm down, to be with themselves and nature.

We found a simple guesthouse where we spent a lot of time in the roof-top restaurant while the monsoon was pouring down and simply enjoyed the amazing view through the big windows, which offered a great view over the ever-changing clouds, rainbows, valleys and hills while we were munching on chocolate pancakes and sipping chai. It was off-season there, too and we only met one more backpacker. One day early in the morning I stepped out of the room and could not believe my eyes! The rain had stopped, it was a bright clear day and there they were, as if somebody had hung up a painting just in front of my eyes:

THE SNOW-COVERED HIMALAYAS !

Himalaya range

I had no idea that they were that close! Shame on me! Maybe sometimes reading a guide book is not a bad idea, but if you don´t read it you might get blessed with unexpected surprises like this one.

Some peaceful weeks later, Baba suddenly received a phone call from Bihar. His 103-years old grandfather was dying and his last wish was to see his grandson he had been missing for too many years. Since Baba ran away from home at the tender age of eleven he had returned to his birthplace only once after 17 years of absence. After the initiation to Sadhu-life you are reborn as a new being and should break all the attachments to your previous life, which also includes the physical family; at least until you have reached a certain stage.

But once it happened, when Baba and I were visiting Benares, that he suddenly became very introverted. When I asked him what was wrong, he said that soon it would be Rakshabhandan, the festival when the bond between brothers and sisters is worshipped and that he would like to see his sister again. Varanasi is not very far from his birthplace and I told him that I would buy him a train ticket if he wished to go there. He called his Guruji to ask permission and when Baba received his blessings, he took a train to Patna. All of his family thought that he had died and was more than pleased that he returned as a Sadhu, which is believed to bring seven generations of good luck to the family.

So now the grandfather wished to see his beloved grandson again. For some time the three of us were just sitting there wondering what to do. The Himalayas are pretty far from the plains of Bihar; to be more precise about 1000 km, which can be translated into 2 days and 1½ nights of traveling in pubic transports.

Uma in Wonderland

My friend looked at me and asked:

“You feel like going on an adventure?”

“Why not?” I replied

“Okay, then… CHALO BIHAR!”

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The Baba Ashram Experience

July 2007

Guruji picked us up with a rickshaw at Bikaner train station. I liked him from the beginning. His eyes reflected a deep kindness. He was tall and slim  and much younger than I had expected.

Bikaner Ashram

The Ashram was situated in the outskirts of the city. It did not look at all like any of the tourist ashrams that I knew from India. The place consisted of a large patio surrounded by a few small buildings and several shrines, all bounded by a high wall. There were two bedrooms, one kitchen, one washing room and one meditation room with a dhuni in the basement.

I was introduced to the resident sadhu and two of his disciples. They were two young Babas about fourteen and eighteen years old. The rickshaw driver turned out to be also a student of the Ashram, who would be at our disposal offering his seva whenever we needed a ride. Not all disciples become sadhus; many worship their gurus and live a normal life. A lot of locals came daily to the ashram to serve the sadhus, ask them for advice, listen to their stories or just enjoy their presence. They brought offerings along with them in form of food, incense or money.

Obviously nobody in the Ashram was used to have a woman living among them and less a westerner. It was a new and nice experience for both parts. Guruji treated me like a daughter and was visibly concerned about my wellbeing. My Hindi was as poor as his English, but sometimes there is no need for words and I had the feeling that I knew him since a long time. What I most liked about him, was his humbleness. I had come to meet several sadhus and had my personal difficulties dealing with the arrogance of many of them. It seems to be difficult to keep the spiritual ego under control once you are surrounded by disciples who treat you like god.

My Baba was very busy with Guruji, a long time had passed since they last met; most of the time I was left to myself. I sat with big eyes in the heat observing the ashram life passing in front of me and trying to understand what was going on. It was the end of July and incredibly hot; for sure not the best season to travel to the desert.

It was so hot that everybody slept outside, where a light breeze blew from time to time. I slept very well on a blanket under a neem tree. It is said that sleeping under a neem tree is therapeutic, it produces more oxygen than other trees and is known to cure more than 100 diseases. Baba says that if you sleep under such a tree during six months you will be free of any health problems. The only side effect was that the tree was also a home to a large group of birds; every morning I had to clean off the bird poo from my clothes.

Ram Nath BabajiThe daily ashram routine started at 3.30 a.m. with bhajans blasting out from the crackling speakers. First of all everybody used the bathrooms to purify the physical body. Next the entire place was cleaned neatly with water to have the ashram spick and span for the morning puja. After the prayers we sat together and had chai, followed by another resting period before the heat would turn almost unbearable. During the day locals would pay their visits. All day long people walked in and out and many joined in for the evening puja.

Guruji insisted that my Baba would be in charge of the cooking, he said that he missed his culinary skills too much. Sometimes I helped peeling potatoes or cleaned the dishes with ash or sand; that’s the way desert people do it, as water is precious and rare. I guess I should have helped more, but there are so many rules in every ambit of Hindu society that I was afraid to offend someone by my lack of knowledge. My thinking was of course a bit silly; for sure they would understand the cultural differences and be happy to explain everything.

During the day I sat mostly in the shadow of the building in front of the big gate alone with my thoughts. It was a kind of unintended but much revealing meditation. Sometimes I silently repeated mantras to keep my mind from spinning too much. The kids of the neighborhood discovered me soon and climbed up the wall to wave at me and sit there for some time to see what I was doing.

Each time the gate opened it was like a theatre curtain rising. All kind of people stepped through it to receive some healing, to enjoy a couple of chillums or to pray at the shrines. Once, even a camel appeared in the gate. Another time a group of Rajasthani ladies in colourful sarees walked in. They prostrated in front of me and touched my feet as a gesture of highest respect. Apparently they thought that I was a holy Mataji, because I was living with the sadhus. I felt pretty embarrassed; who was I to get my feet touched by anybody? I did not feel worthy giving them the blessings they expected to receive by touching their heads. Maybe I should just have done so, as I learned that all human beings actually possess the power of blessing.

Sometimes the sadhus took me for sightseeing. I felt like Snow White, but surrounded and protected by sadhus instead of dwarfs. We visited Karnimata temple, also known as the rat temple. The little rodents are considered holy there. This day I was deeply thankful for the heat, as it kept the thousands of fat rats sleeping peacefully in the corners of the temple. From time to time some of them moved lazily to have a sip of milk which was offered to them in huge clay bowls. I actually like rats and mice, but to see so many of them in one spot and imagining how they all hop over my feet from all sides felt pretty eery.Happiest rats in the world

For me this Baba world I got to know was completely new. It was so much different from my experiences with the Baba society in Rishikesh, were they barely received any attention from the locals. I got disappointed in more than one occasion, thinking that I was having a nice talk with a sadhu, but each time the conversation ended with a petition for money.

My experience in Bikaner touched my soul. It was beautiful to be witness and part of an ancient system which consists of giving and receiving in so many different ways.

Baba’s Story

Baba

Rishikesh became our base camp from where we decided where to go next.

Baba sometimes talked about his Guruji and I became more and more curious.  He suggested that we could next travel to Bikaner, Rajasthan to pay Guruji a visit in the ashram.

Baba is not much of a talkative person, at least if you don’t ask the right questions. But if you do so, you will get to hear amazing things. I had a lot of questions and little by little I got to know his life story, which could easily fill a book:

Baba grew up in a small village in Bihar as the youngest of three children. When he was only eleven years old he broke out of society. Apparently he has been a rebel in his own way since childhood. Sometimes he went to school, but rather preferred to fish in the river or play in the mango gardens. Nobody of his family of course was happy about that, but there was no way to awaken his interest in school education.

One day it came to a chain reaction: The teacher caught him skipping classes and slapped him. Baba reacted and kicked the teacher as hard as he could in his shinbone. The teacher hit him again and brought him home to his older brother, who hit him as well because of his misbehaviour. He got hit once more by his father when he came home from work.

This day Baba ran off and jumped on the first train he found standing in Patna railway station. Destiny took him to Delhi.

He dwelt around the railway station for some time, until a Sardarji came along and offered him a roof and food in exchange for working in the household. Baba stayed with him for six months, but soon he wanted something more than only cover his basic needs and took a job as a dishwasher in a local dhaba where he could sleep, eat and got paid some rupees. It is not uncommon to see young kids working in restaurants and chai shops in India; probably many of them lived a similar story or were victims of alcohol problems in their families. After sometime the dhaba owner found out that Baba was a talented cook and he gave him that job.

Like most teenagers Baba felt attracted to all the Bollywood glamour shown on television. One day he took the money he had saved and moved to Mumbai. He did not become a  Bollywood actor, but found a well paid, but hard job at the railway station: Loading and unloading heavy bundles of textiles for their transport. After having done this job for about two years something that would change his life came into his mind: He wanted to go on the pilgrimage to the holy Shiva place of Ammarnath in Kashmir. He changed his jeans and t-shirt for a simple saffron-coloured lunghi and kurta.

Babaji

At the last stop in Jammu he went off the train. From there on he would go the rest of the distance by walk, joining many other sadhus who were heading to the same destination.

After walking on and on for a long time, a scene on the roadside attracted his attention: A crying woman holding her sick child in her arms had approached a sadhu. She explained that she already had visited many doctors, but non of them found an effective treatment. The sadhu examined the child, gave some ayurvedic medicine to the mother and his blessings to the boy.

Baba decided to follow this sadhu. There was something about him he felt attracted to in a special way. He asked him if he would accept him as a disciple, but the sadhu politely refused.

Baba followed him anyways and offered him his seva. He even followed him back to an ashram of the Nath Sampardaya in Punjab. After five months the sadhu finally decided that the time had come to accept Baba as his chela. Sadhus don’t use to accept a new disciple easily, as this also involves assuming a lot of responsibility. It is like adopting a child; by becoming someone’s Guru they also turn into the student’s father. They want to make sure as well that the applicant is serious about his decision.

In the end real sadhu life is hard life.

Guruji took Baba to his ashram in Bikaner where he lived and learned for eight years. On Guruji’s suggestion, Baba then went to live alone in his own little ashram in a desert nearby for some years.

Puja room

Eventually he decided to wander through Northern India by himself. He liked Rishikesh very much and felt curious about all the foreign travelers he met there. He was keen on knowing more about the world outside of India and simply enjoyed their company. And one day we came across each other on the shores of the Ganges.

One reason why I liked Baba from the beginning is, that he never asked anybody for anything.

He was just one of these persons I met in my life in whose eyes happiness and satisfaction were reflected.

Trouble in my Bubble

July 2007

My wonderland bubble was about to burst!

CIMG2820

The town was getting crowded; pilgrim season had started. Each year people arrive from all over the country to pray on the shores of the Ganges, visit their Gurus in the Ashrams and to offer holy water to Lord Shiva in the Neelkanth Temple. The bridges leading to Ramjhula and Laxmanjhula were so crowded, that crossing them could easily take more than half an hour.

For a foreigner this season can become kind of annoying. There are many villagers among the pilgrims, who probably never saw a Westerner in all their life, not even on T.V.

To leave the guesthouse for a cup of chai, turns into a challenge. Once you are out on the street, Indian women point at you giggling and groups of young fellows look at you in most uncomfortable ways whispering behind your back. It is not a good idea to get yourself into posing for a souvenir snap. If you do so, you will be expected to stand there for hours, because the entire group also wants at least one shot with a smiling Westerner. In the meantime a long queue with more pilgrims is waiting for their turn. Indians can be really persistent and it is almost impossible to break out of the situation without getting rude.

If you did not give up and eventually made it to the chai shop, you will probably be sitting in the middle of a lot of young male pilgrims, who will be staring at you constantly without even blinking. To us this might feel pretty uncomfortable, but staring is actually not considered impolite in India. As a foreigner you turn automatically into the center of attraction. It is irrelevant what you wear or what you do and it doesn’t make any difference if you are just sitting there doing nothing or if you are performing a hula dance; people will just stare. Feel free to do the same, there is no need to feel shy if you want to find out more about an unusual situation that attracts your attention.

CIMG2821

Another fact is that if you have spent a longer time in Ramjhula, you automatically become part of the local society and its gossip. Sometimes it is better not to understand Hindi, I guess.

I was pretty surprised, when several strange Sadhus approached me in a funny way to give me some unasked spiritual advises about how to reach illumination and telling me stories about their superpowers. Each time the encounter ended with this guideline, referring to my Baba:

“This Baba no good, you take care! You better no meet!”

Actually they wanted to convince me that hanging out with them instead would be much wiser and they were more than likely trying to woo away a Western sponsor.

Things are really not easy when you (are a woman and) befriend a Baba in Rishikesh. The police was constantly annoying us. Some said that their duty is to protect the female travelers from getting into trouble, but my impression was rather that they tried to make life impossible for us to get some baksheesh out of the situation. The police would stop us on the street and sternly insist that I was not allowed to go along with this Baba. We were not even doing anything wrong or unmoral such as holding hands or kissing in public.

The police even appeared out of nowhere to make trouble when we were just sitting at a chai stall with friends or playing an innocent game of LUDO together with a couple of Sadhus in the shadow of a tree. I started to wonder if they were spying on me. I tried to convince them that I am a grown up and may walk with whoever and wherever I wished. This did not impress them much and they even threatened to beat Baba up or to put him into jail. I wondered with which reason they would imprison Baba. But if they really wanted to do so, they would probably invent any silly motive. I already had learned that the Indian police doesn’t waste much time with talking, they don’t hesitate to pull out their clubs and proceed to the so-called “Bamboo-massage”.

Eventually we ended up walking on the road separately to meet up somewhere later on. What happened to our freedom?

All the signs were pointing to the same direction:

The time had come to move on!