After a proper send off to the NOLS India team in Raniket, I caught an overnight train from Kothgodam to Haridwar-a city situated around the banks of the holy river Ganges. This most sacred river to Hindus is worshipped as the goddess Ganga and is the embodiment of all blessed waters in Hindu mythology. The Ganges represents purification and atonement, is referred to as “Mother Ganga” for her acceptance and forgiveness, and serves as the vehicle for ascent of the human form from earth to heaven. In sum- the Ganges is the be-all, end-all for Hindus in India.
In Haridwar, the Ganges enters the Indo-Gangetic plains of North India for the first time, so the water is fast moving, high volume, and has passed through fewer cities (read: less pollution than Varanasi). Haridwar is known as one of the seven holiest places in India based on the myth that it is one of the four locations where drops of the elixir of immortality were spilled. Specifically, the elixir was supposedly spilled at the current location of the Har-Ki-Pauri, “footsteps of the Lord,” the most sacred ghat (series of steps leading to a holy body of water) in the city.
All this is to say- Haridwar is an Indian tourist destination, not a Western one. We encountered a handful of Western (read: white) tourists during our two days in the city. There is a flourishing tourist industry in Haridwar, but entirely Indian-centric. The streets were filled with vendors, most of which focused on Ganges paraphernalia- flowers and incense to send down the river, vessels for capturing some holy water for the mantle back home, etc. We ended up hiking about 4km to visit a Hindu temple at the top of a hill and were accompanied by hundreds of Indians sweating their way up the same pilgrimage.
On Sunday night, we headed down to the dusk ceremony at Har-Ki-Pauri along with thousands of Indians along the banks of the Ganges. It was hard to understand exactly what was happening, as the crowds were large and the ceremony unfamiliar, but many things were poured into the river, many things were lit on fire, and many photos were taken. While the rituals themselves escaped me, I felt a very authentic, spiritual awareness present in Haridwar. Indians had traveled from far distances to visit the local temples, bathe in the holy waters, and witness the Har-Ki-Pauri twice daily ceremony. It was very, uniquely Indian.
In contrast, our next stop on the tour was Rishikesh, another city located on the banks of the holy Ganges. Rishikesh is world-renown for a very non-Indian phenomena- namely the Beatles White Album, which they composed in a local ashram (read: yoga sanctuary) in the late sixties. While also a holy city, with numerous Hindu temples and hoards of Indian tourists, it exudes a different energy than that of Haridwar. Characterized by the overwhelming presence of Western-themed restaurants featuring a plethora of muesli (seriously, i’ve never seen an item so prevalent!), German cakes, and Italian offerings, and seemingly overrun with dreadlocks, Rishikesh stands in stark contrast to our other Ganges experience.
It goes without saying that Rishikesh was a very beautiful and “easy” place to reside and thus the concentration of westerners seems logical given the amenities of the locale. There are yoga studios on every corner and ashrams around every bend. The main contrast to Haridwar, was this obvious catering to Western interests. The Indian tourists seemed to venture onto the “Western banks” to visit temples or set up their white water raft down the Ganges (Yes- I rafted the Ganges, and it was really fun!), but there was much less a feeling of pilgrimage, religion, and ritual. Not necessarily a bad thing, just very different.
But the sunsets were spectacular, the beaches pristine, and the wifi plentiful.