KALPANA SUNDER writes of her trip to Haridwar that turns out to be revealing in more ways than one.

Lucky Singh, my driver-cum-guide, is a handsome, stylish young man with designer shades. He walks me through the crowds like a scythe cutting through grass, pointing out all the action on the ghats. “Bargain hard for everything here,” he cautions me.

I am on hallowed ground. In the Puranas and Vedic texts, this was Mayapuri Kshetra, one of the seven holy cities that a Hindu must visit to ensure a place in the heavens. It is one of the four places where a drop of the heavenly nectar fell, when devas and asuras fought over a pot of the elixir during the cosmic churning of the ocean. Haridwar is also one of the four tirthas for the iconic Kumbh Mela when millions take a dip in the holy river. It is at Haridwar that the Ganga emerges past the final rapids and starts her 2,000-km journey across the plains.

Saffron Everywhere

It’s the Shravan month and driving here, we see saffron-clad Shiva devotees referred to as Kanwarias, bearing colouful kavadis on their shoulders, converge here from around the country, some having travelled hundreds of kilometres. They bring with them colourfully decorated long poles with pots at either end to carry the holy water back to their villages. It’s a pilgrimage sustained by government and local support. It’s a logistical nightmare: how do so many people find shelter and food in this small town? It is said that a drop of the water of the Ganga erases a thousand sins. Maybe faith moves all.

Lucky walks me through narrow, serpentine lanes filled with shops selling lotas, or shiny brass vessels, to carry the water of the holy river, red strings with pompoms, rudraksha and spatika beads and mounds of red kumkum. The omnipresent motif seems to be food. There are lassi shops offering even a peda lassi, stalls selling stringy falooda and spicy samosas, the famous kadak chai, or strong tea, and a myriad street eats that demand an iron stomach. The delicious aromas of fresh kachoris and aloo-subzi distract us from shopping. Sadhus in makeshift shelters dispense wisdom at a price. If a saffron wardrobe is what you yearn for, this is the right place: T-shirts with Shivas and Ganeshas, the Aum print emblazoned on kurtas and shirts, orange lungis and capris, all festoon the shops in a blaze of colour.

Ganga Aarti

As dusk approaches, cloaking the spectacular river with a warm haze of orange, we walk along bridges and walkways to the atmospheric Har ki Pauri and Brahmakund to witness the famed Ganga aarti. This is the main scene of action — priests on mobile phones conclude lucrative deals and commerce reigns supreme. This ghat is supposed to have been built by King Vikramaditya in memory of his poet brother who meditated here. Vishnu is believed to have left his footprint on the steps here. Bathers in various stages of undress take a dip in the waters. Urchins hunt for coins thrown by devotees. People throng the ghats in a burst of clamour and there is pandemonium. Sadhus with matted locks, the aged and the infirm compete for every inch of space.

Babloo, a feisty local, notices my hesitation and assures us a small place to sit and watch the aarti. He hustles people, and perches us near a pujari. I hesitantly hand out a tip for the favour. Dismissing it, he says, “No, I don’t need that, just give me a Rs 10 note”. I am handed a basket filled with bright orange marigolds, camphor, incense sticks and small lamps to be lit and floated on the Ganga as an offering. A priest in kurta-pyjama beckons ceremoniously towards the river.

Dakshina And Dip

It’s a plunge of faith into the freezing waters. I stand almost knee-deep in water, not knowing what is in store for me. I panic, thinking, “What if I lose my balance and fall into the murky waters?”Like a programmed robot, I follow the priest, reciting Sanskrit verses and praying for the general well-being of the family and the nation. Scooping up some water, he anoints me as I shift restlessly with impatience.

He suddenly asks me, “How much do you want to give as dakshina to Ganga Maiya?” Despite my relative lack of faith, I stammer, “Er, Rs 50?” — to be met by the sheer discontent on his face. I awkwardly fish out the money from my bag, hand it over and march off with Lucky in tow, to try watching the aarti from the opposite bank. But there is no escaping commerce in this town! On the other bank, self-important officials with receipt books walk briskly, trying to garner donations. “Rs 10, 15 or 20, what do you want to contribute towards Mother Ganga?” There is someone standing tall on a platform singing bhajans, rousing the crowd to religious fervour. Pandits and babas clap; the fragrance of incense and the cloying smell of ghee segues with the musky scent of humanity.

The hypnotic chants increase in decibel, the temples light up one by one, the enchanting river seems to glitter like a sleeping serpent coming to life: there it is, the first blaze of the aarti. The priests sway in choreographed movements to the clamour of gongs and music. Lotus leaf boats laden with offerings float away like phosphorescent fireflies towards the ocean, 2,000-km away…. Mesmeric and strangely soothing, they seem to signal us to flee humanity. I follow Lucky as he leads me out of the crowd, past camping thousands, past the oily food stalls and the omnipresent fragrance of incense.

I came to Haridwar for an uplifting spiritual experience; my soul cleansed and my sin counter restored to zero, I go home remembering a line from a song — “Maano to main Ganga hoon, na maano to behta paani!” — “If you believe in me, I am the holy one, otherwise I am just flowing water.”

Getting There

By Train: Indian Railways has a railway station at Haridwar which is connected by trains from major cities across the country. Reaching Haridwar by train is one of the most convenient and economical means to get there. Trains from Ujjain, Delhi, Varanasi, Mumbai, Allahabad, Amritsar, Lucknow and Dehradun all ply regularly to Haridwar

By Road: Haridwar is well-connected by private as well as state-owned bus services. All cities in and around Haridwar are connected by Uttarakhand and UP state buses. Deluxe coaches to Haridwar are also available at regular intervals from Delhi with fares less than Rs 500 per head

By Air: The nearest domestic airport to Haridwar is the Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun. The nearest international airport is the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi and is served by airlines like Jet Airways, Air India and Kingfisher Airlines among others