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Life By The Ganga: Haridwar

By Kingshuk Mukherji 12 Jan 2015, 08:11 am

Life By The Ganga: Haridwar
November 14, 2014 The Ganga gushes ashen, venerated and violated at Haridwar. Every morning the town worships her, each evening pays homage to her. The river is a way of life for the townsfolk. Millions from all over come to take a dip in the river and sample its magical power to wash away sins.

Upstream, not far from the holy town, a series of sluices breaks Ganga’s flow, forcing her through channels – the braided channel opens and pours itself into strands past ghats, hotels, guest houses and homes standing elbow to elbow, fighting and falling over each other for a closer perch near her flowing waters.
A broad, red-tiled promenade runs along the river front. Hundreds of believers throng this pathway to salvation round the year. Birth and death, togetherness and loneliness, plenty and poverty, acquisition and renunciation, the river flows past life’s every bend.
A 50-something buries his face in the folds of a newspaper, unconcerned. He reads his paper by the riverside every morning – perhaps. The slight nip in the air bothers. He bundles the half-read paper in his armpit, shuffles across to a tea vend and walks back with a cup of tea, takes a sip settles down and drowns in news again. That’s his way.
Further up, four ascetics hold mirrors to each other as they paint tridents on their foreheads. Practised fingers dab a vermilion-sandalwood paste on the forehead delicately doing the contours, filling them with the thick paste filling their lungs and senses with puffs of ganja. The Ganga courses along.
A group of fashionable big-city girls in leggings and bright tees dip their feet gingerly in the cold water, checking out if they’d finally bring themselves to take a dip. Their parents egg them along: “Jao, jao, paani mein jao.” The wheedle fails to work. And, the portly matriarch hollers: “Bahut ho gaya. Bekar ke bahaney banana bandh. Dubki lagao. (Enough, is enough. Stop making excuses, go take a dip.)” Who would dare tell her the girls find it impossible to share her unqualified dedication to the river. Helpless, the dad stands at a distance a reluctant smile playing on his face. The girls dither till the eldest grunts: “What the hell” and wades in. The others follow.
At daybreak the city rises to sonorous recitation of shlokas at the ghats as priests perform the morning aarti, praying to Mother Ganga, worshipping her with lamps, blowing conches, beating gongs and ringing bells. It’s an amazing ritual of dignity and devotion – photographer’s delight, devotee’s bliss.
Har Ki Pauri is where the big throng is. If guaranteed salvation is what you crave, you’ve got to be here. Sin-washing and deliverance-seeking are 24X7 activities here. It’s endless. Streams of devotees, shaven heads, full crops, bare-bodied, hairy men, middle-aged, young, old and ancient women pop in an out of the water shivering, muttering, praying and clinging to solid iron chains grouted into banks paved with concrete. The red sandstone steps leading to the river are covered in clothes of myriad colours – red, green, yellow, gorgeous prints – spread out to dry in the gentle morning sun.
Many toss coins in the river, an act of homage. But before the waters wash them downstream, skin-and-bones urchins plunge in and pluck them out. By the end of day, they’d fish out enough 50 paise and one rupee coins to buy a roti-sabzi dinner at a riverside vend. The river is their provider.
Away from the holy river, BHEL Colony is an island of businesslike, regimented living. Wide roads speed through the township, cutting each other at right angles, the houses are regimented, typically double-storied with wide open balconies and lovely glass windows. Those on the ground floor have a little patch of green. The city traffic flows through this enclave. This part of town is different from the randomly-packed, unplanned Haridwar city and shows all the signature trappings of colony living.
However, in most parts away from the riverbanks, it seems Haridwar was born for spirituality and worship. Many gods, numerous gurus, armies of disciples. Here every second building is an ashram, every third shrine a temple. The clanging of temple bells, megaphones blaring sermons and lilting nasal bhajans, sadhus of many shades – matted hair, saffron robes.
Religion drips from every street corner. Everytime one visits Haridwar, one knows — this city isn’t touristy. It’s another quest that draws millions to Haridwar – a search for the nectar of life.
 (The writer is an Associate Editor with a leading Indian English daily and a passionate traveller)  


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