A Tale of Two Cities
Hardwar and Rishikesh

Mamta Dalal

© Copyright 2005 by Mamta Dalal

 My mother had been yearning to see Hardwar and Rishikesh (the holy cities in the state of Uttaranchal, North India) since quite some time. Last February I was able to fulfill her dream by taking her on a trip to these two cities.

Though tucked away in a deep corner of Uttaranchal, North India, the two cities Hardwar and Rishikesh attract a large number of inland and international tourists. They are a part of one of the most important Hindu pilgrimage tours called CharDham. They are also rated among the top holy cities of India. This, however, is not the only USP of these cities. The proximity to the Himalayas, breathtaking lush greenery, the presence of pure white waters nearby and above all the serenity of being away from the congested hustle bustle of a metropolis are the factors that make these cities worth visiting.

There is a quite a bit of history behind Hardwar. 'Hari' is another word for God in Hinduism, while 'dwar' means gateway or portal in many an Indian language. Haridwar, or Hardwar as it is called, therefore translates to the 'Gateway to the abode of gods'. One of the many legends surrounding this place goes likes this: the Suryavanshi Prince Bhagirath performed penance to reclaim the souls of his ancestors who were destroyed due to the curse of the sage Kapila. The penance was answered and the river Ganga trickled forth from Lord Shiva's locks and its flowing waters revived the sons of King Sagara. Since then the river Ganga is revered all over the country. Another legend has it that drops of nectar churned out from the great ocean fell at four places, one of which was Hardwar. The Chinese traveler, Huien Tsang has included a mention of Hardwar in his travelogues.

 The next morning, the train passed by Kota junction and I was excited at the prospect of being close to the famed state of Rajasthan. But the station platform and some dry, barren lands around the area was all I got to see from the train. As we neared the state of Uttaranchal, the view from the train windows underwent a drastic change and yielded glimpses of lush green fields along with an occasional pond or stream.

Right outside the station, we hired a cycle rickshaw, which incidentally forms one of the primary means of transport in Hardwar in addition to auto rickshaws. Although it looks rather wobbly once you are seated, it feels quite comfortable.

These cycle rickshaws are human-drawn and in the short stay that we had at Hardwar, my heart went out to these men who had to lead such hard lives, pulling on the vehicles laden with people with all their might. Even half a day off from work means loss of daily wages for them. Nowhere is the adage of “Survival of the fittest” more apt than in this quaint little town. It’s also survival of the smartest- considering the number of rickshaw pullers at every corner, he needs to be quick and smart enough to draw the customers to his vehicle.

At the lodge, we freshened up quickly and within an hour, were seated in another cycle rickshaw making our way to Har ki Pauri. This is the main spot at the banks of the Ganga river. Every evening at sharp 6.30 pm, an elaborate aarti (prayer with lots of chanting and oil lamps) is performed at Har ki Pauri. We were just in time for the aarti. People were seated all around on the steps leading to the river. Those who arrived late and could find no space to sit had to stand throughout the aarti ceremony. The entire surroundings at the ghat were lit up with lights and the shimmering reflections in the water were breathtaking to watch. The aarti lasted for an hour during which priests held multi-layered, flaming lamps with cloth-wrapped hands and performed an intricate aarti.

Flower vendors selling colorful floral baskets to be floated in water abounded in plenty near the banks. My mother and I bought some floral lamps, also called floral diyas, and set them adrift in the water after lighting the wick. The feeling you get when a floral lamp with a burning wick floats away from your outstretched hands into the water is beyond description.

The next morning, we headed towards the temple on the hills. There were two actually, one on each side of the Ganga on the hilltops. To get to the top of each, we had to take the Udan Khatola or the ropeway. It was my mother’s first experience with a ropeway and she was more than a bit nervous. Once she sat in, however, she felt relaxed and even grew thrilled and excited. I was chuckling at her childlike excitement and teased her about it. The view from the ropeway was marvelous and as we rose slowly upwards, a huge carpet of assorted flowers could be seen below.

The first temple we visited was the Mansadevi Temple. It is one of the most important temples of North India and one of the main places to see after Har-ki-Pauri in Hardwar. The Hindu goddess Mansa Devi is said to fulfill any wish you make there in the temple. The other temple was that of Chandidevi, on the Neel Parvat hills. This too is a very renowned temple with thousands of devotees visiting it on a daily basis. Even if one were a non-Hindu or an atheist, it’s worth visiting the hilltop to see the spectacular view of the surrounding mountains from the hilltop. In the months of September and October, the hilly landscape is much more magnificent with hazy mists. After the visit to the temples on the hills, our next destination was Rishikesh.

 There are a number of three wheeler tempos that make frequent trips to Rishikesh from Hardwar. Per-seat rates can be haggled and you can get quick, easy transportation from Hardwar to Rishikesh. It took us around 40 minutes to reach Rishikesh and we'd negotiated with the driver to drop us off near the Laxman Jhoola. This is a huge bridge, 5 kms north of Rishikesh, and is one of the main attractions of Rishikesh. It is an architectural marvel reaching upto great heights. We also got to see Ram Jhoola, a similar bridge, situated nearby.

One of the memorable impressions I have of Rishikesh is that when we were walking towards Laxman Jhoola - the road was downhill and as we walked down, the massive mountains on either side seemed to envelop us totally as though wrapping us in their gigantic arms to give us a warm bear hug.

Rishikesh is a more attractive destination for foreign tourists. The ones we happened to see looked like they’d emerged from the sixties time warp with their matted hair, colorful mismatched clothing, and strings of beads around their necks. Some were lounging near the chai tapirs (tea stalls); some others were strolling about and some were haggling with the roadside vendors. Rishikesh is renowned for herbs, gemstones, birthstones and rudraksha beads. There was an abundance of shops selling these. Most of these shops are targeted towards the foreign tourists and quote exorbitant rates so if you intend to buy any of the stuff, be sure to haggle or bring down the prices. Around 30 kilometers away from Rishikesh is Shivpuri, which is the whitewater rafting capital of India. The river there has 12 rapids over 36 kilometers and attracts people from far and wide.

At 7.30 pm, we headed back towards Hardwar. Before we reached our lodge, we had piping hot fried snacks at one of the famous shops, which is in existence since the last fifty years and has built a reputation of sorts. We topped it off with thick, chilled curd served in tiny earthen pots. The curd was unlike anything I'd tasted before- it was so thick and luscious.

The next morning, we made another visit to Har ki Pauri, this time with the intention of taking a dip in the holy Ganga. By 7 am, we were at the banks of the ghat. People stripping and immersing themselves in the water and then changing into fresh, dry set of clothes is a common sight in these places. Since almost everyone is aware about the sanctity of the dip, there are no qualms about stripping in public and wading into the waters. Those who are too shy to do so (like me for instance) take their dips fully clothed and dry themselves under the warmth of the morning sun.

We then went for a quick shopping spree. Hardwar is reputed for its woollens and intricately woven shawls. I cajoled my mother to buy some shawls for herself and she relented finally, buying two- one gray and one black. Along the way, we also bought knick-knacks and souvenirs such as mirrors made of shells. At noon that day, we bid a sad goodbye to Hardwar and boarded our train back to Mumbai.

What is good about the whole visit is that we spent only two days at the two places and yet had such an amazing time. Had we had a week's time how much more we would have accomplished! One thing is for sure - we are definitely going back there for a more leisurely vacation next time.

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