Busting the Blessing Scam
Mariellen Ward arrived in the sacred town of Rishikesh, on the Ganges River in north India, to find her serenity threatened by a malevolent force. She fought back.
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In front of me, the pedestrian suspension bridge flew over the surging river far below. Humans, animals and two-wheeled vehicles jostled for space: Indians in bright cottons, foreigners in sunglasses, meandering cows, racing motorcycles and a tribe of inquisitive monkeys. The whole of Rishkesh seemed to want to cross this delicate strand that connected the two sides of the sacred town.
On the busy side of north Rishikesh, at the foot of Lakshman Jhula—Lakshman being Ram’s younger brother, and jhula being bridge—a tumult of cafes, book shops, stalls selling music CDs and stores selling gems and spiritual paraphernalia crowded around a winding lane that led to the start of the foot bridge. The picturesque scene was completed by a row of ancient sadhus, swathed in orange, sitting on the ground with begging bowls outstretched.
The scent of incense wafted through the air from the spiritual paraphernalia store, while the uplifting sound of temple bells rang out like an invitation from the other, more peaceful, side of the Ganga (Ganges) River. Above, the foothills of the Himalayas soared on both sides of the valley against a clear blue sky and below, the Ganga surged like an emerald vein.
I was newly in India, and the scene excited my imagination beyond measure. Here was the colourful, crowded India of my dreams and fantasies; here were the sights, sounds and smells I had wanted to experience my entire life. Yet I hesitated to cross the river; I was nervous about joining the chaotic toil. Eventually, I threw myself into the throng and allowed myself to be carried past the entreating sadhus, under the watchful eyes of the monkeys and one step ahead of the maniacal motorcycles.
With relief I was deposited at the far end, in an open square with a statue of Lord Shiva the destroyer in the centre. Rishikesh is Shiva’s city. Before I could get my bearings, a Hindu pundit (priest), sporting a grey beard and saffron robes, appeared in front of me. He insisted I receive a blessing. I was frankly dubious, but in the twinkling of an eye he started to chant, wave incense around and place a tilak of sandalwood paste on my forehead.
And then he demanded money. A lot. He wanted 500 rupees, which was about $14, and he was very aggressive. I had been in India for a whopping two weeks at this point, and really didn’t know my way around, or what to do. I just knew that I felt angry, which is not what I expected to feel in the yoga capital of the world.
I made a quick decision. I decided I didn’t want to start my six months in India by allowing myself to be bullied. I had lots of solo travel plans ahead that required I feel confident. I had to effectively deal with this situation.
So, I marched into a nearby reputable-looking jewelry store, with the pundit in tow. I told the men working in the store that the pundit was harassing me. The men in the store instantly defended me and chased the pundit out. Then, they offered me a cup of tea.
I felt vindicated. And confident. And ready for my six-month trip-of-a-lifetime across the breadth of India. Defending myself from the fraudulent pundit was a small but important step in my journey. And, as they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.