Tag Archive: ashram


Varanasi: Soundscapes

Traffic in Varanasi

Complex traffic conditions  in India

Complex traffic conditions in India

Varanasi traffic is no different than any other busy city in India. The dodging of both pedal and auto rickshaws, cars, trucks, bicycles, cows, goats, water buffalo, children and adults makes for a potentially stressful situation. The trust in rickshaw driver’s ability to navigate successfully through this maze is crucial. This cacophony of horn blowing definitely can put one on edge after constant exposure – one of the many ways that India forces you to grow in different areas (patience and acceptance) – or get out!

We were trying to make it to the Ganges for the evening aarti ceremony when we hit a traffic jam. Our driver did an amazing job of making it through the traffic and help us to land at Dashashwamdh Ghat with plenty of time.
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Aarti Ceremony – Dashashwamedh Ghat

Waiting for aarti to begin

Waiting for aarti to begin

We had arrived late in the afternoon but in time to visit the Dashashwamedh Ghat for aarti.  We jumped in an autorickshaw and zipped along until we arrived at the old city of Varanasi where traffic condensed and we lurched and edged our way through to the closest place for parking that was allowed.  Our guide walked ahead of us leading us through the maze of pedal rickshaws, cows, goats, pedestrians and shops to the edge of the ghats.  We climbed down the steep steps and arranged for him to meet us in a certain spot after the ceremony.  I led us to the front of the five platforms to landings that were already populated by Indians and tourists alike.  We sat there waiting for the ceremony to begin and just took it all in.
Varanasi - boatsThe feeling of heightened anticipation and the smell of incense permeated the entire area.  Some people were eating with families while others were selling kum-kum (coloured powder to place on your forehead), offerings made of marigolds with rose petals filled leaf bowls with a dollop of ghee in the center to light before releasing it into the Ganges with a prayer.  Boats filled with tourists lined the waters edge and layered out into the middle of the river – a sea of boats everywhere.  Kids darted in and out running up and down the stairs while devotees sat on the stair landing above already in reflective prayer.  And then the ceremony began with chanting and the ringing of bells.  They resounded crystal clear, shattering any mental thoughts you may have had before and bringing your attention to the present moment, centered and attuned to their ritual.  We sat mesmerized as Hindu priests performed their religious rituals using incense, fire (from ghee), chanting, bells and movements that flowed in all four directions.
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Sunrise on the Ganges

Veejay & FamilyWe had befriended an auto rickshaw driver named Veejay while in Varanasi who took us everywhere we wanted to go. He had a kind heart and was so helpful in fulfilling our early demands and late shopping sprees – very touching. This morning we had arranged with him to pick us up at 5:30am to take us to the Ganges to watch the sun rise over the Ghats. After the ceremony the night before, we were exhausted and found our pace towards Veejay’s auto rickshaw slowed and sleepy. It was still dark and in preparation for the cold temperature, I brought a blanket from the hotel for us to wrap ourselves in. We zipped along the virtually empty streets – a vast difference from the traffic of yesterday’s drive to the Ghats. We arrived and were led down a dark tented area where people were still stirring. Veejay took us to the boat area and told us what to pay – 300 rupees total. As we waited for the boat to arrive, the quietness of the Ghats was in such contrast to the ceremony the night before.

Manikarnika Ghat - the burning ghat

Manikarnika Ghat – the burning ghat

The sun began to light the sky with pink hues and we stepped onto our boat with the help of our boatman and began to row toward the sun away from shore. The early morning at the Ghats brings a whole other side and experience of this holy river. Men and women alike are bathing (in separate locations) while laundry is being beaten to cleanliness and then laid out to dry. Sadhus arrive and begin their meditation while blessing those that come before him and further up the river at Manikarnika Ghat, bodies arrive shrouded in saffron and marigolds and are laid on a funeral pyre and burnt at the rivers edge. If the body it not fully burnt, they’re still released into the river for salvation.

Varanasi Sunrise

Varanasi Sunrise

As we rowed along the river, the sound of water lapping, birds chirping, boat vendors calling out and the odd boat with chanting devotees passing by were the only expressions here. As the sun rose up off the horizon burning its way through the pink hues and turning the sky blue, we headed back to our boat docking location. Veejay was there to meet us and take us back to our hotel to dine, nap and enjoy our afternoon.
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Map of Varanasi Soundscapes

Here is a map of the soundscapes conducted in Varanasi. The blue markers give brief information of where each location is. I hope you have enjoyed listening and sharing in my experience.
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We had flown in to Amritsar for the day from Delhi and planned to fly out the same night. When we arrived the sun was shining and air smelled fresh – much cleaner than Delhi. We met our driver for the day who was to take us to The Golden Temple, the Sikh museum and then out to the Wagah border ceremony. As we drove along, I noticed how much cleaner Amritsar was – less garbage and less homeless people. The roads were evenly paved and there were areas of manicured lawns and hedges that had been trimmed. It gave me a sense that this city was cared for, more affluent, and perhaps more forward thinking than Ahmedabad or Varanasi. Could this be a religious difference I thought? All the other locations I had visited were primarily Hindu, could it be that the Sikhs carried a different sense of their environment, sanitation, and pride?

The Golden Temple

The Golden TempleBuilt in the 16th century by Guru Arjan Dev, the man also responsible for establishing the Sikh religion, it stands in the middle of a man made lake filled with holy water and is completely surrounded by white structures on all sides. There are four entrances representing the openness of the Sikh religion for all people to come and worship. Many photographs and paintings depict historical events and a few trees that also carry significant reference. There is an ashram of sorts there that allow people to sleep there overnight. The temple never closes.

We arrived at the entrance area to the Golden Temple to find that we had to remove our shoes (no surprise there) AND our socks! Anything that has touched shoes had to be removed and you were not allowed to even bring them with you in a backpack – you HAD to check them. After we did this, we were lead down a red carpet that was laid out over the rocky walkway. I could feel the stones pressing through the thin rug against my delicate western feet and it was uncomfortable, making me lose my balance as I lifted my feet quickly from the sharp stones. Indians seemed to be walking with ease, relaxed, and some people were pushing past me; I decided to just take my time.

Golden Temple KoiOnce we arrived at the marble stone entrance, we walked through a foot bathing area that was guarded by a Sikh man wearing a turban and carrying a large kirpan, or sword, across his body. We had come prepared with head coverings and we entered through the main area. The marble floor felt cool and soft and it was all so very clean. As we came to the top of the stairs, the Golden Temple almost radiated in the sun.

Surrounded by a pool (complete with giant koi) the gold shimmered off of the ripples created by men bathing in the far left corner area. It took my breath away as it had the first time I visited almost 6 years ago. In the center area – a bridge – the people were lined up on to enter into the temple and we joined them. Live music from inside the temple played loudly over speakers that were all over the temple grounds. It took about 1 hour for us to finally reach the inside of the temple and when we entered the entire room was filled with gold filigree – everything from railings, to walls, the ceiling and doorways and in the center sat four musicians and a man making prayers. To the right sat many women, slowly rocking and chanting and many people who entered were giving offerings and making prayers.

We exited out the left entrance and walked the perimeter of the building. Outside there were rugs laid out where some people sat crossed legged meditating while others sat on the few benches provided. From inside the immediate temple area, I looked out at people who were walking, taking pictures, bathing, buying chai and snacks. There was a quiet about the temple even through the chanting, the stillness swept over me and I found myself being reflective, tranquil, and rendered silent. We stood observing people and just taking in the sun. A sweet peacefulness, despite of the historical unrest three decades earlier, resonated throughout the temple and I found my heart opening up to this part of India that felt very different from the rest of the places I had recorded in. There was a deep sense of pride, quiet strength and reverent dedication to their religious practice.

As we left the temple and began to walk back to retrieve our shoes, I walked along the red carpet and noticed that the stones underneath did not hurt as much as when I had walked in. Was this because the pathway back was less rocky? Or had I “let go” of the rigidity of western attitudes and just experienced what it was like to be a devout Indian – connected to something greater and completely in the present moment of ‘now’.
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Wagah Border Ceremony

Wagah Border signThe Wagah border ceremony has become somewhat of a spectacle in the last decade.  What was once a simple closing of the border and lowering of flags, now draws thousands of people every week on both the Pakistan and Indian border sites. The ceremony takes place on Grand Trunk road which is the only road opening between the two countries until Kashmir up in Northern India.  The iron gates between the border are opened at sunrise and closed at sunset. After a brisk, high-kicking ceremony, the gates are opened, the infantrymen on both sides salute one another, lower their respective flags, shake hands and the gates are closed again.  This sole border handles any kind of transport between the two countries.  This sign outlines its responsibilities perfectly.

We drove to the closest point possible for our driver to park – about two kilometers from the border and then began to walk the rest of the way. Kiosks lined the dirt roadside area selling blankets, scarves, handbags, food and drinks.  The smell of popcorn wafted through the air as we walked quickly with hundreds of other people.  Eventually, men and women were divided and as we parted ways it seemed odd to me that there were hundreds of women and very few men attending. We went through a security gate area that seemed like it wasn’t activated as the female guards just looked at my bag and camera and waved me through. After the security check point, we were rejoined and ushered behind a large steel gate that was lifted for us to enter once we showed our passports.  Only tourists were allowed in this designated area and specific seats had been reserved for us forward of the crowd.  The guards who seemed almost giant to any other Indians we had seen in other cities in India were dressed in very large head dresses sporting a red fanned feather hat and tan coloured uniforms.  It seemed that there were many school kids that had arrived in buses and slowly our designated seating area (stone steps) was filling up.  The guards kept telling everyone to sit down blowing whistles and pointing.

Wagah Border CeremonyThen the ceremony began with music playing over the load speakers and people lined up to run to the gates with Indian flags.  Most were couples of women both holding the flag and running.  Then suddenly the guards would come to salute on either side of the street, yell out orders and then kick their legs very high sometimes almost knocking off their headdresses.  Some British tourists, found this quite amusing and began to laugh.  The infantrymen would then “storm” in a brisk march towards the gate, arms swinging and crowds cheering.  Then he would stop and march in place then salute the flag and senior officer that was there.  The day was waning and eventually the gates were opened and although many people struggled to see better, the guards blew their whistles and forced them to sit back down.  The soundscape I was able to capture does not show the actual saluting of the guards on both sides as I was unable to get a good view of this.  However, we can see the gates open and hear the cheering on both sides.  This soundscape is a bit longer than the others as I felt that it was important to capture the many facets of ritual taking place. Enjoy!
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Map of the Soundscapes of Amritsar

Here is a map that shows the Golden Temple and Wagah border locations in Amritsar. I hope that you have enjoyed listening and sharing in my experience:
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Agra: Soundscapes

The Taj Mahal: From the Western side

Main Entrance to the Taj Mahal

Main Entrance to the Taj Mahal

We had rented a SUV to take us to Agra for the day from Delhi. We got on the expressway and found ourselves there within about three hours. A guide was there to meet us and give us a tour. We entered through the East gate and passed through security. I was stopped because of my recording device but our guide helped me negotiate getting through. We walked toward the main entrance gate and stopped under a tree to hear the history of the Taj Mahal and then proceeded into the main entrance way.

When we first entered it was dark and cool inside compared to the heat of the day. As we walked forward, the Taj slowly came into focus -a glowing white brilliance before us. I distinctly remember the first time I visited the Taj, I saw her beauty and immediately thought, “I can go home now. I’ve seen India.” Now almost a decade later, I know how naive that thought was because over four visits India’s many facets have slowly unfolded before me.

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal

Once you’re out of the main entrance foyer there were a thousand people trying to get their picture taken with the Taj as a backdrop. We patiently waited and did the same before proceeding down the right side. Our guide pointed out how the fountains in the pools of water were the original fountains. I am not sure if that is true but I would like to believe that back then they made things to last.

I was quite ill this day so as we approached the Taj I elected to not go in. I had been there 3 other trips and knew how crowded it could be inside. The sun shone brightly and seemed to beam down on us with its penetrating heat so I chose to sit in the shade on a bench to the left of the mausoleum with a clear view and few people. Birds zipped along from tree to tree as children ran past me. Looking back over the garden area, people moved in crowds it seemed, stopping to take pictures every few feet. It was a new experience for me to be inactive at this amazing wonder of the world. I clicked on my recording device and closed my eyes to hear the expression of the Taj.
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The Taj Mahal: From inside the guest house (Eastern side)

View of the Taj from the guest house

View of the Taj from the guest house

I did not see my friends come out of the Taj Mahal after completing my soundscape recording, so I walked over to the eastern side to the guest house building. On my way there, there were hundreds of shoes piled high around signs asking people to place them on the racks—clearly there was no order to this chaos…and yet, I’ve never had my shoes stolen in India…not so far, anyway! I walked up the red steps and into the guest house. Immediately the temperature dropped about 10 degrees inside and I enjoyed watching and listening to tourists call out to hear the echo of their own voices. The structure of the building is such that there are repeated arches the length of the interior of the building and facing outwards, framed in multiple arches is the mausoleum in all its glory. I decided to record here in hope that I could capture the contrast of the red sandstone against the brilliance that bounces off the white marble stonework; the difference in quality sound and the potential absence of a guide talking. This point of view of the Taj Mahal and the calmness of the guest house is my favorite location within the whole complex.
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Map of Agra Soundscapes

Here is a map that shows the two locations soundscapes were conducted in the Taj Mahal Complex. I hope that you have enjoyed listening and sharing in my experience.
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Ahmedabad: Soundscapes

Sabarmati Gandhi Ashram

Sabarmati Gandhi Ashram

Sabarmati Gandhi Ashram

We arrived on a private bus to the ashram and we were all ushered into the entrance and asked to pool around our “guide” Ashoke Chatterjee. Ashoke gave us an overview of the ashram and where things were located – book store, museum, Gandhi residency – then we were asked to follow him. We stopped by the Sabarmati River where many gatherings by the river had taken place and that sometimes people bathed there as well. It was a beautiful sunny day and kids ran around a bronze statue of Gandhi sitting cross legged in the middle of a grassy open area of the grounds. Our group arrived at the structure where Gandhi had slept, spun wool, and planned the Dandi march. The building was simply laid out and before we entered we were asked to remove our shoes. Looking into the room, the simplicity reminded me of his philosophy of life – so clear, direct, and unencumbered. There was a stillness, a quiet feeling of strength – the kind that comes from being grounded in principals and chosen action. Trees speckled the area towards the river and birds were chirping, flying from tree to tree. In the distance the home of Miraben – a British woman who participated in the freedom struggle alongside Gandhi – sat close to the river’s edge.
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Old Ahmedabad: The House of MG

House of MG

House of MG

I travelled by auto-rickshaw around 4pm to the famous hotel, The House of MG, both to record this area of town and see where Gandhi stayed when he had returned from South Africa. It was a pleasant place with tiled floors and arched hallways with plants, large bowls of rose petals and marigolds. I went to the roof top to record and found myself in a circular room with a giant God/Goddess mobile. They were wood carvings of Saraswati, Ganesha, Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna and Hanuman. As the man in a white shirt and tan pants swept the floor, I greeted him by putting my hands together and bowing slightly, saying “Namaste”. He smiled and put his hands together. I walked through this area and headed for the outdoor terrace. In the distance I could hear the distant sounds of traffic and the lilting call to prayer from the local mosque – the Sidi Siyad Masjid. I placed my recording device on the wall facing the street and began to record.

This recording was able to capture a typical background sound one would hear if distanced from the immediacy of the chaotic street hustle and bustle. The fact that The House of MG is a gated hotel, gives one the sense of oasis from the busyness – which by the very nature of the cost of the hotel – would reflect the privileged or upper class experience of the Old City of Ahmedabad.
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Diwali: sand art

Diwali food prepared by Draksha

Diwali food prepared by Draksha

We had been invited to the home of Draksha for Diwali which is the Indian New Year’s celebration.  We were taken by bus to the outskirts of Ahmedabad to a suburb called Vasna.  We arrived at a light yellow apartment complex and we were taken to the top floor where we were greeted by a beautiful floor sand painting and blessed with red kum-kum on our third eye.  We were asked to remove our shoes and entered into her living room space that was about 8ft x 8ft.  Some of sat on pillows on the floor, others tiered their way on a deep sofa and even more of us sat on chairs.  Our hostess brought in plates of food – Indian sweets and spicy pappad (pappadam).  We passed the food around and asked questions and found out our  hostess was an actress performing in semi political plays regarding women’s rights.  As time went on, we began to move up to the rooftop.  In the distance we could hear firecrackers exploding from all around.  As the sun slowly sat behind the buildings, we lit candles and sparklers enjoying the light they brought.  Some of us retreated back into the main foyer area by the sand painting only to find one of our cohort, Andrea Palframan, contributing to the sand painting in her amazingly gifted way.
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Vishalla

Vishalla entrance

Vishalla entrance

After our Diwali visit with Draksha We loaded ourselves back on the bus and headed toward a tribal restaurant called Vishalla. Vishalla was created out of the desire to preserve tribal foods in the greater Ahmedabad area that were being forgotten. A mother / son endeavor created the first Vishalla restaurant which was then destroyed in a natural disaster. The government would not help the Patel family to restructure their restaurant but independent investors saw the value in preserving tribal foods and donated enough money for set up costs and to buy the land the restaurant now sits on. Vishalla’s ethos is based on promoting freedom – therefore the structure of the restaurant is open with no doors, there’s no lighting except by lantern, musicians play openly in different parts of the restaurant and the seating areas are communal in style. The vision of this restaurant was to portray a typical Indian village, including eating at low tables sitting on rugs, eating on “plates” made from leaves, and enjoying endless servings of complex flavourful vegetarian foods.

When we arrived we had to wait for some time to be seated. We sat on large bench like structures talking and enjoying one another. I stepped away to a less populated area and began to record this soundscape. You can hear the Diwali celebration in the background along with chanting outside the restaurant grounds.
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SEWA

SEWA

SEWA

I had chosen to work with the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and we visited their Ahmedabad headquarters, the SEWA Bank, the Rudi no Radio station and a tribal village in Manipur, Ahmedabad. The SEWA Academy is located in Manipur and is the location where SEWA trains videographers, conducts literacy classes and also runs the community radio station called Rudino Radio.

We travelled for about an hour outside of Ahmedabad and finally arrived at the SEWA academy. We walked through the building structure and looked at the pictograms that were painted on all the walls – put there to assist those who were unable to read to grasp the fundamental ideas of the empowerment/disempowerment of women.

SEWA Academy

SEWA Academy

The building was shaped like a large square with the center area open for group teachings. The actual structure was a little bit in disrepair with chipped paint in places and dark water stains along some of the walls. We then went into the studio to view their equipment and meet the women who were running the station. They were interested in our thoughts of their programs and interviewed each of us on air. Then they played one of their radio programs for us. After that we were led into a sound room where an air conditioner was turned on and four women joined us. We asked them questions about their own path to Rudi no Radio and after some interviewing that was conducted by Nancy Coldham, we were asked to sing something from our country. Caught off guard, we scrambled for something that we all knew and decided to sing “You are My Sunshine”. When we were done, they said they wanted something more nationalistic – like our anthem. They recorded us singing “O Canada” and seemed pleased. The soundscape that I recorded here was of a music program they were currently broadcasting.
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Manipur

After we had left the SEWA Academy, we travelled for about 20 minutes into the tribal village area to meet with the villagers who SEWA has involved in their communication and literacy project. We arrived in a SUV on the dirt road, dust swirling up behind us. We got out of the vehicle and were invited into a family’s home. Inside there were three families living in a relatively small area. It was designed as a communal living space with three rooms to sleep in off the main area. Treating them as separate residences, a couple of families had painted their sections of the common area in different colours. We were told we could enter one of the rooms – the walls were lined with silver plates propped up high on the walls. There were cabinets of dishes and clothes and a small table in the middle. We asked if this was where people slept and were told yes – 5 people slept in that room. The room was about 12ft x 10ft – a pretty tight squeeze by western standards. Something else that was notable was the lack of beds in the room.

Manipur - Tribal Village

Manipur – Tribal Village

Soon we were asked to come out into the main courtyard and sit at the doors of the temple. Women, men, and children poured into the courtyard and the brightly dressed women sat row upon row on the temple entrance area with us. Kids and others looked on standing around the fenced area to see us and be included. We began to ask them questions about what their lives were like, what foods they grow, what their concerns were. Our leader, lectured them on the importance of not allowing their girls to marry young. Her voice was strong and intention clear and the women nodded with her every emphasis. When asked if he felt threatened by the empowerment of his wife, one of the men standing along the fenced area replied “No, if my wife is educated then she can work – this is good for our family and helps our community” I asked the women what they liked most about Rudi no Radio and they said, the music, the singing. So I asked them if they could sing a song for us.
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Map of Ahmedabad Soundscapes

Here is a map of the soundscapes conducted in Ahmedabad. I have also included the Lemon Tree hotel where we stayed as a point of reference. The blue markers are not hyperlinked to the soundscapes, but give brief information of what each location is. I hope you have enjoyed listening and sharing in my experience.
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State: Uttarakhand
Population: 102,138 (2011 poll)

Rishikesh or the Gateway to the Himalayas is located very close to the holy city of Haridwar and is virtually a “carless” community nestled along the river Ganga. Rishikesh is the point where the Ganges flows from the Himalayas into northern India. Because of this Rishikesh is also considered a holy city and is completely vegetarian by law. It is the home of many yoga centres, and spiritual centres that preserve Vedantic studies (study of the Vedas).

Rishikesh, the beatles, meditation, India, Meditation caves, soundscapes, music, holy city, ashram,

The famous British band, The Beatles visited one of the larger ashrams in Rishikesh – the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram in 1968. They recorded around 50 songs while living at the ashram, some of which can be heard on their album White Album.  The ashram has been closed for many years, but here is a picture of the meditation caves that are spread out around the perimeter of the ashram grounds.  

Rishikesh: Soundscape

rishikesh, beatles, soundscape, ganges, the ganga, shiva, aarti ceremony, tabla, We arrived in the late afternoon and didn’t quite understand why the driver dropped us off before we were in the town of Rishikesh.  We soon learnt that there were no cars allowed in the Eastern side of town where our hotel was.  The air was cool but the sky was a bright blue and full of sun.  We started to make our way across the suspension bridge over the Ganges where it is said that Rama did penance for killing Lanka (a demon king).  Once across we walked along the store lined path along the river and eventually found our way to the hotel.  That afternoon we heard the amplified call to aarti and followed down our windy street to the river.  I was delighted to see a giant white Shiva in the middle of the river lit up in pink hues, the sun slowly falling toward the horizon.  I sat down on the steps to the left of the tabla, harmonium and zither players.  An older man chanting into a mic caught me watching him and smiled as his voice resounded throughout the streets.  I took a deep breath as boys dressed in saffron robes and shaved heads, ran past me to gather around a fire pit.  I watched as they moved around and settled in before the fire keeper watched over the fire.  I looked out at the water, Shiva’s reflection rippling off the Ganges and felt a surge of belonging – not necessarily to this particular place, but on a grander scale, to the unity of humanity and the expression of different cultures.  More and more people gathered, tourists, local families, more young boys and then the sadhus arrived and sat in the center and the ceremony began.

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Map of the Soundscapes of Rishikesh

Here is a map that shows area where aarti was held. I hope that you have enjoyed listening and sharing in my experience in Rishikesh.:
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