I’ve had a hard time writing about Haridwar. I arrived here long after I’d stopped taking notes and before I’d regained a hold on the day-to-day.
I arrived in Haridwar from the isolation of the mountains. Here I was drowned in the thousands upon thousands. I had just spent 20 days in shepherds huts and trekkers’ tents and pilgrims’ refuges. Here I lived and ate in a palace (literally) with private concourse with Ma Ganga. I spent most of my two and a half days here confused and conflicted.
Thousands upon thousands of the devout come every day to Haridwar to take a dip in the Ganges. I don’t know why it became more important than Rishikesh, where the Ganges actually begins and which is only 20 km farther north, but now it’s one of the seven sacred cities of India, and one of the four cities that hosts the Kumbh Mela every 12 years. (Next in 2010.)
Besides the area right along the river the town looks like every other small Indian town, which is to say it doesn’t look like much. There are several large temples in the area, including the Mansa Devi temple on the hill above town (the walk up is full of monkeys and men painted orange, hissing and spitting like the monkeys, who will do a Hanuman puja for you – monkeys and men are all fast and aggressive), and dozens around the Har-ki-pairi.
The Har-ki-pairi splits the Ganges in two, and it’s full of worshippers, puja items for sale, beggars, and one of the most efficient money-collecting operations I’ve seen in India. Aarti is performed twice a day (6 am and 6 pm – later times are posted all over town, incorrectly). The crowds get there early, so if you want a seat you have to get there early too, which means…a captive audience of thousands. The pitch for “donations” – to perform the ceremony, to clean up the river, etc – begins about 20 minutes to 6, with men spaced evenly along the bank. After the spiel, they work their way back through the crowd. There’s no fixed amount, “give as you wish,” but there are expectations. My Rs100 donation was answered with “No, no, give as You. Wish.” and of course I wished to give a little more. (I was glad they didn’t do that to the old man next to me giving Rs10.)
There are priests who will do a puja for you, also “give as you wish,” and baskets for aarti for sale from tiny old ladies tucked into tiny spaces in the bazaar, besides the heaps on the ghat. If you give as you wish for a puja you get to sit on the land side of the ghat, behind Ma Ganga and her priest (the view is better from the mid-river side). You also give money to each shrine you visit around the ghat, and, hint, if you’re trying to get your shoes back from the official shoe-minding place, you have to show them cash before they’ll even look at you. And after you’ve given to every possible hand, there’s the bazaar, packed with billions of things you didn’t even know you wanted, matching every conceivable taste and décor.
Disregarding big purchases and occasional splurges on hotels, Haridwar was my most expensive two days in India to date.
On the other hand, the aarti ceremony is moving, and the baskets lit on the water are beautiful. Plus, I’m purified for eternity (I fell into the river just after my puja), so cost doesn’t seem so important…