We wade through the almost unending sea of humanity, trying to avoid mud slushes, potholes, cows, and the occasional cow dung. As we approach the ghats, what begins as a slow, rumbling din slowly transforms into full-scale cacophony as we burst forth on to the riverbanks. We are witnessing an almost frenzied hubbub as the God-fearing multitude throngs the waters, hoping it will expunge their sins. The fountainhead of this ardent religious chaos is the mighty River Ganga or Ganges – the polestar of everything holy to Hindus – which overwhelms and entirely engulfs the scene.
The ghats of the River Ganges at Haridwar are chaotically glorious.
It is the first time I’m seeing the legendary river, and the first sight of slow-moving waters gives me goose bumps. However, as much as I feast my eyes, heart and soul on the view, the brown-grey waters dampen any enthusiasm I’d had to take a dip in them. This thought is obviously not shared by the hoard of sanctimonious pilgrims who swarm the riverbanks which, according to Hindu texts, are a gateway to get to heaven. Older men in all stages of undress immerse themselves into the water, hands folded, eyes closed and their lips continuously uttering prayers. A newly-married couple stands on the steps, worshipping an idol of Shiva and his consort Parvati. The murky waters splash right up to the feet of the idol, toppling the container of holy vermillion powder and lending a stranger, foggier colour to the waters. As we walk ahead, women crouch and bend on the river steps as they release what look like thousands of flames into the river. Upon a closer look, the burning flame sits on a bed of orange flowers in a grass-green leaf shaped like a little boat. In the background, men and children are frolicking in the gentle flow of the river waters, grabbing onto the iron chains suspended from the bridge to stop their frivolous pursuit.
I think we ruffle a fair number of religious feathers when we refuse to float the flower-leaf flames, saddened by the already extremely polluted state of affairs. The touts who’d tailed us retreat in slight horror, their eyes as big as saucers. We pass hawkers who’re squatting listlessly on the banks, trying hard to sell shiny trinkets to unsuspecting tourists.
“See, he’s trying to pass off those brown beads as rudraksh beads” my friend points out, obviously knowing the difference. I overhear two other people discussing the same, and yet deciding on what to buy. I stifle my laughter; everything and everyone around me is so religiously sombre that even a snort seems out of place.
We cross a nondescript bridge to get to Har-ki-Pauri, literally ‘the footsteps of the Lord’ and Haridwar’s main fixture. Here, the I realize the river is toying with our senses – the slightly slow-moving waters we saw earlier have disappeared. At Har-ki-Pauri, the current is relentless, forceful and palpably stronger, and swallows everything that is released into it, whether they are wishes or not.
The hubbub increases as hoards line up to watch the evening aarti. The ‘sunset priests’ make a dramatic appearance at the temple doors, draped in yards of saffron and yellow and bearing the proverbial aarti thali, their faces scrunched up. For on the thali, sky-high yellow-red flames swayed gracefully, sending all watching eyes into a trance. As if on cue, the atmosphere turns frenetic; thousands of chants reverberate in my ear, folded hands are lifted high up above the head and somewhere, bells begin to clang. For five full minutes, I can’t tear my eyes away from the theatre as the crowd seemingly sways and chants as one.
For all its theatricality, the entire atmosphere feels soulless rather than soul-stirring. I realize that try as I might, I cannot drown my consciousness in the babel and wilfully move away from the crowd that throngs the temple steps in a bid to offer prayers. I walk out and pray from afar, hoping I haven’t evoked the ire of the many gods whose blessings we seek. I sneak one last look at the Ganges.
The ghats may overwhelm some and disappoint many others, but they’re mostly a stage for a spectacle being expertly played out by thespians of the craft. It might not be the ideal way for the soul to get to heaven, I think, but it is certainly an eventful one.