Located 32 km from the more famous Rishikesh, Haridwar is often merely a side trip on many Western traveller’s agendas. Bustling with temples, markets and rich historical past, it is a town more than worthy of its own distinction.
For many, Haridwar’s primary attraction is its profoundly religious significance. Known as Mayapuri Kshetra, it was one of the seven cities one must visit to gain entrance to heaven and one of the four sites where devas and asuras fought over a pot of elixir as the cosmos churned the ocean. The pride of the city is the Ganges. Rushing down from the Himalayas, the Ganges is regarded as India’s holiest river. Every year, millions of devotees flock to the river to take part of the Kumbh Mela or walk hundreds of miles baring gaudy bamboo structures called kavadis to collect the holy water during Shravan.
Bathing in the water of the Ganges is believed to wash away any sin, no matter how grievous. Tragically, even this close to the source, the water is filled with debris. Dead bodies, human excrement and trash, not to mention bone-chilling cold and strong currents, all make bathing in the river extremely dangerous. Despite that, millions will come to Haridwar ever year to keep their soul, if not their skin, sparkling.
Haridwar is filled with temples, from the ancient to concrete. Whether you come for tourism or soul-cleansing, the temples are certainly impressive. The most famous of Haridwar’s temples are located a short rickshaw ride down the river in Har ki Pauri. Mansa Devi and its sister temple, Chandi Devi, sit perch on the mountain tops. Saffon-clad devotees will gladly suffer the scorching walk to the summit. But most happily pay the hefty ‘entertainment’ tax to take the gondoliers to the top. Be prepared to wait for hours on weekends and longer on holy days. Offering stunning views over the Himalayan foothills and Haridwar, the gondoliers are more than worth the wait.
While the temples are dotted with bright red bindis and hazy with incense and ghee, the temple complexes sparkle with bedazzled kumkum jars and are alight with blazing saffron cloth favoured by the religious. Enjoy the view with a less-than-sacred ice-cream or thali before descending. As with everywhere in Haridwar, the rupee is king. Expect to pay for every blessing and sadhus’ word of wisdom and keep a stash of small change handy.
Har ki Pauri is worth a day’s visit. Its crowded marketplace is nothing short of amazing: richly brocaded sarees for the bride, peda lassis and kadak chai for the teetotaller, samosas and falooda for the gastronome, rudraska and spatika beads for the religious and the horticulturalist. The crowds are just as engaging: dreadlocked sadhus squat by the roadside, honeymooning newlyweds awkwardly navigate the road (and their lives) together, children scream as they play in the Ganges, their mothers laugh dripping in wet sarees.
India is obsessed with the camera, and people will happily pose for pictures. Of course, you’re expected to return the favour- often with a small child thrown in for good measure! It seems impossible, but Har ki Pauri becomes even more vibrant at night. The light from the shops sends the sequins on bangles and sarees into hyperdrive, the venders work overtime on tempting sweets, and the crowd doubles in anticipation.
Har ki Pauri is the venue for one of India’s most famous aartis, a fire prayer. Thousands will gather every night to pray and float candle-lit flower ladened offerings down the Ganges. Times vary throughout the year, but arrive early for a good spot. Have small change handy for the priests and, if sitting on the riverbank, be prepared to get wet. It’s ethereally beautiful and, given the crushing pandemonium all round, mysteriously peaceful.
Hardiwar has its share of hotels ranging from the luxurious to the hovel. For the true Haridwar experience, however, stay in one of the many ashrams. Worthy of their own article (coming soon!), these ashrams are a haven of peace, tranquillity and requisite 4am mediation! The ashrams offer their own range of activities and events, from mediation to yoga to education. Involvement isn’t always optional but is always an experience!
Gondoliers, Ganges and Ghats not enough for you? Haridwar is surrounded by beautiful scenery, filled with markets and lined with enough Ghats that there’s no excuse not to take a dip in the Ganges. At night, look out for wild elephants using the green corridor on the outskirts of Haridwar. Dev Sanskirti University is renowned for its study of alternative medicines and many stay for weeks to undergo a rich variety of traditional and revolutionary treatments. Elephants, sadhus and chai, oh my!
Images courtesy of the author
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