Written by koshkha on 19 Dec, 2010
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.…Read More
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. Close
Written by koshkha on 17 Dec, 2010
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…Read More
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. Close
Written by phileasfogg on 18 Jun, 2005
It’s past 6 in the evening. We’ve had our tea at the Glasshouse on the Ganges, and the obvious sequel to that is to wander down to the river to trail our feet in the water. My husband tries it for a while, and when…Read More
It’s past 6 in the evening. We’ve had our tea at the Glasshouse on the Ganges, and the obvious sequel to that is to wander down to the river to trail our feet in the water. My husband tries it for a while, and when his toes start freezing, he moves off and stretches out on the silvery sand. While he’s busy reading the Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl, I sit on a rock and swing my feet about in the swirling waves of the Ganga.
And it’s then that I notice the bird across the river. It’s a large black bird, with a distinctively curved neck and big wings that stick out idiotically on either side of its slender body. It looks rather as if the bird had been all geared up to fly off when it decided not to - and never got around to lowering its wings. Even as I look at it, I’m reminded of a glimpse from National Geographic about Ukai, cormorant fishing in Japan. The show had an image - I remember it well - of a cormorant sitting on a rail and drying its wings by flapping them. The cormorant, said the narrator, must get its wings dry; otherwise, it’ll have serious problems in flying.
This one’s a cormorant, and it’s drying its wings, too. It’s sitting on a rock just slightly above the surface of the water, flapping its wings patiently. I watched a bit, then chatted with my husband for a while, and looked back. The cormorant’s still there. I look out over the river at the village perched on the hillside across us, at the garden and the lychee orchards above and behind us. I spend a long time watching a couple of peahens picking daintily around the scrubby vegetation across the river. And when I finally look back - the sun’s set long ago and the light’s fairly dim now - the cormorant’s still there, drying its wings for all it’s worth.
I watch it till I’m bleary eyed and numb-toed, and finally, after a good 40 minutes of flapping its wings, the cormorant gives them a final shake and folds them in.
"Look!" I tell my husband, "It’s finished! It’s finished drying its wings!" Major excitement in life.
My husband looks; both of us peer through the gloom and watch eagerly as the cormorant gives a self-satisfied little wriggle and dives into the water.
Whoever first equated dumbness with being a birdbrain was uncannily right. True, I’ve always believed fervently that some birds, crows, mynahs, kingfishers and hoopoes among them, are fairly bright and have plenty of character. But the majority of our feathered friends are woefully low on brainpower. All I have to do is listen to the mindless and incessant cooing of the blue rock pigeons that roost next to our bedroom window and I’m ready to strangle the blasted birds.
But the Glasshouse on the Ganges, thankfully, has no pigeons.
But what it doesn’t have in pigeons, it makes up for in other birds. Outside the main dining hall at the hotel is a framed list of the birds commonly seen in the vicinity of the Glasshouse. I’ve brought my bird book along (Birds of India, by Martin Woodcock, a delightful and very useful book), and we quickly riffle through it, picking out birds we’re hoping to be able to see during our sojourn.
We end up seeing nowhere close to all of them, but not for lack of trying.
The very first evening, when we head down to the river, we see two pretty pied wagtails hopping about amidst the rocks by the water’s edge. They’re stark black and white - very smart. Unfortunately, in our photographs, they blend in very neatly with the pebbles in the background. Anyway, we get a thrill out of watching them till it’s nearly dark, when we head back to our room.
The next morning, there’s a pleasant surprise in store for us: the sudden glimpse of a great barbet. It’s sitting in the crown of a papaya tree not too far from our window, and considering the fact that barbets are so difficult to spot - they hide in leafy trees - this is a real bonanza. It’s also an example of another stupid bird; the papaya tree is notoriously low on sheltering foliage. The barbet’s actually not even a particularly attractive bird: an ungainly and ill-proportioned mass of grass green feathers, with a yellowish-brown head and fat beak. Not pretty, but we’re very excited about it all.
And breakfast in the verandah at the Glasshouse yields more to get ecstatic about. While we’re tucking into our meal, a pair of Oriental white-eyes hops daintily about in the orange-flowering creeper next to us. They’re a dreadfully nervous pair, and even though I inch my way to the camera, they whirr off as soon as I take off the lens cover - and return as soon as the camera’s replaced on the table. Wicked!
Right after breakfast, another and totally different species puts in an appearance. Unlike the tiny yellow-feathered Oriental white-eyes, the common babblers are large, dull brown in colour, and very audacious. They squawk and chatter incessantly and go so far as to hop up onto the backs of chairs that have been vacated by human occupants. But yes, as soon as the camera emerges, they too fly off with horrified cackles, scandalised at our presumption in assuming they’d like to be photographed.
Through the day, our wanderings through the lychee and mango groves at the Glasshouse bring us into contact with some more delightful birds. There are the red-vented bulbuls, with their little crimson patches and their cocky black crests, swooping down and perching on the wooden post next to the verandah. They seem to like sitting on the post best of all, and if I’m not wrong, they take turns at it!
In the late afternoon, another species emerges: the white-throated laughing thrush. There seem to be literally dozens of them, much brighter and more attractive than their relatives, the common babblers. These birds have lovely rust-red bellies and brownish backs, with (what else) white throats. And despite the fact that they’re supposed to be laughing thrushes, they’re surprisingly silent. Not a cackle, not a whisper of mirth escapes them as they flap their way, picking for insects, through the flowerbeds and below the trees. I follow them for a few minutes, trying to get a good photograph, but it isn’t easy.
And it isn’t just at the Glasshouse on the Ganges that we see birds. They’re everywhere, sitting on bare branches, on the odd telephone pole, even standing in fields or along the banks of the river. Blackbirds, jungle crows, red-vented bulbuls, sparrows, rock chats, and birds that flit away quicker than I can pull out my bird book and identify them. At the Rajaji Park, we stop the car and gawk as three Indian rollers tumble and swoop in a flurry of bright blue feathers through the bare, stark branches of a dead tree.
And farther on, down in the plains past Haridwar, we see more birds. Cattle egrets grub their way through freshly ploughed fields; Indian swallows sit on telephone wires; and mynahs - bank mynahs, common mynahs and the striking black-and-white pied mynahs - hold sway in each village we pass by. They seem to lord it over the local markets: each stall covered with fruit, vegetable, sweets, or anything that’s edible, has its accompanying mynahs, bickering belligerently over every scrap that falls.
We see a peahen picking her way delicately through a field; a lone hoopoe sitting on a fence; and a pair of red-wattled lapwings flying overhead, their distinct "tee-tee-heee-reee" call resounding in the dusk. A flock of green parakeets, squawking for all they’re worth, roost in the trees by the roadside, oblivious to the traffic below.
And I wish I could be back in the hills, even if it’s just to meet up again with a cormorant that’s very low on brainpower.
Hindu mythology never seems to think below thousands. And the birth of Hinduism’s most sacred river too lies in an unbelievable number of myths and legends. Some believe that the holy waters of the Ganga were born of the goddess Parvati, consort of the destroyer…Read More
Hindu mythology never seems to think below thousands. And the birth of Hinduism’s most sacred river too lies in an unbelievable number of myths and legends. Some believe that the holy waters of the Ganga were born of the goddess Parvati, consort of the destroyer Shiva. Others believe that the river came to earth as Jahnavi, or "of Jahnu," the sage who swallowed the river in his rage at being disturbed by the roar of its waters. That he then let the waters flow out of his ear allows for the fact that the river still flows, deep and broad and beautiful.
But most well-known is the story of Bhagirath and his long penance to save the souls of his ancestors. The legend goes that the ruler of Ayodhya, Sagar, performed the Ashwamedha yagya, a sacrifice in which he released a horse to roam the world, a symbol of Sagar’s own powers over the Earth. The horse roamed free 99 times around the world, until the deity Indra, jealous of Sagar’s powers, abducted the horse and (with a sneakiness one doesn’t usually connect with gods) planted it in the hermitage of the sage Kapila Muni.
Sagar’s 60,000 (!!) sons, all hot-blooded and breathing fire and brimstone, set out on a quest for the precious horse, and soon ran it to earth in the sage’s hermitage. Without much thought, they assaulted the sage - and paid dearly, for Kapila Muni gathered up all his powers and reduced all 60,000 of them to ashes.
The actual story now begins.
A descendant of Sagar, Bhagirath, decided to do something about saving the souls of his ancestors. Kapila Muni, perhaps in a fit of remorse, had divulged the fact that the waters of the Ganga, if brought down from heaven, would bring the dead princes to life. Bringing the river down from heaven was no mean feat, but Bhagirath put his heart and soul into it - and finally succeeded in his penance. Unfortunately, what he hadn’t taken into account was that his puny mortal shoulders wouldn’t be able to bear the burden of the thundering waters of the river. The river descended to Earth, but with such a cataclysmic roar that Bhagirath realised he’d never be able to contain it.
He prayed for help, therefore, to the god Shiva (the Destroyer - the same deity who, if you believe the other myth, is the husband of Parvati, mother of the Ganga. All very complex).
Shiva, for once not the Destroyer but rather the Preserver (a role that is typically assigned to the deity Vishnu), spread his matted locks and caught the waters of the river in them, gentling her flow and controlling her power so that she ascended to Earth quietly, a peaceful and life-giving river instead of a catastrophic deluge.
And, of course, a river that’s surrounded by a strange, alluring mist of legend and reality, tranquility, and vigour, a river that nurtures and destroys, a river that stands at the very core of spirituality for millions of Indians. It’s supposedly so holy, its waters so pure, that millions believe, even today, that just a single dip in the river can wash them of the sins of many a lifetime. The lucky folk who live by the riverbank and have easy access to its waters feel themselves privileged - and those who live farther off make other arrangements. The largest single pieces of silver in the world, interestingly enough, are a pair of 6-foot-tall Gangajalis - urns made especially to hold Ganga water - that reside today in the City Palace Museum in Jaipur. One of the erstwhile maharajas of Jaipur, a staunch believer in the purity of the river, never drank anything but Ganga water, and never ate anything that had been cooked in any other water. This was all very well while he lived in India, but when he was forced to go on a state visit to England, he was faced with the horrific prospect of having to sully his body and soul with (God forbid!) - what was it? Thames water? Whoever came up with the idea of taking hundreds of litres of good, holy Ganga water to England must have been richly rewarded.
Which just goes to show.
This river, rising in the Himalayas at the Gangotri glacier, flows down, past about 52 cities, 48 towns, and countless villages on a 2,500km-long course that takes it to the Bay of Bengal, where it joins with another mighty river, the Brahmaputra, to form the world’s largest estuarine delta, the Sunderbans. On its way, it gives rise to India’s richest alluvial plains and creates the Upper Gangetic Valley, home to a wide range of wildlife: tigers (though fast disappearing), leopards, elephants, wild boar, deer, and more. And there are, of course, the species that are found nowhere but in the waters of the Ganga itself: the Gangetic dolphin, the Ganga mahseer, and the Gangetic ghariyal.
But most people do not equate the Ganga with animals; they think of it as Ganga maiyya, Mother Ganga, the source of life. They follow its course, trekking (if extremely orthodox) all the way to the Gangotri glacier, or maybe even just doing a circuit of the Panch Prayag, the five confluences. For the Ganga is not really one river, but many. It flows in the form of tributaries and streams that meet at prayags or confluences, until the wide and deep Ganga is formed. At Vishnuprayag, the Alaknanda meets the Dhauli Ganga; at Nandprayag, the Alaknanda meets the Mandakini; at Karnaprayag, the Alaknanda is joined by the Pindar; at Rudraprayag, the Alaknanda once again meets a truant stream of the Mandakini; and finally, at Devprayag, the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi come together.
That isn’t all, of course; there are dozens of other towns - Haridwar, Rishikesh, Allahabad, Varanasi among them - where the Ganga flows, and where it is literally choked with pilgrims, people coming to wash away their sins, beg for salvation, and consign the ashes of their dead to the river.
There are 108 names, or so they say, for this river: Jahnavi; Jahnuputri (daughter of Jahnu); Siddha; Sita (furrow); Salil-vasa (water-dweller); Purna (complete); Punya (merit); Punya-vaahini (possessor of merit); and Swarg-sopaan-sarani (stretching as a staircase to heaven). And dozens of more names.
But call it what you will, this is a river like none other. There’s an impressiveness, a grandeur, a beauty about this river that goes way past its spirituality. You don’t need to be a Hindu to admire it. You don’t even need to be vaguely religious.
Written by 3rdeye on 12 Oct, 2005
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…Read More
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.
You immediately realize that you’re standing in the midst of the Himalayas. Massive, craggy mountains wall in this little pilgrim village. Gangotri is only half a village. That is, it's totally empty for half the year. In the winter, no one lives here except the…Read More
You immediately realize that you’re standing in the midst of the Himalayas. Massive, craggy mountains wall in this little pilgrim village. Gangotri is only half a village. That is, it's totally empty for half the year. In the winter, no one lives here except the priest at the temple and maybe a few policemen. The entire population is nomadic. There are simply no locals.
On the banks of the Bhagirthi is the Gangotri temple. Again, the small size surprises me. I mean, I've seen bigger temples in Ponda and this is Gangotri, one of the four holiest places for Hindus. But then again, this temple is hundreds if not thousands of years old, and it's good to see it untouched by cement over all these centuries. In fact, this is completely against the trend and it totally baffles me.
On the river banks there are quite a few pilgrims taking on the icy-cold waters. A few steps away is a barber tonsuring heads. As the razor moves large tufts of hair fall away. Priests are chanting mantras trying to appease departed souls. Entire families sit around small fires repeating after the priests. From a short distance a likely distant cousin is clicking away on a Kodak camera, recording these precious moments for the family album.
Quickly we make our way back to Chidbasa. The sun is fast vanishing. Without the sun, temperatures plummet rapidly. Getting bone-cold on a desolate mountain does not seem like a fun thing to do. I take long and quick strides. And walking downhill is so…Read More
Quickly we make our way back to Chidbasa. The sun is fast vanishing. Without the sun, temperatures plummet rapidly. Getting bone-cold on a desolate mountain does not seem like a fun thing to do. I take long and quick strides. And walking downhill is so much easier. Just as night falls, we reach Chidbasa.
Here there are a couple of tents where trekkers can halt for the night. Friendly mountain folk welcome us. It quickly becomes pitch dark. These guys cook some dal and rotis, but I'm far too exhausted and just lie down and close my eyes. When it's time to eat, I can't swallow a morsel. The high altitude has dealt a death blow to my appetite. I sip a few spoons of dal and drink down a whole bottle of glucose. That should do some good at least.
When I peep outside the tent, fog has swallowed everything. Visibility is barely a few feet. Someone switches on the radio. I sit down listening to some Hindi film music and stare into the fog, not that anyone can stare particularly far in these kinds of conditions.
Then the AIR station stops the music and the news begins. The night gets colder. In a flat voice, the newsreader announces that bombs went of in London. Up here in the mountains, news of the terrorist attack in London just floats by.
A foggy night in the Himalayas is otherworldly. It's absolutely coal black. No lights, no stars, no nothing. I crawl into the tent and ask for an extra blanket. Happily I lie down. All that a man needs after this grueling trek is a good night’s sleep. I'm expecting some divinely inspirational dreams! Minutes roll by and I try to dig deeper into the blankets. Some more minutes...
Although I don't possess a watch, I realize it's been hours since I first walked into the tent. Another effect of high altitude – insomnia. Although my body is almost broken, my brain refuses to lie in peace, yhe same knot of grey matter that abandoned me a few hours ago.
Finally, I give up pretending to be asleep and nudge my sadhu friend. To my surprise, he too is wide awake. We decide to while away the hours chatting. The chillum is rekindled and we sit blowing rings of smoke into the bight. Heaven.
What we talked about cannot be printed here. Suffice to say that I learnt a lot about the most mind-twisting tantric practices. Tantric techniques are not easily understood, and a little knowledge can be both shocking and dangerous. Those seeking the limitless knowledge of tantra will have to find it on their own. Only then can the sheer shock be absorbed.
The next day I get up feeling perfectly alive. I had some of the most amazing dreams. It feels like I’ve penetrated this invisible membrane. I watch mules trot along happily. They’re laden with supplies. Alongside these mules, little boys seem to take great pleasure in walking on the cliff edge. I'm jealous, seeing these kids walk carelessly along.
After some coffee, I strap on my backpack and we start the walk towards Gangotri, 10km away. Walking downhill is terribly easy. I thank the gods for the way the mountains were created. At least you don’t have to walk uphill both ways.
When we cross a small stream, I dip my hands into the water. Initially I feel a sharp jab and within 2 seconds my hand has gone numb. The water was probably ice a few hours back before the sun god Surya forced it down.
After a light meal, we walk towards this small mud hut by the river where a Naga Sadhu lives. He sits outside, wearing only a loincloth. His long and matted hair is held back by a rag, same with the beard. I squat by the small fire that he keeps burning night and day. His Hindi is loud and clear. He likes an audience. After learning that I'm studying engineering, he asks me whether I can spread electricity through the air. That would be a terrible weapon and would instill fear in the heart of the enemy. I don’t inquire as to who the enemy might be. I ask him whether he can do anything like that. He smiles and leaves the question hanging in mid-air.
Then he talks at length about American politics and the Iraq war. Words like proton bombs and cruise missiles slip out effortlessly. He tells us how Christ was crucified for calling himself God. In Hindu philosophy, we are all God and no one needs to be nailed or anything. I nod in approval.
Suddenly he switches gears and takes up a yogic posture. After some deep exhalation, he points towards his belly. I see a knot of flesh moving about inside in a circle. He's giving his intestines a good beating. He smiles and I'm suitably impressed.
Suddenly he gets up and goes inside his hut. Coming out wit an old tin kettle, he puts some water to boil. Carefully he stokes the flames. All his movements seem unnaturally static. Even when he speaks it's only his lips that move. When the water starts to boil merrily, he pulls out a box of ayurvedic tea. It's not every day that I get to drink steaming-hot tea stirred on a holy fire. I sip the sugary brown liquid and try to glean more information from this scantily clad sadhu who seems to be so well informed. Then I proceed to wash the utensils with some ash. The water is cold and I hurry back to the fire and warm myself. I bow down and touch his feet and he blesses me.
The weather today is surprisingly clear. Deep-blue skies have replaced the flat grayness. It’s a welcome change. And finally we can do some trekking in the Himalayas. This is my first Himalayan experience and I'm all excited. I stuff all the essentials into my backpack…Read More
The weather today is surprisingly clear. Deep-blue skies have replaced the flat grayness. It’s a welcome change. And finally we can do some trekking in the Himalayas. This is my first Himalayan experience and I'm all excited. I stuff all the essentials into my backpack and jump around, trying to get the blood flowing .Our first goal is to reach Chidbasa, about 9km from Gangotri. A flight of stairs takes you from the temple and onto the trekking trail. I'm all dressed for the occasion, wearing a sweater under my jacket and a nice nepali woolen cap.
Accompanying us is a group of sadhus. I try to enter into a conversation with them and gather that they are Shiva worshippers. They teach me to chant Bum Bole and Jay Bhole Ki. Whenever I meet any fellow traveler, I quickly put my newly learnt chant to use and get a knowing nod accompanied by the same chant.
The Sadhus we're traveling with rest frequently. With religious devotion they fill up their chillums. One of them pulls out a small packet of charas from his robes. He carefully rubs it with his thumb in the palm of his hand. After satisfying himself, he fills up his clay chillum up to the brim. A wet rag serves as the filter. A match is lit. Now all the sadhus gather around and squat with great expectations. The chillum is passed around. When it's my turn, I inhale long and deep. Sweet-smelling smoke engulfs the blissful wanderers. My trip is just starting.
After walking for 2km uphill, I'm beginning to feel the high-altitude thin air. I have a slight headache and nausea. This time the sadhus advise I sniff some Ram Tulsi. It does help. From the trail I can see the Bhagirthi violently roaring along in the valley below. Huge white boulders smoothened with age lie along the banks.
On one side of the trail are the massive mountains and on my right is the valley below.
Every now and then we cross fall lines. Here the mountainside has deteriorated and boulders keep sliding down. Many a trekker has died under fall lines .When a mountain comes tumbling down there isn't much anyone can do. With one eye above we try and negotiate these treacherous bends as quickly as possible. The deep valley on the right is a perennial source of terror and all you can do is hope that the narrow trail does not cave in and rest a few hundred feet below. The Himalayas are a young and restless mountain. It keeps shifting and sliding to find a better position to rest.
Above me the sky is a profound shade of blue. It's roughly noon and the sun is stark. Not a cloud to be seen. Barren mountains rise up sharply, their tops covered with snow. I can see small streams that have frozen near the peak. Below me, shapely pines grow on the mountains.
The climb is taking its toll. At 15,000 feet, my lungs have forsaken me. Pant all that you want, but somehow the air seems to be leaking out from my lungs. Starved of oxygen, every step is now a heroic effort. The blood is throbbing in my head. Drenched in cold sweat, my legs are buckling. Totally spent, I sit down on a boulder and stare into the sun.
That's when reality begins to bend at weird angles. The mountains and the sky seem to flow fluidly into each other. Delirium.
Slowly my senses claw back and I feel the boulder, nice and solid. That was my first Himalayan trip! I pull myself up and begin to trudge along. Now it’s all about putting one foot forward and willing your other to follow. Thoughts simply don't exist anymore. Whenever I feel that another step would bring me down, I rest on one of the rocks and try to hold on.
Then the trail worsens as it goes over loose rock. One look towards the valley on my right is all I can dare. Grabbing the bare mountain on my left, I proceed step by step, careful not to cross my feet, as that would mean loss of balance.
After a few minutes there is a sharp bend in the trail, a sharp U-turn that leaves the mountainside and dangles precariously above the valley. Loose rock and mud hold up the bend, a 6-inch-wide path. The misty mountains crystallize rapidly into known shapes. Fear works brilliantly to bring me rapidly back to full consciousness.
I traverse this entire bend inch by inch. Facing towards the mountain, I first move my right foot forward. Then the left foot follows. It's all happening in slow motion now. Suddenly I feel the loose mud gently sliding down. I'm rooted. Even my breathing seems to have been suspended temporarily. It's just me and the mountain. Seconds seem like hours. I dare not look either above or below. And then suddenly it appears to me like a flash. I cannot die today on this mountain. I begin to move my feet. And then once more I feel solid earth.
A brief rest and then the uphill struggle continues. There is more sweat, delirium, and a weariness I had never known. More than once I wish I was safe in my bed at home. At this stage, I truly do not know what keeps me going onwards. It's neither determination nor courage, that I'm sure. Maybe it’s just sheer bloody-mindedness. Maybe it's the magical chillum. Maybe it was meant to be.
Another painful 2km and the sun is just about to be swallowed by the mountains. A cool wind begins to blow. And then the path vanishes. No, it’s not light playing tricks. The mountainside has simply caved in. A choice has to be made. I try to reason it out like a good intelligent kid. If I make it across on the way back, the valley would be on my left. I would have to move my left foot forward first, my weaker side. I give myself half a chance of making it across. Returning is a 30% chance. Mathematics is good. And I have no shame in admitting that I do not have the skills to tramp about in the Himalayas. I lose and begin the walk back. The disappointment of defeat is huge. All said and done, I got scared.
Then I can hear the soul of the mountain. It’s an ancient and wise voice. If I stay alive, I can always return on a brighter day. There is no shame in losing to this vast and magnificently beautiful mountain, especially when it gives no second chances.
The road winds up into the Himalayas. All along you can see the Ganga flowing in the valley below. The rains have started and there's always the danger of landslides as the Mahindra jeep struggles uphill a few rocks tumble down and lands ahead of…Read More
The road winds up into the Himalayas. All along you can see the Ganga flowing in the valley below. The rains have started and there's always the danger of landslides as the Mahindra jeep struggles uphill a few rocks tumble down and lands ahead of us. The brakes are slammed and everyone is tense. The driver waits a random amount of time before touching the Shiva sticker on the dashboard and hurrying past.
On our ways we come across a small village, perched on the mountaintop. The entire village is engulfed in clouds. From the window I see mules appearing and disappearing back into the clouds. We stop and try to look for some food. Sweets are the only edible thing available at this odd hour. I wonder what sort of perspective people in this village have, forever shrouded in clouds.
It's been raining here, so everything is covered in a thick layer of muck. The slime here is black and sticky. If you don't walk quickly enough, you could actually get your foot stuck.
Shops selling razors, cheap jewelry and clothes line every street. This seems to be the trend across all the small towns - rows and rows of distressingly similar lanes.
There's nothing much to be done here. It's just a night’s halt on the way to Gangotri.
Another cold morning with a drizzle, there are no signs of the star Sol. This weather is bleak and the camera stays inside the bag once again.
It’s still another 100 kms to Gangotri. We pass the Tehri Dam that's being built. Looks like a huge crater. When the water flows in, it will look more like a lake. The road is now worsening rapidly. Small, powerful streams have torn away chunks of the road. Tall, shapely pines grow on the hillside. They're distinctly different from the haphazard and leafy Western Ghat trees. Here the branches start decently a few meters from the bottom and grow in perfect harmony. The end result is a beautiful conical structure.
I spot white-backed vultures feeding on the carcass of a calf. They seem perfectly at ease with Tata Sumo jeeps and devour the dead calf. Only when I get to within a few feet do they show any signs of movement. By evening we reach Gangotri. It’s been 250km from Rishikesh and also 250km of layer after layer of mountains.
Huge billboards advertising "Yoga Ashrams" welcome you to Rishikesh. Saffron-robed, bearded men stare out of plastic posters. The lanes are teeming with sadhus. They squat everywhere. Surprisingly, for me, many of the mendicants seem quite young. Grime and matted hair is the norm. I hang…Read More
Huge billboards advertising "Yoga Ashrams" welcome you to Rishikesh. Saffron-robed, bearded men stare out of plastic posters. The lanes are teeming with sadhus. They squat everywhere. Surprisingly, for me, many of the mendicants seem quite young. Grime and matted hair is the norm. I hang around near them and try to strike up a conversation. One particular white-haired sadhu is quite friendly. He tells me that they are traveling far away. I don't dare to ask where. He carries with him a small steel utensil that has dal and rotis. All his belongings are stuffed into a dusty cloth bag. Squatting here amidst pariah dogs and noisy rickshaws, he's an imposing figure.
From what I had read, Rishikesh was supposed to be a holy village on the banks of the Ganga. Sadhus descended here from the Himalayas to spend the winter months. Now it's difficult to see beyond the narrow lanes cluttered with similar-looking shops. Large rickshaws called bikrams ferry people around the town. That's the best way to move about here. There is some pleasure in squeezing into the overflowing bikram as two people manage the steering wheel and a third shifts gears.
Shivanand Ashram is spread over a large area on the mountainside, and 6-foot walls, freshly painted, keep out the curious gaze. A few clean-shaven men in robes enter the sprawling complex. Their immaculate robes make them distinctly different from their brother who squats on the pavement.
The Ganga descends from the Himalayas and enters the plains at Rishikesh. The transition in landscape is almost abrupt. Just as you enter the town, the brown dust gives way to neat and trim conifers.
Right now the Ganga is muddy and turbulent. You can cross the river on two footbridges - Laxman Jhula and Ram Jhula. For the river's spiritual significance, its size is almost too small. What I'm told was just a rope across the river is now a futuristic device suspended by steel cables. Monkeys tread on these cables defying gravity and death.
The lane approaching Laxman Jhula is brimming with activity. Pilgrims and tourists walk past lepers and beggars. Shops sell Ganga Aartis on CD's. Restaurants and Cyber Cafes sit alongside hand-drawn carts selling everything from tomatoes to bindis. Large bulls wander aimlessly. Furry dogs bark at their heels.
When I get up early the next morning, there's a sheet of mist above the river. The water is so cold that all the moisture condenses just above the river. The Ganga looks motionless below this white shroud. Large boulders sit on the river bank. The odd sadhu is seen taking a dip in these icy-cold waters. For the others, there's always the public hand pump!