Haridwar is one of the holiest cities in India (for Hindus). It is where Lord Vishnu dropped “Amrit”, holy nectar, and left his footprint on the banks of the Ganges. Millions of pilgrims come here each year to bathe at the holy ghat of Har Ki Pauri.
As a town, Haridwar left little to be desired. After 2 weeks relaxing and being a wanna-be yogini in Rishikesh, I arrived in Haridwar calm and refreshed. That feeling lasted approximately 30 seconds.
There are many temples in Haridwar, but two in particular are situated on hills on opposite sides of the Ganges. I love seeing temples, I think it shows so much about a place and its history, so I made my way through the bustling bazaar to find the ticket office to the Mansa Devi temple.
The queue is difficult to discern from the mass of people crowding the market place. After much pushing and shoving I finally find a place in the queue. It then becomes a battle of wills to keep my place and not be elbowed out by anyone.
This is India. The reality is, when there are 1.2 billion people, and very little disciplinary control (like in China for example), you have to fight for yourself. This ethos seems to be an entrenched part of the Indian spirit. Don’t complain about it, just stand your ground and do whatever you can to get ahead. There is no room to be polite, and definitely no room for women to go first. Being pushed, shoved and elbowed by men is something I am now unfortunately getting used to.
Strangely I am struggling with the same behaviour from women. I guess no matter how assertive I am as a woman, I just can’t escape some of the stereotypes that are so deeply entrenched in western society, how women should behave being one of them. In India there is no room for such stereotypes. Many women (particularly those in lower socio-economic classes) are treated as if they are a burden to their family in their youth, essentially sold upon coming of age, and then enter a life of servitude to their husband and in-laws. I imagine it would be a hard life, I guess I can understand why they would take any opportunity they can to stand their ground.
After finally making it up the cable car and to the entrance of the temple, now comes the real challenge. At the entrance, there is already a large crowd gathered and another battle to stand my ground begins. This time its much more fierce.
Its 35 degrees outside, and I am pushed into the queue by others seeking to get inside this temple. Being only 5ft 3, just finding some room for air is a challenge. My nostrils fill with the stench of sweat and urine that has been baked into clothing and skin. The heat is overwhelming, dripping sweat, my hair is now wet and my clothes cling to my back.
I feel an elbow push into my breast, and I forcefully push forward and twist to the side slightly to push it away and stand my ground. This is not pleasant.
We push forward for another 15 minutes in this manner, and finally make it through to the next stage of battle. The queue once 8 across and about 50 deep, is now manoeuvred into a maze of barriers, 2 people wide. Whilst more orderly, there is little room to breathe, as we are no longer outside and a roof covers the fresh air, leaving the stale air lingering above.
Someone in the crowd yells out something, and the crowd explodes in a chant.
He yells out something else.
They chant again.
Soon hundreds are chanting, the melody fills the air and the crowd seems fixated. You can feel the spirit in the room rise, and the crowd pushes forward with more urgency, they need to get to the temple. As the queue snakes its way towards the entrance, the chanting gets louder, the pushing more fierce and the temperature rises.
After about 45 minutes, I can finally see the entrance, as the crowd push forward I start to feel anxious. The pressure to make it to the front can be felt as the bodies press more fiercely against me. Finally into the door, I am moved against my will by the crowd all reaching out to offer their Prasad. Fearful of the sheer force of the crowd, I duck and try to move as quickly as possible to the back of the room, away from the offerings. My intention is to just try to not to get trampled.
Finally I find some air and stand up straight. The crowd is 5 deep and all struggling to get a look at the small window and leave their offering. The flow of the crowd then pushes me out of this room and into a passageway.
That is it, that was the temple. It was a let-down to say the least.
The journey to the entrance, whilst uncomfortable, was a much more inspiring experience.
I then make my way back to the entrance, and search for my shoes amongst hundreds of other pairs. It pays to not where anything too flashy or expensive, but one should also make sure that their shoes are differentiated enough to be seen in the crowd. The shoe shuffle is a very fine balancing act.
I decide to visit the second temple and find a ride to the opposite bank of the Ganges. Another cable car ride and then a familiar crowded entrance. I start to feel a thudding in my chest, surely this can’t be the same thing. Sure enough, another 45 minutes and my experience is almost identical to the one I had only a couple of hours earlier. When I finally make it outside after another uninspiring temple, I sigh.
I am completely knackered. I love this country, but sometimes it can be completely exhausting, with every small task feeling like an endurance exercise.
My next stop is to the famous Har Ki Pauri, the holiest of ghats.
Here I watch the people and just observe what they do in their holy place. Many bathe in the Ganges, some children are swimming and swept away by the sheer force of this great river. Others sit on the banks of the Ganges and discard their rubbish into her, knowing that she would carry it away for them. No doubt someone else would come across it when they bathed further down stream.
Some pray, light a flame and place their offering of flowers into the river, and watch as their wishes travel along the water. Others put a cup into the river and drink her in. In other banks of the Ganges I have watched people wash their cloths and go to the toilet in her.
This is all the same river, and it means so many different things to its worshipers.
This is India in all it’s raw glory.