Twenty-odd km upstream from Haridwar, the Ganga here is sporty and sprightly. A pedestrian bridge, Lakshman Jhula, spans the river. Four-wheelers aren’t allowed on it. But four-legged creatures and two-wheelers invade it, making the river-crossing far from smooth. Once daylight fades, the bridge is a dark causeway teeming with people, cows, scooters, bicycles – confusion, noise and rush.
On either flank of this rush-and-gush footbridge are lively stretches packed with eateries, curio shops, ashrams and ghats, ambience unique to Rishikesh – foreign devotees overdosing on Hare-Krishna, falling over each other, embracing, dancing and singing. A skinny man in dirty harem pants and bare upper body walks by. He sings a bhajan. Some ashramites gathered under a shelter strike up a chorus. In one dark corner a man wearing long, matted dreadlocks is lost in conversation with a white man.
Here the Ganga aarti is deeply moving, modest in scale and an orderly affair. A band of youngsters clad in saffron strikes up a joyful, devotional tune. The crowd sings along, the aarti lamp is passed around and everyone gets a chance to show the river the light of reverence. The ritual ends in half an hour or so. But the crowd lingers soaking in the after taste of a profoundly spiritual moment. Down the stairs, by the river a group of women hold each other tightly, drowning in the tide of emotions, their eyes shut, bliss playing on their face. In a lonely corner, an elderly gentleman scans his iPhone, whistling the Ganga aarti tune, unmindful of the attention he’s getting from bystanders tarrying to listen to his music.
Ahead of the ghat, eateries and shops make a killing, hawking food, colourful stones fished out of the river and polished to a shine, showpieces, brass and copperware. The shopkeepers (many of them can pass off as linguists) deal with customers from distant lands as they lounge around chatting or talking on the cell phone. Nobody’s rushed.
The late-October chill slowly sets in on a clear, moonlit night. Ashram bells clang as priests offer evening puja at shrines, the sweet smell of the slow-burning incense. The auto-rickshaw stand is packed to capacity, three-wheelers nudging one another, engines sputtering, complaining and pushing for space. The sharp, nostril-burning stench of cheap fuel fills the air, making it heavy.
The river is satiny black, a shimmering strip, the moon playing on its ripples, city lights creating gleaming patterns in shades of red blue and pale white. The hills are ghostly, black shadows of upheaval. By 9.30 pm, much of the town has retired indoors, the streets desolate, shops shut.
A band of elderly pilgrims who’ve driven in a bus from Karnataka breaks for dinner at a roadside eatery. Elderly women in the group huddle under the open night sky singing and clapping. The menfolk organize food – stainless steel plates full of idli, dosa, sambhaar, rice and papad. They’ll push ahead uphill once dinner is eaten.
(The writer is an Associate Editor with a leading Indian English daily and a passionate traveller)