Religious hubs such as Haridwar should be on the must-see list of foreign tourists who want to experience the “real” India. Crowds of devotees hypnotically stream to the ghats. The single-minded quest to wash away one’s sins by taking a dip in the holy waters of the Ganga and the worship of the pantheon of gods and goddesses brings a semblance of peace to the people. I wanted to try and wash away the guilt hanging heavy on my soul and self, participate in this spiritual activity, lose myself in the madness of meaningfulness, and depersonalize my body by merging with the crowds of devotees. I headed for the nearest destination which could provide me with solace and succour. Haridwar was in my sights. A taxi ride from New Delhi to Haridwar involved covering over 200 km in almost six hours. The highway seemed to have been paved in a hurry but the sight of green fields on either side made up for the potholes. The colourful hoardings along the way made for interesting reading.
Finally, I reached my destination. It is not easy to describe Haridwar. Where does one start from? The colourful temples, the purifying Ganga, the salvation-seeking devotees, the commercial-minded pundits or priests, the black-faced grey langurs, the ochre-clad sadhus? So many factors omnipresent make a choice difficult. So I will start with the one and only Mother Ganges or “Ganga Maiyya.” The waters at the ghat, popularly known as Har-ki-Pauri, are welcoming, look refreshing and promise a better world beyond the one I inhabit at present. Originating from the icy slopes of the Himalayas, the fast-flowing waters are bone-chilling. I submerged myself in the icy flow thrice. My skin tingles, my senses freeze, and my thoughts are focused on “Oh God”.
Haridwar is a different side of India. I was thrilled to be in this city. The panditji seated on the steps of the ghat anointed my forehead with a red tilak and chanted some shlokas in exchange for some money. My spiritual upliftment, the atonement of my sins and the blessings of my ancestors were showered on me. It was now time to fill my growling stomach. The bazaar was within walking distance of Har-ki-Pauri. My countrymen were dominant, fumbling through the knick-knacks on sale. Bottles containing Ganga water were a popular item on offer here. There were foreigners scattering in the crowded market and they were invariably being trailed by sadhus whose hair were matted, foreheads covered with grey ash while clutching a bowl in one hand and a trishul in the other.
I located a halwai shop where pooris were being served with steaming hot aloo ki subzi. The shop was packed with families who were all talking, laughing and devouring the contents of their plates with a passion. I managed to find a corner of an empty bench and slid into it. I started guessing the regions from where the different families had come from. Dress and language were my two major clues. All the north Indian states and a few from other regions were represented and I was the solitary Kashmiri delegate, or so I presumed. Millions of pilgrims and tourists visit the Har-ki-Pauri to seek the gift of salvation from “Ganga Maiyya.” From dawn to dusk men, women and children take the holy dip religiously. In the evening as darkness covers the sky, the ghats resound to the echoing sounds of the “aarti” and the waters are lit up by the twinkling of lighted “diyas” flowing along with the current of the Ganga. While Haridwar sleeps peacefully at night, the Ganga continues to flow without exhausting from washing away the sins of over 1 billion of her children.