Haridwar, Uttarakhand, India
Agra had been the tourist stop. The place where I let India perform for me and show me what she wanted to show westerners. Now it was time to let India show me what she wanted to show Indians.
My trip out of Agra was to be by two trains: train #12447 the U P Sampark Kranti which arrived at Hazrat Nizamuddin station at 5:30 am (Hazrat Nizamuddin is one of three major railway stations in New Delhi, the other two being New Delhi and Old Delhi). There I had a two hour layover and then was to board train #12171 the Lokmanyatilak Haridwar Superfast to Haridwar Junction.
I boarded the U P Sampark Kranti at 2:00 am, got to my AC1 cabin where I woke up two Korean gentlemen while trying to climb into my upper berth in the dark, and fell asleep with my iPad, Cell phone, and watch all set to wake me up at 5am.
When the cacophony of electronic klaxons went off at 5, I climbed down from my berth and got my stuff ready for departure. It was after this that I noticed we were not moving. My iPad GPS told me that we were at a switch yard about 80 kms south of New Delhi… Which put the train about 2 hours behind.
The train started moving fairly soon after that, and I kept an eye on the time and my GPS. The train arrived at Hazrat Nizamuddin on platform 9 about an hour and 55 minutes late… Which gave me 15 minutes to catch my train.
An interesting thing about AC first class cars… Reservation sheets with berth assignments and platform assignments are not decided by the conductor and station supervisors until about an hour and a half before train departure. Train #12171 would have had these assignments decided while I was enroute to New Delhi and thus I had no idea which car I was on, let alone what platform the train was on.
I looked helplessly around for a screen of arrivals and departures, but those are at the stations and not on the platforms. A voice then asked me “sir, do you need a porter?” and I looked down at this 80 pound man in a red shirt who was all of 5 feet tall and asked “Do you know where #12171 is?”
“No, but they will know at the station”
“I don’t have time to look at the station, It’s supposed to leave in 10 minutes”
He then talked to a few other porters and then a guy with reams and reams of computer print outs, who had about 10 other people screaming at him. He flipped through papers and finally pointed to me and said “Platform 2”.
I pulled out some cash from my pocket and said to the tiny porter “Three hundred rupee if you can get me to platform 2 in 5 minutes”
The little man gave me the biggest smile I have ever seen, and hoisted my bag (which probably weighed the same as he did) onto his head, and ran.
Now, when I say he ran, I mean he sprinted. He sprinted so fast that the stray dogs at the station couldn’t keep up. I half expected a trail of fire to follow him he was so fast.
I ended up losing him in the crowd (which worried me a little), but I got to platform 2 and found the porter with my bag, still smiling ear to ear, beside a conductor with a clipboard.
“Yes, I’m John”
“You are on car HA1. And everybody in AC1 has departed in New Delhi and we are not due to pick up anyone else. You can have any berth you like, the entire car is yours”
I paid the tiny man with the red shirt his 300 with a 50 rupee bonus for getting me to my train on time.
Haridwar is one of India’s most holy cities and is where the Ganges begins as it emerges from the Himalayas. Every day a ceremony is conducted in the morning at sunrise and another in the evening at sunset (called Aarti). In between these two ceremonies people dunk themselves into the Ganges to wash away their sins, collect water to take home with them for puja, and float candles down the river to remember their ancestors.
It also has numerous temples surrounding the great river and in the surrounding foothills of the Himalayas.
The Indian people flock to the city between February and October during the high season when it is warmer, but in December hotels are empty and some of the ghats (steps down to the river) are deserted.
The temperature when I arrived was a brisk 5°C, so I put on a sweatshirt for the first time since Nepal, but it still wasn’t cold enough to wear a jacket. All of the people around me however were wearing parkas, gloves, balaclavas, and some snow pants. It looked like Winnipeg in February.
Small fires are lit everywhere with people huddled around them to keep warm, and yet thousands of them still dunk themselves into the freezing Ganges everyday. As I walked down the street, people stared at me extra hard, not just because I am one of five white people in Haridwar right now, but because I was walking around in a sweatshirt with no coat.
On the first day in Haridwar, I walk into town and explore the streets while picking up information at the tourist office about temples and other sights. It’s interesting walking down these streets because there are many touts and shops, but they are bothering all of the Indian people and generally leaving me alone.
Because Haridwar is a holy town, all the booths are selling religious items. There are puja supply stores, idol stores, small temples, and charities. All of the touts are selling containers of various sizes and materials to use for collecting water from the Ganges.
The only time I’m approached is from the cycle rickshaw drivers, or from the food sellers, and even they are not really aggressive.
I head down towards the main ghats in front of Har Ki Pauri (the oldest and most holy of the shrines on the river).
I watch as hundreds of people collect water, or bathe in the river. Apparently these hundreds turn into the thousands or the tens of thousands during the high season.There are many chains attached to posts along the ghats. You grab a chain, wade out into the water, and dunk yourself under the water three or four times, then use the chain to get back to the ghat.
I stowed my things in one of the provided lockers, went to a secluded spot, grabbed a chain, and started to wade in. It was cold, but not glacier cold, and because this was the start of the Ganges, it was relatively clean and clear (I wouldn’t drink it mind you, but getting in was no problem). I held my breath, and under I went three times… And was very happy there was a chain to guide me back.
When I got back to the shore, I realized I had an audience of about five Sadhu who were cheering me on. One of them put a saffron coloured scarf around my neck and they invited me to their fire to get warm. We conversed in broken English and Hindi for a while and I bought everybody a few rounds of chai from one of the wallahs.
They told me about the two temples that we could see at the top of the hills. There is a gondola style ski lift that runs up the side of the mountain to the temples. Booths near the lifts sell brightly coloured bags of offerings to take to the Manasa Devi Temple and give to the goddess who fulfills wishes.
Even though December is the off season, there is still a lineup at the gondola, but the wait is worth it for the view.
When you arrive at the temple, you remove your shoes at the shoe check booth and get in line for the procession around the temple. At the first stop, a priest takes your bag, removes some of the offerings, and hands you some incense sticks to light and a piece of wood that you throw in the fire, then he blesses you and puts some kum kum on your forehead. Then the next priest takes some different stuff out of your bag, replaces it with some prasad (in this case a couple of bananas and some crystallized sugar) and gives you a string after you put some money in the collection plate. You give the string to the next priest who blesses it with fire, gives it back to you and you tie it to a tree growing in the temple. The next priest blesses you while you touch your forehead to the feet of Vishnu, then puts more kum kum on your forehead after you put some coins in the collection plate. The last priest puts his hand on your head, blesses you, and gives you some flowers that you are supposed to release into the river. Then you pick up your shoes, and walk past a gift shop and a cafeteria.
I sat down in the cafeteria and ordered a samosa with a soft drink called “Thums Up”, and wondered if it was prasad as well.
The whole experience felt less like a temple visit, and more like an amusement park attraction. There was even a sign by the gondola that said you need to be this tall to ride.
After the gondola ride back down the hill, I walked down the short path back to the town. Suddenly, a very tiny set of hands grabbed my prasad bag which I was holding by my side. A Langur monkey (which is known as the Hanuman monkey locally) gave me a monkey laugh, pulled out the bananas, and dropped the rest of the bag on the path.
I don’t think there is anywhere else in the world that a person can say “Hey! That monkey stole my prasad!”, but I’m very happy that I was presented with the opportunity to say it.
At sunset, I went down to the ghats where over a thousand people were chanting “Ohm Namah Shivay” and the evening Aarti began.
It was beautiful and peaceful and had a festival atmosphere much like the Somayagya in Nepal. I watched with wonder as so many people were fixated on the Har Ki Pauri and the priests.
When it was done, groups of men with receipt books came by to get donations for local charities, and Then I bought a diya (a leaf boat with flowers and a candle) and floated it down the river.
I walked past the booths and stopped for some samosas with cheese and some chai.
I haven’t felt this much at peace since Puducherry, and I am very happy that I chose Haridwar as my last stop before Delhi, and not Agra.