It’s amusing that the next trip I took after Germany and Austria should be to the crowded, holy towns of India. Actually, more surprising than amusing. Had the hubby and I had our way, the Thapar clan would have been vacationing in Bali. Instead, divine intervention dictated that the entire Thapar clan took the toughest way to visit Haridwar, Rishikesh and Mussourie, as we flew via Delhi. Note to all those planning this trip: Please fly into Dehradun and hire a car from there to reduce the trauma of road travel through Uttar Pradesh, over roads meant only for bullock carts.
We reached Haridwar by early evening and checked into our well-priced, central hotel with delicious food and were stunned to see this painting outside our room.
My brother-in-law and I shared a hearty laugh and then a heartfelt sigh. We left soon for the Ganga Arti on the banks of the river (prayer for the holy river Ganges). Haridwar means Gateway to God and is a famous Hindu pilgrimage point, and the starting point for several “essential” Hindu pilgrimages. According to Hindu mythology, a few drops of “amrut” (nectar) fell right at Haridwar, at the banks of the river Ganga.
We had to take a rickshaw to the ghats, the bathing area at the banks of the river, and were pleasantly surprised to find them all electric. Good move to reduce the carbon footprint! However, as we walked down from the rickshaw stand towards the ghats through the pedestrian-only zone, the dark clouds that were gathering just burst open and everyone rushed for cover.
I suddenly understood what they meant by “the heavens opened up.” It poured like no tomorrow. Bombay rains were no match. We had tried to get into a tiny stall, but the surging numbers of people pushing and shoving their way through prevented me from getting in. I managed to hand over the camera bag (thankfully) to my father-in-law and the hubby, kid, brother-in-law and I headed out in the insane rain to look for shelter.
We tried hiding under trees, bridges, lamp posts, but there was no shelter anywhere. We finally gave up and decided that we might as well head to the ghats and see the Arti as we were totally drenched. Wishing my glasses had vipers, we walked to the viewing platform in the middle of the river and had an uninterrupted view of the Arti as all the crowds were hiding under the bridge.
The clanging of the bells, the musical Arti, the lashing rains, cold breeze and the swift-flowing Ganga, all added up to a magical experience. When the priests lit their multi-layer diyas simultaneously, one could believe in the Gods.
We loved it so much that we could forget Bali. Well, almost. Okay, we couldn’t. We were sopping wet, muddy, dirty and frozen cold, and bereft of 4 members of our family, who we luckily managed to meet up with. I shouldn’t complain; my father-in-law had kept my camera bag dry and safe. Had it been with me, I would have needed a new camera.
We rushed back to the hotel, bathed and fell asleep. The next morning, we set off once more for the ghats, to see the madding crowds by day. The river, swollen by the previous night’s rains, flowed along at a terrific speed, carrying with it tons of fertile silt.
People thronged the banks, offering money and flowers to the priests, dipping into the muddy waters, cleansing their souls.
Of course, the shams can get to you, like the conmen trying to get you to feed the poor or donate for your family’s lineage, or the priests who double up as fortune-tellers, or worse, fortune-changers. Yet, there’s a charm to this organised mafia of religion, and that’s the honesty and intensity of human belief.
We walked back slowly, trying to ignore the huge financial divide splayed out in front of us and the abject poverty and dirt around. The rains had left behind more muck and soon, I was desperate to get away, when I came upon this graffiti on a wall on the bank.
Cheered up immensely by just imagining what the artist must have been thinking, we made our way to the cable car up to Mansadevi temple, high up on a mountain.
We walked about the tiny temple complex and bowed our heads to the deity and were promptly
smacked, blessed by the priest. We went back down the cablecar, feeling lucky that we didn’t have to walk the entire distance up and down and admiring the beautiful bangles and necklaces on display.
Not my type, but what lovely colors! We waited for our drivers and enjoyed some icecream.
Just then sauntered by the cleanest pig I’ve ever seen in my life!
Post-lunch and rest, we headed back to (where else?) Har-ki-Pauri once more. The most sacred of all ghats, standing for ‘footsteps of the Lord’, the site for the Ganga Arti, was a very different place than the previous day. Huge crowds swelled on both sides of the banks, the locals doing a good job of crowd control and money extraction.
As the sun set and cast its last rays over the waters, the priests lit the tall diyas and the entire crowd sang the Arti in unison.
As the darkness fell, more and more diyas were lit and the waterfront turned into a series of flames, reflected in the Ganga rushing along.
It was our last night in Haridwar (thankfully) and we would leave the next day for Rishikesh. We wandered through the markets, eating sweets and snacks, enjoying the cool weather.
For all the hype about Haridwar that it didn’t live up to, there’s a special something there, and that’s the beautiful river Ganga. Sometimes fast and furious, sometimes, slow and sedate, the river is the hub, the draw of the city. While it is the reason for the mess of Haridwar, it is also the saving grace.