I thought I had prepared myself for my first trip to India by anticipating a riotous cocktail of masses of brightly dressed pedestrians, a ceaseless din of hooting traffic, exotic curry bouquets mingling with diesel fumes, languid cows and curious monkeys and the not infrequent sweet smell of marijuana. Ofcourse, you cannot really prepare yourself for the magical cultural otherness of it all. What I had not anticipated was the breathtaking panoramic natural beauty of Uttarakhand in northern India.
April’s spring arrives with suffocating temperatures upto 45 degrees in the south of India, so we chose to holiday in the elevated altitudes of the northern State of Uttarakhand.
We began our trip in Rishikesh, the town made famous in the West after the Beatle‘s long stay and their famous “White Album”. Mountains covered with dense vegetation cradle this holy town which straddles the Ganga, with its 2 iconic steel rope pedestrian bridges. Midst narrow streets crowded with permanently hooting motorbikes, jeeps and cows, tea-shops with backpackers from all over the world and shops offering great ayurverdic massage, one finds rows of Ashrams offering a an array of yoga and mediation courses. Rishikesh highlights the overwhelming, almost ironic contradictions that are India. At every corner, picturesque views a midst brutal poverty and decrepit buildings suggesting a long past serene glory .
Lakshman Julla is the main bridge in Rishikesh and also the center of activity. Around the bridge are most of the Ashrams, restaurants, massage parlors, book and music shops . Once acclimatized to the conditions (shocking by an any Western urban standard ) we fell in love with Rishikesh and were happy to take part in the yoga and meditation classes – breathing deeply to relax. And like the many spiritual seekers and backpackers, just sit on a veranda at sunset, savoring Chai Massala and observing humanity in all its myriad forms.
From Rishikesh we took a public bus to Haridwar (mercifully, the driver only took up his marijuana joint as we pulled in to the final station). This is another major holy city where the Hindu daily religious ritual of Aarti takes place by Ghats, auspicious communal bathing points, by the Ganges river. We were lucky to arrive on a special annual pilgrimage holiday at the Har-Ki-Pauri ghat .
As the sun set, scores of thousands from all over the country, shuffled barefoot down to the holy Ganga, to perform the sacred purification & devotional ceremony of puga Aarti, invoking Maa Ganga, the mother of all Hindus, to purify them from their sins. As darkness fell, the crowds were chanting, and clanging bells while lighting their Aartis – woven flower baskets with lit candles- soon to be released to float down the Ganga, carrying their sins and worries away.
You are welcome to view the video we took of this amazing ceremony in Youtube.
We drove on and up to explore 3 ‘hill stations’, small towns, located high in the Himalayan foothills, established by the British as a place to escape from the summer heat of the southern panes. We visited the hill stations of Massuri, Nainital and Almora. Similar in their layout- they each have a main road called the bazaar, a library (each over 100 years old), a boat and club house, and some very typical old British colonial buildings. I could not avoid imagining the British ladies daily routine from gathering in the library in the morning to sipping tea at the club house in the afternoon.
We spent only 3 weeks in India and only saw Uttarakand, a very small part of this sub-continent. Nevertheless, it was the experience of a life time .The Hindus call Uttarakand ” Dev Bhoomi” the land of Gods of holy mountains, lakes and rivers. Winding up high altitude roads to the pilgrimage sites of Hindu mythology, our visit was a passage inwards as much as outwards.
Not to be forgotten.
I wish you a peaceful and happy week,