I had read somewhere, "If you want an experience of living Hinduism, you won't get it from the sacred texts or by visiting temples; you will see it in Haridwar." Haridwar, commonly known as the 'Gateway to Gods', situated at the foothills of the Himalayas, is one of the holiest pilgrimages in India. Located where Ganga, the most sacred of all Indian rivers, enters the Indo-Gangetic plains, it's a city of innumerable ashrams and temples whose pious ambience envelops everyone.
And that's why, on my first ever trip to Uttarakhand, more so than anywhere else, be it the adventure sports activities at Rishikesh or a soothing escape to Mussoorie, I looked forward to Haridwar- its spiritual ceremonies, its colours, and its chaos.
It was late October, and the hot and humid weather had started disappearing, but the swarms of people, the wandering cows, the speeding tuk-tuks, and the thick, dusty air- combined to create a wall of heat. But you know what, the dirt, the small lanes, and the claustrophobic closeness of it all did not seem to bother me at all.
From dawn to long after dusk, this holy city stunned the senses- the food stalls wafting cardamom and curry, the swishes of saris of fuchsia and green, the tinkling of the bells on the ghats of Ganga as the priests carried out the Ganga Aarti. Especially the evening ritual- a mesmeric sight to witness the river being venerated with loud rhythmic chants and tall lamps and a spectacular view as thousands of small diyas (earthen lamps) were set afloat on the river, lightening up the darkening waters.
One such evening, while I was sitting on the steps of one of the famous Ghats- Har ki Pauri, snapping photos of the holy river, meditating sadhus, and the pilgrims- who were preparing for their dip in the sacred water, I, too, was tempted to take a dip there.
"Planning to go for a dip?" I heard someone asking me from behind. I turned around, and this woman, a trinkets seller, was sitting at a distance. "If you want, I can take care of your belongings," she said.
(Picture Credits- Navjot Senghera)
I looked around to find a spot for myself, but then the dirt suddenly gave me second thoughts. I turned back to her, shook my head side to side to answer "no" and stood up to prepare for the evening Aarti.
The next day, I saw her again. She waved at me from a distance. I went to her, and we both sat together on the rough steps of the ghat. Her daughter brought chai in two tiny plastic cups. She offered me one of the cups and asked, "Would you like some chai?"
I baulked at the chance to drink tea with her after learning that the Ganges were the water source, for I had watched men and women bathing and washing their faces in the same river. She understood my hesitation and didn't force me further.
I somewhat felt terrible for my actions, and though I barely had any cash, as compensation, I purchased a bracelet made of some cheap plastic and metal that I was sure would stain my wrist green. But this purchase was enough to initiate a friendly conversation, and we talked for almost an hour. She told me about her life, the city and of course the holy river Ganga. Her name was Rani.
And so, since that day, our friendship grew. We would spend our evenings sitting at the ghat steps together. Her daughter would take my hands in hers and put some swirls of henna that would dry while we talked. Other tourists or pilgrims would occasionally join us, and some even purchased things from her, and I don't know why but I used to take a strange pride in every sale she used to make. Unsure- was I just another tourist, or was I now a part of this city?
Days went by, and my trip to Haridwar came to an end. After a long day of wandering around the city aimlessly, I made my way to the ghats for one last evening Aarti. After the Aarti, Rani held my hand and asked me to follow her.
I followed her for almost half a mile through the maze of streets, and then she stopped and turned to me and said, "It is believed that the trip to Haridwar is incomplete without the holy dip. Tomorrow morning, before you leave, offer the three handfuls of water to Ganga here and complete your Haridwar experience."
To my surprise, she had finally found a cleaner and less crowded spot for me to take a dip. Honestly, I couldn't have asked for more. I nodded and thanked her for helping me. Later that evening, I took Rani and her daughter for dinner. We had sumptuous food followed by Haridwar's famous Rabri and meetha paan.
I spent the night looking at the view of the Ganga from the balcony of my room with the lights shining brightly as far as I could see. And before I could realise, it was dawn already. I found myself at the same spot, ready for the dip. I sat alone on the rough steps and immersed myself in the water to my shoulder blades. The chilled water took me by surprise, and it took some time for my body to adjust to the new temperature. I took some water in my palms and released it to the Ganga thrice. With each handful of water I offered, I felt a sense of wholeness.
I wanted to meet and thank Rani one last time, so I went to the Har ki Pauri ghat. Rani wasn't there, nor was her daughter. Another woman with trinkets sat in her place. When I asked about Rani, she shrugged. The bracelet's presence suddenly weighed down my arm.
I left Haridwar that afternoon. The bracelet I had purchased from Rani stayed on my wrist. Its cheap plastic and metal parts sustained wear and tear for several months. It snapped one afternoon, beads rolling on the floor, and I kept as many of them as I could find. By then, I could barely remember the smell of the Ganges, the sounds of the prayers, or how Rani looked when she laughed. It felt like a loss, of what exactly-I couldn't say.
Have you ever found a friend in a stranger?
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