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Published: February 28th 2008
For the first time since I have left Amritsar, I feel like I am actually in India. I have taken an overnight trip to Haridwar with Heike, an acquaintance who is on her way to South India. Haridwar is located at the point where the Ganges emerges from the Himalaya and is Uttarakhand's holiest Hindu city. The city is remarkably different from Lakshman Jhula/Rishikesh, which is about an hour's drive away. True, Haridwar is chaos and noise and features the usual hustle and bustle of most Indian cities, there is hassle from rickshaw drivers and salesmen and beggars and just about everyone else, but it's refreshing to be amongst Indians and experience actual Indian culture, something which is very dilluted in Rishikesh. There are very few foreign tourists and no foreign restaurants. As we walk through the congested streets in search of a hotel for the night, Heike remarks, 'It's doesn't look very nice here'. I am tempted to agree, but say, 'Just because a woman isn't beautiful, it doesn't mean that she hasn't got other qualities'. 'True', she says and laughs. And indeed: first impressions can be so deceptive sometimes. By the time I leave Haridwar, I am in love.
At sunset, we attend the ganga aarti (river worship ceremony) which takes place every evening at Har-Ki-Pairi ('The Footstep of God') Ghat on the western bank of the Ganges canal. It is said that this is the place where the Hindu God Vishnu dropped some heavenly nectar and left a footprint behind. It's a very sacred place for Hindus and many come to bathe here and purify themselves. Hundreds of worshippers are gathered at the steps of the ghat beneath an almost full moon, and there is chanting, singing, bell ringing, drumming, incense and priests who swing burning torches. Hundreds of leaf baskets containing flower petals, incense and a lit candle, as well as prayers from the worshippers, sail down the river, and it looks as though the dark flowing body of water is on fire. The smell of the incense, the sounds and the fire create a beautiful reverential feel. Unfortunately, as foreigners, we are also immediately targeted by a swarm of fake priests who insist they 'help' us with our puja in return for a 'donation'. Heike and I have bought flower boats from some children on the street and it is quite a task to
be left alone for long enough to set them into the water or say a prayer. Even in the water, young boys want to help us by pushing the boats further into the current, again for money. Fortunately, there are some genuine priests around as well - one of them waves me over to his seat, marks my forehead with red colour and binds a red ribbon around my wrist.
The next morning, Heike and I part ways, and I have a delicious thali (rice, daal, chapattis, vegetables) breakfast at a roadside stall for 25 rupees (about 35 pence). It's not what I usually eat at 10 am, but there is no choice, so what to do? The old friendly Indian couple who sit next to me on the wooden benches next to the dusty and noisy road smile and nod and ask me 'Which country?' After another cup of chai, I stroll down the main road towards the cable car station. I want to visit Mansa Devi, an ancient hilltop temple which towers high above Haridwar. Mansa Devi is a wish-fulfilling Goddess, and many worshippers come here to bring offerings of flowers, coconuts, sweets and incense. The little
lane leading up to the cable car station is lined with stalls selling packages of prasad (offerings) for the Goddess, and I am surrounded by a gang of children who try to outbid each other in order to gain my custom. I buy one bag of offerings for the Goddess and soon after, I share one of the metal cable cars with a young Indian handyman and we swing high above Haridwar. The view is wonderful and colourful: there are flowers, trees and gardens beneath us as we ascend, and a great panorama of Haridwar.
Up at the temple, I buy some more flowers from one of the stalls and, together with other pilgrims, bring my offerings to the main Goddess shrine, where the flowers go onto one heap and the coconut is cracked and half returned to me. There are many little shrines dedicated to different deities in the temple, but one -next to a tree - seems to be of particular importance. Three women kneel in front of it and pray for a long time, light incense and candles, and leave offerings. A priest sits next to it and gives me a long ribbon. 'Pray to the
God and then tie your wishes to the tree', he instructs me. I do as he says and wind the ribbon along the big branch which has thousands of prayer woven onto it already.
After admiring the view over Haridwar once more, I descend to catch a bus to another cable car, which is supposed to bring me to yet another hilltop Goddess temple: Chandi Devi. As I wait for the bus by a little tea stall, an elderly sadhu tries to sell me a little red resin Shiva lingam, apparently from Kathmandu, for 200 rupees. I politely decline and hop onto the little bus, which is full with smiling young couples. Chandi Devi's temple sits atop the Neel Parvat on the other bank of the Ganga and was constructed in 1929 by Suchat Singh, the King of Kashmir. Legend has it that the army chief Chanda-Munda of a local demon King Shumbh- Nishumbha was killed by the Goddess Chandi here. It is believed that the main statue was established by the Adi Shankracharya in 8th century A.D.
'May the deity fulfill all of your wishes', a sign proclaims as we enter the cablecar station. I make friends
with a young Indian couple and the mother of the bride-to-be. The groom speaks very good English and has been living in Birmingham for the past three years. His fiancee has come here to make a special wish, although he says that he doesn't believe in 'any of this' - he's just here because of his fiancee. 'Yes', she smirks, 'he is only interested in making money'. He smiles and nods. We leave our shoes at one of the stalls and visit the two temples on the hilltop together. An eerie-looking priest of the Goddess Kali with a black-coloured face blesses us as we walk up the steps. Orange monkeys with shifty eyes lurk on the railings above us and try to snatch the bags of offerings we have bought out of our hands. We clutch them to our chests beneath our shawls.
The young priest at the Chandi Devi temple has sparkling eyes and a mischievous smile. He sits cross-legged by the Goddess and we approach him for a blessing. 'Are you married or unmarried?', he asks me. 'Unmarried', I reply. He asks for my name and country, and as he ties a red ribbon around my right
wrist, he blesses me and prays loudly for a 'handsome husband' for me. My new Indian friends watch and smile at me with warm-eyed amusement. The priest blesses me some more and hands me a red rose and a lucky money coin (a one-rupee coin wrapped in red thread). I thank him and turn around one more time when I leave. He flashes me a big shiny smile. I wish all priests were like him. Our walk through the temple and its shrines - dedicated to Durga, Kali, Hanuman's mother and many other deities - is a whirlwind of bindhis and ribbons and incense and coconuts and marigold flowers and offerings and muttered mantras. I have so many bindhi blessings on my forehead that it's glowing in orange and white and red. On the way down to the cable car, I distribute fruit, coconuts and sweets among the group of elderly beggars that sit by the side of the path. I am befriended by another group of young Indians from Rajasthan who are delighted to practice their English on me.
Back in Haridwar, I part ways with my new acquaintances and go for a walk by the Ganges. Wandering around here in the afternoon sun is fascinating. Pilgrims take dips in the Ganga in their underpants (men) and saris (women). I see a sadhu taking a bath in a pink woman's g-string. Lovely small altars adorn the trees by the bank of the river. People live in black cotton and plastic tents set back from the path. Sadhus smoke marihuana and lie in the sun. A tattoo artist needles a thick cobra onto a young sadhu's inner forearm while he chants mantras. The young sadhu winces with pain, drawing the air sharply through his distorted mouth. A bearded man wants to give me company. A woman washes silver dishes in the river. Children play with puppies in the dirt and ask me for chocolote and rupees. Barbers trim impressive moustaches on chairs by the river. I eat lunch at a small stall on a plastic seat, this time for 15 rupees (twenty pence) and pay a visit to the gigantic statue of Lord Shiva further down the river.
At sunset, I sit by the Ganga with the pilgrims. Somebody's book collection swims by in the strong current - twenty, thirty, forty paperbacks, some open, some closed. It looks like they dance on the currents, with Mother Ganga soaking up the words. I wonder who the owner of these books is, and why the books ended up in the river. A young man with a moustache, dressed in a pink loincloth, stands thigh-high in the water and hunts for treasures. He bends down and fishes out a pair of glasses, a shoe, a medicine bottle, pottery pieces. He inspects each piece carefully, then throws most of the objects back into the river. The current is so strong that he nearly falls over several times. We all watch him with fascination. I walk on. A young bearded guru sits beneath an enormous tree and administers puja in the form of ashes to a group of pious devotees. The guru has the pained look of one suffering from a serious case of constipation on his face - furrowed eyebrows, stern strained concentration. A disciple wants me to join the group of devotees. I politely decline.
After a stroll through Haridwar's fascinating little labyrinth of shop-lined alleys, I go to the railway station and drop by the local police to ask for directions to the bus stop. A middle-aged policeman looks at me, twirls his grand moustache and booms, 'I will tell you, Madam - but first you have to drrrrink a cup of chai with me!' Like by magic, a young boy appears with a big tray of steaming chai cups. I oblige and sip the sweet tea with the moustachoed policeman, who lectures me on the merits of Haridwar. When I have finished my tea, he directs me towards the bus stop, where, together with a nice elderly couple from Rishikesh, I board the dillapidated bus. The drive is uneventful, at least by Indian standards. The driver, mobile phone pressed to one ear, honks continuously, overtakes in dangerous bends and narrowly misses a few head-on collisions, while women with suffering expressions on their faces hang out of the side-windows and throw up while sympathetic relatives pat their hands.
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