Speeding along in the comfortable, air-conditioned class of the Derahdun Express, it is nearly impossible to imagine the beautiful chaos that awaits visitors in Haridwar, India, a sacred gem on the Ganges River that seems unknown to even the most well traveled tourists in India. Set where misty mountains meet sprawling plains, the town is one of the seven holiest sites for Hindu pilgrims. During the summer pilgrimage season, the city hosts millions of orange-clad Shiva devotees who walk from all over the country to bathe in the cleansing, churning water of the most important river in India. With just an extra summer day or two, those tired of the Delhi city scene can experience the true wonder of the Haridwar pilgrimage.
Stepping off the train is equivalent to entering another world, one where all feet are marching towards the Ghats, smiles are wide and festive and the palpable celebratory atmosphere is felt immediately. A walk through the colorful main baazar area, where cars and rickshaws are prohibited, is really the only way to begin to appreciate the city. It’s simple to fall in line with the constant stream of shrine-toting young men heading towards the Har ki Pauri, the most sacred of the city’s Ghats. Now is the time to immerse oneself in the awe-inspiring show of Hindu spirituality. Borrow a noisemaker. Carry one of the gaudy, plastic shrines. Buy an orange outfit. Walk alongside locals in the monsoon rains. Chat with one of the pilgrims; they seem happy to share their thoughts on Hindu religion and tradition. Bask in the brilliant cultural experience that is Haridwar.
As the crowd nears the river, the orange mass spreads out along the Ghats where individuals collect water, wash their precious shrines and then take a dip themselves. The best place to observe the odd goings on is from one of the several pedestrian bridges built over the wide and imposing river. A glance up to the hazy hilltops reveals another vantage point, Mansa Devi Temple. A short, inexpensive cable car ride or a two kilometer hike both lead to the top, where, shoes removed and heads bent, pilgrims make offerings of food and sweet treats to the Goddess of Desires. Tourists may be more interested in the commanding panoramic view of the river and city below. As the hot Indian sun begins to sink, a calm comes over the temporary inhabitants of Haridwar. In the dusky light, there are still those who are bathing and gathering tiny vials of water, but soon they turn their attention elsewhere. Slowly, slowly, after evening prayers are said, they begin to make their offerings of flower petals and incense before candles are lit and set afloat on rafts made of leaves. As night falls, the river is left shimmering with the light of hundreds of candles, each one making it further than the last on its journey to the Bay of Bengal. When each of the devoted followers finishes the rituals associated with a pilgrimage to Haridwar, they begin the long and arduous journey home again. Resting on shoulders are the shrines they so lovingly washed and the vessels of Ganges water they so lovingly filled. Observing such a fascinating cultural event leaves the mind marveling and the senses stuck in overdrive. No summer trip north of Delhi would be complete without spending a day with the pilgrims.