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Published: July 13th 2013
Ritual bathing is widely practiced across the Indian subcontinent. It is thought to purify the body before ceremonies and at the climax of pilgrimages. Nowhere can the immensity of mass ritual bathing be felt more intimately and directly than at Haridwar, on the most sacred of all rivers, the Ganga Ma, or Mother Ganges.
According to the Indian legend The Churning of the Ocean of Milk
, the ocean was churned by gods and demons to produce amrit
, the nectar of immortality, itself a reference to kundalini
, or latent energy in the body, which is aroused during meditation or yoga. Amrit
is also the source of the city name Amritsar in Punjab, where the holy pool of water in the Golden Temple is referred to as the “pool of nectar”. To protect the pot of amrit
, the mythical god Garuda flew it away to safety. In flight, four drops were spilled on the land, at the modern sites of Haridwar, Allahabad, Ujjain, and Nasik. Indians now consider these four places incredibly sacred, and to bathe in the river in these places can lead directly to moksha
(liberation from the cycle of rebirth).
Every three years, the Kumbh Mela festival rotates between these four cities (held in each city once every 12 years). It is the largest gathering of humans on Earth, attracting up to 100 million pilgrims, with as many as 80 million people bathing in the Ganges in a single day. In 2009, on my first visit to Haridwar, I was lucky enough to experience the Kumbh Mela with my girlfriend at the time/now wife Emily. On my more recent visit with my sister Leanne and her partner Matt, there was a massive Shiva pilgrimage taking place, and Haridwar felt just as hectic and alive as I remember from the Kumbh Mela three years before.
Like on my previous trip, we stayed mostly in Rishikesh for our visit to the area (see my blog "Yoga Capital of the Word" http://www.travelblog.org/fred.php?id=783373
), which despite being less important spiritually speaking to Hindus and possessing a sort of new-age touristy vibe, is more scenic, quieter, and offers a greater variety of activities to visitors. We came down to Haridwar primarily to get our train, but with hours to spare we wandered up and
down the length of the Ganges, where sadhus dry off their locks in the sun, pilgrims from across the subcontinent congregate, devotees plunge into the icy river waters, and performing children walk across tight ropes for rupees.
In one section of the Ganges, the river is flanked by several platforms and bathing ghats, and the water is diverted into narrow sections where the current is at its strongest. Here bathers hang from chains in the river to prevent themselves from being swept away. The main ghat is known as Har ki Pauri
, or “the footsteps of the Lord”, after the large Vishnu footstep on a stone wall.
Har ki Pauri is Haridwar at its most surreal and intense, with the crowd of bathers literally surging. Walking amongst the frenzy of activity, the foreign visitor goes into a trance-like state of observation. With my camera in hand, I constantly felt I had to keep my free hand on my other possessions, lest they be acquired by young pickpockets. With otherwise shy Indian women stripping down to their undergarments to bathe, children diving off bridges, colorful, wet saris
and men’s underwear flapping in the wind to dry, families shouting and huddling in groups to eat from metal tins, sadhus trying to pose in photos for money, and hawkers and Brahmins trying to sell puja offerings to be placed in the river, it is sometimes impossible to stop long enough to get a photo of one scene before being distracted by another.
Unaccustomed to such hyperactive commotion and noise all around us, we quickly became overwhelmed and sought refuge away from the riverfront. Following a narrow lane perpendicular to the river, we meandered through craft markets and stalls selling religious paraphernalia, finally spilling out onto the dusty main road of town. A convoy of blind beggars rubbed past us and roasting corn brought our taste buds alive. We ducked into a small vegetarian shop for food before making our way to the Haridwar train station for our overnight leg to Amritsar, with its Golden Temple and Holy Pool of Nectar.
Haridwar is an incredible place, where India’s most sacred water source officially leaves the Himalayan foothills and arrives at the fertile Indo-Gangetic plains. Next time
I’ll stay longer, take a dip myself amongst the local pilgrims, and explore its alleyways more thoroughly, provided I have enough free space on my camera’s memory cards. Haridwar is bustling and tourist-free relative to the sheer volume of local visitors. Go there, take a deep breath, and jump right in. For more of my photos and travel stories, or to buy my book "Taiwan in the Eyes of a Foreigner", visit www.nickkembel.com
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