1. Clouds Drifting Through a Landscape: Glimpses of Rishikesh

Religion and Senses of Place - Graham Harvey

Stephen B. Jacobs [+-]
University of Wolverhampton
Stephen Jacobs is Senior Lecturer in Media, Religion and Culture at the University of Wolverhampton. Specialising in Indian traditions and Religion and Mass Media communication, his recent publications include Hinduism Today (Bloomsbury, 2010), 'Simulating the Apocalypse: Theology and Structure of the Left Behind Games’ Online' in Heidelberg Journal of Religion and the Internet (2015) and Art of Living: Spirituality and Wellbeing in the Global Context (Ashgate, 2015).


It is 6:00 in morning, and it is just getting light. A middle class Indian couple, who have been staying at the sprawling Shivananda Ashram just outside of Rishikesh in the Indian state of Uttrakhand, make their way from their accommodation to the Viśvanāth temple at the heart of the ashram. They have sponsored a ritual called abhiṣeka. They take their seat immediately in front of the Śiva liṅga and the priest (pūjārī) starts chanting the mantra which will begin the complex one-hour ritual. Later in the day this couple will cross the narrow footbridge over the sacred river Ganges (Gangā) and wander around the statuary of the myriad of Hindu deities in the gardens of the ashram Parmath Niketan and have a special meal at the renowned restaurant Chotiwala, and perhaps buy a pashmina scarf at one of the many small stores in the bazaar. Further down the road dozens of buses are parked in a large open space. There are make-shift shelters and people, young and old are just beginning to wake. A few women are squatting on the ground hunched over small paraffin cooking stoves making the first chai of the day, and kneading the dough for chapattis to feed their families. These are the pilgrimage (yātrā) buses that have been rented by groups of villagers from the rural hinterlands of northern India on a tour of some of the sacred sites. It is a Monday in August, a day associated with Nīlkanth – literally ‘Blue Throated’ a form of Śiva. Later in the morning these villagers, in an exuberant crowd, make their way to the fleet of jeeps that ferry them up 4,000 feet to the small temple in the hills dedicated to Nīlknath. A little distance away a small international group, having read that Rishikesh is the yoga capital of India, have booked on a ten-day retreat at Yoga Niketan, are make their way to the hall, for their first yoga and meditation session of the day. Later in the day they will sit and listen to a short talk on the Bhagavad Gita. A couple of this group will then walk up the path alongside Gangā one and a half miles to Lakshman Jula, where there are numerous cafes catering to the Western traveller. They order pancakes and a mango lassi, and discuss how they will get to Rajasthan after they have completed their yoga retreat. These are just three (hypothetical) examples of the many interpretive communities that flock to Rishikesh. A place is never a one place characterised by a single inherent essence. A place is always polyvalent, as sense and meaning are always constructed through the different interactions with that place. While clearly geographically it is physically located in one place, Rishikesh is also many places that has a different significance for the middle class Hindu, the yatris and the Western yogis. The human geographer Yi-Fu Tan (1977: 9) has argued that a place ‘cannot be known in itself. What can be known is a reality that is a construct of experience’. While experience constructs place, place also shapes experience through what Ron Scollon and Suzie Wong Scollon (2003: 2) have called geosemiotics –‘the material placement of signs and discourses’. The material placements in Rishikesh include a plethora of signs advertising various courses in yoga and meditation, the now semi-permanent wayside shrines that are dotted around the town, and the increasingly large statues of Hindu deities that adorn the banks of Gangā. Discourses about Rishikesh include: references in some of the Hindu literature, the long associations with saints and sadhus, the narrative that indicates that it is the gateway to “the Land of the God”, and the claim that it is the yoga capital of the world and the place where the Beatles stayed with Mahesh Yogi. This chapter will explore how Rishikesh is represented as one place through the geosemitotics and discourses that construct this small Northern Indian town as unique. However, it will identify how Rishikesh may also be considered as many places through the multiplicity of experiences that different interpretive communities encounter. The chapter will be based on my own personal experiences of visiting Rishikesh over a period of thirty five years, both for personal and academic reasons. It has the potential to be richly illustrated as I have an archive of photographs. I would also plan to visit Rishikesh in August for further ethnographic data (and to visit old friends and drink chai on the ghats).

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Jacobs, Stephen. 1. Clouds Drifting Through a Landscape: Glimpses of Rishikesh. Religion and Senses of Place. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. Nov 2021. ISBN 9780000000000. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/view-chapter/?id=41474. Date accessed: 28 Oct 2020 doi: 10.1558/equinox.41474. Nov 2021

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