anisha shah / Destination / globetrotter / journalist / North India / travel writer / world

Deep spirituality in Haridwar

Elderly Sadhu / Saint in Haridwar

Haridwar is a striking start. The drive to Uttarakhand state is a liberating assault on the senses. I lose myself watching locals in rural villages run basic human errands to survive. Immersed in a sea of colour, steeped in new smells, enshrouded in a layer of dust from car windows wide open, wind in hair and filling my lungs on India‘s atmosphere, I feel free & open to experiences. My attention flits to a sudden smattering of glitter. Four college girls emerge through the red village earth like a group of Bollywood heroines, adorned in a rainbow of red &pink silks; mirror-work glistening in the sunlight. They’re laughing &chatting, seemingly not a care in the world; ‘Civics’ textbooks in hand.

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Education is key to India’s future. As a Postmodern feminist, I feel encouraged seeing billboards urging parents to give their daughters the best chance in life, ‘Your little girl today, world leader tomorrow,’ a clear underlying glimmer of hope that tomorrow’s girls will get a chance at education, rights &life.

Further along, farmers ride bull carts loaded with vegetables to sell at market. Huts house multi-generations of fathers who’ve known nothing but the land they farm. They’re often worn to the bone. Stopping midway for freshly brewed spiced tea at a roadside ‘Dhaba’ stall, a farmer walks by; his body withered, skin creased as a walnut shell, face the colour of dark chocolate; sun-worn from year-round exposure to harsh elements. I smile gently. As he smiles back, his whole face sparks up like lightening exuding a flash of joy; a smile that speaks straight to my soul. In my head, I’ve already flung my arms around him telling him what an amazing job he’s done; desperately wanting to reassure him that life will be alright. Thus begins the unique kind of life education so synonymous with travelling.

Haridwar, ‘the Gateway to the Gods’ is brimming with natural beauty and gleams under the Gods as a religious retreat. Early morning, I step onto my 95-year-old Haveli’s private ‘ghat’ steps, to participate in ‘Aarti,’ a Hindu worship ritual where deities are praised with light from oil lamps and song of prayer. Awakening to blessings on the banks of the Ganges, considered by Hindus as the world’s most sacred river, is a refreshing awakening of mind, body &spirit. I feel calm &cleansed.  I feel emotionally lighter afterwards and it’s only Day 1!

Haridwar is teeming with ‘Sadhus’ or saints, covered only in orange robes, faces worn with life’s lines, heads ambushed in a forest of white hair &white beards, rolling prayer beads in their fingers whilst muttering chants, lost in their beliefs.

The Haveli is 95 years old and an architectural marvel, having been restored to glory whilst retaining an old-world yester-year charm. It has remained true to itself whilst ‘holiday hippies’ have come and gone, having housed countless in their quest for religion and meaning of life. Poverty is as deep-set as the town. The haveli, in the heart of the bazaar, down tiny alleyways, opens up right on the banks of the river to an explosion of pastel colours and character. Food, here, is prepared freshly, with a home-cooked feel that leaves you feeling heartily pampered.

Haridwar’s raison d’être is the mystical evening Ganga aarti, worshipping the divine river. As darkness descends, I’m stood on the slippery Har-ki-Pauri footsteps to the vigorous Ganges, as thousands gather. The orange and white domes, I’ve spent days dreaming about, are now firmly planted in the same soil upon which I’m standing. Frenzied whimsical chanting begins, enforced by haunting bells; the air thick, redolent with incense; flickers of candles speckle the black night river. Robed priests line the waterway holding up large burning oil lamps, revering the river and blessing people. The hypnotised crowd pushes forward, fingertips reaching out to touch a lamp; their sheer force shoves me further into the water flaring my feelings of claustrophobia. The heat of the raging flames, engulfing the pandit’s arms, doesn’t deter him from prayer. The mood’s enchanting, almost tantric, mesmerising me momentarily.

Priests offering blessings


In the midst of the mayhem, I try to step outside myself to absorb the awesomeness of this powerful ritual. Eventually, the impassioned crowd dwindles; we float our flower candle baskets with a wish. Watching them drift away, along the Goddess of rivers, tears trickle down my cheek; overcome with emotion.

Mansa Devi temple above the havelis, Haridwar

Cable car up to Mansa Devi temple, where ‘heartfelt wishes come true’

The next morning, a cable car elevates us to panoramic heady views from a mountain-top temple where it’s believed any wish made from the heart will come true. Collect a goody-bag of offerings to place before God and a red & gold ribbon to tie around the temple at unmissable points, whilst making a wish. I leave my hope there atop the ‘Mansa Devi’ temple, surrounded by the wishes of others – a tree trunk thickening daily in the red& gold aspirations of thousands of visitors.

Worshipping the divine river at a tiny riverside temple for blessings

Children play above the mighty river Ganges

The final morning is spent simply observing from my turn-of-the-century Haveli’s private ghat, eating freshly cooked ‘Gulab Jamun’, balls of deep-fried dough and milk curd dipped in sugar syrup flavoured with saffron and cardamom, cup of freshly-brewed Masala tea in hand. Through the intoxicating aromas of warming ginger, cardamom and pepper, I can still smell the freshness of the vigorous river, hear its rapid flow below my feet and feel its gentle spray against my skin, as it thunders along a rocky route. The old world charm of the Haveli Hari Ganga, right on the banks of the sacred Ganges, is hard to rival. A restored characteristic former residence with spacious suites opening up at the foot of the sacred river; it’s one of the most scenic spots. Just metres away, echoes of the laughter of children playing with their baby siblings on the banks of the river, whilst parents wash their clothes and hair, bathe and swim in the river. Further along is a tiny riverbank temple, where a couple worship and make offerings. A holy man holds up, to the sky, a copper water bowl offering it to the Gods before ceremoniously pouring water out into the river, chanting prayers. It’s an incredible start to this journey and I count my blessings taking it all in.

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4 thoughts on “Deep spirituality in Haridwar

  1. Thank you for providing such wonderful viewing and reading. You certainly maintain a very high standard. Please give me time and I’ll certainly catch up with you.

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