Rishikesh is located on the foothills of the Himalayans, where the Ganges river runs quickly when the weather warms. Picture: istock
Rishikesh is located on the foothills of the Himalayans, where the Ganges river runs quickly when the weather warms. Picture: istock

The town where tourists vanish

THE Ganges flows faster in Rishikesh.

It is the first thought I have as I cross the Ram Jhula bridge to the eastern bank of the river, where the ashram ghats lead down to the water. I was recently in Varanasi, that other great holy city on the river, and while the current there was certainly strong, it lacked ferocity, a certain malevolent air.

The Ganges have that here, that malevolence, though it must be admitted that I have a few preconceived notions about the place. I may well be projecting.

It has been nearly 13 years since Ryan Chambers, then a 21-year-old Australian backpacker, disappeared in Rishikesh, wandering out of his ashram one morning and disappearing, as the saying goes, into thin air.

I knew Ryan growing up. We went to the same primary school in Mount Gambier, South Australia, where he was a couple of years above me, and my mother worked with his.

It was due to this latter connection that I first learned of his disappearance: Dianne Chambers called to say she wouldn't be at work for a while. I knew before the papers did.

Ryan Chambers was last seen in August 2005, when he was travelling through northern India.
Ryan Chambers was last seen in August 2005, when he was travelling through northern India.

Ryan has loomed large in my imagination ever since: at one time, when I was younger, as a romantic figure - a reading that assumed he had disappeared by choice - though primarily as a cautionary one. My own impulse to disappear or drop out, at times very strong, has always been kept in check by the fact that he actually did so. Perhaps that's why I'm here: not to find him, nor even to find out what happened to him, but rather to exorcise something within myself.

Beneath me, a white-water rafter who has come free of his dinghy rockets along under the bridge on his back, kept afloat by his lifejacket. It's fortysomething degrees in the shade and to the north the Himalayas are entering summer. The river is high, tipsy on the run-off, and the water is colder, more refreshing here than it will be by the time it makes it to the Bay of Bengal. The thought is both troubling and strangely reassuring: how easy it would be to drown here.

Rishikesh is known as the yoga capital of the world, and attracts many international tourists.
Rishikesh is known as the yoga capital of the world, and attracts many international tourists.

For a long time, Dianne and her husband, Jock, followed up every lead. There were alleged sightings, a ransom call, astrology readings predicting their son would return if they lit three candles in front of his photo every Friday. There were missing posters, searches, a private investigator. The Ganges were scoured, several times.

"I would have to say the pain takes on a different shape over time," Dianne tells me over Facebook. "In the beginning there was the pain that came with having to find him. Thirteen years later, it's the pain of either choosing a conclusion or just letting the whole thing be an open-ended event in our lives."

Irish Journalist Jonathan Spollen went missing in 2012. Picture: Find Jonathan Spollen/Facebook
Irish Journalist Jonathan Spollen went missing in 2012. Picture: Find Jonathan Spollen/Facebook

Eventually, the leads petered out, and other missing posters went up. In 2012, Irish journalist Jonathan Spollen, then 28, went missing in circumstances not unlike Ryan's, with his possessions discovered untouched in a clearing not far from a popular waterfall. Earlier this year, a Russian man, Sergei Shcherba, 27, also went missing in the city, though unlike Ryan and Spollen, his body was later found. It is believed he fell into a gorge while trekking.

Then there is the story of Justin Shetler, who disappeared in the Parvati Valley, a few hours north of here, two years ago. The American man, then 35, had written on his blog that he was planning to trek to the holy lake of Mantalai and "should return mid September or so".

"If I'm not back by then, don't look for me," he wrote. He signed off with a winking emoji.

Shetler's note echoed Ryan's own, left in Room 38 of Sri Ved Niketan Ashram, almost exactly eleven years earlier:

"If I'm gone, don't worry," it read. "I'm not dead, I'm freeing minds. But first I have to free my own."

Justin Shetler’s note was eerily similar to Ryan’s: ‘Don’t look for me’. Picture: Facebook
Justin Shetler’s note was eerily similar to Ryan’s: ‘Don’t look for me’. Picture: Facebook

I asked Dianne if she and Jock ever wished he hadn't left the note.

"No, never," she says. "It helped us remain hopeful for a long time. I do question how long one can remain hopeful, though, under the circumstances."

If the note contained a glimmer of hope, it also sounded an undeniable warning bell. In 2012, investigative journalist Scott Carney wrote of a young American girl who threw herself into a meditation course in Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment. According to Carney, one night the girl, whom he referred to as Emily, wrote a brief note in her journal - "I am a Bodhisattva," or one who has attained such a state - then ascended to the roof of the building where the course was taking place and jumped.

Shetler was also on something of a spiritual quest. He had fallen in with a baba or sadhu - in short, an ascetic holy man - who had invited him to the lake to meditate. Shetler had even suggested on his blog that "maybe Baba Life will be good for me." One of his last photos on Instagram shows him "living in some caves in the Indian Himalayas."

MORE: Ryan Chambers' family turn to social media to find him

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While some suspect foul play in Shetler's case - India is rife with fake sadhus who prey on tourists, and the one Shetler knew later took his own life in police custody - others point out that the rhetoric of his posts suggest he may have gone a little too native.

In his 2000 book Fous de l'Inde, or Crazy About India, French psychologist Régis Airault coined the term "India Syndrome". It is, he says, a form of "bouffée délirante" - short-term psychosis - that he witnessed first-hand numerous times while working for the French consulate in Mumbai.

"I would meet people claiming they heard the voice of Kali [the Hindu goddess], or had decided to swim back to France, or who had come to believe they were the reincarnation of Hitler," he tells me by email. "These were not people with histories of psychiatric disorders, nor people with mere culture shock, nor people on drugs. I call what they had a 'travel pathogen.'" He points out that there are other such phenomena, such as Florence Syndrome, Jerusalem Syndrome and - of course - Stockholm syndrome.

He says the cure was usually simple: a ticket home.

Tourists are drawn to Rishikesh, and French psychologist Régis Airault believes some of them fall into short-term psychosis, an ‘Indian syndrome’ while they’re there. Picture: Alamy
Tourists are drawn to Rishikesh, and French psychologist Régis Airault believes some of them fall into short-term psychosis, an ‘Indian syndrome’ while they’re there. Picture: Alamy

"When I repatriated my patients back to France, all their symptoms disappeared. They were never hospitalised," he says.

Kundan Negi is the police investigator responsible for the Chambers and Spollen cases. We meet in his dimly-lit office on the Ganges' western bank and then cross the road for a cup of weak milky tea. Sadhus walk about with their chillum pipes, their eyes as saffron-red as their robes. Negi has often had to send Western tourists to Dehradun, the regional capital, for psychiatric reasons, he says.

"But I'm not sure about 'India Syndrome'," he adds. "It turned out a lot of them had not taken their medication."

He doesn't know whether Ryan or Spollen had the syndrome in question, and is more inclined to blame the sadhu for Shetler's disappearance. But he says Ryan's note certainly wasn't "normal" within the context of such disappearances.

But he personally believes Ryan drowned in the Ganges. "I don't believe he's walking around India living the life of a sadhu," he says. "All his money was left in his room. Even sadhus and babas need money to live."

Circumstances that August conspired against the investigation, too, he says.

"The Ganges were very high. When that happens, the city opens the floodgates downriver, meaning there is nothing to stop a body from washing away."

There's also the matter of Rishikesh's status as one of the holiest places for Hindus to die. "There are a lot of bodies in the river," he says. Assumed to be those of sadhus, none of the bodies that wash up are ever DNA tested: Negi suspects Ryan was mistaken for one of them.

"I would give anything for him or Jonathan to walk through that door right now," Negi says after we've returned to his office. "I would embrace them as my brothers. But I don't expect that will ever happen."

Ryan Chambers (front), pictured with his friend John Booker might still be alive, but his parents are no longer actively looking, as they don’t have fresh leads.
Ryan Chambers (front), pictured with his friend John Booker might still be alive, but his parents are no longer actively looking, as they don’t have fresh leads.

Ryan's parents have always been aware of the Ganges theory. But Dianne says there's nothing to support it.

"It's easy for them to say that," she says. "Done deal, case closed, move on. But the Ganges were searched several times. Jock viewed photos of bodies recovered from the river. There is absolutely no evidence that's what happened to Ryan."

In recent years, Dianne and Jock have become something of elder statespeople as far as missing Westerners are concerned. They have been in touch with Spollen's family and were in contact with Britt Lapthorne's parents when the young Victorian went missing in Croatia in 2008. "But when her body was found, we quickly realised our journeys had taken completely different paths," she says.

Westerners continue to go missing in India, and to wind up dead here. In April, Irish-Latvian woman Liga Skromane, 33, was found murdered in the southern state of Kerala after she had been sexually assaulted. According to reports, more than 20 foreigners went missing in the Parvati Valley, where Shetler disappeared, between 2006 and 2016, to the extent that, in some circles, the place is now known as the "Valley of Death".

But it would be wrong to write off the country for that reason, Dianne says.

"I would never warn anyone off going to India," she says. "It was never a place I would have chosen to visit, but I am so happy I got to experience it, even under our circumstances. It confirmed what Ryan had been saying about it the whole time."

"We will never find him now," she says. "We're not actively looking any more. But if he's alive today and is discovered, I believe our true journey will just be beginning. We will have to rediscover him for the person he now is."

On my first day in town, I saw an elderly Western man done up in the garb of a sadhu. He had the walking stick, the begging bowl, the eyes that spoke to a tendency towards the pipe. We had made eye contact and smiled at one another, but I hadn't stopped to talk to him. It has often seemed in Rishikesh that young Westerners have enrolled in an adopt-a-sadhu program I don't know about, sitting around with men who don't speak their language, looking into one another's eyes, getting high on the vibe. Like the forums on the popular IndiaMike travel website, in which Westerners ask where they have the best chance of achieving enlightenment - and where some still believe that Shetler is holed up in a cave somewhere - it strikes me as performative, crass. Another ride at dharma Disneyland.

For this reason and others, I haven't felt like hanging out with such men, but on my last day in town it occurs to me that I should have spoken to this one. He has dropped out, has stayed, has lingered on - and yet is still alive, still here.

Only he isn't. I walk up and down along the Ganges from Sri Ved Niketan Ashram, where a security guard on the early morning shift was the last person to ever see Ryan Chambers alive, to the Laxman Jhula Bridge several kilometres to the north. I can't find the old man anywhere. I've seen him every day of my stay and now he's gone, eluding my grasp, and thus my understanding.

He, too, has disappeared.



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