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Independent Travel

Sights for the Soul

India’s Holy City of Haridwar Welcomes Independent Travelers

Girl making offering in Haridwar
A young girl sells offerings to "feed the fish"—considered an auspicious activity for pilgrims.

At Haridwar, one of India’s most holy cities, being near the stone steps that lead to the banks of the Ganges, means being close to where pilgrims perform their holy acts of devotion. Most people wouldn’t consider proximity to a crematorium to be a desirable location for a hotel.

The majority of Westerners who visit the state of Uttaranchal in northern India head to the ashrams and yoga retreats in the town of Rishikesh, best known for being where the Beatles spent time meditating with the Maharishi Yogi in 1968. Or they indulge in some pampering at nearby Ananda Spa Resort. But I was attracted to Haridwar. Dusty, dirty, teaming with devotees, strictly vegetarian and alcohol-free, it sounded like everything a pilgrim town should be.

Located in the foothills of the Himalayas, 215 kilometers north of Delhi, it is a major pilgrimage site for Hindus who travel to bathe and build funeral pyres in the sacred waters of Ganges. It is also the gateway to the pilgrimage shrines of Badrinath and Kedarnath. According to Hindu religion, spending one night in Haridwar is the equivalent of gifting 1,000 sacred cows.

My driver, Mr. Krisnan, who had accompanied me to the Taj Mahal and the deserts of Rajasthan, was pleased with my choice.

“First, you saw the sights for the eyes and now you will see the sights for the soul,” he said, preparing for what would be a bone-jarring, day-long journey dodging camels, oxen hauling carts laden with sugar-cane and countless other cars.

Upon arrival, we left the vehicle at the edge of town, as cars are prohibited in Haridwar’s historic section. A rickshaw took me the final stretch to my destination, Haveli Hari Ganga. A historic home built in 1918, it is now a 20-room luxury hotel offering spiritual services, guides and ayurvedic spa treatments. Although I was attracted to its wallet-friendly prices (deluxe rooms including breakfast, steam bath, and yoga begin at 2800 rupees or $65), I was especially drawn to its location. Set on the banks of the Ganges River, it is a mere 300-meter walk through the Bara Bazaar to the sacred Har ki Pauri ghat where the nightly aarti river worship ceremony is performed.

“Watch out for the children,” warned Parthi Krishnan, the hotel manager, as we walked to the ceremony that evening. Too late. I looked away for a second and a pint-sized kid reached up, dabbed my forehead with a vermillion spot and had his hand out for the “service.”

Sadhus, hermits, pilgrims, and onlookers competed for space at the water’s edge. The ghat is regarded by Hindus as the most sacred and auspicious point to bathe in the Ganges as the Lord Vishnu is said to have left his footprint on its stone wall. Unlike polluted stretches further south, the water here is crystal clear, revealing schools of fish above the sandy white river bottom.

Crowds Worshipping
Crowds gather at the sacred Har ki Pauri waiting for the evening river worship ceremony to begin.

As the sky darkened, temple bells rang and Bhajan Sandhya (devotional songs) echoed off the hills. I hurried to purchase a lotus leaf, marigold petals, and a candle from a stall in the bazaar. While smoke filled the air from flaming torches, I stood in the chill Ganges and placed my offering in the fast-flowing water. Soon it was caught in the current and joined other flickering diyas (lamps) as they floated downstream and out of sight.

The next morning I awoke to the fragrance of sandalwood. Three pilgrims and their guru were performing an ancestral worship ceremony in the hotel’s courtyard. Outside, a trio of monkeys perched on the terrace against the backdrop of the forested green hills of Rajaji National Park. Heading downstairs to enjoy an ayurvedic treatment, I felt rejuvenated and was pleased to have chosen Haridwar. For me, the holy town was a breath of air for the spirit.

Women making offering in Haridwar
A devotee watches her sparkling "diya" float on the serene Ganges.

General Information

India Tourism Official site: www.incredibleindia.org.

Accommodations: The Haveli Hari Ganga offers a range of services for the independent traveler.

Michele Peterson, Local Encounters columnist for Transitions Abroad Magazine, has written for The Boston Herald, The Christian Science Monitor, The Globe and Mail, 50Plus, The Toronto Star, and The National Post, as well as many more.