We first went to India in 2012 and lived in Tiruvannamalai in the southern state of Tamil Nadu for three months to spend time at Ramana Maharshi’s ashram. Later the same year, for two months, we journeyed from New Delhi to Rajasthan to Agra to Varanasi. In 2019 we returned to spend a month in Rishikesh in the northern state of Uttarakhand, and returned again to Rishikesh for another month early this year when Covid-19 was not much more than a whisper.
We love India and miss it and would go back in a heartbeat if it were safe to do so. In Tiruvannamalai, although we had a sparse western apartment, we lived as the locals, shopping for groceries in small stores, for fruit and vegetables at stalls along the side of the dusty roads, and drinking chai from makeshift roadside stands.
We’ve sat in ashrams, visited the Taj Mahal, walked the crowded back streets of New Delhi to the wholesale spice market, and waded wide-eyed through the teeming madness that is Chawri Bazaar, the largest wholesale market in Asia and a rabbit warren of crowded narrow streets. We’ve been on safari in two different national parks, and ridden camels in the Rajasthan desert. We spent 10 days at the Pushkar Camel Fair, a livestock trading fair where 10,000 people and 40,000 livestock, mainly camels and horses, camp in a huge field; where hundreds of temporary shops appear selling everything from food to camel tack to housewares; where a sadhu walked the streets covered in ash and with a spike through his protruding tongue; where people dress as gods and parade throughout the town; where we saw camel races and camel dancing and a competition for the best decorated camel; where every day there was something else to make our eyes wide and our jaws drop. We’ve seen the Painted Storks at Bharatpur Bird Park, and watched as human bodies went up in flames on the burning ghats of Varanasi. We’ve walked dusty grey crowded and crumbling streets where the brilliant colours of the women’s saris lifted the spirits of everyone, and met the most open, friendly and generous people imaginable. We’ve been to ashrams and temples and spent time watching the mind-boggling religious activities along the sacred Ganges River.
And yet for all this, none of it quite prepared us for the spectacle, for the Hindu Disneyland that is Haridwar. For all our experience of India, from the south to the north, Haridwar completely bowled us over. I doubt I can do it justice, but I’ll try.
We’ve been to four of India’s Holy cities – cities that are considered sacred and where meat and alcohol are banned – Pushkar, Varanasi, Rishikesh, and now Haridwar. We had four weeks in Rishikesh sitting with a teacher five mornings a week. We had grand plans of what we’d do with the other two-and-a-half days per week that we had free, but in the end we only left for one day – a day trip to Haridwar.
Haridwar is only thirty kilometres from Rishikesh. We hire a driver. Both cities, as I’ve mentioned are holy cities. As soon as we leave Rishikesh we see them – big roadside signs advertising alcohol and meat – pork, chicken, beer! The signs abruptly stop as we approach the outskirts of our destination.
Situated on the banks of the holy Ganges River Haridwar is a significant Hindu pilgrimage site where the water is believed to remove all sins. In Sanskrit, the religious language of Hindu, Hari means Lord Vishnu, while dwar means gateway. Haridwar translates to “The Gateway to Lord Vishnu”, or the gateway to God. It is considered one of the most sacred places in India, and has been a beacon of Hindu religion and mysticism for centuries. Pilgrims come by the thousands – five to ten thousand per day – to bathe in the holy waters of the river.
There is a Hindu myth that speaks of amrita, the elixir of immortality. Garuda, the celestial bird and vehicle mount of Lord Vishnu was flying through the heavens carrying a kumbha, or pitcher, full of the precious and magical amrita. Some drops of amrita spilled from the kumbha down onto the place that is now Haridwar. Thus Haridwar is one of four places where Kumbh Mela, said to be the largest gathering of humanity anywhere in the world, is held every 12 years. We are not there for Kumbh Mela, but it is quite riveting enough overflowing as it is with pilgrims, holy men and touts, and the abundance of richly decorated and gaudily painted Hindu idols.
Our driver takes us first to Shantikunj Ashram, a serene beginning to our day giving no hint of what’s to come. The ashram is a world-renowned place of spiritual practice and learning. It is an academy for social and spiritual awakening and people come from all over the world to spend time there.
We walk into a large orderly peaceful complex where there are temples, small bookstores, fountains and gardens, residences,
a large dining hall,
saffron-robed men and women.
and a central gracious Samadhi, or funerary monument, surrounded by a vast open white tiled space for people to gather. The whole place feels refined and elegant.
We finish our visit in this peaceful place with a short sit in one of the most beautiful meditation halls I’ve encountered.
We don’t really know where we’re going. Our driver has taken hundreds of tourists to Haridwar for the day and has a set itinerary of the highlights of the city. After driving a short way we walk along a street where building after building is faced with brightly painted sculptures of Hindu gods. It’s a Hindu Disneyworld where every building is designed to entice you inside to honour one god or the other, a wild ride of holy promises. There is a multi-headed serpent,
and Hanuman the monkey god above Lakshmi on a lotus on a crocodile,
Ganesh the elephant god, and blue Lord Shiva,
many others that I don’t recognise,
and two enormous fierce faces with wide open mouths that remind me of the entrance to Luna Park, a funfair we frequently went to when I was a child living in Melbourne.
We’ve seen this kind of thing before, all over India, and people at festivals dressed in complete god or goddess regalia with full colour makeup, but somehow here on this street in Haridwar it just seems like more.
And then we go to Chandi Devi Temple, which is even more.
Once again we really have no idea what’s in store for us. What follows is a carnival ride on a ropeway with diminutive brightly coloured cabins,
to the top of the hill where the temple is located.
This hill had been regarded as a sacred place for over 1200 years and is dedicated to the Goddess Chandi Devi. Chandi Devi was born from the cells of Goddess Parvati’s body. She refused the advances of a demon king, from her anger gave birth to Kalika Devi who killed the king’s army chiefs, and then she killed the king. By now tired out she is said to have rested on this hill called Neel Parwat, and the temple was built in her honour.
But we know nothing of this at the time. Exiting the ropeway cabin we climb the stairs into the building. Every railing is festooned with thousands of red and gold ribbon ties, each one a prayer of hope.
The stairs and pathways lead us up and down again until we come to the booths; row upon row of tiny booths each one manned by a priest or holy man of some sort who, for a fee, will tell your fortune or offer a blessing or a prayer to whichever god is displayed on the tiny altar.
Beyond the booths there are stalls selling religious paraphernalia.
It goes on and on, feeling more and more like a tinselled-up money grab, and yet there are millions of pilgrims who flock here every year hoping to find relief from suffering. Who am I to make them wrong? People do what they think they need to do, believe what they believe. We are all just trying to find a way home.
We’ve been into several temples in India but have never seen anything quite like Chandi Devi. Finally we get to the end, and take the ropeway back down to our driver at the bottom of the hill wondering what he will show us next. But first sustenance is needed. We say we’d like chai and are delighted that we’re taken to an ordinary makeshift chai stand and ‘restaurant’ at the side of the road. These tiny makeshift stalls are so typical of India, and feel so natural, so organic; they too are part of the fabric of life.
We squeeze over when a family arrives for a meal.
Once fortified, we’re off to another temple complex, Daksheshwar Mahadev. This temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva is an important pilgrimage site for all Shiva devotees.
Passing many people coming and going, and groups of people sitting around on the ground, including these two gentlemen resting in the shade of a tree,
we join the pilgrims on the walk to the temple’s entrance past a fierce blue Lord Shiva, “The Destroyer”.
There are two brightly coloured buildings that seem quite restrained and even elegant when compared to Chandi Devi,
but the interiors show the typical Hindu love of a decorating style that can best be described as gaudy baroque extravagance.
At this point we’re done with temples. Our driver wants to take us to another one, but we say no, enough temples we want to get the river. We want to get to the main event, Har Ki Pauri Ghat, the true spiritual centre of Haridwar. Har Ki Pauri Ghat, where five to ten thousand people come every day to bathe in the river, where on festival days that number can reach 300 thousand, and during Kumbh Mela swells to millions.
Parking the car he directs us to walk along a wide pedestrian street, lined on either side by small makeshift stalls, crowded with bicycle taxis and pilgrims walking to the river or returning from it. Then finally we reach it: the Ganges as it flows through the centre of Haridwar.
Har Ki Pauri Ghat goes on forever, a series of wide pedestrian boulevards and steps right down to the swift waters of the river.
There are people everywhere, hanging out,
immersed in the sacred waters of the Ganges, immersed in this special, possibly once-in-a-lifetime, experience that they believe can heal their hurting hearts and make them whole.
Most of the pilgrims will bathe in the river, ducking right under, cleansing body and soul. There is complete lack of inhibition. It is what they come for, this ritual of bathing in the Goddess.
And of course there must be a photo to record the event.
We walk to the far end of the ghat where it is less crowded and back towards the centre where there’s a dense cluster of many small temples
each with a multitude of places of worship, much the same as the booths in Chandi Devi,
and this one with the welcome banner displayed backwards.
The energy is intoxicating. The crowds, the smells, the colours, the noise, it is all a wild mixture of the sacred and the mundane. It is full of love and a joyous high. It feels wild, unrestrained, but the reverence is palpable.
We take photos. We make friends. We try to absorb the pandemonium that is perfectly whole and perfectly sane, in its own perfectly chaotic way. There is such an unreserved richness of Life here.
Eventually we make our way to the steps on the island across from the central area of the ghat and find a place to watch the evening Ganga Aarti ceremony, then weary and full we make our way back to the car and return to Rishikesh. It is a day I’ll never forget.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.