Travel

The Holy Waters Of Haridwar

On a whirlwind trip to the holy city, a doubting writer gets a crash course in faith amid a plethora of experiences

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The Ganga aarti at Har ki Pauri draws throngs of visitors
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Holding onto the very-dicey door, I climbed inside the carriage, which hurtled forward with the movements of a suspension bridge. I had my breath and managed to peep out a minute later. The vast expanse of River Ganga flowed majestically in the distance, snaking around the holy town of Haridwar. Bright rays made the sparsely forested area glisten as we made our way up the ropeway to Chandi Devi temple. I had never visited Haridwar; it was always en route to a different destination and barring an occasional dip in the waters, there wasn’t much that beckoned me to the city.

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Years later, here I was, fearing for my life on a ropeway. Built by Adi Shankaracharya around the 8th century A.D, the Chandi Devi temple is one of the most ancient pilgrimage sites in north India. A 45-minute uphill trek also brings devotees to the foot of the temple, where hundreds of monkeys stay perched in hopes of prasad, snatching it from people at the first chance, we were told as we made our way to the sanctum sanctorum. The view from the hilltop was spellbinding; vermillion-stained worshippers pushed and shoved to make their way into the area. 

Out of the crowds of visitors waiting with thalis in their hands, the priest pointed to me, asking me to come and offer a small aarti to the Devi. Caught off guard but unwilling to deny this blessing, I made my way to the idol and quietly did as was told. The priest then took a red chunni of Devi's idol and wrapped it gingerly around my head as I stared in disbelief. It may have been common for him to do so, but I had never experienced a moment more pious, more powerful. 

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A short drive in the city takes you to the Daksheswara Mahadev Temple in Kankhal, named after King Daksh Prajapati, father of Lord Shiva’s wife, Sati. Mythology says Daksh had performed a yagna at this place but failed to invite Shiva, inviting the wrath of his daughter Sati, who, angry and insulted, burnt herself in the yagna kund. Provoked by the death of their goddess, Shiva’s followers killed King Daksha, who was later brought back to life by Lord Shiva himself. 

The walk commences from the Daksh ghat at the temple’s edge; a kalash filled with water is carried to the main temple to be poured on the idol of Lord Shiva. As I edged closer to the ghat to fill my vessel, the sight of the crowded space seemed like a scene from a movie. Some believers stood bathing in the waters, with mothers clutching onto their kids lest they run amok. Priests ran around frantically, goading people to get special rituals performed for their families and loved ones. Many gave in. Few didn’t.

It takes about 30 minutes to explore the entire temple. Barring a few cacophonous believers, it is a quiet, stunning piece of architecture, with an ancient, sacred banyan tree in its precincts. We tied red threads around the tree trunk, adding our prayers to the thousand others before us. 

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A gateway to the mountains, Haridwar draws devotees to its ghats in a manifestation of divine energy through an elaborate journey of chants and flames at its evening Ganga aarti. Har ki Pauri, arguably the most famous ghat in the temple town, turns into a tussle ground, with people fighting over space to sit and witness the light of a thousand diyas flicker as they make their way down the river. 
There is a specific power in the atmosphere, I thought to myself, even as I reluctantly (and unflatteringly) climbed onto a cart to get a clearer view of the aarti. Around me, people collect charity spent on organising the daily aartis. As I absent-mindedly searched my bag for money, my heart skipped a beat. The red chunni was nowhere to be found. I searched frantically, wondering where, and most importantly how I could’ve lost it. Frustrated and dismayed, knowing there was little I could do, I stood up, walked to the edge of the ghat, and sat with my feet caressing the river.

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After the aarti, most visitors make a beeline for the exits. But I stayed, hoping to look for the cloth, even though there was little hope of finding it in the light of the stars. I begrudgingly trudged along, with a few parting looks at the river and its ghats. A sharp turn to the right brought us to the main street. As I scanned the street, looking for an e-rickshaw, I found an older woman sitting on the road in a daze, with her husband making efforts to lift her. I walked to give him a hand; she seemed to have had a fainting spell but assured me that she felt better. Relieved, I turned around to leave, but the woman held my hand, urging me to wait.  She placed a red chunni on my outstretched hand, profusely thanking me for coming to her aid. I looked at my hands and then looked at the river. I had found faith. 

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