Haridwar and Rishikesh

Alighted at Haridwar station at 7am, completely fresh and charged. The air was chilly, nippy and refreshing… a short rickshaw ride got us to our hotel, situated in the midst of the crowded, narrow bylanes of Haridwar market.

Haridwar: the gateway to the four pilgrimages of Uttarkhand (UK as they call it) – Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamnotri. It is also one of the four venues for the Kumbh Mela, held in its magnitude every twelve years – the other three being Nasik, Ujjain & Allahabad. After some chai, nashta and chill, we head towards the Holy Ganges, which was a just a 10 mins walk through the fascinating colourful and narrow lanes which was like a collage of various shops – clothes, food, utensils, mithai, milk.

It felt like we were in a game of dodgeball, where we had to move between the cycle rickshaws, bikes, humans, shopkeepers, even cars at times and a huge number of banners stating ‘asli / original/ real’ for either rudraksha or mithai. Yet it was fascinating and interesting indeed. I wanted to dip in the Ganges for sure, but on reaching the main spot – Brahma Kund – and on seeing people washing clothes, bathing, offering flowers, milk, coconut, dispersing ashes mixed with bones… made me change my mind! So we just dipped our feet and did a simple pooja with offerings with a bit of disappointment and a feeling of mission unaccomplished.

Lord Shiva Haridwar | Image Credits: Wolfgang Maehr
Lord Shiva Haridwar | Image Credits: Wolfgang Maehr

We spotted a fascinating Statue of Lord Shiva across the river about half a Km away, close to  the ‘VIP Ghat’- the clean part of the Ganges and has restricted entry only for foreigners, NRI’s and people with permission. Though we didn’t qualify on any of these counts,we decided to give it a shot… planned it all out- we’re NRI’s from London and it was now we had to put on our fake accents, sugary sweet smiles and add thoda phirangi touch. We managed to convince the gatekeeper that we are a part of some NRI clan and we missed the visit in the morning and he agreed for a quick 10 mins. (Finally our charms worked) Gloating with our success, we stride through the well made, clean VIP Ghat, which appeared quite different from the other parts of Ganga. Since the Ganga flows from this section before the Brahma Kund, the water was clean, green and tempting to dip into and I did…. Five times… just trying to be sure  😉

Haridwar Ganga

It was really peaceful to sit there for a while in silence, with no chanting, no noise, no offerings, no frills of any sort at this part of Ganga. Evening, we walked through the dramatic lanes again to reach well before time for the famous Ganga Aarti which commences when the sun sets every single day. We managed to get ourselves a place right across the river, where we got the perfect view of the Ganga Aarti which has 21 Pooja Aarti’s rotating simultaneously.  It was a visual treat indeed… as the sky turned from orange to grey to black… the flames of the 21 aartis… the hymns being chanted… the synchronized ringing of the bells… the view of almost 50,000 people seated along both the sides of the Ganges…. the golden reflection of floral diyas in the river… all together formed a mesmerizing and enchanting sight.

Ganga Aarti in Haridwar | Image Credits: Pete
Ganga Aarti in Haridwar | Image Credits: Pete

The flip commercialized side, was the army of men moving between the crowds with donation books, almost competing with each other to grab the moolah – like they had an individual target for the day to achieve, this followed by the next set who ask you to drop some money in the pooja thali and lastly some young girls who marched with bowls of orange tikka to be pasted on your forehead and almost demanded to be paid for that, one even refused to accept a Rs 2 coin and insisted on 10 bucks…. makes one wonder, ain’t offerings and donations not supposed to be voluntary? This seemed like ‘Business’ here!!!

There was an interesting fight between the crew of Asiaworks Television from Jakarta who were shooting the Ganga Aarti and some local men, over the placing of the camera stand.. it was funny seeing the local go on an ego trip & the cameraman almost banging his head in trying to deal with him till someone from the crowd helped them make peace. Yet, with all this chaos around, surprisingly it was amazing peaceful to sit there & experience the Ganges and the Aarti. Beyond the mystic aura and mythology, Haridwar can cast a magic spell on any visitor and we spent a couple of hours soaking in the beauty of the peaceful and serene, yet strong and vibrant Ganga. A walk back thru the hustle bustle of the markets, tasting some of the local savouries, we reached our hotel to retire.

Early next morning, after some blissful tea, a few snaps, a short walk to the rickshaw stand, a 45 minute drive through the scenic 24 Km stretch in ‘aavar’ evergreen VIKRAM and a stop at a beautiful Hanuman temple, we reached Rishikesh. Located in the laps of the lower Himalayas, Rishikesh: Surrounded by scenic beauty of the hills on three sides with the Holy Ganga flowing through it, is one of the first towns where Ganga emerges from the mountains to touch the plains and that’s why the water is crystal clear and cool.

We visited 5 temples before walking across the Laxman and the Ram Jhoola, which is basically a suspended bridge over the Ganga, am presuming that Ram decided to walk over one and Laxman decided to walk over the other and hence the name! (Pardon the mythological quotient) We did try asking about this to our Nepali boatman, who cooked some story about ‘Ram and Laxman samadhis are somewhere in the Ganga and hence they named the bridges with their names’.

Lakshman Jhula

Though just 45 mins away, Haridwar and Rishikesh are very different is their entire look and feel. Whereas Haridwar thrives on Indian pilgrims and religious beliefs, pooja’s, donations… Rishikesh apart from the religious aspect, is also acquiring greater significance as a center for white water rafting, revering sports, a base for treks and hikes in the beautiful Garhwal Himalayas. Many foreign tourists seem to spend a day’s Rafting, trekking or just chilling along the river either at the German Cafe or at the small strip of beaches along the river. The shops, lanes, markets all have adapted to cater to the foreign clientele.

“How long will it take? Will we get wet? Is it scary? Does the raft overturn?” chewed their brains for 15 mins asking details, before we finally decided to crystalize our fluid plan of rafting, so we bit the bullet for the 12 km’s experience to add ‘adventure’ to the otherwise religious trip. One hour of strenuous rowing with occasional breaks of the cold Ganga providing respite from the scorching sun… yelling away when the waters were rough… racing with the other rafts close-by… a 2 mins Rafting instructions which only consisted of ‘Row when I say START and don’t when I say STOP’…  made us miss having  one of those “Beginners Guide to Rafting for Dummies” 😉  Yet we thoroughly enjoyed the experience and left the raft with stronger muscles on ONE arm!!

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