Haridwar, the city:
Making my way through the narrow lane, I could feel the aura of a pilgrimage site descend upon me. I crossed a number of small shops selling empty canisters in all shapes and sizes (to carry Ganga water back home), trinkets, and idol of gods. I also encountered shops selling heaps of kumkum, brassware and beaded jewelery. Sides of the road had shopkeepers selling colorful toys of various shapes and sizes. All of these are images those were taking me back to my childhood when shopping was done on the road sides, hopping from shop to shop, a sharp contrast to today’s mall culture.
At regular intervals there were food stalls, with one person standing outside, encouraging passerbys to try their food. The aroma of freshly fried samosas and kachodi, the smoky scent of roasted peanuts and the sound of aloo k parathe slathered with butter being tossed on a metal skillet, were enough to rake up my hunger pangs. After deliberating a bit, I relented and packed up a few samosas for the road. I was at Haridwar, the first stop of our Uttarakhand tour, one of the holiest sites in Hinduism, the name literally translates to the doorway to the supreme god.
Haridwar is also know as Hardwar to many, with deep connections to Hindu mythology. In ancient scriptures, this place was also known as Mayapuri, Gangadwar and Kapilsthan. Once in every 12 years, Haridwar hosts the Maha Kumbh Mela, which is attended by millions of pilgrims. The Kumbh is arguably the biggest gathering of humans in one place at one time.
In mythology, Haridwar along with Nashik, Ujjain and Prayagraj (Allahabad), are believed to be the sites where a few drops of elixir accidentally fell when the heavenly bird Garuda, was transporting it post Samudra Manthan. The exact location where the drops fell in Haridwar is known as Bramhkund, a small patch of river along the Har Ki Pauri Ghat.
How to Reach Haridwar:
Haridwar is well connected to the rest of India by train, with regular services from New Delhi, Kolkata & Mumbai. The nearest Airport is Jolly Grant at Dehradun, which is 40 KM from Haridwar.
The Har ki Pauri Ghat:
Har ki Pauri literally means the ‘feet of the lord’, which stems from the belief that the the holy trinity of hindu mythology, Shiva, Vishnu and Bramha visited this place in the Vedic era. It is basically a pier besides the river Ganga, which was built by King Vikramaditya in 1st Century BC. Over the years the ghat has undergone major extension and renovations, that has brought it to its current shape.
The whole ghat has concrete steps leading from the road till the river. Several platforms are created on the edge of the stairs, where pilgrims could perform various rituals. Over the years some temples have come up on the steps of the ghat, most of which are recent additions.
Every day, Har Ki Pauri ghat witnesses hundreds taking a dip in water, as it is believed that this one tract of the Ganga the prowess to wash away karmic sins and inch souls that much closer to god. Upon death, the waters here carry the deceased’s ashes and thereby the soul straight to Hari, the supreme god.
Metal railings are placed inside the river to make sure people don’t cross into deeper waters for fun or by accident. It is worth noting that Ganga is a very fast flowing river and it is particularly fast in this area. This is where it exists the himalayan hills and enters the plains, hence it tends to get extremely turbulent. To further ensure safety, since pilgrims will take a dip in the river anyways, metal chains have been attached to the railings/steps by the administration which people can hold on to while in the water. This ensures they don’t flow away while bathing.
A small island located within the river, right in front of the ghat, houses the most recognizable landmark of Haridwar, the clock tower. There are a few pedestrian bridges that connect this small island to the main bank of the Ganga. This island happens to provide a clear view of the Ganga Aarti that happens in the evening, as it faces the precise location where the aarti takes place.
Ganga Aarti – The significance:
Rivers hold a very deep religious significance in Hinduism and more so Ganga, which is undoubtedly the holiest of all. Referred mostly as Maa Ganga, the river has for ages been the revered as a goddess, providing life to the northern plains of the country.
Ganga aarti is a ritual where fire acts as an offering to Goddess Ganga in form of a lit lamp (diya) and flowers floated downstream in small boats made out of leaves. It is however the aarti performed by the priests, with huge fiery lamps, that attract most pilgrims to har ki pauri in the evening.
Besides Har Ki Pauri, 2 other holy sites in India also witness the same ritual, Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, and the Dasashwamedh ghat in Varanasi.
Witnessing the Aarti:
As the evening approached we set off to Har ki Pauri ghat to witness the Ganga Aarti. Our Hotel was a walking distance away from the ghat, hence we started on foot for the place. We could feel the crowd thickening with every meter, a testament to the popularity of the ritual. After reaching the ghat we scrabbled to reach vantage points, from where we could get a clear view of the aarti performed by the priests.
I had been to the ghat earlier in the day and knew that the island infront of Har ki Pauri will provide a clear line of view. There was no doubt in my mind, so I rallied my family to make way to the island. It took some time and effort but finally we took up space on the island in front of the ghat. I admired the orange-red sun on the horizon, lending a vivid rosy hue to the waters of the Ganga as it bid adieu. Around me an endless sea of humans.
Dusk was descending and the sky was turning darker by every passing minute. The mad scramble of people had now turned calm as most had occupied places of their choice. Steps, bridges, boundary walls, accessible parapets, there were people everywhere. We could see the priests had arrived in the ghat with the huge lamps being lit to start the proceedings.
It started with the blowing of a conch shell, all the pilgrims chanted ‘Har Har Gange‘ in unison. There is something about conch shell, the loud sound somehow has a calming affect on the mind. In an all-encompassing sea of humanity, the calm broken only by the collective chants of ‘Har Har Gange’!
The priests continued with the waving of incense sticks in elaborate patterns, while hyms and chats started playing on loudspeakers from the background. Gongs were being rang from the nearby temples along with drums in perfect rhythm, it was a concert like atmosphere.
The priests had now picked up the huge, flaming lamps and started circling it creating a bright hue against the dark sky. The movement of the lamps, is tightly synchronized with the rhythmic chants of hymns and clang of cymbals. The heady scent of sandalwood thickly permeated through the air. The intensity of the sounds started picking up. I could sense we were nearing the finale.
The ritual ended with a round of chants of ‘Har Har Gange‘ and ‘Har Har Mahadev‘, an ode to goddess ganga and lord Shiva. It lasted around 15 minutes, but felt like an eternity. The colors of the dusk reflected beautifully on the waters, the azure frothy canvas speckled with floral lamps set floating by devotees as symbols of hopes and wishes.
As I looked back at the crowd spread out on the ghat, I realized that the beauty of a destination is not always in its sights, attractions or monuments. It is in the slices of life that travel presents before us – a kaleidoscope of the stories, myths, and traditions – that lend a unique character to a place and its people.