The doors of heaven

Mention the word Haridwar and snapshots of many small temples, sadhus, the Ganges and the aarti come to our mind. It is with these snapshots that we decided to spend a few days of the hot summer, away from the heat of Delhi, in the foothills of the Himalayas. We were awaken from our slumber by the battering noise of the langoors on the roof tops.

Our day in Haridwar began with a dip in the Ganges at the Brahm kund at Har-ki-pauri, the spot where Lord Vishnu is believed to have left his footprints. To beat the strong currents of the river, we held on to the metal chains suspended from the ghats. Surprisingly, the water was colder than the weather outside. During summer, the Himalayan glaciers melt into the river and bring down the temperature. Purified thus, we came out of the water and offered our prayers at the temples around the ghats. After the puja, it was time for pet puja – breakfast. The Pooriwalas at Har-ki-pauri is a must visit for all foodies.

Har-ki-pauri, the most famous ghat of Haridwar

Haridwar has more temples and ashrams than homes. If required, one can roam around the Jwala Market in the centre of the city. But of more importance is the famous Manasa Devi temple. One can reach the temple either by ropeway or stairway. The Maya Devi temple is considered to be a Shakti peeth – one of the holy places, where the heart and navel of Sati’s burnt remains fell when Vishnu chopped it into pieces with his discus. The Daksha Mahadev temple is the spot where Daksha performed the fated yagna to insult Shiva. Nearby is the Sati Kund, where Sati, outraged by her father’s impunity, cast off her body to the divine flames. A place, of less religious and more national importance is the Bharat Mata Mandir. The museum in the storeys above is a repository of India’s civilizational history.

In the evening, we proceeded back to the Har-ki-pauri, where arrangements had been made for us to witness the famous aarti from comfortable quarters. If you do not book your seats, you can still watch the grand aarti from the opposite bank. We descended on the ghats. After offering our prayers, we settled down on the platforms which was booked beforehand. Dusk was setting in with its garment of golden saffron. The Gods, it seemed, were arriving to witness a divine spectacle. Suddenly the temple bells began to chime and the priests held up the huge trays of camphor lit fire. The sound of the conch shells resonated across the ghats, leading the devotees to a state of trance. The grand aarti had begun. The aarti went on like it has been going on for the past many thousand years, at the same time and same spot. The same crowd has been pulled with its magnetic charm day after day. Gujaratis, Bengalis, Tamilians, Gorkhas, Punjabis and Biharis, seemed indifferentiable in the crowd. But they were there, their diversity spun into one thread of devotion towards mother Ganges. As the aarti ended, hallelujahs of ‘Har Har Gange’ resonated across the ghats. We visited all the small shrines near the ghats. As I returned with a tray of flowers and diyas to be offered to the Mother, a pandit stood there at the ghat to receive me. He made me recite a few mantras for a few minutes and finally said “People offer dakshina to Brahmins as per their capacity. Some offer hundred, some five hundred and some…” I froze as the numbers rose. My pockets weren’t deep enough to accommodate those numbers. I replied softly “My capacity is for Rs.11”. His face sank. But accept he did. Later many of my friends recounted hw they lost 50 or 100 to the pundits.

The grand Ganga aarti in the evening

After having our dinner, we set off to Rishikesh. We put up that night in an ashram. The day dawned. One by one,we came out of sleep and arrived at the ghats behind the ashram. The chill waters discouraged most from taking a dip. But the glow of the waters and the weather was too good to hold us back. After the ablutions, many of us meditated, sitting along the ghats. It was a rare moment – to see the self in the reflection of nature. One hears nothing but the sound of the Ganges which roars lightly with the the force of her flow. The Ganges with her pristine magnificence was flowing along her destined path, cleansing everything – the air, the land, the pilgrims and the entire gamut of living beings- along her way.

A view from the ashram where we stayed in Rishikesh

Tryst with the self

After a sumptuous breakfast, which we had sitting on padded durries, we left for the day. The trip around Rishikesh was a joyous one. Water rafting is an option not to be missed, though the lethargy of our team made us miss it. But we did see the bravado and exuberance of many rafters along the path. AS one stands over the famous Lakshman Jhoola, one can see many rafters rowing away to joy. At the ashram Paramarth Niketan, many young students are taught the Vedas and other scriptures. These young boys are not born Brahmins. Many of them are Dalits. The seeds of a revolution in the Hindu society can be seen here. They were once forbidden to even hear these mantras. In the evening, as they perform yagnas before the Ganges at the time of aarti, one can see the manifestation of that long waited revolution. Many young children picked up the trays for the aarti. As they began the hymns, I was shifted back to a state of trance, an ecstasy, which goes beyond the capacity of words. For it is a moment to be drenched in. The Vedic hymns have been percolating through these ghats for millennia uncounted. Perhaps that is why the doors of heaven begin here.

(This article was published in the column ‘TIME OUT’ of The New Indian Express)

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