In all the times that I had traveled from Delhi to Mussoorie, I had never stopped by at Haridwar; so when my sister Sudha asked me to accompany her, I was off like a shot. Sudha and her husband Ed had made the trip from the United States to immerse my uncle Sekaran’s ashes in the Ganga at Haridwar. At the train station we sat in a cycle rickshaw and headed toward Heritage Hari Ganga, a hundred year old house that was converted into a resort, on the banks of the river Ganga. It was with some surprise that I saw cycles with flat bamboo pallets lined with fresh green leaves. Plump red strawberries by the hundreds were neatly stacked on the leaves, presenting a wonderful burst of vibrant colors.
It was Baisakhi (New Year) on Sunday, which coincided with our Tamil New Year and being a day of festivity, the narrow streets were packed like the strawberries, with one set of people going onward to the ghats (as the banks of the river are referred to), and another group returning from there. There were shops on either side with heaps of red kumkum and shiny mirrored boxes to store them. There was a display of all kinds of simple artifacts to lure the travel-happy crowds into a purchase. Rudrakshams were aplenty. They showed us ek mukhi rudraksham as well as other kinds; there was no way to tell if they were authentic. For those who wished to wear their religion on their persons there were Om shirts, tulsi beads, and Shiva Parvathi pendants. We explored the surrounding neighborhood leisurely. An enthusiastic tea-stall owner showed us a large courtyard hidden from view. We entered through a small doorway, and lo and behold, the vast space was completely in the shade of the peepul (ficus religiosa) and banyan trees (ficus bengalenses). There was also a small temple for Lord Krishna and, of course, the eternal Ganga flowed nonchalantly along.
Our uncle had come to the United States many decades ago, and somehow he had not found the opportunity to take a dip in the Ganga. So he expressed the wish that his ashes be immersed in the holy river (this is known as asthi visarjan). The morning of Baisakhi saw us at Har Ki Pauri, the main ghat, considered to be the precise location where the river enters the plains. Ed, who performed the rites in Sanskrit, followed the priest’s dictum perfectly. We thus fulfilled our uncle’s wishes and performed the traditional last rites with the priest recording the event in his book for posterity.
The Hari Ganga Heritage Resort was located plum in the heart of the city on the banks of Ganga. It made a perfect setting. From every floor of the house we could view the Ganga flowing with set purpose and speed that was astonishing. I did not wish to be away from this mesmerizing river, and turned down invitations to go to Rishikesh, which is another pilgrimage destination about 30 kilometers away from Haridwar.
“What do you do for Baisakhi here?” I asked the hotel receptionist. Prompt came the reply, “Bathe in the river, but of course. What else would you do?” I followed that suggestion and in the privacy of the Heritage Hari Ganga, I descended into the waters of the river. The melting glacier had made the water really cold and little did I realize how frigid it was till I found that I had to warm myself under a quilt, in the sun, after getting out.
While in the water, I had the luxury to ruminate about life’s twists and turns as I gazed at the other swimmers. I watched a young boy as he dove into the river. He swam with the furious energy of the young. Frolicking with his friends, he attempted to go against the current as his friends cheered him on. Finally he gave up, did an about turn, gave himself up to the river and climbed up the banks. All the boys clambered out of the water and followed him.
Then with hoots of joy they jumped back into the water, further upstream, and allowed themselves to flow along with the waves till they returned to the same bank they had started at.
Haridwar, literally meaning “gateway to God,” is one of the most renowned pilgrimage centers in India. It is visited for its many temples, history and most especially the healing powers of the river Ganga. Haridwar is located at the foothills of the Himalayas and from the plains, it is a splendid sight to see the flowing river reflecting the towering mountains.
The main shopping centers in Haridwar—Moti Bazaar, Jwalapur, Kankhal and Upper Road are filled with stone idols. The stones that are used for these idols have a rare polish to them. The story goes that these stones have traveled along the mighty Ganga river for many miles before they are deposited along the Rishikesh plains, shaped and polished by the river currents. This is why they have a shine.
Locals told us the story of how the Chinese pilgrim, Hiuen Tsang, who came to India in the first half of the seventh century A.D. described the holy city of Haridwar as the peacock on the banks of the Ganga.
We went with an escort to the river front to witness the arati ceremony, a tradition where many lamps are lit as the sun goes down, amidst singing and chanting, in order to pay obeisance to the mighty river Ganga. Sudha managed to find us a nice spot despite the crowds and we saw just enough of the spectacular event as the yellow glow from the lamps turned the river into molten gold.
There’s an old restaurant called Pracheen Mathura Wala that has served the same fare for seven decades. The reviews on TripAdvisor persuaded us to visit the eatery. We gorged on hot fluffy bhature with chole garnished with green chillies and ginger, fresh kachodis and desserts including the famous Mathura pedas and gulab jamuns. Closeby, at another restaurant, the chef made jalebis, in continuous concentric circles with a flourish of his wrist.
Others made matka ice cream, hand churned, while cold rabri and ras malai were displayed enticingly. The falooda recipe was a secret though all the ingredients were arrayed on the counter. It’s the measure that was the the secret.
We decided to take back some holy water from the Ganga. The rotund shopkeeper explained that it was no ordinary water, “That is Ganga Jal,” he stated. He showed me a beautiful brass vessel known as a vengala shombu, literally a brass vessel, like the one I used to boil dal or lentils in my hometown of Chennai. “Where is it from,” I asked the shopkeeper. “Kumbakonam,” came the reply. That set us off on a conversation on the temples of the south. He was well travelled; more than many of the people living in the south. I informed him that during my photography exhibition at the IIC in Delhi many people asked me if we have Shiva temples in the South. “Toba toba,” he exclaimed in Hindi. “If someone went to the Brihadiswar in Tanjavur wearing a cap, and he saw the lingam, not only will his cap fall off, but also his head!” On that delightful note we said our goodbyes to gaze at the river once more before heading homewards.
Usha Kris was awarded the prestigious Bharat Nirman award for artistic photography. She can be contacted at [email protected]
Goddesses of Haridwar
The Chandi Devi Temple is located on the top of the Eastern summit of the Sivalik Hills, at a distance of 4 kilometres from Har ki Pauri. Goddess Chandi Devi is the main deity of the temple. Built in 1929 by Suchat Singh, the King of Kashmir, it also goes by the name of Neel Parvat Teerth.
The Mansa Devi Temple is devoted to the goddess, Mansa. This temple is located on the top of the Bilwa peak on the Sivalik Hills. The word mansa literally means wish. Access to the temple is by a ropeway known as Mansa Devi Udankhatola.
Goddess Maya Devi is a three-headed, four-armed deity, housed in the Maya Devi Temple. Maya Devi is an incarnation of Shakti. The inner shrine consists of the Goddess Maya in the center, flanked by Godesses Kali and Kamakhya on either side.
Devout prayers at these three temples can get one’s desires, wishes and hopes fulfilled.