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Published: March 3rd 2018
Return to India 2 The Gateway to God - Haridwar
14th January 2018 Continuing the travels of two somewhat elderly brothers, David (of ‘the grey haired nomads’) and the much younger, Mike, (aka, ‘keep smiling’) getting to know each other rather better as they travel through the north of this fascinating country.
The 0645 train from an extremely tidy but rather chilly New Delhi Station finally arrived in Haridwar, the 'Gateway to God', in Uttarakhand State, an acceptable one hour late. That’s Indian trains: incredibly cheap and extremely unreliable. But either way it’s not an unpleasant experience, particularly if you should travel Executive Chair. The one-mile long train trundles its merry clittery-clattery way for five hours through 200km of grey morning fog, past quiet towns and villages, tarp-tented shanty encampments and litter-strewn embankments, fertile fields and distant hills.
A taxi, by prior arrangement with our hotel, awaits us at the station entrance, whisking us through manic traffic to the delightful Heritage Hotel Devnadi where we are greeted with floral garlands and huge smiles of welcome. The Devnadi Hotel, with its many wonderful Art Nouveau features, was originally built as
a residence for the Queen of Nepal and our balcony overlooks the sparkling Ganges, its dusky blue waters from distant mountains carrying pilgrims' floral offerings from nearby ghats.
But it will be a while before our stomachs become accustomed to the totally vegetarian diet everywhere in this region. This regime includes no eggs for breakfast. It is also ‘dry’, as it’s referred to here in India; so bottled water, Fanta or Coke will have to suffice for us for the next few days - no beer to quell the fire of rich spices! I cannot start to tell you of the generous hospitality offered to us at Hotel Devnadi. We are so honoured to be welcomed here as long-lost friends.
There are cows on the streets - and cowpats, so be ever watchful where you walk on the narrow alleyways of Haridwar this evening. We’re here, seated on the cold stone steps by the water’s edge, to witness the evening Ganga aarti ceremony across this narrow stretch of dark water, along with vast numbers of devout Hindus, some taking to the water, their floral offerings aflame as they float by on the fast flowing river. Aarti,
the practice of removing sins and liberation of the soul, is performed on the ghat at dawn and dusk each day before huge crowds of worshippers in this most holy of places on the Ganges. As the sun sinks below the horizon, red-cloaked Brahmans swing large fire bowls offering holy mantras to the mighty river, sparkling now with dappled light: to Shiva the God of destruction and Surya the Sun-God, as supercharged amplifiers blast the night air for sixty minutes of incessant chanting and the rhythmic clang, clang, clanging of bells. Stirring stuff indeed.
Hundreds of thousands of worshipers descend on the town on this most auspicious day in the Hindu calendar, the14th January, each year, to celebrate Makar Sakranti, the first day of the sun’s transit into Capricorn and the coming of longer days. They come to join in the celebration, to take to the water and experience the performing of Aarti; a writhing mass of colourful devout worshipers, enough to fill many of the world’s biggest stadiums several times over, sitting ten and twenty deep beside the banks of this holy river, chanting, hand clapping, hand waving and praying together. Once very twelve years they
celebrate Puma Kumbh Mela, humanity’s largest festival here. Seventy million turned out in 2003, housed during that period in tented towns along the river banks. I’ll say that again: Seventy Million! That is more than the whole population of the UK.
Mist quickly disperses as the sun takes to the sky the following morning. Our guide, Satish, takes us across the river bridge by electric tuc-tuc, along the quieter eastern bank of the Ganga where cows graze the arid ground, picking their way through piles of plastic and rubbish alongside rough tented communities, smoke drifting languidly above wood fires as they prepare hot chai and breakfast for the family. ‘Many come into the city from the country villages looking for work and will return home at some later stage,’ Satish told us.
Wherever there are tourists there are beggars in India and festival time promises a bonanza for them. Sweepers with birch brooms are tidying the streets ahead of the rubbish truck. Beggars, old and young, men and women, the poor and infirm, sit patiently on the freezing pavement lining the bridges, cupped hands held forward in anticipation. Market stalls hum to the music
of a cool morning breeze, scarves and hats and colourful blankets thrown over shoulders. An elderly lady touches my arm for offerings and hovers for a while before passing on to another.
Begging remains a fact of life here as much as the wandering of sacred cows and the endless plague of street dogs. Along the river banks cows are fed fresh grasses with willing hands, street barbers shave the heads of devotees, gatherings of families seek blessings from seated gurus, some to remember their long-lost ancestors they will one day meet again in another world. There are many here today from afar, come to worship and duly record their family history.
And there are these two white-haired old English gents taking photographs and admiring all the glitz and bargains to be had, exchanging smiles and laughter with stallholders selling who-knows-what: sweaters and cardigans for under £3, gaudy blankets for little more, bracelets and bangles, spices and herbs, shoes and fabrics, smiling faces everywhere and everywhere a desire to stop and chat. ‘Where are you from? UK?’ they all ask. 'I have been to Middlesex,’ one spice smallholder calls from beyond a mountain of saris. They
all seem to know of our home town of birth, Wembley, once Middlesex but now part of Greater London and home to many an Indian family.
We’re well versed in the fact that Temple visits demand the removal of shoes and I’m reminded by Mike that it’s inappropriate to arrive with uncovered arms. With only one long-sleeved shirt in my bag we set off in search of something suitable to see me through the coming weeks. A colourful stall, piled high with sweaters, hats and shirts, obliged with a smart top-of-the-range job in swish maroon for the princely sum of 100Rs - about £1.25 or $1.72. I’ll wear it for a few days and give it to a worthy cause before departing the country.
Satish wants to take us to another temple, that one way up in the hills above the town we have been admiring all day. Mansa Devi temple stands in the Sivalik Hills high above the city, its white walls bleached in early morning sunlight breaking through the mist. Small square kites flown by local kids litter the trees along the path of two-thousand steps, and below the cable-car, our chosen
Our Sadhu by the river
A pleasant moment, chatting to a sadhu over chai.
route. At the temple crowds of worshippers are making offerings of incense, coconuts, fruit and garlands. In the notable Inner shrine are two deities, one with eight arms and one with three heads and five arms. I shall never be able to comprehend such ingrained expressions of devotion so steeped in mysticism, legend and myth.
There’s a Sadhu village in the Sapta Rishi District along the wide Ganga flood plain a short tuc-tuc ride from the city centre. Many Sadhus (a monk or Hindu/Jain holy person who has renounced the worldly life) choose to live here in this peaceful tented village overlooking the river. We joined an elderly gentleman from Mumbai to share time, a chat and chai with a smiling, bearded and bare chested Sadhu who made us most welcome. He chooses to live here in these peaceful surroundings for six months of the year, returning to his home village when the monsoon arrives and the river rises several metres above his roof. Good move!
By mid afternoon more than fifty black kites circle on the thermals over our hotel and we are advised to keep the French-doors closed to be sure to keep the
monkeys out. Tonight we are to be guests of our hosts in their nearby apartment, sharing their delightful company, a splendid meal, and stories and glories of life in India and the UK with new friends who will be long remembered with tearful eyes. Perchance we’ll meet again some day.
Tomorrow we’ll be taking a taxi north up to Rishikesh, ‘the yoga capital of the world’, way up in the foothills of the Himalayas to remember The Beatles and their experiment with Transcendental Meditation. We might also do a bit of white water rafting, bungee jumping and mountain climbing while we’re there - or we might not. Should we survive all that we’ll attempt to make it further north to Devprayeg where the Ganges proper starts, at the confluence of two holy rivers: the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi.
You can have a lay in in the morning. Our taxi is booked for a late start after breakfast at 9am. Sleep well.
the grey haired nomads
Accommodation: Hotel Devnadi Extremely highly recommended.
Scroll down for more pictures - and up for the panorama show!
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