After landing at Dehradun, we hired a taxi at the airport counter and made the two-hour long journey. The drive on NH7 was smooth, and when the road started skirting the holy Ganga, we knew our destination was near.
Crossing a bridge, we could not help marvel at the wide river – clean, swift and choppy as it made its way from the Himalayas to the plains. The bridge transported us to another world – narrow lanes with cows and cars jostling for space. The stubborn cacophony of honks followed us as we located our hotel, checked in and made our way to the room. A quick cup of hot ginger tea and we decided to rush back to the river bank (known as Ghats).
As we ambled on a footbridge over the Ganga, an elderly couple requested us to shoot their photo. This reminded me of the time before selfies when we let strangers into our worlds for a brief moment of time, allowing them to document our precious memories. The couple posed and smiled, and I admired the orange-red sun on the horizon, lending a vivid rosy hue to the waters of the Ganga as it bid adieu.
The Ghats on the other side of the river were tranquil. The stalls leading up to them took me back to my childhood – with their trinkets and wondrous toys which played such a big part in my growing up, now forgotten and not-to-be-found in the shiny malls of metropolitan India.
With about half an hour to go for the Ganga Aarti at Har ki Pauri, we quickened our pace. Har ki Pauri is a revered pilgrim site for Hindus and a holy landmark in Haridwar. The legend goes that two of the Holy Trinity – Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu visited this site in the Vedic era. This also marks the spot where the Ganga enters the plains.
At sunrise and sunset, Hindu priests pay obeisance to the holy river, holding and rotating heavy fire lamps as they chant to the tune of the prayer-song playing on the loudspeaker behind them. We sat there on the Ghats, in an all-encompassing sea of humanity, the calm broken only by the collective chants of ‘Har Har Gange’!
The colours of the dusk reflected beautifully on the waters, the azure frothy canvas speckled with floral lamps set floating by a few devotees. I could not help drawing comparisons with the famous Van Gogh painting – the Starry Night. While not at the scale and spectacle of the famous Ganga Aarti at Varanasi, the Aarti at Haridwar is a more intimate experience.
As I looked back at the crowd spread out on the Ghats, 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.
Making our way back from the Ghats to the Gullies (by lanes), we crossed a number of hole-in-the-wall shops selling empty canisters in all shapes and sizes (to carry Ganga water back home), trinkets, religious paraphernalia, and idols of the divine. Shopping in Haridwar was not really on our agenda, but we could not help pick up a number of tiny Shivlings (a representation of Lord Shiva) cast in stone for family members.
Walking down the Upper Road, I noticed the famous Dharamshalas in Haridwar. Established by benevolent wealthy individuals or charities, they offer clean accommodation for all budgets, including the low-income groups. A few of the Dharamshalas are set in beautiful ornate buildings. I could not help stepping inside the gates of Narsingh Bhawan Dharamshala. With a spacious inner courtyard, the premises looked clean and modern. They had various rooms available for rent, including fully furnished air-conditioned ones.
Hoshiyarpuri: For the tasty Haridwar food
With a lot of self-control, we had resisted the many, incredible aromas of food which hit you on Haridwar’s streets. And by the time we reached the Hoshiyarpuri restaurant on the Upper Street, our hunger had scaled Himalayan heights. One tip that I advocate strongly to fellow travellers is to judge a restaurant by the number of locals you see there. And Hoshiyarpuri aced that point. A number of families were enjoying their meal and we grabbed a table. We ordered a number of dishes, not applying any discretion for our appetites or any consideration for the calories. Naans, hot pooris, creamy dal, spicy aloo sabzi, frothy lassi, and sweet kheer – this was a feast alright!
For the devout, Haridwar travels are incomplete without a visit to its many famous temples. Mansa Devi temple is located on the Bilva Parvat and can be reached on foot or a cable car. The eight-storeyed Bharat Mata temple is dedicated to the Indian Motherland and is located near the Sapt Rishi Ashram. The 208 meter-high Chandi Devi temple is located on the Neel Parvat and can be reached by foot or cable car. The Maya Devi temple, an ancient 11th-century shrine at Birla Ghat, is dedicated to Maya Devi, the patron goddess of Haridwar (the town was earlier called Mayapuri). Another destination for the spiritually inclined is Shantikunj Ashram – a pilgrimage site. Spiritual camps are organized frequently here.
Attractions near Haridwar: Rajaji National Park
Rajaji National Park is spread over 820 kilometres square in the Himalayan foothills. Home to Asian elephants, Bengal tigers, leopards, deer, striped hyenas, ghorals – the diverse landscape includes sal forests, mixed forest, and grasslands. With more than 20 species of mammals and 300 species of birds, the park attracts many wildlife enthusiasts. The park can be visited from 15th November to 15th June.