We arrived in Haridwar after a 40 minute drive from the smaller town of Rishikesh. My sister Aileen and her girlfriend Joyce were reluctant to leave Rishikesh, having discovered the delights of shopping and banana pancakes and the peace and quiet of our riverside location. We bundled them into the car and dragged them to Haridwar before they got too holy and signed up for a life of yoga and meditation. I lured them with the promise (based on only the sketchiest reading of my guidebook) that Haridwar would be just as fascinating.
Our hotel was about 4 km from the main city centre so once we'd settled in, packed our mosquito repellent, clean water and emergency loo rolls, we grabbed a couple of auto-rickshaws from those that were gathered outside the hotel. Uttering the magic words "Har Ki Pauri" (the name of the place where the daily Aarti ceremony takes place), we set off with a squeal of tread-free tyres to make the short journey into the town.
I'm not sure what I'd been expecting Haridwar to be like because I'd seen no photos or film footage of the place. I knew it to be one of the seven holiest cities in Hindu India and I suppose that despite my past experience telling me otherwise, I always expect that holy and beautiful will go together. There's no good reason for this – indeed Amritsar (holy to Sikhs rather than Hindus) is one of the scruffiest and least inspiring cities I've ever seen and world class attractions like the Taj Mahal are located in horrible cities too. Haridwar isn't horrible – in fact it's a fascinating place to wander around and soak up the atmosphere but it would take a bold and very optimistic person to describe it as beautiful.
The auto-rickshaw driver dropped us by the side of the road, close to a half dozen or so roadside snack sellers. The streets were grubby, the place was down at heel and we weren't too sure where we should be going. We repeated the magic words 'Har Ki Pauri' and he pointed towards some steps to indicate where we'd be able to attend the evening's Ganga Aarti ceremony. We were still a bit early for numbing our backsides on the stepped ghats of the riverside so we checked out where to go and then went wandering, trying to get a feel for the layout of the city before returning to watch the big event.
The Har Ki Pauri is an area in the centre of Haridwar where the Ganges river appears to have been diverted along a narrower canal. This makes the water calmer and less dangerous than in the main river area, gives more bank from which to approach the water and also facilitates the control of the bathing that takes place. I don't think it particularly matters for religious purposes precisely where you take your dip since I saw hotels advertised in Haridwar which boasted of their own private bathing areas but this is the place where most people will make their worship or puja.
We arrived about 45 minutes before sun-set. We thought we'd have a pretty good idea what was going on since we'd been at the Aarti ceremony in Rishikesh the night before and expected to see something similar. I won't pretend that we'd really understood what was going on there but we'd got the gist of things. How different could it be in Haridwar? The simple answer is very different.
The Rishikesh aarti is a gentle and melodic gathering of pilgrims singing on the river bank – the Haridwar version is a commercially slick operation designed to generate maximum donations in minimum time. It's a much bigger affair than in Rishikesh and appears to employ scores of people in the pursuit of its smooth administration. There are uniformed security guards controlling the flow of people and many more guys in uniforms selling tickets – or perhaps they were issuing receipts for the donations that were given. There were people sitting on rather randomly placed wooden plinths amongst the crowd with closed umbrellas and down by the water side were a row of little wooden open-sided huts whose purpose remained a complete mystery to us although I wondered if they were minding people's clothes or stopping people without receipts from getting in the water.
As we stood trying to take it all in a young smartly dressed chap stopped us and tried to explain what was going on. After asking where we came from and having a bit of a chat he asked us if we wanted to take part. We were a bit reluctant – it always seems a bit rude to muscle in on someone else's holy rituals. He asked us for 40 rupees to buy flower baskets and we all figured there was no harm in it. If someone ran away with our money it wasn't much. When the chap with the flowers returned we had four baskets made from woven leaves and filled with flower heads and a little clay-pot candle. The guy led us down the steps of the ghat towards the water's edge, handing us over to three men who were carrying out the ceremonies. Fortunately I got 'wife rights' and didn't have to go off with my own holy chappie. My sister and her girlfriend each had their own 'priest' whilst we were able to share.
The priest started his explanations, telling us the background to the ceremony and asking us lots of questions. Then he launched into a long round of 'Repeat after me'. My husband is absolutely rubbish at that kind of thing even when he knows the language so I hate to think what he was saying as he attempted to repeat the priest's words. I hung back trying very hard not to giggle. The priest asked for names of family members, brothers, sisters and so on. Clearly they don't listen to what you say because Joyce reported afterwards that her priest had told her that her parents would have "long life madam" even though she'd told him that both were already dead. Or maybe it was a long 'next life'? Who can say?
The hard sell on donations was pretty intense and really did rather spoil the experience. There's something a bit tacky about having to negotiate how much your donation will be but they only get one chance to separate the unwary tourist from as much money as possible. Hubby got away with about 700 rupees (around $15) which can't be considered TOO awful for wiping out seven generations of sin but he did feel a bit manipulated. My sister Aileen was stung for about 500 rupees whereas her girlfriend got away with only 100 because she really did only have that amount on her (although she gave more later at one of the donation booths). Thank goodness I didn't have to get involved because one of my greatest joys on holiday is carrying absolutely no money on me – other than a rupee or two for tipping toilet attendants.
With the negotiations completed, the priests carefully tucked away the money and lit our candles and we sent them off down the river. As one or two were a tad sluggish, a small boy got in the water to give them a push and they headed off down the river with all the others.
We returned to the steps to look for somewhere to sit. We were adopted by a small smiley kid who wanted to be with us and wouldn't be shaken off. Around us the men in uniforms cajoled the crowd to part with their money as loud piped music was distorted through the cheap tinny speakers. Down by the water side one or two semi-naked chaps were bobbing about in the water. It's a very unholy thing to say but your average middle-aged Indian doesn't look great in a loincloth and I was glad that the light was fading. As the sun went down and the lights came up on the temple buildings things became more frenzied. Down in the water some rather more brash pilgrims appeared to be doing lengths of front crawl which definitely wasn't really the 'done thing'.
Next came what seemed to be the highlight of the ceremony as metal candelabra of flaring lamps were passed around the crowd who bathed themselves in the flame and smoke. This is spectacular to watch but probably best avoided when it comes to getting involved. Personally I'm sure that I'd just set light to my hair if I tried it so we kept out of the way. The crowd started to disperse and we held back to avoid getting caught in the crush and then headed off to look for somewhere to have dinner.