It was during dinner the previous evening, over pepperoni pizza, I heard for the first time, about a cave that has been around “for ages”. Everything in Rishikesh is “ages old” or has “been there from the time when Gods and god-like rishis walked the earth”. The Ganges and the mountains are testimonies, people here say.
I was staying at the Aloha on The Ganges, a beautiful hotel overlooking the Ganges and a six km drive from the said cave – Vasishta Guha.
Believers believe that Vasistha Muni, one of the saptarishis (seven immortal sages) meditated in this cave for hundreds of years during a time when people lived for hundreds of years. (Did you know that the seven stars known as the Bear Constellation, which you will find below the North Polar Star, is named after the saptarishis? One of them is called Vasishta and there is a smaller star next to it named after his wife, Arundathi. They were known as the ideal couple. Pointing these two stars to a newly wedded bride and the groom is part of the Hindu wedding ritual. Now you know the meaning of all those wedding photos where the bride and groom pose pointing to ‘something’ in the sky.)
My interest in the cave piqued when somebody at the dinner table said: “This is where actor Rajinikanth often comes to meditate.” If you are a South Indian who grew up in Chennai like me, your ears always perk up at the sound of R. A. J. I. N. I. K. A. N. T. H. For ‘ages’ we have been hearing about “a special cave that the actor often goes to meditate and to get away from the materialistic world”. Everybody knows about Rajinikanth. About Sage Vasishta…? I have my doubts. So here goes…
Sage Vasishta was the son of Lord Brahma. He is said to be born of Brahma’s willpower. Vasishta was also Lord Rama’s Guru. He was an ascetic who had conquered the ‘I’ and ‘anger’. He was a peaceful, kind, generous and powerful teacher. He was married to Arundathi and together they had a hundred sons. Vasishta also had in his possession a divine cow named Nandini, which could feed all those who crossed the threshold of his ashram. It was a gift from Indra. It was also the beginning of the enmity between Vasishta and Vishwamitra (king-turned-rishi) who wanted Nandini for his own but couldn’t have her. The bad blood between the two men deepened when Vasishta defeated Vishwamitra in a duel. The feud continued for many years before Vishwamitra, cunningly, killed all of Vasishta’s sons. Deeply saddened by the loss of his children the Rishi decided to commit suicide by jumping into the Ganges. But Ganga wouldn’t allow it.
Mourning the loss of the children the couple travelled far and wide before they settled on the banks of Ganges where there was a cave in the middle of a Gular (fig trees) forest. Vasishta is then said to have spent hundreds of years meditating in this cave which later came to be known as Vasishta Guha. Nearby, there is also another cave known as Arundathi Guha where his wife spent time in meditation when she wasn’t tending to the needs of her husband.
The belief is that due to the penance of the powerful rishi the cave is soaked in positive energy. And over the years, many men of god have spent time in the cave meditating drawing from that energy and in turn adding their own vibes to the energy pool.
In India, we go by feelings and beliefs rather than hard-core evidence. The former always results in beautiful stories that allow for individual interpretations. I like stories. So, I am going with the flow here.
Vasishta Guha was relatively unknown to the world until 1930 when Swami Purushottamananda discovered the cave. Currently, the place is managed by the Swami Purshottamanand Trust.
Vasishta Guha is around six km from Shivpuri. An early morning drive up the hill helped us avoid the river-rafting traffic that would descend upon the town by mid-morning. The cave is located on the Rishikesh-Badrinath road.
A concrete butter-yellow and rust-coloured standalone arch by the side of the road indicates the path down to the cave. There’s no entrance fee. But you might find a few men with matted hair, and saffron robes, muttering “give us a little something” dotting the area. The cave is 250 feet below from the main road and at 2000 ft above sea level. I was forced to concentrate on my footing as the path downhill was rather steep. The handrail helped. Good trekking shoes would’ve helped too!
Trees frame the pathway with the Ganges below peeking through the leaves. On the left, there’s a hanging bridge across the river which connects to the Gular village on the other side of the banks. And streaming down the vast Ganges were pools of river rafters.
The place is full of melodies — rustling leaves, gently flowing Ganga, birds in the trees and the whispering breeze. But silence is the predominant intonation.
After a couple of bends, we reach flat-land. On the left is the living quarters of sadhus associated with the Trust, cow sheds and other paraphernalia of worldly life. On the right, is an ancient rock-face rising vertically before disappearing into the treetops. In the front is the cave, one that I would’ve easily missed if I hadn’t known about it or looking for it. The façade is inconspicuous with an extended porch covered with asbestos.
The rocky cave is 60 feet deep with a wide opening that tapers into a narrow space that doesn’t allow two people to stand side-by-side.
At the entrance, there is some natural light streaming into the cave through the wide opening, just enough to make out a shape sitting on the left meditating. I was told he was the present “Swamiji” of the Trust.
I walked gingerly feeling my way with my feet and hands. The deeper I went, the darker it got. At one point I was engulfed by an inky blackness. It was only towards the end of the cave was the darkness broken by the flickering light of an oil lamp. There was a Shiva Linga in a corner. I was also told that behind the Shiva Linga was an opening, which was now closed, that led you deeper into the cave where there are rishis who have been meditating for thousands of years and that the cave led you to some special place in the Himalayas. I am a non-judgemental story-collector.
Slowly, my eyes began to carve out the shapes inside this tight space. There were straw mattresses on the uneven floor. Three people, with fair skin, clad in shorts and spaghetti tops were on the floor in a lotus position, eyes closed and straight backs. They were lost in their breaths. Around 12 people can meditate inside the cave. However, this is not a place for those who have claustrophobia.
Even the agnostic in me couldn’t help but be mesmerised by the surroundings. I understood the meaning of pin-drop silence and realised that human breath has a cadence to it. I lean back on the black, uneven walls of the cave, which have been witnesses to the angst and listlessness of scores of humans who had come here, over the ages, to find ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’.
The air is much cooler here. It doesn’t have the smell of cramped spaces. Instead, there is a light fragrance of oil and flowers wafting in the air. I realise I am the only one with my eyes open and behaving like an alien in a candy store. The rest of the group are chasing something invaluable behind their closed eyes.
I strive to feel a sliver of the magical energy that this cave is famous for. Nada. I guess I seep much too deep in worldly pleasures. Earth-shaking reverberations failed to pass through my fleshy limbs; glorious visions escaped my mind’s eye. But I did feel a sense of calm, and it carried with it a feeling of infinity. Nothing dies. Everything lives.
The silence was all-consuming till it was pierced, like a distant siren, by the cries of ecstasy of a group of girls rafting through the Ganges, probably their first time. It was the sound of sheer joy. It was my cue. Leaving others to their pranayamas, I stepped out of the cave only to see a board which read: Do you know when happiness is obtained? We eat some delicious food; hear a melodious song; enjoy an attractive dance. On such occasions the mind becomes tranquil. Happiness is in tranquillity. And where is this tranquillity? It exists in our own heart. When the mind becomes calm, happiness reflects in it. – Swami Purushottamananda Ji.
I realised that at that moment…I was happy. And it was enough.
PS: I don’t know for sure whether this is Rajinikanth’s favourite cave for meditation. I did not see him in the dark depths. But I could easily see why this could be his favourite place to get away from his crowding and noisy world.
There’s a board in the premise that has 13th February 1961 Maha Shivratri written in Tamil and Malayalam. Above the words is painted a clock with the dials showing ten to eleven. It’s the time and date when Swami Purushottamananda attained Samadhi. He was 82 years old. But I was perplexed by the board in Tamil & Malayalam… in Uttarakhand? Swami Purushottamananda spent a decade or so at the Ramakrishna Mission in Kerala before he travelled North where he discovered the cave in 1928. It is said that he had meditated in this cave for almost 25 years before a room was built for him by the side of the cave.
Location: Vashishta Guha is 17km from Tapovan (Rishikesh). 6km from Shivpuri on Rishikesh-Badrinath highway.
Timing: 9 am – 12 pm and 3 pm – 6 pm
Have you been to Rishikesh? Which is your favourite place in Rishikesh and why?
*Note: The trip to the cave was facilitated by Aloha On The Ganges. Opinions on this blog are always my own.