Weekend Getaway to Hardiwar

Trip Start Aug 11, 2007
Trip End Jul 30, 2008

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

This weekend I took a quick trip to the holy Hindu city of Hardiwar with Lily and Myla, two of the other girls in the fellowship.  After hearing mixed reviews about Rishikesh from our friends that had gone last weekend, we decided to check out Hardiwar instead, since it was supposed to be cleaner, less touristy, and even more "holy" a city.

We aranged for a taxi to pick us up at our guest house and drive us down the windy, windy road to Dehra Dun, the city at the base of the mountains.  The ride was a bit nauseating for me (as usual), but we got to the Dehra Dun bus station in about 2 hours and then more easily than expected found the bus going to Hardiwar.  The bus was one of these old school buses with a noisy motor and loud horn (a necessity in India, I've come to learn).  However, the ride was actually nice and we got to see lots of monkeys, people, etc. out the window on the way.

We arrived in Hardiwar at about 1:30pm and, after a bit of confusion and some attempts at bargaining, we got into an auto rickshaw and asked him to take us to this Ashram that had rooms for tourists.  I had glanced at the map in my Lonely Planet book on the bus, and had thought that this Ashram was one of the closest ones to the center of Hardiwar.  However, as the rickshaw continued to backtrack our route from Dehra Dun, all three of us got a bit nervous, and I realized that I had mistakenly misread the map...the Ashram was actually a ways out of the city.  No wonder the rickshaw driver had argued with us when we kept insisting that the Ashram was only 1 km away.

We arrived at the Ashram, but decided that it was too far out of the way to stay there, and so negotiated with the driver to take us back into the city to another hotel that my book said was "relatively clean" and well-located.

The rickshaw driver took us back into the city and then suddenly pulled over on the side of the street in back of a cycle rickshaw.  We discerned from him that cars and auto rickshaws weren't allowed to go past that point on the street, and that he wanted us to get into his friend's cycle rickshaw to take us the rest of the way to our hotel.  We were a bit confused, but decided to trust the guy and smooshed into the tiny cycle rickshaw with Lily seated on a little wooden plank on the back and holding on for dear life.  I still have no idea how the cycle rickshaw drivers pull so much weight, since they're all pretty small guys.  All their muscle must be in their legs!

About 2 minutes later, we pulled up the Hotel Om and realized that if we had known, we could have gotten there by walking just 5 minutes up the street.  Oh well...at least we made it to our desired destination.

The hotel staff showed us one of the available rooms, and told us that another with a balcony view was going to become available in about 30 minutes.  We opted to wait for the room with the balcony and ventured back out into the street to find a place for lunch.  

Lily had read in my guidebook that there was one "fancy" restaurant called Big Ben in Hardiwar, and the hotel clerk told us that it was just a 5 minute walk down the street, so we decided to head their to treat ourselves to a nice meal.

Big Ben's was definitely a good choice!  It really wasn't "fancy" inside, although all the waiters were wearing white tuxedo-esque shirts and black bow ties and there was air conditioning, which seems to qualify any restaurant as high-end.  We ordered some delicious sauces, garlic naan, and lassies to drink.  It was nice to sit down and rest after our 5 hour journey!

After lunch we went back to the hotel and checked into our room.  We rested a bit and I went out on the balcony to take some pictures.  I stopped my photographing, however, when people on the street started starting and pointing at me.

We decided to wait until Sunday to see the famous Hardiwar temples, and instead decided to spend the afternoon exploring the Bara Bazaar and going to the flower-burning ceremony (puja) that Lonely Planet had informed us about.

Our hotel was conveniently located right next to the bazaar, so we had no trouble finding our way.  We weaved through the crowded streets of the bazaar, stopping often to take a peek at the interesting items being sold in all the stalls.  There were tons of stalls selling prayer beads, framed pictures of the various Hindu gods, and beautiful yellow and organge prayer fabric with "Om" written all over it in Hindi.  I bought a couple small framed pictures of Krishna and another god and a beautiful "hippie" shirt made out of the yellow prayer fabric.  By pure chance, our wanderings led us through the bazaar and out onto the crowded banks of the ganges and to the Hari-Ki-Puri ghat where, unbeknownst to us, the flower puja woudl soon take place. 

We walked along the river towards the ghat, trying to ignore the constant requests for money from kids who followed us along.  It's really difficult for me to be confronted with this and know the by giving these kids money, I will most likely not be helping them since many children are used in money-making schemes and rarely get to keep the fruits of the labors.  I know this is something I'll have to grapple with all year and decide how to deal with...hopefully I can learn more from my coworkers at my NGO.

We climbed some steps up onto a bridge overlooking the ghat and discovered an enormous crowd of people sitting on the banks of the river and many more bathing in it.  We took this as a sign to mean that something was going to happen pretty soon, so we made our way toward the crowd, unsure of where to go but hoping that we'd soon find out.

It soon started to get dark, and uniformed officers began herding people down the steps on the other side of the bridge and into the sea of people.  We hung back a bit, hesitant to push ourselves all the way into the middle of the crowd and wanting to stay on the higher steps where we had a good view of the river and the shrines that were being carried out across the way.

It seemed like we made it into the ghat area just in time, because the officers began putting up a barricade on the other side of the bridge and roping off the top of the stairs.

I sat in awe and anticipation, trying to take in the amazingly colorful sea of people sitting on the ground in front of me.  There must have been at least 1000 people, if not more!  Some people began lighting leaf-bowls of flower petals on fire and floating them down the river in offering to the holy ganges.

A couple from New Delhi befriended us, and we chatted for a bit as we waited for the ceremony to begin.  I've heard that Indians are always ready to extend an invitation to their home, but I hadn't experienced this before.  However, after chatting for a few minutes, the couple told me that I should come visit them and that they'd show me around next time I was in Delhi, and the wife wrote down her phone number and email for me.  I'm nto sure if I'll take them up on their offer, but it was very nice of them in any case!

As we waited for the puja ceremony to begin, several uniformed men made their way through different sections of the crowd seated on the banks of the Ganges.  I soon discovered that these men were the offering collectors (as described in Lonely Planet India).  The collector in my section of the crowd gave what seemed like a motivational speech, asking people to give monetary donations as part of the puja.  He led a few chants and the crowd around me erupted in chanting after him, lifting their arms in the air.  The money collectors in each of the different sections of the crowd were doing this too, and as different parts of the crowd raised their arms in succession, it kind of looked like they were doing a not-so-well orchestrated "wave."   I couldn't really understand what they were saying (though maybe I'll be able to when my Hindi gets better), but it seemed like they were praying to and praising the Ganges.

After the chants ended, the money collector stepped carefully through the crowd, collecting rupees from the seated masses and handing each person a hand-written receipt in return for their donation.  I asked the couple next to me what the receipts were for, and they told me that they were for the government to prove that money had been donated to this city-run puja.

When the money collectors finished, the ceremony began.  People lit their leaf-bowls filled with flower petals on fire and, on the opposite side of the river, 21 torches were lit in succession around several small mounted shrines.

As we were watching the leaf-bowls of burning petals float down the river, we noticed a couple teenage boys jump into the Ganges and begin swimming around.  I tried to figure out if they were just crazy kids who thought it would be cool to take a dip in the middle of the puja ceremony, or if they were hired by the city to make sure the petal burning and floating process went smoothly...I never did find out.

Soon after the 21 torches were lit and a few more chants were sung by the crowd, the ceremony ended.  We decided to wait it out for a while by the railing of the staircase in order to avoid leaving with massive crowds of people who were trying to make their way back up onto the bridge.

While we were getting seated for the puja earlier, my two friends had began talking to an Israeli girl who decided to take an 11-month trip to explore India after she got out of the army.  She was at the end of her trip, but had traveled to so many different places over the last 10 months.  She ended up sitting near us during the ceremony, so we walked back towards our hotel with her and we all decided to have dinner together.

We ate at another "higher-end" place due to our need for A/C after sweating in the heat for at least four hours.  At dinner our Israeli friend told us about the different places she had traveled in India, and gave us advice on places we should check out in our own travels.  I enjoyed meeting her and hearing about her experiences, and we exchanged emails before going to our different hotels.

When we got back to the hotel room, we turned on the TV and collapsed on our beds.  Only a few minutes after we got back, the power went out in our hotel and we were left in pitch-black darkness.  However, about a minute later, the power came back on and we felt relieved.  But our relief was short-lived, for the power went out again in another two minutes.  It came back on in a few seconds this time, and we braced ourselves for another outage.  Over the next 10-15 minutes, the power flickered on and off at least once every two minutes, making it very hard to get ready for bed.  Power outages like this are typical at least a few times a day in India, and it's good that we found this outage more amusing than annoying, since we'll be dealing with these all year!  Eventually the power came back on for longer than two minutes, and we all go ready for bed and crashed.

On Sunday morning, we decided to explore a couple of the famous Hindu temples of Hardiwar.  We had read about the cable cars that take people up to the two best-known temples, located on hilltops on  opposite sides of the Ganges.  Our hotel happened to be really close to one of the cable car stations, so we decided to go over and see if we had enough time to visit both temples before check-out time at 12noon.  When we got to the ticket office for the cable cars, the line was already down the street.  We decided to get in it and make other plans if it didn't seem to be moving.  Luckily, the line moved fairly quickly, and after about a 30 minute wait, we made it up to the ticket window and purchased a combination ticket to take us to both temples, Mansa Devi and Chandi Devi.

We got on the cable car to Mansa Devi first.  The cable car experience felt strangely like a Disneyland ride, and to validate my feeling, there was even a plastic statue of Mickey Mouse in the cable car waiting area.  The three of us got into our little gondola and ascended the mountain, taking in the awesome view on the way up.

The cable car station at the top of the mountain seemed to be inside the temple itself.  We got out of our gondola and followed the crowds of people to an area where we took off our shoes.  We followed the flow of the crowd again towards the snaking line into the temple, and I once again felt like I was in line for a ride at a theme park.  While we were trying to get into line, hoards of people who seemed to be in a rush kept pushing past us and getting in line themselves.  Finally we got brave and used some elbow action to push our own way into the line.  Luckily the pushing and shoving stopped once we were in the single-file snaking line leading us into the temple.

The inside of the temple was not as spectacular as I had expected, but there were many interesting shrines set up to different Hindu gods inside.  We followed the line of people and did what they did.  We gave some money as an offering at one of the largest shrines and the man collecting offerings dipped his thump in orange paint to give each of us a bindi on our foreheads.  Behind the largest shrine, a man stood behind a counter grabbing neatly-tied red bags containing food offerings  from the devotees who thrust their packages towards him.  I couldn't quite believe that the giving and receiving of offerings was done in such a brusque, rushed and unceremonious manner, but I guess that with so many pilgrims bringing offerings, the process has to move as quickly as possible.  We wove our way through the temple, looking at the beautiful shrines, and soon made our way back out towards the cable car station.  As we were heading out, an Indian family asked my friend Lily if she would hold their tiny baby girl and take a photo with her.  I think the fact that Lily is blond and blue-eyed had a lot to do with it, and it was awesome that she got to hold such a cute baby and be honored in such a way.

When we got back down the mountain, we asked where we needed to go to catch the bus over the river to the other temple's cable car station.  A family of Indian tourists pointed us in the right direction.  We got to the bus waiting area and were told to get a numbered ticket from a man at a podium to determine our place in the bus line.  We waited for about 10 minutes and then checked our watches.  It was almost 11:00am, and it was doubtful that we were going to make it to the temple and back before check-out time.  We deliberated for a bit while fending off three insistent little girls who kept trying to sell us the brightly-wrapped food packages used as offerings at the temples.  Finally, and a bit hesitantly, we decided to waste a little money and forego the trip to the second temple in order to ensure that we had time  to eat lunch and get on a bus back to Dehra Dun by 1:00pm.  We wanted to make it back to Landour by 5:00pm or so to see the parade for Krishna's birthday that our Hindi teachers told us was taking place.

After a quick lunch, we did some haggling and decided to take a cycle rickshaw to the bus station.  I again have no clue how the rickshaw driver peddled all three of us and our bags, but he managed somehow.  When we got to the station, the driver tried to tell us that the price he quoted us was per person, not total (this is a common gimmick that rickshaw drivers have used on us before).  So, we paid him a little more than the amount originally quoted and headed into the bus station to ask where the bus to Dehra Dun was leaving from.  Luckily we got on before the bus was too crowded and got seats.  More people piled on until some were standing in the aisle and others were hanging out the door.  Then we were off for the 2 hour ride back to Dehra Dun.

On the bus, we tried to use Lily and Myla's recently purchased cell phone to call the taxi driver to let him know when to meet us in Dehra Dun and take us back to Landour.  However, after many failed attempts, we surmised that the cell phone was out of minutes and decided to just wait and see if there were any taxis or buses when we got to the Dehra Dun station.  This ended up being a good decision, since we caught a bus back to Landour/Mussoorie from Dehra Dun at a tiny fraction of the price that it would have cost us in a taxi...the windy ride up the mountain was just a little more "treacherous" in such a big vehicle.

We got back to dowtown Landour/Mussoorie at 5:30pm, just in time to see the start of the parade for Krishna's birthday...we couldn't have timed it better if we had tried.  There were tons of people lining the streets, hanging out of windows and over balconies, and standing on their roofs to catch a glimpse of the parade festivities.  I wondered where everyone came from, since I know that Landour and Mussoorie aren't such big towns.

Because I had my big backpack with me from the weekend, I planted myself again a store entrance and hoped that no one tall would stand in front of me.  

The parade has lots of "floats" which were essentially big trucks with flat beds on which children, women and men beautifully costumed as Hindu gods and goddesses were seated or standing in posed positions.  Often the trucks-floats would stop right in front of me and the costumed float-riders would get down and perform songs, dances and music for the crowd.  On one of the floats a pretty girl wearing heavy makeup and beautiful clothes was seated on a tall stack of 5 large clay pots being supported by a man I suspected to be her dad...she was definitely one brave kid!

Where I parked myself just happened to be where all the truck-floats turned the corner, so I had to constantly smoosh myself up against the wall to make sure that my feet wouldn't get run over or trampled by the crowd trying to squeeze through the narrow space between the stores and the trucks.  At one point, a tiny Tibetan woman with an adorable baby bundled on her back stopped in front of me as she attempted to make her way past the truck-floats.  The woman came up to my shoulder and didn't seem to notice that her baby was being pushed and shoved by the crowd trying to move behind her.  I put my hand on the baby's head and tried to shield it from the onslaught of pushing people. 

I'm definitely glad we made it back in time to see this local celebration!  It was a highlight of my time here in Landour and a nice way to end such a fantastic weekend adventure!


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