Despite the early wake-up and extensive traveling, this was another tentpole day of the trip. The evening river ritual in Haridwar is an event that rivals that of Varanassi, without the twelve-hour train trip (or, at this time of year, the murderous heat). It was recommended to us by a friend of a friend, and we said what the hell. The train up was relatively uneventful. We chose the higher-class section this time, thank you, and got soft seats and food & water served to us. While waiting for the bathroom, I struck up a conversation with an old man in spotless white robes. He had one of those crazy-eyes old-men faces, and took great pains to tell me that Barak Obama is a muslim, and that once elected would unleash his secret muslim agenda on the world.
The guy was a classic old-school Hindu; he meant well, but had a head full of right-wing propaganda. He freaked me out enough that I quickly excused myself and hightailed it back to my seat.
So: an early train out of Delhi, dropping us off into an unfamiliar city at (as usual) the hottest time of day. For us, this was typical travel.
We looked for an i-café in the guide book, to discover that it had gone under. We searched for a tourist office, that was closed B/C it was Sunday. After walking aimlessly for an hour or more (and yes, snapping at each other b/c of the heat), Natacha & I did the right thing and tucked into an A/c restaurant with great food, and more important, A/c.
Haridwar is a true Indian tourist town. i.e. it’s all Indian tourists and no gringos. The town is the alleged source of the Ganges. There are three rivers that merge at Haridwar, becoming the Ganges, making this a holy place. The streets were hot and busy, and every so often an open truck with a marching band on it or an impromptou parade would come down the main street, banners, etc. Something religious, but I couldn’t guess what. Nuts.
And here’s something that fascinates me about India. Religion is intermingled with society in curious ways. In the case of Haridwar, it’s mixed with tourism. It’s one of the holiest places in India, but it’s like a holiday town: hotels everywhere, souvenir shops for days, and a hilltop temple surrounded by snack bars. Oh, and served by a cable sky-tram like something out of a ski lodge.
I guess it’s not that different from Mormons visiting Salt Lake City, or Catholics visiting the Vatican. I myself have a souvenir bottle opener with the Pope John Paul II’s face on it. I call it “The Popener.”
Of course, the Vatican doesn't have a creepy guy in a turban stick a live python in your face and say, "Picture!" Does it?
After finding a cheap room (we were only staying one night, after all), we set out on the town, which really was this crazy mix of holy city/tourist town. We decided to take the cable car up to the holy temple, which was absolutely packed. Maybe because it was a Sunday? Who knows. The Temple was surrounded with little shops that sold a variety of things from flowers and other temple offerings to jewelry and ice cream to…one other thing I’ll mention in a sec.
At the temple, I heard someone calling out to me—it was spotted crazy old hindu man from the train. He was in fact with his family, but he’d scared me enough on the train that I exchanged a few words with him and then went on my way.
The temple was shoulder-to-shoulder, as we inched along the passageways, lit incense, had sandalwood paint touched to our foreheads, etc. I didn’t receive the paint because most people assumed the little white patch on my forehead was a holy marking (it was cream to heal the cut on my forehead).
The temple was beautiful, if cramped, and it felt weird that there were so many people inside it, lining up to get in, lingering around it, buying souvenir statuettes next to it.
But then, Natacha and I found this photo booth service thing.
You know those cheesy sepia tone photos you can take that make you look like y ou’re in the old west, or the industrial revolution? This hill temple had a “service” where they took your picture dressed up in traditional India costume. Bejewled robes, headpieces, even a sword. I talked Natacha into having ours taken. It came out superbly and is our holiday card this year.
There were sample pictures where couple would have the sword, and the man would have it against the wife’s throat. That didn’t suit me at all…but I REALLY wanted the sword. So when we posed, we held the sword together. I think she held the hilt and I held the scabbard.
We then waited in a VERY long line to take the tram back down the hill, and who should we end up in line with but crazy old guy and his family.
It turns out that he’s not “crazy” old guy after all. He was actually a very sweet man who brings takes his family up from Delhi to Haridwar once a year for a day-long pilgrimage. They bathe in the river’s holy waters, visit the temple, and go back to Delhi the same day.
He even introduced us to his brother, and his adorable grandkids. He was so proud that one of them was acting in an upcoming school play, and was a pretty good hand with English. While waiting in line for the tram wasn’t that pleasant, it was very nice to spend some time getting to know this family.
I also took the best close-up picture of a monkey I will ever get. It didn’t even occur to me that it could’ve possibly reached through the fence & ripped my face off.