This is a mish-mash of a post. Don’t look for any coherence. It is a collection of thoughts and observations over the past few days as the L&M and I took a trip to Haridwar and Rishikesh to conduct some religious rituals and take a small break. Be warned though that the snippets might appear as full-length posts in the near/distant future!
Though we have gone to this ancient city many times, it never fails to strike a chord every time that I set foot in it. I feel a primeval force, powered by the Ganga; Haridwar draws its essence from the river and its spirituality stems from that one source. The city though is a noisy, dirty and crowded place. Piles of stinking garbage, narrow roads and lanes that are choked with people, cycle rickshaws and jeeps and vans make it a nightmare to navigate through, testifying to the absence of any civic action to improve the situation. Why can’t the government do something about the cities that earn them so much revenue in terms of religious tourism?
But the clutter and filth vanish the moment one steps near the river. At Har ki Pauri, (feet of Har, or Lord Shiva) one literally feels as if one is sitting at the feet of God. What with the ban on polythene which being strictly enforced, (at least for the moment) the water is clean!
Terror threats and high alert meant that the only viable means of transport in the city viz., the cycle rickshaws are banned in a one km radius from Har ki Pauri, which meant walking through impossibly congested and exhaust fumes-choked streets. We saw the Ganga aarti only once as we couldn’t brave the streets on the second day. I couldn’t stop marveling at the city playing host to millions of pilgrims during the kumbh mela every twelve years despite such pathetic infrastructure and even more pathetic sanitation!
One should stay in Swargashram – across the Ganga in Rishikesh, to get the true feel of the place. Just ignore the shops and hotels, which mostly cater to the foreigners thronging the ashrams in search of spirituality and yoga and sometimes cheap accommodation and a cheaper holiday. Many of the pilgrimage centres of the country are falling prey to last mentioned type of tourists with the attendant tourist ‘culture’ seeping in these centres. I could see a sea-change in the place from the time I had stayed here for over a month about six years ago when one could feel the tranquility of the place calming the mind. Even the ashrams are becoming upmarket in their demeanor leaving one in no doubt about their target audience.
Ganga though, is clean here too thanks to the polythene ban. One could sit for hours and still not see any debris float by, which is saying something. It just goes to show what concerted effort can do to bring about civic change. The casualty of the ban however, are the floating lamps which light up the waters and look like so many twinkling stars on earth. Some ghats allow it but I could not see more than half a dozen lamps in the two days we stayed there.
I feel very close kinship with her. She is almost my soulmate. On the last day at Rishikesh, I sat on the ghat and gazed at the water all through the aarti and felt a lump rise in my throat at the thought of leaving her behind. The lump slowly dissolved into tears soon and I dashed them away with bunched fists. Not that Ganga was moved in any way by my show of emotion; she flows on regardless of the emotions of the pilgrims.
A couple of foreigners were sitting on the step above me and were bemusedly watching the devotees reverentially sprinkle the water over their heads and take a sip. I could see the horror on their faces especially when a western tourist did the same. If the water of the river were so polluted as to be not fit for drinking, how come no one fell ill after consuming it? Or are our stomachs lead-lined enough not to be affected by the pollution?
Commercialised as this may be, it still is a spectacle worth seeing, if one were to ignore the choreographed show and recorded aarti song. The faith of thousands of believers is enough to give this ritual a spiritual significance. I look at the waters of the river and imagine the goddess presiding over the proceedings and this simple thing brings instant peace that my clamouring mind craves for. The other aarti at Rishikesh’ Parmarth Niketan ashram (that is telecast on Sanskar TV) is live – the aarti is sung by the Swamiji and the devotees and bhajans follow it. I had spent several weeks at this Ashram the last time I had come here and this was my favourite activity of the day.
Though Haridwar boasts of many modern temples which can be found anywhere in the country, the pracheen or ancient ones can be found only on mountain tops at Manasa Devi and Chandi Devi in Haridwar or in Kankhal just outside the city. We took the cable car to both the temples and had a hassle-free darshan. At the Chandi Devi temple, the priest gave me a coin after he tied the thread round my wrist as prasad and told me not to spend it. Did I feel blessed by the unexpected prasad!
The government levies entertainment tax on the cable car tickets. I found this unacceptable because the majority of the people going to the temples are pilgrims who are all not well-to-do. The climb is arduous for aged and ailing people, who belong to all strata of society. Going off at a tangent, I would like to draw your notice here to the neighbouring state where Behenji has waived off the tax on the F1 race. If multimillionaires can get a tax waiver, why not poor pilgrims or is there a tale behind it?
The taxi ride to the Neelkanth temple 25 kms into the hills from Rishikesh was a picturesque one but we couldn’t get a single shot – the L&M was too tense because the driver drove pretty fast for his comfort. When he did take pictures, they probably were taken with the camera in the ‘off’ mode because not one shot was recorded. All I can conclude is that Lord Shiva probably didn’t want us to carry back any film, but imprint the trip in our minds.
Coming back to Haridwar, the city is gearing up for a massive congregation. Shanti Kunj, a global spiritual organization is celebrating the centenary of its founder Pandit Shriram Sharma Acharya, in the first week of November. Touted as another Kumbh mela in its scope and attendance, the landscape of the city has been transformed into a sea of tents for the occasion with followers in their signature yellow clothes pouring into the city by the thousands. Were we glad to be leaving the city on Diwali day beating the crowds!
The days without TV and newspapers calmed me as always. I could spend hours and days just gazing at the Ganga and finding solace in her rhythm and flow. Like a kid who knew that the fun of an outing is going to be over soon and so turns cranky, so did I become super sulky driving the L&M up the wall. But no matter how sulky I was, there was no escaping the return back to the hurly-burly of daily life.
But I am looking forward to some time in the future to be able to spend all my time by the banks of my soulmate.