Asia » India » Uttarakhand » Haridwar - 13th to 16th January 2018
13.01.2018 - 16.01.2018 25 °C
The Ganges - iconic, sacred...
It's yet another of those unfathomable dichotomies that is India.
Hindu legend relates how the gods commanded goddess Ganga, a river living in the heavens, to fall to Earth. Ganga didn't really want to leave and, because she was being forced, threatened to destroy all life on Earth by the strength of her flow.
Fortunately, as she fell, the powerful god Shiva, the ‘destroyer of evil’, caught her in his dreadlocks and tied her in knots. Later, he released her to tumble gently down from the Himalayas and meander across the plains of India to the ocean, riding on her traditional crocodile transport.
On Earth, Ganga offered devout Hindus a way of life and a way back to the heavens. As a goddess, her water is considered very pure and, as believers in reincarnation, Hindus regard bathing in the river as cleansing sins from past and present lives as well as the body. What’s more, immersing the deceased in her water brings their spirits closer to Moksha, liberation from the cycle of life and death.
This all sounds very complicated – which it is!
I've said before that to understand Hinduism you have to be born into it.
The River Ganges irrigates the land, sustains industries, and provides hydroelectricity and drinking water. It's India’s longest and most sacred waterway - the embodiment of the divine, the aforementioned goddess Ganga. Yet, perhaps inevitably in a land where poverty and illiteracy are still commonplace today, it’s also become a depository for all manner of waste.
It’s estimated that more than 1.5 Billion litres of untreated sewage and 500 Million litres of industrial effluent from tanneries, chemical plants, textile mills, distilleries, slaughterhouses and hospitals are pumped into the river every day. Certainly, while we saw how clear the water was near its source at Devprayag, Rishikesh and Haridwar, it was opaque, dark grey and virtually devoid of life by the time it reached Varanasi a thousand kilometres downstream.
Village rubbish, mainly food waste and plastic bags and bottles, adorns many of its steep banks, eventually to be swept downstream during monsoon floods. Dead animals are put in the river. We saw several bloated carcasses of cows, goats and dogs on our journeys.
The bodies of certain humans – those from the very poorest families, unmarried women, children and those killed by snakebite, for example - are weighted with rocks, taken to the centre of the river and simply lowered into the water. Others are cremated on the banks and their remains, sometimes only partly burnt if relatives had been unable to afford sufficient wood for the funeral pyre, are consigned to the river.
All these things have combined to make the Ganges one of the world's most polluted rivers.
Is it not ironic that the people who worship the river are killing the very thing they revere?
Surely, the Ganges is far too toxic, at least in the lower reaches, to be holy any more. Last year, a court in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand tended to think so and ordered that the Ganges (and its main tributary, the Yamuna) be accorded the status of living human entities. That decision effectively meant that polluting or damaging the rivers would be legally equivalent to harming a person - but how could infringements be effectively monitored or enforced in such a vast and impoverished country?
A diya (a little lamp) is set afloat on the river to signal hope and fulfilment of wishes
Pollution threatens not only humans of course. The many fish and amphibian species which live in the river, including endangered Ganges River Dolphins, are all at risk too. Although we spent time actually on the river, we didn’t see the latter, nor did we see any frogs or turtles. Downstream of Allahabad, there were a few optimistic fishermen, using nets suspended from floats made of plastic bottles or expanded polystyrene, wooden fish traps and traditional ‘Chinese’ lift nets. There were even occasional cormorants - fish-eating birds, close to notoriously-polluted Varanasi. So, it seems that, against all the odds, some life may continue to exist in this water.
The government is said to be investing heavily in cleaning up the river. Just last year, the title of ‘Ministry of Water Resources’ was suffixed with the additional tag of ‘River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation'. There's little evidence, however, to suggest that India's politicians are prepared to commit long-term to what would be an immensely costly 'rejuvenation'. In any case, an even greater obstacle is likely to be the significant change in centuries-old culture needed to reverse this river's decline.
While a clean river may be pie in the sky, at least for generations to come, perhaps Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Swachh Bharat’ mission will help to ‘Clean India’ of at least some of its refuse by the target of October 2019. Perhaps..!
Meantime, immersion in the waters of this holy river continues to wash away the sins of the devout. In places, however, it’s also likely to make the living very sick. Hepatitis, typhoid, cholera, amoebic dysentery and a variety of other waterborne diseases and skin afflictions, most carried by the fecal/oral route, are prevalent here. Yet many who bathe in the river, wash their clothes in it, brush their teeth with water from it and drink it too, still fail to make a connection between disease and the sanctity of the river.
The fast-flowing Ganges - and a chain to help those bathing in its holy waters from being swept away
Despite everything, holy water from the river’s upper reaches is often bottled and carried back by the devout to their homes rather like it is at other holy places elsewhere in the world. Plastic containers of many sizes are sold in markets beside the river for pilgrims to collect the water for themselves.
In Rajasthan, I once saw a group of pilgrims carrying Ganges water that they’d collected in large, weighty pots and suspended from stout canes over their shoulders. It transpired that they were walking to Bateshwar, many hundreds of miles away, to give the water as an offering at their own Shiva temple.
Oh, and if you can’t visit the Ganges yourself, pop over to eBay, where you can buy 100ml of its water for around a fiver!
For now at least, the pollution becomes apparent only as the river broadens and slows in its middle and lower reaches. Here in Haridwar, the ‘Gateway to God’, one of the seven holiest places in Hinduism, the ice-cold water flowing from nearby glaciers to the north remains sparkling and clear.
The Ganges at Haridwar. This great river, born in the Himalayas, flows south, east, then south again into the Bay of Bengal.
Along its 2,500kms, it supports over half a billion people – that’s more than the entire populations of Russia and the USA combined!
Our tour had been planned so as to be in Haridwar for 14 January, the day of the ancient Makar Sankranti festival, one of few observed according to the solar cycle (as opposed to the lunar one of the lunisolar Hindu calendar). According to religious texts, the sun enters the Zodiacal sign of 'Makara' (Capricorn) and starts moving to the north, marking a change in seasons. This time is regarded as important for spiritual practices and people take a holy dip in rivers, especially the Ganges, for merit or absolution of past sins. They also pray to the sun and give thanks for their successes and prosperity.
We’d arrived the day before the festival, yet on our afternoon walk through the town we encountered huge crowds preparing themselves for the great event. In the river, people took a holy dip.
After a ritual bathe in the river - swimming costumes are unheard of!
Men sat cross-legged in a line of barbers near the banks of the river to have their faces and heads shaved with cut-throat razors, in readiness for the next day's rituals. Women shopped for bangles and beads. Vendors encouraged visitors to buy their diyas - floating lamps made of carefully-folded leaves bound together with twigs and filled with red rosebuds, bright orange marigold petals and tiny clay cups with solidified ghee (purified butter) and a wick. Others sold strings of yellow and maroon marigolds like those used as garlands to welcome guests into homes and hotels, but today to be draped on statues of gods or cast into the sacred waters.
Little shops, one after another, all selling similar brightly-coloured goods, abounded in the narrow lanes. Vast quantities of vegetables - beautifully displayed as they should be in this predominantly vegetarian city, sparkling bangles and, somewhat weirdly, tropical seashells (we’re thousands of miles from the sea) were common sights. Above the streets, a tangle of cables supplied electrical power. Beneath our feet, sandy, uneven paving or roadways strewn with innumerable parked cars and motorbikes enabled difficult movement of people, cows and dogs. All around were enticing smells of spicy street-food being cooked and the heavy scent of incense sticks, their smoke spiralling skywards. The air was rent with the noise of a thousand conversations, vehicle horns, high-pitched singing from oversized loudspeakers, ritual bells, and more.
Some things could never be easily found in this holy city - notably alcohol and meat. It’s officially ‘dry’ and vegetarian! Foreign tourists too were noticeable by their absence; in our three days here, we saw only five or six of them. Indian tourists - or more correctly: pilgrims - were here in their thousands though and we met many who’d come great distances especially for this festival.
At sundown, we reached a place called Har-ki-Pauri, the ‘Footstep of God’ (‘Har’ refers to the god Shiva or Vishnu, ’ki’ = of, ‘Pauri’ = step), so called because Hindu theology states that Shiva or Vishnu (they're one and the same entity) visited this place in antiquity and an impression of Vishnu’s footstep is said to be found here, on a wall somewhere beneath the fast-flowing river.
Faces at Har-ki-Pauri, including one of very few European ones (my brother David!)
It's considered that the holy river leaves the mountains and enters the plains here and it's become a very auspicious place, of equal status to the revered Dashashwamedh Ghat in the most holy city of Varanasi. Consequently, Haridwar's ghats (a series of steps leading down to the water) see many hundreds taking a dip in the Ganges every day of the year, women fully dressed in colourful saris, men stripped down to their equally-colourful underpants, and most holding tightly to thoughtfully-provided chains to prevent being swept away by the rushing current.
When we eventually found a suitable place to sit, it was here that we witnessed our first ever aarthi.
As evening turned to night, hundreds gathered on both sides of the river. On the opposite bank from where we sat, temple bells rang, red-robed priests blew conch shells and rang little hand-bells. Their chants and singing filled the evening air with praise to Shiva, Surya the sun god, Ganga, and the entire universe. In a choreographed spectacle, the aarthi (a ritual of worship, a part of puja or prayer) was completed with great fireballs being waved round and round, above the priests' heads, to the side, and towards the sacred Ganges.
This was followed by hundreds of diyas being set adrift on the river, the flicker of the lamps casting shadows in the fast-flowing stream.
Next day, accompanied by a local guide, we set forth to discover more about this fascinating city. The scene then, however, was quite different to our previous foray. The crowds had swollen to multitudinous proportions...
If you plan to visit Haridwar - and I'd recommend that you do, be sure to stay at the Devnadi Hotel. It's situated right on the banks of the Ganges and is a peaceful eight-room haven within easy reach of all the sights and sounds of this amazing city. It was originally built as a summer retreat for the Queen of Nepal with a private bathing ghat on the river bank and was later owned by a Bollywood film director.
Today, after much tasteful and careful restoration, this charming house is operated as a hotel by the lovely Saigal family. Rohan Saigal and his wife Jasmeet, a delightful young couple who were both educated in the UK, run the hotel and provided a truly warm welcome. They went out of their way to help us with all the information and arrangements we needed, both before we arrived (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) and during our stay.
Our well-appointed bedroom with its high ceilings, private bathroom and 'art-nouveau' touches was immaculately clean and very comfortable. It even had access to a private terrace looking out to the river and to the ghat below. The service from a happy and enthusiastic team of staff was very good indeed.
In summary, we found this a friendly, convenient and reasonably-priced heritage hotel. I'll certainly stay there again when I return one day to Haridwar.