Lost and found: Missing in Rishikesh, India, the 'Land of Gods'

Two years after he went missing, posters remain to find Jonathan Spollen.

Story highlights

  • Two Western men went missing in Rishikesh, a holy spot in northern India
  • Some suspect "India Syndrome," say delusions on spiritual path sent them astray
  • Parents hang on to hope, despite years; a police official says he won't stop searching
  • An American father sounds alarm for daughter he fears is gone, too; CNN finds her
The photos were discolored, the paper stained, some of the Hindi words faded to white. But the weathered poster on a road lined with ashrams immediately captured me.
It featured the face of Jonathan Spollen, an Irish journalist last seen in Rishikesh more than two years ago at age 28.
I'd heard about Spollen before coming to Rishikesh while researching "India Syndrome," an unusual condition that afflicts young Westerners traveling in India. They become delusional and, in extreme cases, disappear -- often during quests for enlightenment.
"More than any other country, India has a way of stimulating imagination and stirring intense aesthetic emotions which can at any moment plunge the traveler into utter anxiety," wrote Dr. Régis Airault, a French psychiatrist who penned the 2000 book "Fous de l'Inde" or "Crazy for India."
"Freud himself was sensitive to the intimate feelings stirred up by certain places," he wrote. "Travel, like hypnosis, is partly evocation, and some (people), more easily than others, let themselves be carried away without resistance."
It smacks of other rare travel-related syndromes known to throw tourists for a loop. There's Jerusalem Syndrome, in which visitors to that holy city become so overwhelmed, they have a break from reality and believe they're the messiah or any number of biblical figures. Or Stendhal (Florence) Syndrome, in which visitors lose it in the presence of artistic masterpieces in Italy.
No one knows what happened to Spollen, but India Syndrome is one of the theories that's been batted about. Most recently, there has been speculation he was attacked or eaten by a wild animal.
Spollen, though, is not the only 20-something Westerner to go missing in Rishikesh, a small Indian city popular among those seeking spiritual sustenance. There's also Ryan Chambers of Australia, who was 21 when he disappeared in 2005.
I went to Rishikesh this year on a journalism fellowship to write about spirituality. The focus became about personal discovery, but when I saw the Spollen poster, I set out to learn more.
I could not have guessed where that exploration would lead.
He's never stopped looking
The heavy rain pelted us as we ran through the mostly deserted streets. We leaped over growing puddles, weaved around unfazed cows and flew past small roadside temples.
Finally, panting and soaked, my translator and I arrived at Rishikesh's local police intelligence unit on the east side of the holy Ganga, or Ganges, river. Kundan Negi, the head constable, invited us inside the dark cinderblock building, waved us over to the seats in front of his desk and sent an assistant to fetch hot tea.
On Negi's old desk sat the bright orange and blue files for the two Western men I'd come to discuss. Their smiling faces peered up from flyers. I asked Negi whether these materials had been pulled out for my benefit. No, he told me, they're always here. He's never stopped looking for these men.
One of them, Spollen, simply vanished. The other man, Chambers, left a note.
The story goes that early one morning, Chambers stepped out of a Rishikesh ashram where he was staying with a friend. He wore only shorts and never returned. Left behind in his journal were the words, "If I'm gone, don't worry. I'm not dead. I'm just freeing minds and to do that I had to free my own."
Nearly nine years after he vanished, police keep an open file on Ryan Chambers.