Ever since my visit to Varanasi some months ago, I am fascinated by the Ganges. This fascination is not of the river per se but of its settings to myriad colours, rituals and faiths that have come to define what is India. It is by the Ganges that I felt India’s link with its Vedic past and all that’s eternal. In Varanasi, I felt that modernity was brushed aside and the roots of ancient faith run deep. Perhaps no otehr city in India can come close to Varanasi in this regard but I am sure every city that has sprung by the Ganges has its share of holiness.
Unable to withstand the torrid heat of Delhi, I make a hasty exit and arrive at Haridwar in the dead of the night. The weather here isn’t any better. If I managed a get a few hours of good sleep in this heat, it is only because of my tiredness of a long journey from Bangalore.
In the morning I walk down to the river. Har-ki-Pauri, also known as Brahma Kund, is where all the action happens. This place is interesting on its own but its names lend it greater significance. Shakespeare might have said, ‘What’s in a name?’ Name is everything in India. At Har-ki-Pauri, Hari is said to have descended from heaven. It is also the place where Brahma is said to have visited the earth. Every name is the remembrance of a legend; and legends make up much of Hinduism’s popular beliefs.
Bathing ghats have been built by the river banks and even in midstream. When I arrive at Brahma Kund, the place is thronging with pilgrims. It is a spectacular scene. Half-naked men are taking their holy dips. Women step into the river in their salwars and sarees, offer their prayers to the river and take their dips. For many it is less prayerful and more adventurous. The river at Haridwar flows swiftly and any careless visitor may easily be washed away downstream. Anything unattended is carried away by the currents.
Some men in their underwears are scouring the river bed at the banks. They dive down with their pans and bring up a load of sands and rocks. They sift through these in the hope of finding coins, jewels or anything of some worth. Most of the time they are disappointed but they persist in their efforts and have faith. Faith indeed comes in many varieties.
Above the constant murmur of the crowds, above the rushing roar of the river, crackles a voice through a loudspeaker.
‘A little child with a red bag has been separated from his family since 7 pm yesterday. If the family is around, please seek him out at the announcement desk.’
The voice repeats the request giving further details. It is past noon. It seems unbelievable that the family has not found their little boy. I begin to wonder if he has been deliberately abandoned.
Vendors are selling offerings of flowers and lamps under the shade of broad umbrellas. Plastic cans are popular among pilgrims who wish to carry home a little of the holy water. It seems rather silly to look around for bottled mineral water but I am thirsty. As pilgrims freely drink Ganga’s unpolluted nectar, I go in search of water to quench my thirst.
It seems that a holy dip at Haridwar is enough to reserve a place in heaven. I wish Indian Railway Reservations are quite as easy – I might have considered a dip. As pilgrim after pilgrim dips, photographers mill about with their old traditional cameras promising to immortalize this moment. These pictures may perhaps serve as necessary proofs at the gates of heaven. My words may appear sarcastic but the truth is that I am blessed with the beliefs that millions of Indians carry.
I leave the river bank, walk through town towards the bus station past rows of shops and street vendors making brisk business. There are lots of dharamshalas in town but none will offer their rooms for singles. I intend to move on to Rishikesh in the hope that it may be a cooler place among the hills. As I leave Haridwar a stray thought occurs to me. It is quite wonderful that the Ganges can wash away a lifetime of sins of an entire nation, or rather many lifetimes of accumulated sins, and still remain unpolluted, sacred and holy. This is karma cleansing at its best.
I love the name. I’m sure it has a legend to it but to me it conjures up an image of rishis and munis meditating by the Ganges. I imagine Rishikesh to be a place set in the midst of snow clad mountains. I image it is a place sanctified by ancient customs and rituals. It is a place closer to heaven than any other in India. Would real Rishikesh live up to these expectations?
‘I visited Har-hi-Dun in 2005 as part of an NGO project,’ tells me Amit, a young man I meet on the bus to Rishikesh. As I share with him my touring plans through Uttarakhand, he continues, ‘Har-ki-Dun is very far. It is a long trek.’
‘What was the project all about?’ I ask him.
‘Only few families live in that remote place. They get excellent milk from their livestock. We taught them how to make good butter and preserve it for long. We also educated them about prices in town for such products. Until then they had no notion of their commercial value.’
‘Things must have changed since then,’ I suggest.
‘I suppose so. I haven’t gone back since then. Someone from the NGO must have followed up, I guess.’
‘You live in Rishikesh?’
‘Yes. I run a restaurant there, near Lakshman Jhoola.’
As we chat about his experiences in the restaurant business, about healthy foods and herbal teas, we arrive into Rishikesh. The ride from Haridwar has been a short one. It is still hot here and only marginally cooler than Haridwar. At Rishikesh it feels like the lower plains are giving way to higher hills. The town is surrounded by hills. A view of these hills comes with the prospect of what lies beyond – the Himalayan foothills, lofty peaks, clear streams and little hamlets.
In this middle ground, as if between heaven and earth, I have a late lunch and then look around for a room. Like Haridwar, Rishikesh is home to a mix of hotels, dharamshalas and ashrams. While most dharamshalas refuse to give their large rooms to singles, I find an exception in Agrawal Dharamshala. Such places are run as trusts with contributions from wealthy merchants and pilgrims. Some are clean, expensive and as good as hotels. Others are basic affairs with only common toilets and bath. In general, the rooms are laid out on many levels around a central open space. While in a dharamshala, I feel not alone but part of a stream of pilgrims. No experience of real India is complete without a stay in a dharamshala.
As I wander the streets of Rishikesh, I find it to be well planned and neat. Pilgrims often spend the night at Haridwar and make a day trip to Rishikesh; but I think staying at Rishikesh is a far better option. There is a gurudhwara here, a busy place this time of the year. This is the season for the popular Sikh pilgrimage to Hemkund Sahib which lies on the road to Badrinath. Beyond the gurudwara, leaving behind the town’s centre, is a modern suspension bridge called Lakshman Jhoola.
At the bridge, the flow of the Ganges is wide and calm. Adventure seeking visitors float down in rafts lazily. For rafting, this section must be of the lowest grade. The rafters don’t even bother to steer their rafts with their paddles. Rafts float along in the river’s swirls and currents. It is at Lakshman Jhoola that I first sense the origins of the river. Ganges at Rishikesh feels like a river of the mountains rather than of the Indian plains. I see it coming downhill in a wide sweeping arch but I am tempted to trace it to its mountainous source. I can’t see far upstream. The folding hills and their higher cousins farther north hold the secret.
The source of the Ganges has to wait. For now, I cross the bridge and look at a unique multi-storeyed modern building. It is actually a temple with idols installed in little shrines on many levels. There are some days when you are lazy to remove your footwear, go through security checks and stand in queue for that precious few seconds of darshan. This is one of those days. I skip this modern temple and walk on the left bank of the river past many yoga retreats and meditation centers. I arrive at another bridge downstream, Ram Jhoola. I cross it and make my way to the bazaar. I buy some fruits and make my way to Triveni Ghat by a winding street. The street narrows into a lane with little shops and stalls on both sides. The ambience is truly remarkable. The sights, sounds and smells are unmistakably one of tradition and culture evolved since ancient times. On a large pan aloo tikkis are turning golden brown in a sizzling pool of oil. They are inviting a bite. The smell of spices enhanced to masala and gravy fills the air. Offerings of flowers and floating lamps are laid out neatly for the visiting pilgrim who has perhaps travelled many miles to be here at Rishikesh. The scene may appear chaotic to one unaccustomed to India but there is order here. This is India perfected over centuries of tradition by doing the same thing over and over again. Nothing has changed.
‘Maharaj! Bhojan thaiyar hai! Thali sirf patchees rupaiah,’ calls out a young chap as I pass by. Customer is truly king in places where competition is stiff.
I arrive at the ghat. Pilgrims are taking their dips at the river’s banks. The river is flowing swiftly downhill and at places it is rather shallow. The flow is broken into gurgling foams by many rocks and pebbles. A marble statue of the river goddess calmly ensconed on a crocodile looks out towards town under the bluish tinge of twilight.
The flow of the river, the thoughtful silences of pilgrims, the action on the river bank and the darkening hills in the background absorb me for a while. My reverie is broken by a voice that comes on the loudspeaker. Pilgrims are requested to step out of the river. The evening aarthi of the river is about to commence. Pilgrims gather towards the centre of the ghat. Half a dozen priests make their way to the river’s edge. Pilgrims stand in silence. Their footwear is placed aside for this holy ritual. The lamps are lit. A song stretches the decibels of the loudspeaker. The aarthi is underway.
The sunset hour is long and the evening is in no hurry to give way to night. The priests show their giant lamps to the river. With slow swivelling motions, the priests make a 360 degree turn where they stand. Once in a while a little lamp offering floats downstream, flickers for a while before it is doused by the swirling currents at the turning some meters away. The recitation of mantras continue. Helpers pour out water on to the handles of the giant lamps that are by now burning flames rising through the darkening air. A little pause follows. A song begins. People pull out little books of prayer and sing along. Their devotion is complete and unquestionable.
‘Ganga maiya ki…’ prompts the leading priest.
‘Jai,’ responds the crowd in unison.
‘Bharat mata ki…’
‘Adharma ka naash ho. Dharma ka…’ continues the priest with a long line of rhetorics. The ceremony comes to a close. The flames are shown around to everyone assembled at the ghat. Donations are collected. Those who have come a long way from home to be part of this special ceremony return satisfied. They fill their cans with Ganga’s holy water. They carry in their eyes a certain glow and in their hearts a sense of peace.
Leading out from Triveni Ghat and following the right bank of the Ganges is a nice walking path. It gives me the chance to walk by the river in leisure. A group of women are dancing by the river bank while they sing a song in praise of Lord Krishna. It does not matter if Krishna’s gopis actually danced by the Yamuna rather than the Ganges. I walk up to a Sai Baba temple and return the same way to Triveni Ghat. It is now time for dinner and a good night’s rest.
There are some women who take initiative in doing things for others. They plan things to the last detail. They can be annoying at times but mostly they are wonderful people full of love and concern. One such woman boards the bus at Rishikesh. She is in her late thirties and accompanied by two elderly women and a young woman in her twenties. The young woman is possibly her daughter. Of the older women, one is perhaps her mother and the other her aunt. There is nothing remarkable about this group except what happens next.
‘What’s that? Is it tulsi?’ I ask the helpful one. I see her handing out little leaves to her three companions.
‘No. Pudina,’ she replies cheerfully.
Her companions are holding these leaves to their nostrils. Apparently it is a good remedy for motion sickness.
‘Goli le lo,’ the woman says and hands out little round tablets. She herself does not suffer from motion sickness. The young woman protests but her chaperon will not take no for an answer. She swallows the pill. Her eyelids close and eyes tighten. Her face throws up an ordeal of pain. She holds her nose and throws back her head. I can almost see the pill going down her throat. It seems this pill is worse than the ailment.
Some requests are made to fellow passengers. Seats are exchanged to secure window seats for a couple of these women.
‘Kidki kolo. Aada kolke rakho,’ comes the advice. It seems we are now ready for action but before we can leave the woman gets down and walks up to a shop nearby. She comes back with little plastic bags. They are handed out to the needy. Looks like we are now truly prepared and ready. We leave Rishikesh. I’ll get off at Uttarkashi but these women will continue all the way to Gangotri.
I did not thing that getting to Uttarkashi would take seven hours. We also suffer a long delay due to a puncture.
‘Bus puncture ho gaya,’ someone tells on his mobile phone.
‘Tyre puncture ho gaya bolo,’ the guy next to me quips and the bus erupts into laughter to this quick wit.
Most of the way to Uttarkashi I am staring at cliffs sliced to make way for this mountainous road. I see glimpses of beautiful valleys and idyllic slopes of green terraced fields. Sometimes a rare waterfall falls a long way down amidst a setting of thick forests and rugged cliffs. Close to the road the river Bhagirathi flows. As we climb higher towards Uttarkashi, the river is heard far below, flowing through spectacular gorges. I am unfortunately sitting on the wrong side of the bus without a window seat. From Rishikesh to Uttarkashi, the best views are obtained on the right.
At Uttarkashi, I truly feel the presence of the mountains. These are no longer the hills of Rishikesh. Here the Ganges is known by the name Bhagirathi. I learn that the name Ganges comes at Devprayag where the Bhagirathi joins the Alaknanda flowing down from the North East. Uttarkashi is not quite as messy as the usual hill stations of India. It has many hotels and fewer dharamshalas when compared to Haridwar. The river is wide and calm at places and even apparently still. In other sections it flows swiftly and shows us its power with its surface eddies. There is a hydroelectric plant here and associated residential quarters.
I did not expect a large well-stocked market at Uttarkashi but the market is full of fresh fruits and vegetables. I guess a lot of it is grown in the surrounding villages. Among the common ones are brinjal, cabbage, radish, varieties of gourds and bindi. Bananas are in plenty and fill small warehouses in town. Small apples can be bought for forty rupees a kilo but I think they may be cheaper if you buy it directly at the farm; and buying it directly isn’t as difficult as it is in the plains.
When I arrive at Uttarkashi it is raining heavily. I have lunch, find a room and nap for an hour. It is four in the evening. The skies have cleared. I wander the streets of town and visit the important temple of Viswanath. I find a modest structure and nothing interesting by way of art. There is a map painted on a wall that lists scores of places to see in town but I’m in no mood to visit little known temples and ashrams. In fact, Uttarkashi is a boring place. It is a good base for visits to Gangotri and Yamnotri. It is also convenient for treks in the region. As fas as towns go by the Ganges in Uttarkhand, Rishikesh is truly the place to be.
I leave the Viswanath Temple past a long line of sadhus dressed in saffron and red. None of their countenances suggest anything holy or reverential. They wear and unkempt look. Their eyes speak of lethargy. Some are smoking beedis and others are dragging on pipes of opium. They look up in expectation of a donation but they see quickly that I am less a pilgrim and more a tourist.
At an open ground a fair is underway. A few stalls are setup and what they sell interests sufficient numner of people to make a crowd. I am quite bored. I stop for a few minutes to watch children ride carousels and “giant” wheels. The former are rotated by hand and the latter are leg-powered by a couple of teenage boys trying to survive poverty. With nothing else to do, I return to my room to wash clothes and do some writing.