Anand Vivek Taneja is in Haridwar for the Kumbh and finds no crowds, just the gift of solitude
Even alighting at the railway station is kind of quiet. A few people get off, monkeys snatch some apples from a bemused passenger and run away, and there are no sadhus to be seen. Okay, maybe one. And he’s wearing clothes. Outside, on the way to the hotel, it’s the same story. Haridwar is quiet, almost sleepy, especially after Delhi. Where are the half-million people who came to bathe in the Ganga on Makar Sankranti only a few days ago?
The crowds only come on the days of the baths, I am told at the hotel. And sometimes not even then. So while there were huge crowds on Makar Sankranti and Magh Purnima (January 14 and15, respectively), there was almost no one bathing on Basant Panchami (January 20). And the really, really massive crowds don’t come till the first shahi snan (royal bath), which is on Mahashivratri (February 12), and this is when sadhus from the various akharas get first dipping rights. So while the Kumbh is on for three months, from January through April, it’s only on 11 days that there is a real buzz. Okay, I say, so it is possible to come to the Kumbh Mela and not get lost? The staff at the hotel isn’t amused. I’m the only guest two days after Basant Panchami, and they are bemoaning the lack of crowds. I couldn’t be happier.
“Hotel” is a misnomer. I’m staying in a really luxurious tent with a brocaded ceiling, fit for a Mughal emperor, and with the Ganga (actually the Upper Ganga Canal, see box) flowing right by my doorstep. This is one of the two luxury camps put up by Leisure Hotels for the duration of the Kumbh. The camp has tents (with piped hot water and bathrooms) that are set up on the courtyard and roofs of an old haveli called Lahore House, which has its own ghat going down to the water.
I’m in Haridwar for the Kumbh and there is no crowd, just the gift of solitude. In the beginning I am completely charmed by the town. I walk across the Laltarao bridge to the right bank of the river, an area known as Shanti Kunj. It lives up to its name. Small temples, a few sadhus and scattered people sitting by the water. Everything is quiet, except the sound of running water and the rustling of leaves.
I find a small statue at the base of a tree. A man in a suit and tie, riding a white horse. What new god is this? There’s no one around to ask. I cross back to the left bank at Vishnu Ghat. I am immediately entranced by a crumbling old building, hiding its beautifully painted facade in a narrow side alley and lit by a stray ray of sun. (In my two days here, I spent a lot of time staring at building facades — from what I can see, Haridwar had an early 20th century building boom, peaking in the 1930s. Much of the construction was the building of elegant dharamshalas, which even more than temples are the dominant architectural form of the city. Particularly striking ones are to be found on the Upper Road in Haridwar, north of the railway station.)
I plunge into the main bazaar street, where one bazaar leads into the other, and discover herbal cigarettes to soothe the throat, blue Turkish anti-evil eye charms marketed as “nazar raksha kavach” (evil eye protection armour), stoves for rent so that you can cook your own food, walking sticks and canes, and many bookshops claiming to be the famous Gita Press’s own “personal outlet”. The bazaar is bustling but not in-your-face. I guess in Haridwar there is never a “season” to make money, so the attendant cut-throat desperation which you find in other tourist towns is absent. For people die in all seasons, and in all seasons their ashes are brought to Haridwar.
The line of bazaars finally ends in Har Ki Pauri — the holiest spot in Haridwar. This stretch of the Ganga is the place of choice for immersing the ashes of the deceased. I last came here nine years ago with my grandmother’s ashes, and was surprised to discover that the priests have genealogical records of my family (and millions of others) going back seven generations. This time, I am in Har ki Pauri in the hour before sunset. Despite the disturbing presence of really heavily armed security and sniffer dogs, it is magical. A father holds his young child in his arms as they both bathe in the Ganga, a relative takes a photograph of them using his mobile phone. Further downstream, the last rites of the deceased are being conducted. In the midst of the bathers and the piety, two kids wade knee-deep into the freezing water, dredging for coins and other pilgrim offerings. They use massive magnets tied to the ends of bright yellow nylon ropes, which they cast into the water with all the grace of long practised fly-fishers. Then slowly they are reeled in and stripped of coins and other junk metal. They keep doing this till the evening aarti begins.
And it is in the evening that my disenchantment with Haridwar begins. From earlier visits I remember being enchanted by the pure magic of the darkening sky, the glimmering reflections in the river from flames lit on the riverbank, mesmeric chants drifting across the water, followed almost eulogy-like by hundreds of little diyas, in tiny boats made of leaves, drifting down the river. It would still have been magical because it’s the Kumbh, but for the obnoxiously loud security announcements on the scratchy public announcement loudspeakers. And then competing with the chanting of the priests, taped devotional music. The beauty and the solemnity of the ceremony I remembered, has been completely shattered by official fiat.
In part to recover some of the enchantment, I go back to Har Ki Pauri before dawn the following day to bathe in the river. I don’t know if any of my sins are being washed off, as they’re supposed to be, but the water is freezing cold and surprisingly clear (despite all the people), and really, really bracing. I feel invigorated but also promptly regret leaving my clothes with a priest. Despite my best intentions (and relative lack of faith), I give away Rs 400 for “feeding Brahmans” — or at least for feeding one of them. Later that day I visit the temple of Mansa Devi, and while walking up the path (most people take the cable car) I can’t help noticing the trash strewn on the hillside. People put effort into keeping the banks of the Ganga clean here and despite the volumes, there’s very little obvious filth in the Ganga — but what happens (both to the Ganga, and to the city at large) when the real crowds descend on Mahashivratri? The ones happiest at the prospect are the monkeys, who proliferate in this town, growing fat on pilgrim leftovers (and sometimes not hesitating to snatch food right out of your hands).
Back at the hotel, I decide to make the most of the fact that I am staying in a tent by the Ganga. I wake up before sunrise and settle down in a comfortable meditating position, when the temple across the river starts blaring loud bhajans dedicated to Shiva. For the next two hours, everything is drowned out — the chirping of the birds, the rushing of the river and whatever silence that I was planning to experience. How ironic, I think, that they choose to express their devotion to tapasvi Shiva with a raucous racket that makes meditation impossible. If I had a third eye, I would have opened it and burned the place to the ground. Instead, I pack my bags and am en route to Rishikesh, and instead of feeding Brahmans, will feed myself at Chotiwala’s.
Find the river
Strangely enough, apart from Har Ki Pauri, where most of the pilgrims bathe, Haridwar is not actually on the river itself but by the Upper Ganga Canal. The canal was constructed by the British in the 1850s and most of the contemporary town is stretched along its banks. The river itself is about a kilometre eastward and has very little water. The locals treat this stretch of the canal as the river now and thus most bathing ghats are located on it.
Where to stay
Lahore House is at the Niranjani Akhara, Haridwar. There are many dharamshalas and hotels nearby. Lahore House is close to the railway station and the river (well, the canal). It is really quiet, and a 20-minute walk away from Har Ki Pauri. The Lahore House camp (Rs 7,000 to Rs 10,000 per luxury tent, per night), operated by Leisure Hotels, also has a spa. The package includes three meals a day. Leisure Hotels also has a camp at Kankhal, across the Ganga canal. These tents (Rs 4,500 a night) are more basic. (For bookings call Leisure Hotels on 011-4652 0000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org)
If you are in the mood to splurge, check yourself into Ananda In The Himalayas, just up the road at Rishikesh. Room tariffs start at Rs 15,500 a day, inclusive of breakfast and dinner for two; spa packages are extra. (For bookings call 011-2656 8888, between 9 am and 6 pm, or 01378-227500, between 6 pm and 9 am) or email email@example.com)
Where to eat
Food in Haridwar isn’t great. Lahore House rustles up some homely vegetarian meals. But if you want variety, make the 40-minute trip up to Rishikesh. Near Ram Jhoola (on the right bank) there is the famous Chotiwala (Rs 120 to Rs 160 for a massive vegetarian thali). Once you’ve eaten here, you can walk it off by walking north to the Lakshman Jhula and then crossing over to the left bank, where you can get dessert at the German Bakery (apple pie, German cookies, coffee and an incredible lemon-mint combination juice, less than Rs 100).