Tea with a sadhu

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January 16th 2018
Published: March 7th 2018
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The temperature had dropped like a stone as soon as the sun went down at Har-ki-Pauri the previous evening. Seated on a step within inches of the river watching the aarthi ceremony, I'd respected tradition with bare feet. They'd been as cold as the Ganges' icy water!

Clearly, it wasn't much warmer outside this morning. We awoke to a heavy grey mist almost obliterating the view from our terrace at the Devnadi Hotel.

It happens at this time of year - warm by day, cold by night... fog in the morning.

We added an extra layer, went down to the restaurant for a hot breakfast and hoped that things might improve later.

Satish, a knowledgeable guide booked for our next two days by the hotel's lovely Jasmeet, soon arrived. Thankfully, so did the sun...

Visibility had begun to improve as we tuk-tuked down to a bridge over the river. As we crossed, the sun finally broke through, giving us a panoramic view upstream towards the town, its ghats, waterside temples and colourful ashrams. At this early hour, the wide footpath bordering the shallow steps of ghats on this bank was calm and fairly free of people. A few braved the icy waters dressed only in underpants, clearly enjoying the experience but gripping chains attached to the concrete bank. More chains dangled beneath the span of a distant bridge in case other bathers upstream were swept away by the fast-moving current.

A statue of a bearded guru sat beneath a huge tree while a nearby barber shaved the beard of his first customer of the day. Numerous lingams (a symbol of Lord Shiva, or some might think it a male/female fertility image) bordered the river bank.

As we neared the bridge leading to Har-ki-Pauri, so the crowds began to swell. Families relaxed, squatting expectantly, enjoying the crisp morning sunshine. Beggars looked towards us with pleading eyes and outstretched hands. Priests blessed shaven-headed men seated on the ghats. Vendors sold bundles of peacock feathers suspended from their backs. Others carefully placed vermilion tilaks between the eyes of the devout in exchange for small coins. Little shops, with piles of coloured paper kites and reels of thread catered to a children's after-school hobby that's also a fervent tradition at this festive time. Pilgrims bought wooden walking sticks and staves from a shop displaying hundreds of them in various shapes and sizes, together with a few cricket bats for good measure.

At Har-ki-Pauri, today in daylight, the scene was in complete contrast to the previous evening. Now, on this 14th day of January, the day of Makar Sankranti, it was difficult to move easily through a shifting tide of humanity. Hundreds thronged the banks on each side of the sparkling waters, eager to step down the ghats for a holy dip. As they submerged themselves, a sharp intake of breath clearly showed that the chill took some by surprise. Youngsters meanwhile splashed around having fun, seemingly unaware of the importance of their morning paddle.

I should mention perhaps that this was not the true River Ganges here, but the narrow Upper Ganga Canal. Just yards from this point, the massive sluice gates of Bhimgoda Barrage control the power of the river, here swift and swirling so close to its source in the Himalayas to the north. The canal continues in straight lines for hundreds of miles south, its water being used to generate electricity and irrigate the land. Along its length, man-made banks provide ghats for ritual bathing in many places - the water, after all, is from the holy Ganges itself. The river's main stream, severely reduced except during Spring ice-melt from glaciers and Summer monsoon floods, is to be found on its wide flood-plain away to the east.

We stayed a while at Har-ki-Pauri to consider this scene of devotion. It never ceased to amaze us that so many could have so much faith, that they would journey enormous distances - often on foot - to observe that faith, and that they celebrated their ancestral heritage and hopes for their future lives with such zeal. Here, tens of thousands were gathering on this happy, auspicious day to praise a sun god and a river goddess. Compare the picture alongside with one taken just the previous day (A mistreated goddess).

To see so many milling around, smiling, praying and bathing in these rapid waters was an overwhelming sight. It was one that we'd experience again that evening as we attended the aarthi ceremony for a second time, but with a massively greater audience than before. Then, as the sun dipped behind temples on the far bank, it would be standing room only for us as vast crowds occupied all the steps and most of
A boy searching for coins at Har-ki-PauriA boy searching for coins at Har-ki-PauriA boy searching for coins at Har-ki-Pauri

The men in the background are just washing some pots used in the rituals.
what might normally have been open spaces and promenade areas. Audience participation in the rituals became even more vigorous too, with animated responses to the priests' chants and songs, rhythmic clapping during the tuneful mantra of 'Har Har Gangee, Jai Maa Gangee', and much waving of hands in the air.

Even now during our daytime visit, people released their diyas onto the water, the night-time candles within these little boats of leaves replaced by sticks of smouldering incense and a small coin or two for good luck. Those coins seldom travelled far though, as they were plucked out by the swift hands of young boys or, when they fell into the water, recovered by others with magnets pulled across the river's flow on strings.

Coconuts too were common offerings cast into the river. Ingenious lads had constructed metal mesh baskets on long, thin ropes, which they hurled into the river from bridges to capture the floating nuts. Those they caught were dried off and resold to other pilgrims! Why coconuts, I hear you ask. Well, they're apparently the plant equivalent of a cow in Hinduism as they're significant to life as a whole - an eternal giver of food, water, oil and coir rope in this case, and they're offered to gods as a substitute for what may have been animal sacrifice in antiquity. Some Hindu religious texts, by the way, explain that a person should be like a coconut - hard and tough on the outside, soft and generous on the inside. Now there's a thought!

Over the course of two days, Satish earned his modest guiding fee by taking us to places often missed by other visitors to this crowded city.

He also showed us ceremonies the likes of which I'd never seen in all my previous journeys around this country. I tried to understand what some of them might have been about (Satish's English wasn't always entirely precise - or maybe he didn't fully understand what was going on either!). Anyway, to truly comprehend a Hindu ritual, there's always something else you need to know.

Take, for example, the circle of young boys Satish led us to see. They were seated cross-legged next to men (their dads perhaps?) offering them guidance on what to do with the flowers and rice placed on leaves beside their feet. The boys had their heads shaved clean, except for tufts of hair on the very tops of their skulls. The circle was surrounded by dozens of adults, including many women (the boys' mums maybe?) wearing colourful orange scarves fringed with silver tinsel. It wasn't any easier to find out what was happening than it was to wriggle through the mêlée to take a photograph.

However, as far as I could make out, it was what's called a 'thread ceremony', something that happens when boys of the Brahmin caste reach about 12 years of age - a bit like a Jewish Bar Mitzvah. The boys vow to respect knowledge, their parents and society and are given three strands of a sacred thread in return. Hair, as we all know, is a symbol of vanity - so, the shaved heads were a gesture of humility. The choti or shikha (the lock of hair remaining on each boy's head), represents exclusive focus on a spiritual goal, devotion to God.

Well, I think that's what it was all about!

We also discovered a part-covered area nearby with a dozen or more seemingly contented cows standing quietly or sitting chewing the cud. Hindus consider the cow a sacred symbol of life that should be protected, revered and fed. In many places, cows feed themselves on waste food and stuff they find in the streets. Here, these very lucky and rather chubby ones were being ritually fed bananas, apples, oranges and chapattis.

Here too were other rituals in progress, some receiving blessings for recently-deceased relatives or remembering ancestors. Others involved priests saying prayers or offering prasad - a little food item donated to a deity.

We saw people simply registering their attendance on this holy day with a family priest. It's an unusual fact that, here in Haridwar, a custom of family genealogy continues to be maintained by Brahmin priests (known as pandas), who keep hand-written registers passed down over many generations. For centuries, pilgrims visiting this holy town have sought out their family's particular panda and updated their records with details of births, deaths and marriages. Apparently, it's not uncommon for these pandas to hold information on more than seven generations in their ancient books. Uncomputerised 'Ancestry.com' in action!

On the fringes of the town, Satish showed us some other fascinating places.

One of them involved a choice of a steep 785-step uphill walk or a short cable-car ride to Mansa Devi Temple. No prizes for guessing which one we two old blokes chose. A visit to this temple is a 'must' for all pilgrims to Haridwar and a benefit of having a guide was that we didn't need to join the queue for cable-car tickets; Satish simply 'paid' the ticket-collector at the entrance!

The view towards the Ganges from our little cage-like cabin as it made its way up to the top of the Bilwa Parvat hill was marred by a lingering mist. The views of simple dwellings below, green trees littered with downed kites and tangled lines and of the other cages as they clattered by, however, were as clear as a bell - as were the clanging of temple bells and a message specifying that photography was forbidden as we disembarked. Outside the temple was a huge photograph of the three-headed goddess whose shrine was inside! Umm...

Anyhow, this temple was devoted to wish-fulfilling goddess Mansa Devi. On the way in, stalls sold a mountain of offerings and prasad that believers could give to the priests at each shrine, adding a monetary donation in return for blessings.

The idol, Mansa Devi TempleThe idol, Mansa Devi TempleThe idol, Mansa Devi Temple

Photography is not allowed in the temple.
was difficult to see much of the inner sanctum where the goddess resided because of the teeming masses but, towards the exit, was a holy tree bound in thousands of colourful threads. Each one had been tied in the hope of a wish being granted. If I understood correctly, pilgrims whose wishes were fulfilled would later return and untie their threads. Benevolent sceptics might say that a lot of pilgrims hadn't managed to return after their wishes had been granted!

A visit to a place is sometimes particularly memorable because of the unexpected.

This afternoon, for example, a procession blocked our path on the way back to the charming Devnadi Hotel. A team of drummers led a procession of smiling, dancing men, women and children wearing multi-coloured caps. Behind them came a giant carriage resembling two white elephants with red and gold trappings topped by a gilded howdah in which sat men wearing orange robes and gold crowns. It was a special occasion for the Jain community, we were told. Certainly, the welcome and the music were infectious, as brother David will confirm - he joined in the dancing with gusto, cheered on by the whirling throng.

On another occasion, an electric tuk-tuk quietly took-tooked us through mile upon mile of dusty, impoverished and almost treeless grounds dotted with occasional tent dwellers and their buffaloes, goats and cows. Every 12 years, this entire expanse would be densely covered by a tented town accommodating some of the millions of pilgrims attending the Kumbh Mela - the largest religious gathering on the planet (at least 10 Million people bathed in the Ganges at Haridwar on a single day in 2010). I made a diary note to return in 2022.

That same road took us past a fantastic 108-feet (33 metres) tall statue of Lord Shiva that we'd seen from a distance while at Har-ki-Pauri and onwards to a colony of sadhus hidden among trees beside the Ganges itself.

Here, many dozens of sadhus - holy men, monks, ascetics who'd given up all the trappings of a worldly existence - lived in a cramped village of gloomy, squalid-looking tents beneath trees close to the river.

There was a single exception - atop a concrete mount close to the stony river shore was a colourful, makeshift assemblage of logs and branches encased in plastic sheets and golden-yellow fabric decorated with garlands of orange and yellow marigolds.

Inside was a bright-eyed, bearded sadhu. He sat cross-legged and bare-chested, his long, unkempt hair piled up into a top-knot secured with a metal clip. Satish translated that he lived here for part of the year, returning to his village in the hills when monsoon rains made it unsafe to live so close to the flooding river.

With a gentle smile, this friendly, unassuming man quietly invited us to join him for tea, which he made in a large metal pan and presented to us in small cups.

Memorable indeed.

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Additional photos below
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Bholanath Sevashram templeBholanath Sevashram temple
Bholanath Sevashram temple

In the foreground is a Shiva 'lingam' - a symbol of Lord Shiva, and Nandi - his bull.
Ganga TempleGanga Temple
Ganga Temple

Bholanath Sevashram
Beneath a tree on our walk beside the GangesBeneath a tree on our walk beside the Ganges
Beneath a tree on our walk beside the Ganges

Lord Shiva (blue), the monkey god Hanuman (orange), a lingam and Nandi the bull.
A tilak A tilak
A tilak

A spot of coloured powder worn on the forehead by Hindus as a religious symbol
Peacock feathers are auspicious...Peacock feathers are auspicious...
Peacock feathers are auspicious...

...but were the feathers found or plucked from an illegally-killed bird? Don't buy them!

16th March 2018

History, tradition, ritual, devotion, blessings, and so much more in vibrant India. Thanks for taking us along.
16th March 2018

The sadhu
Thank you for allowing me to take you to holy Haridwar. it's a seriously religious place, but encounters with people like that sadhu make it memorable for reasons other than its holiness. Interestingly too, although I didn't mention it in the blog, my brother and I had dinner with the family who owned the hotel - not in their hotel, but at their home - making our visit to Haridwar even more memorable.

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