A massive statue of Shiva greets me as I enter Haridwar. Several floodlights outline his dazed lips parted in a gentle smile. Bholenath was the first to discover the effect of slowly burning charas on the human mind.
Marijuana grows all over the hills, and it was only a matter of time before someone plucked this magical leaf and sat down on some tiger skin, wondering about life.
The holiest place in Haridwar is Har-ki-Pauri. The Ganga is supposed to leave the mountains and enter the plains at this precise location. Every evening, crowds gather to witness the Ganga Aarti performed on the banks of the river.
We arrive at the scene slightly earlier, but still the crowds have already arrived. Dusk is falling and the muddy river flows along noisily. Hawkers are selling plastic mats for the devotees to sit on. A beggar is crawling along covered with filth and flies. The smell of sweaty pilgrims is in the air. Out of nowhere a kid on roller skates materializes and crashes onto me. On the river bank fat men with hairy chests and VIP underwear are walking out, water dripping grotesquely from their bellies. Their dutiful, sari clad wives are not far behind.
The loudspeakers crackle to life and the Ganga Aarti begins. The devotees know the lines and blissfully sing along. On the opposite bank, four pundits are painting circles of fire with their aartis. Their whole bodies move vigorously. Another pundit is hammering a massive gong.
I buy a very special diya. It's basically a leaf boat filled with rose petals. Above the petals sits a small clay diya, a wick dipping into the ghee. Try as I might, I cannot get the wick to light. A young dhoti clad man comes to my rescue. With a gas lighter, he sets the diya alight and leads me to the bank. I don’t quite understand what’s going on. He mumbles some verses and I set sail the lighted diya. He insists that I drink some of this sacred river.
In the river some young men are diving down and coming up with fragments of human bones. Often they also find what they desire - a few coins. The self-styled pundit demands money and I depart with 10 Rs.
Now the aarti has reached a magnificent climax. The flames leap up, making all the pundits glow. Chants of Jay Ganga Mayya ki grow more forceful. The gong seems to get louder. It feels like an orchestra. A few frantic chants later, the flames are extinguished by the sacred Ganga herself. As the crowd rises to leave, several dozen diyas float along down the river. Plastic mats lie strewn everywhere.