Monday, 10 June 2013

Finding Yourself in Rishikesh

We’ve talked before about the cultural and spiritual significance of the Ganges River.  Now let’s find out more about Rishikesh, a favoured destination for people with interests ranging from yoga and meditation to rafting and adventure.

Rishikesh is one of the names of the god Vishnu and roughly translates into “lord of the senses”.  In the Ramayana, the great epic saga of ancient India, Lord Rama came to Rishikesh to atone for having killed the demon king Ravana.  Who, by the way, had kidnapped Sita, Rama’s wife, and attempted to seduce her.  Despite having killed the villain, Rama had to seek the gods’ forgiveness, so off to Rishikesh he went, meditating on his actions and bathing in the holy waters of the Ganges.

And why did he choose Rishikesh?  Because meditating there helps bring you closer to moksha or the liberation from the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth.  Not only is Rishikesh on the banks of the Ganges River, at the point where it leaves the mountains, it is also the starting point for pilgrims travelling to Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri.  These four sites constitute one of Hinduism's most spiritual and auspicious pilgrimage circuits and every devout Hindu should visit them at least once.
Lord Rama’s association with Rishikesh is celebrated by the town in countless ways – for example, the famous Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula Bridges. Lakshman Jhula (see photo) is close to the point where you leave the river if you raft down to Rishikesh from Himalayan River Runners’ Ganga Base Camp. These days the bridge is made of solid iron but legend says that Rama’s younger brother Lakshmana crossed the Ganges on a flimsy jute rope at this very point.
Lakshman Jhula affords spectacular views of the river and the huge storied temples of Swarg Niwas and Shri Trayanbakshawar. If you stop to look and take photos, make sure you are not carrying any food or the resident monkeys will harass you!

The Beatles in Rishikesh
Some of us from a certain generation first heard of Rishikesh in the late 1960s when The Beatles visited the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.  As with everything else The Beatles did, meditation became all the rage and several other artists and musicians followed in their footsteps.
The Beatles composed nearly 48 songs during their stay in Rishikesh – an amazing achievement considering they were only there for a month or two – and many of these ended up on their double album “White Album”.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram is now deserted. Its stone meditation huts, halls and shrines have been reclaimed by the jungle. But you’ll find many other ashrams, Ayurvedic centres and yoga retreats in tranquil settings around Rishikesh, offering classes for tourists as well as for aspiring yoga teachers worldwide.

Whatever your reasons for visiting Rishikesh, remember that you’ll find only vegetarian food there and drinking alcohol is frowned upon although not unknown.   

Photo: View of Rishikesh across Lakshman Jhula Bridge. Attributed to Meg and Rahul and obtained from Flickr
Tags: Rishikesh, rafting, Beatles, yoga, meditation, ashram, ashrams, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Vishnu, Rama, Lakshman Jhula, temples, Swarg Niwas, Shri Trayanbakshawar, Ganges River, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamunotri, Ram Jhula, Ganga

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Monkeying Around the Himalayan River Runners Camp Site

Monkeys are a familiar sight around the Ganges River and the Himalayan River Runners camp site. You might even find one or two watching with great interest while you take a shower! There are two kinds of monkeys in the area – the grey langur (sometimes called the Hanuman langur, after the Hindu god) and the rhesus macaque. 

Grey langurs are generally shy and like to hang out in forests and wooded areas, although you will also find them in cities.  There are actually several different species, although only an expert could tell the difference. Most are a pretty silvery grey with long silky fur, black faces and ears and a long elegant tail. Some species have a golden tinge and there is a cousin, the golden langur, which is a gorgeous ash blonde.

In general, grey langurs live in low to moderate altitudes but some can be found as high as 4000 metres up in the Himalayas.  Their size varies – males are larger than females – but they are approximately 51 to 79 cm from head to rump, with tales ranging from 69 to 102 cm long.  Langurs move with a graceful economy, whether walking on all fours on the ground or swinging through the trees. 

Since grey langurs can adapt to various habitats, they don’t mind sharing space with humans.  And like most humans, they sleep at night, whether in trees or, when they’re living in a city, making an electrical pole or a tower their bed.  When it comes to diet, they are mostly plant eaters but may enjoy a protein supplement from the occasional termite mound or spider web.  They will accept handouts from humans, and may hang around places where scraps are available.  But for the most part, they are gentle, non-aggressive creatures.

Rhesus macaques

Rhesus macaques, however, are another matter. They are very bold and have become pests in Indian cities. You will almost certainly encounter them if you take a trip into Rishikesh from the Himalayan River Runners Ganga Base Camp.

To be fair to these monkeys, much of their marauding in cities is due to the loss of natural habitat.  That’s why you’ll find them sorting through your rubbish for food or even trying to remove the cover from your water tanks to relieve their thirst. But it’s hard to remind yourself of that when you discover them invading your garden or taking a swim in the water tank!

Rhesus monkeys have the widest geographic range of any nonhuman primate. You’ll find them across Central, South and Southeast Asia, living in open areas or grasslands, woodlands or mountains. Like the langur, the rhesus monkey sleeps at night and subsists on plants for food, with an occasional snack of insects. They have pouch-like cheeks, so they can temporarily store food in their mouths.

The Bandar-log

There is some debate as to whether it was the rhesus macaques or the langurs that were the “Bandar-log” (monkey people) of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.  In these stories, the monkeys are portrayed as a feckless bunch, held in contempt by the rest of the jungle for their irresponsible ways. Their foolish chattering is described in Kipling’s “Road Song of the Bandar-Log”:

“Here we sit in a branchy row/Thinking of beautiful things we know;
Dreaming of deeds that we mean to do/All complete, in a minute or two—
Something noble and wise and good/Done by merely wishing we could.
We've forgotten, but—never mind/Brother, thy tail hangs down behind!”

Our rhesus relatives

When it comes to family relations, it is the rhesus monkeys rather than the langurs that are closest to us. We were distant cousins about 25 million years ago, sharing a common ancestor, and we also share about 93% of our DNA sequence with them. For this reason, rhesus monkeys are used frequently in medical research because they are anatomically and physiologically similar to humans. 

The next time you’re on the Ganga or in the area of the Himalayan River Runners camp site, keep an eye out for langurs and rhesus monkeys. Their antics are fun to watch and they are often fiendishly clever.  Do take care, though, and keep your distance.

Photo: Rhesus macaques in Rishikesh, taken by Ulrike Boecking of the German School, New Delhi

Tags:  rhesus monkey, grey langur, macaque, rhesus macaque, Himalayan river runners, Himalayas, Ganga river, Ganga base camp, Rudyard Kipling, Jungle Book, Bandar-log, primate, Hanuman langur

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Staying Safe While Enjoying the Ganga

As highlighted in the previous post, the rafting guides of Himalayan River Runners (HRR) are truly white-water heroes. They are a vital part of HRR’s commitment to keeping our guests safe as they enjoy the many moods of the Ganges River. 

HRR has always insisted on maintaining solid guide experience and inculcating a culture of safety as the foundation of its business of river running throughout India. We recognise that any sport, especially one related to the outdoors and nature, has an element of risk involved.  Otherwise it would merely be a theme park experience and not a real adventure. 

Our aim is to provide an environment where young people (and adults) can test their limits under the watchful eye of an experienced guide. We believe that this provides valuable opportunities for personal growth and also re-connects people to the realities of nature, all too easily forgotten in an urban environment.

It is hard to beat the kind of exhilaration generated by successfully overcoming our fears and meeting physical and mental challenges. Teachers and corporate human resources departments agree that outdoor adventures, responsibly organised, boost self esteem and team spirit among individuals. Special kinds of friendships develop after a challenge shared with others.

But, of course, risk must be minimised and we do this in the knowledge that it cannot be entirely eliminated. To that end, we have re-trained and re-certified all our guides in CPR and First Aid. 

How government can help increase rafting safety

Yousuf Zaheer, Founder and Manager of HRR, says that the 140 rafting operators on the Ganga are now working more closely together on safety issues than previously, and that HRR is active in assisting promoting training initiatives for new guides. His timely suggestion that new guides be tested and assessed by the experienced guides has been approved by the rafting operators’ association.

Yousuf also points out that government outreach is needed to ensure stability for all the operators. At present, only 20 to 30 permits are given per season. These permits have to be renewed annually and the operators are not always confident of receiving the permit. With that concern in mind, they find it difficult to invest in training for their guides. Another complication is that if overseas clients want to book an expedition more than a year in advance, the operators cannot legally accept that booking. This means that operators lose money on bookings – money which could be used to better train their guides and increase safety.

With the 2012-2013 season coming to a close on the Ganga, the operators hope the next year will see more cooperation between the government and the industry. In the end, this will be good for everyone – rafting operators, guests and the state of Uttarakhand, which will benefit from increased tourism and more jobs for the local workforce.

Tags: Himalayan River Runners, HRR, whitewater rafting, rafting operators, rafting guide, rafting guides, rafting safety, Ganges River, Uttarakhand tourism, Ganga