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A mistreated goddess

Asia » India » Uttarakhand » Haridwar - 13th to 16th January 2018

sunny 25 °C

The Ganges - iconic, sacred...

and polluted.

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Haridwar
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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...

Accommodation:

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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: info@devnadi.com) 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.

Posted by Keep Smiling 08:08 Archived in India Tagged india ganges haridwar Comments (1)

Tea with a sadhu

Asia » India » Uttarakhand » Haridwar - 16th January 2018

sunny 30 °C

The temperature had dropped like a stone as soon as the sun went down at Har-ki-Pauri the previous evening. Seated on a step within inches of the river watching the aarthi ceremony, I'd respected tradition with bare feet. They'd been as cold as the Ganges' icy water!

Clearly, it wasn't much warmer outside this morning. We awoke to a heavy grey mist almost obliterating the view from our terrace at the Devnadi Hotel.

It happens at this time of year - warm by day, cold by night... fog in the morning.

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We added an extra layer, went down to the restaurant for a hot breakfast and hoped that things might improve later.

Satish, a knowledgeable guide booked for our next two days by the hotel's lovely Jasmeet, soon arrived. Thankfully, so did the sun...

Visibility had begun to improve as we tuk-tuked down to a bridge over the river. As we crossed, the sun finally broke through, giving us a panoramic view upstream towards the town, its ghats, waterside temples and colourful ashrams. At this early hour, the wide footpath bordering the shallow steps of ghats on this bank was calm and fairly free of people. A few braved the icy waters dressed only in underpants, clearly enjoying the experience but gripping chains attached to the concrete bank. More chains dangled beneath the span of a distant bridge in case other bathers upstream were swept away by the fast-moving current.

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A statue of a bearded guru sat beneath a huge tree while a nearby barber shaved the beard of his first customer of the day, a priest on his way to the ceremonies. Numerous lingams (a symbol of Lord Shiva, or some might think it a male/female fertility image) bordered the river bank, together with effigies of Lord Shiva himself (blue), the monkey god Hanuman (orange) and Nandi the bull (Shiva's transport).

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As we neared the bridge leading to Har-ki-Pauri, so the crowds began to swell. Families relaxed, squatting expectantly, enjoying the crisp morning sunshine. Beggars looked towards us with pleading eyes and outstretched hands. Priests blessed shaven-headed men seated on the ghats. Vendors sold bundles of peacock feathers suspended from their backs (peacock feathers are auspicious... but were the feathers found or plucked from an illegally-killed bird? Don't buy them!). Others carefully placed vermilion tilaks between the eyes of the devout in exchange for small coins. Little shops, with piles of coloured paper kites and reels of thread catered to a children's after-school hobby that's also a fervent tradition at this festive time. Pilgrims bought wooden walking sticks and staves from a shop displaying hundreds of them in various shapes and sizes, together with a few cricket bats for good measure.

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At Har-ki-Pauri, today in daylight, the scene was in complete contrast to the previous evening. Now, on this 14th day of January, the day of Makar Sankranti, it was difficult to move easily through a shifting tide of humanity. Hundreds thronged the banks on each side of the sparkling waters, eager to step down the ghats for a holy dip. As they submerged themselves, a sharp intake of breath clearly showed that the chill took some by surprise. Youngsters meanwhile splashed around having fun, seemingly unaware of the importance of their morning paddle.

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I should mention perhaps that this was not the true River Ganges here, but the narrow Upper Ganga Canal. Just yards from this point, the massive sluice gates of Bhimgoda Barrage control the power of the river, here swift and swirling so close to its source in the Himalayas to the north. The canal continues in straight lines for hundreds of miles south, its water being used to generate electricity and irrigate the land. Along its length, man-made banks provide ghats for ritual bathing in many places - the water, after all, is from the holy Ganges itself. The river's main stream, severely reduced except during Spring ice-melt from glaciers and Summer monsoon floods, is to be found on its wide flood-plain away to the east.

We stayed a while at Har-ki-Pauri to consider this scene of devotion. It never ceased to amaze us that so many could have so much faith, that they would journey enormous distances - often on foot - to observe that faith, and that they celebrated their ancestral heritage and hopes for their future lives with such zeal. Here, tens of thousands were gathering on this happy, auspicious day to praise a sun god and a river goddess. Compare the picture below with one taken just the previous day (A mistreated goddess).

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To see so many milling around, smiling, praying and bathing in these rapid waters was an overwhelming sight. It was one that we'd experience again that evening as we attended the aarthi ceremony for a second time, but with a massively greater audience than before. Then, as the sun dipped behind temples on the far bank, it would be standing room only for us as vast crowds occupied all the steps and most of what might normally have been open spaces and promenade areas. Audience participation in the rituals became even more vigorous too, with animated responses to the priests' chants and songs, rhythmic clapping during the tuneful mantra of 'Har Har Gangee, Jai Maa Gangee', and much waving of hands in the air.

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Even now during our daytime visit, people released their diyas onto the water, the night-time candles within these little boats of leaves replaced by sticks of smouldering incense and a small coin or two for good luck. Those coins seldom travelled far though, as they were plucked out by the swift hands of young boys or, when they fell into the water, recovered by others with magnets pulled across the river's flow on strings.

Coconuts too were common offerings cast into the river. Ingenious lads had constructed metal mesh baskets on long, thin ropes, which they hurled into the river from bridges to capture the floating nuts. Those they caught were dried off and resold to other pilgrims! Why coconuts, I hear you ask. Well, they're apparently the plant equivalent of a cow in Hinduism as they're significant to life as a whole - an eternal giver of food, water, oil and coir rope in this case, and they're offered to gods as a substitute for what may have been animal sacrifice in antiquity. Some Hindu religious texts, by the way, explain that a person should be like a coconut - hard and tough on the outside, soft and generous on the inside. Now there's a thought!

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Devotions in a dark doorway

Over the course of two days, Satish earned his modest guiding fee by taking us to places often missed by other visitors to this crowded city.

He also showed us ceremonies the likes of which I'd never seen in all my previous journeys around this country. I tried to understand what some of them might have been about (Satish's English wasn't always entirely precise - or maybe he didn't fully understand what was going on either!). Anyway, to truly comprehend a Hindu ritual, there's always something else you need to know.

Take, for example, the circle of young boys Satish led us to see. They were seated cross-legged next to men (their dads perhaps?) offering them guidance on what to do with the flowers and rice placed on leaves beside their feet. The boys had their heads shaved clean, except for tufts of hair on the very tops of their skulls. The circle was surrounded by dozens of adults, including many women (the boys' mums maybe?) wearing colourful orange scarves fringed with silver tinsel. It wasn't any easier to find out what was happening than it was to wriggle through the mêlée to take these photographs to show you.

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As far as I could make out, it was what's called a 'thread ceremony', something that happens when boys of the Brahmin caste reach about 12 years of age - a bit like a Jewish Bar Mitzvah. The boys vow to respect knowledge, their parents and society and are given three strands of a sacred thread in return. Hair, as we all know, is a symbol of vanity - so, the shaved heads were a gesture of humility. The choti or shikha (the lock of hair remaining on each boy's head), represents exclusive focus on a spiritual goal, devotion to God.

Well, I think that's what it was all about!

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Some were more interested in playing with their phones than in the ceremony!


We also discovered a part-covered area nearby with a dozen or more seemingly contented cows standing quietly or sitting chewing the cud. Hindus consider the cow a sacred symbol of life that should be protected, revered and fed. In many places, cows feed themselves on waste food and stuff they find in the streets. Here, these very lucky and rather chubby ones were being ritually fed bananas, apples, oranges and chapattis.

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Here too were other rituals in progress, some receiving blessings for recently-deceased relatives or remembering ancestors. Others involved priests saying prayers or offering prasad - a little food item donated to a deity.

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We saw people simply registering their attendance on this holy day with a family priest. It's an unusual fact that, here in Haridwar, a custom of family genealogy continues to be maintained by Brahmin priests (known as pandas), who keep hand-written registers passed down over many generations. For centuries, pilgrims visiting this holy town have sought out their family's particular panda and updated their records with details of births, deaths and marriages. Apparently, it's not uncommon for these pandas to hold information on more than seven generations in their ancient books. Uncomputerised 'Ancestry.com' in action!

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On the fringes of the town, Satish showed us some other fascinating places.

One of them involved a choice of a steep 785-step uphill walk or a short cable-car ride to Mansa Devi Temple. No prizes for guessing which one we two old blokes chose. A visit to this temple is a 'must' for all pilgrims to Haridwar and a benefit of having a guide was that we didn't need to join the queue for cable-car tickets; Satish simply 'paid' the ticket-collector at the entrance!

The view towards the Ganges from our little cage-like cabin as it made its way up to the top of the Bilwa Parvat hill was marred by a lingering mist. The views of simple dwellings below, green trees littered with downed kites and tangled lines and of the other cages as they clattered by, however, were as clear as a bell - as were the clanging of temple bells and a message specifying that photography was forbidden as we disembarked.

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Outside the temple was a huge photograph of the three-headed goddess whose shrine was inside! This temple was devoted to wish-fulfilling goddess Mansa Devi. On the way in, stalls sold a mountain of offerings and prasad that believers could give to the priests at each shrine, adding a monetary donation in return for blessings.

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It was difficult to see much of the inner sanctum where the goddess resided because of the teeming masses but, towards the exit, was a holy tree bound in thousands of colourful threads. Each one had been tied in the hope of a wish being granted. If I understood correctly, pilgrims whose wishes were fulfilled would later return and untie their threads. Benevolent sceptics might say that a lot of pilgrims hadn't managed to return after their wishes had been granted!

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A visit to a place is sometimes particularly memorable because of the unexpected.

This afternoon, for example, a procession blocked our path on the way back to the charming Devnadi Hotel. A team of drummers led a procession of smiling, dancing men, women and children wearing multi-coloured caps. Behind them came a giant carriage resembling two white elephants with red and gold trappings topped by a gilded howdah in which sat men wearing orange robes and gold crowns. It was a special occasion for the Jain community, we were told. Certainly, the welcome and the joyful music were infectious, as brother David will confirm - he joined in the dancing with gusto, cheered on by the whirling throng.

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On another occasion, an electric tuk-tuk quietly took-tooked us through mile upon mile of dusty, impoverished and almost treeless grounds dotted with occasional tent dwellers and their buffaloes, goats and cows. Every 12 years, this entire expanse would be densely covered by a tented town accommodating some of the millions of pilgrims attending the Kumbh Mela - the largest religious gathering on the planet (at least 10 Million people bathed in the Ganges at Haridwar on a single day in 2010). I made a diary note to return in 2022.

That same road took us past a fantastic 108-feet (33 metres) tall statue of Lord Shiva that we'd seen from a distance while at Har-ki-Pauri

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Shiva is easily recognisable by his trident, his leopard skin, and the snake around his neck.
People flock to Haridwar particularly because of Shiva.


We continued onwards to a colony of sadhus hidden among trees beside the Ganges itself. Here, many dozens of sadhus - holy men, monks, ascetics who'd given up all the trappings of a worldly existence - lived in a cramped village of gloomy, squalid-looking tents beneath trees close to the river.

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Atop a concrete mount close to the stony river shore was a colourful, makeshift assemblage of logs and branches encased in plastic sheets and golden-yellow fabric decorated with garlands of orange and yellow marigolds.

Inside was a bright-eyed, bearded sadhu. He sat cross-legged and bare-chested, his long, unkempt hair piled up into a top-knot secured with a metal clip. Satish translated that he lived here for part of the year, returning to his village in the hills when monsoon rains made it unsafe to live so close to the flooding river.

With a gentle smile, this friendly, unassuming man quietly invited us to join him for tea, which he made in a large metal pan and presented to us in small cups.

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Memorable indeed.

Posted by Keep Smiling 03:08 Archived in India Tagged india ganges haridwar Comments (2)

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