Without doubt the most striking thing about India is the religious fervour. You can witness this at its most extreme in the town of Haridwar 24km south of Rishikesh. The name Haridwar means Dwar (Gates) Harid (of God)and it is where the Ganga (Ganges) emerges from the Himlayan foothills and starts its long journey to the Bay of Bengal. The Hindu gods themselves dwell in the high Himalaya and the holy river itself springs from the Gangotri glacier. Rivers themselves are holy in India and when two meet it forms a sangam or tirtha - a holy city, and such is Haridwar.
It is especially revered by Hindus as the place of the 'Hair-ki-Pairi' ghat which marks the exact spot where the river leaves the mountains. And as a sangam it holds a massive Kumbh Mela festival every twelve years (the next one is in 2010) where surging crowds around the ghats can create stampedes. We saw this for ourselves on a morning visit to Haridwar. Our driver, Suresh, is a devout Hindu and could not come to Haridwar without visiting the ghats so on the way back to Delhi we stopped here for the morning. After all, it was the least we could do, our previous visit to Haridwar had been at the end of the terrifying journey from Ramnager in the monsoon (see Nainital entry)and we at least deserved a look.
The first thing to do was to cope with the crowds. Words cannot describe the crowds in India. At least we were not the centre of attention as we were in some places and wearing a cotten singlet and sandles we blended in rather well. You still get stared at - many of the devotees with low-caste Indians (daljits) had never seen a westerner before. And we could not park anywhere near the ghats so we had to walk with mothers, old men, sadhus, brahmins, teenagers and buffaloes all heading for the Ganges. The crowds were so big that a soldier stood in the middle of the road bellowing orders and armed with a big stick.
They have siphoned off a stream of the Ganges to build man-made concrete ghats. it was here that the mass of pilgrims head for and the crowds were unbelievable and unbearable. Due to their size we could not get anywhere near the ghats but could see the clock-tower of the Shri Mayadevi temple and the brightly painted buildings beyond. It would take us hours to inch anywhere near the ghats so we climbed on a wall and got a better view. From here we could see the bathers and the amophorous mass of the crowd surging near the river. There were chains in the Ganges to stop the bathers being washed away as the river flows very fast when it comes out of the Himalaya's.
Exhausted and claustraphobic we realised it would take ours to extricate our car and clear Haridwar so we went and had something to eat. There, we quizzed Suresh on Hinduism and how the caste system fitted into things. Suresh himself was a Brahmin (priests and teachers), below him were the kshatryas (rulers and warriors), then vaishya's (merchants) and shudra's (menials) Taking the lowliest jobs in India are the untouchables (we had seen hundreds of these today).The primary concern of most Hindus is to reduce bad karma and aquire merit within the boundaries of caste in the hope of attaining a higher status of rebirth and so live a better next life.
Fascinating stuff - and it is not for me to comment on another countries ideals. But it explains the chaos and tumult on the ghats. As we inched away I noticed a fairground looming above slums and squalor. Haridwar is a microcosm of India. But that is what makes it India - probably the most fascinating country in the world.