I reached Haridwar on Tuesday afternoon, after passing the elephant gauntlet, and found my couchsurfing contact, Rohit. He owns and runs an English language school to the south of the city, which he also teaches at, along with his friend Sachin. Their hosting arrangements were basically the school premises, which although not exactly residential, provided basic facilities and a roof over my head. Rohit and Sachin were also both incredibly helpful when it came to finding solutions to the various bike problems I was suffering, so I can’t complain at all.
A class was in progress when I arrived, and Rohit asked me to talk to the students at the end. Their questions included:
- “Do you think Pakistan is the cause of all terrorism?” – No. It’s definitely a major source, and your narrow focus is understandable given a history of Pakistani-supported attacks on India. But have you heard of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Libya? Or non-Islamic terrorist groups like white supremacists?
- “Do you have love in England?” – Er, yes. We are human beings.
- “How do I apply to a UK university or get a visa for the UK?” – I don’t know, do I look like the consul? Go and read the website.
The next day, after dropping the bike off at the Royal Enfield garage, I set off to explore the holy city of Haridwar. It’s holy to Hindus because it marks the point where, according to dogma at least, the River Ganges leaves the mountains and enters the plain.
I ambled through the Moti Bazaar, mentioned as a sight in the Rough Guide, though I’ve never really seen the attraction of bazaars, any more than I enjoy shopping as a leisure activity. If I want something, I go straight to the place where they sell it, and buy it. If I don’t, which is almost always the case with these sorts of places, then what’s the point? Anyway, the Moti Bazaar was just the route to my actual destination: the cable car for Mansa Devi Temple.
Mansa Devi Temple isn’t of any particular interest in itself, but it’s situated on top of a hill overlooking Haridwar, so a trip to it is worth it just for the views:
One thing I did notice about the temple was the commercialisation of it, although whereas the Vatican City is famous for cigarettes, ice creams and figurines of the Virgin Mary, the Indian equivalent is pan, samosas and bags of puja (worship) materials.
The walk down the hill gave even better views of Haridwar, the sweep of the two Ganges channels, and the ghats, bridges and temples along it.
Just before sunset, I went to Har ki Pauri, the focus of religious devotion in Haridwar. This is the exact spot that is regarded as the Ganges’ entrance to the plains (although all I could see on the other side of it was several more miles of plains, rather than the mountains, which were some way further out), and every evening a ceremony called Ganga Aarti is performed here to worship the river, attended by about 500-1000 people.
As soon as I arrived, a friendly Indian came up to me and showed me where to remove and store my shoes, and wash my hands. He then led me through the crowds towards the river. It was obvious from the start that this was a scam for something, but I was curious to find out what. Halfway down the ghat steps, he stopped at a stall selling diya, the parcels of flowers, rice and other gubbins which are used in puja, and asked if I wanted a 10 or 20 rupees diya. Aha, I thought, that’s what he was touting for. But 10p to get a bit of the proper experience isn’t bad, so what the hell. I bought the small diya, and was led down further to where the ghat steps entered the water.
A priest took over from the tout, and invited me to step down into the water, to where he was standing knee-deep. I refused. It might be a life-giving mother goddess to you, mate, but to me it’s a body of water with recorded levels of faecal contamination several thousand times over established safe limits. The priest relented, and talked me through the ritual on the bottom above-water step, dabbing some dye on my head, and reciting some words. Then he said, “Now you put a donation in. Minimum donation is 500 rupees.” Priests: the oldest scam artists in the world. At least an over-charging autorickshaw driver still gets you where you want to go, and only charges you a few tens of rupees more than he should; religion doesn’t even provide a real service. A dip in the Ganges would be highly likely to cause me the exact opposite of health and happiness, and he wanted 500 rupees to administer it! I told him he wasn’t getting any donation, and he completed the ritual (lighting the diya and telling me to put it in the water) with a dismissive contempt. Hey fella, it’s your imagined river sentience you’re offending, not me.
Anyway, once the priest’s attention had moved elsewhere, I realised that I’d actually got a really good vantage point to see the sunset ritual. Lots of lit diyas were floating past in the water, a few maniacs were ecstatically submerging themselves while clinging on to chains to stop them being swept away, and the excitement of the crowd was rising. At some unseen signal, everyone raised their arms and chanted. More priests held up burning pyramids and waved them around to the sound of gongs and singing. It was an impressive sight.
My second full day in Haridwar was taken up with bike problems, but I did end up being asked more visa questions by Rohit and Sachin’s students. Talking about the status and opportunities of women in India, the discussion turned to the rise in rape cases (or rather, the increased reporting and focus on rape cases). The most vocal student explained that this was a recent problem, and that in the past, women were treated with more respect. What about purdah and suttee? Yes, but those were done out of honour for the women. Apparently, 50-60 years ago, there weren’t any rapes at all in India. I politely suggested that he read some more history, particularly that of the violence of Partition.
From Haridwar I’m heading up to Mussoorie, a hill station where I’ll be staying in a hotel, hopefully to enjoy a few home comforts, and also Nainital-like cool weather.