Very few foreign tourists go to Haridwar which is surprising since it's considered to be one of the seven most holy locations in India for Hindus. In fact of the seven holy sites, it's the only one of which I – and probably quite a lot of Indiaphiles – had even heard apart from Allahabad. The reason for its holiness is that it's said that it's one of the four cities on which drops of the elixir of immortality were spilled as Garuda (the holy bird, not the Indonesian airline) flew over and as a consequence, taking a dip in the waters of the holy river Ganges has the power to wash away not only your sins, but those of generations before and possibly generations yet to be born. That's the kind of offer that's hard to resist so it's not surprising that most visitors to the city are there to take advantage of the opportunity to worship and to ritually cleanse themselves. And every once in a while, four dodgy pink British tourists with little hope of sin-dispersal but a fascination with having a good nose around strange places roll up too.
We arrived from Rishikesh which my sister and her girlfriend had loved but my husband and I had found a tad unreal. Rishikesh is holy but in a very neat and tidy and rather sanitised way. You can stay at an ashram – like the Beatles so famously did – and find yourself, or at least go looking. There are plenty of experts around just waiting to impart their learning and experience to people looking for yoga courses, sitar lessons and my sister even spotted a digeridoo academy. As a hippy haven it's more than a little too sincere and – to use the vernacular – 'up itself'.
By contrast Haridwar is a more 'real' and vibrant place of pilgrimage for Hindus of all ages, incomes and degrees of infirmity. I'd previously been to Varanasi, another of the great Ganges cities though surprisingly not one of 'The Seven', and I'd really not liked it much. The combination of the sick and old waiting to die mixed with hippies meditating on the riverbanks combined with shocking traffic and pollution put me off – but that was on my first visit to India 15 years ago. Maybe those same kind of things would have grown on me.
My rather out of date guidebook said that the population of Haridwar was around 175,000. I say out of date because Wikipedia claims almost 300,000 back in the 2001 census. It's probably more like 350,000 by now but surprisingly it has the feel of a much smaller and more manageable city. The transient population of pilgrims must bump the numbers up by many thousands more. Haridwar is also one of the the locations of the famous Kumbh Mela, one of the biggest religious festivals in the world which takes place every three years and rotates between the four cities that got the elixir drops. Hardiwar's turn was in April 2010 and the festival won't be back again until 2022. During our stay, the streets and shops were filled with television screens playing DVD recordings from the recent festival. During Kumbh Mela literally millions of people visit during the festival and I really can't imagine how they squeeze them all in to a relatively small city.
If you are looking to wash away your sins then Haridwar is for you and you don't have to wait for a big festival to do it. If you're happy to just wander around soaking up the atmosphere and taking lots of photos, it's also a pretty cool place to be but not one that needs a long visit as the actual attractions are rather limited. However, no matter how you look at Haridwar, it's the Ganges that dominates the city and makes it such a special place. For us it was a fascinating spectacle to observe but for Hindus a dip in its rather grungy water is a life changing experience. The daily Ganga Aarti ceremony is the big draw and takes place at sunset on the river side at a place called Har Ki Pauri in the centre of the city. There are also some fascinating temples on the hills that overlook the city including Mansa Devi and Chandra Devi temples. The first of these also throws in the fun and excitement of a pretty impressive cable car and the pilgrim trail seems to be set up well with cheap buses shuttling visitors between the temples. There's a wildlife park outside the city which was unfortunately closed when we were there – my sister said something about "elephants having sex" but I'm not sure if that was a genuine reason for closing the park (privacy or danger – either way, you wouldn't really want to interfere) or whether she just made it up. Aside from those few established attractions, there's a lot to be said for just drifting around the streets and markets and soaking up the intensity of this very strange place. You will see some seriously weird stuff – ash covered nearly-naked sadhus with long unkempt beards, 'newly-weds and nearly deads' looking for blessings, plastic bottle sellers and flower basket makers and more beggars than you can possibly imagine.
We tracked down a couple of small companies offering day tours but even they had to admit that if we didn't want to go to Rishikesh then they didn't have a day's worth of activity to offer us and kindly gave advice instead on what to see in the city without their help. Clearly there were not enough western tourists around to have taught the locals to rip us off and in a day and a half in the city – including time at the railway station – we saw only four other white faces in Haridwar. It's not a place you'll want to linger for too long but at only 4.5 to 5 hours by train from Delhi, it's a chance to see a side of India that's certainly a bit special. You can easily stay in one city and visit the other if you don't want to make life complicated and find two different hotels. However, I'm rather glad we gave each city its own visit and if you have time, I'd recommend to do the same.