The ‘Putrakameshti Yagna’ conducted by King Dasharath (which begat him Ram, Laxman, Bharat and Shatrughan) was held under the auspices of a Brahmin called Rishyasring. Rishyasring was brought up by his father in the depths of a forest in such isolation that he had not seen a woman till his youth. At that time Romapada, the King of Anga, was facing a problem of severe drought and was advised to bring in the perfect Brahmacharin, Rishyasring, into his country to ensure rainfall. Romapada sent his Devadasis to the forest, who managed to inveigle Rishyasring into coming over to Anga. The land was blessed with rains and Romapada married his daughter Shantha to Rishyasring.
I, albeit a bachelor, cannot claim to be a perfect “Brahmacharin” but I can vouch for the fact that there was one commonality between Rishyasring’s visit to Anga and mine to Haridwar--RAINS. Practically from the time I stepped into the train to Haridwar to the time I stepped on the train back to Delhi it rained almost incessantly. The rains either poured down as though a giant tap had been turned on somewhere above or drizzled or, rarely and for short intervals, the clouds just loomed ominously overhead. I can honestly claim that I had no sight of the sun or the moon for the entire two days I stayed there.
The trip almost never happened. For quite some time now, Sagar and I had been planning to go over to Haridwar and Rishikesh on such a weekend when Sagar had a holiday on Saturday. Although Sagar complains of little work at his office, they had a knack of concentrating that little work over exactly those weekends and, consequently, this trip had suffered frequent postponements. At last, Sagar did book for the 24/25 September and we were off--but were we? Sagar’s office pulled off another spoiler by fixing a meeting on Sunday morning. To cut the long story short (when have I ever done that? My speciality is dragging a short story on and on) we went over to Haridwar as per plan with Sagar planning to return on Saturday night.
We arrived at ‘Shanthi Kunj’ duly and checked in. In case you did not know, Haridwar is a place chockfull of Ashrams and most people stay there. Some of these are Ashrams only in name and are hotels in nature. Shanthi Kunj is one of the true-blue Ashrams where you stay for free and donate what you please but to get decent rooms there it helps if you know someone connected with the Ashram. Our Good Samaritan was one Mr. Dubey, who was kind enough to not only book us the rooms but also to come over as soon as we arrived with hot tea.
Visitors to Haridwar come primarily to take a dip in Har-ki-Pauri. According to Mr. Dubey, this is the place where Lord Shiva is reputed to have taken a dip himself. Local legend, however, credits the place with bearing the imprint of Lord Hari’s foot. This place is also reputed, according to Mr. Dubey, to be once of the four places (the other being Ujjain, Nasik and Triveni Sangam at Allahabad) where Garuda spilled Amrit, when he was bringing it over to his stepmother Kadru in order to liberate his mother Vinata from slavery. (The tale goes that Kadru and Vinata bet upon the colour of the tail of the horse Uchchaisravas, which came out of churning the Ksheersagar. The horse’s tail was white and so said Vinata but Kadru had her offspring - the snakes - cover the horse’s tail in full to turn it black and, consequently, won the bet and made Vinata her slave (some versions say she was imprisoned in Patala, guarded by snakes). When Garuda asks her for the means to free his mother, he is asked to bring Amrit from Indra by force. Garuda manages just that but promises Indra that he would give him the opportunity to steal it back. Garuda brings the Amrit to Kadru and has his mother released. He ensures that Kadru and her children go over to take a ritual bath before drinking the Amrit thus allowing Indra to steal it back. The snakes return and, finding the Amrit pot missing, lick the sharp Kusa grass around it thereby ending with forked tongues).
Having had a dip at the Har-ki-Pauri, I was waiting for Sagar to finish with his temple rounds. (Innumerable temples line the banks of the Ganga at Har-ki-Pauri). While waiting I was musing about the variations in local languages and customs, set off by a chappie swearing “Ganga Mai ki kasam” where the Punjabi would say “By God”. Sagar came back and showed me another angle of the local custom by giving some alms to a beggar. Instantly, about twenty beggars sprang out of the ground and started baying at Sagar’s heels for alms.
It appears that alms-giving was by your choice only till the time you chose to give it to the first beggar. Thereafter, you were bound to treat all beggars equally and, so, were supposed to give everyone the same amount of alms - Communism in action. Even Sagar’s generous heart quailed at the thought of the storm he had called up, unwittingly, but by stout denial and the courageous action of taking to our heels we managed to get away from the screaming mob. (As it transpired, the restaurant - Chotiwala - we were heading for was placed at the same spot where this contretemps occurred and, thus, we had to come a full circle back to the restaurant!)
Did I say we escaped the mob? Nearly true but there were two persistent kids that chased us all the way bewailing our injustice at not treating all beggars equally. Sagar was relenting but I was seized with righteous antagonism at giving in to this sort of persistent blackmail and yelled at them to bugger off. I might as well have been whispering in Swahili into a howling wind for all the impact that I had. The kids were at us till we reached the restaurant and did not go till Sagar took some change off the restaurant chap and paid them off. In retrospect, it seems to me that while I was busy seeing points of principle Sagar only saw two hungry kids and while I was thinking of being emotionally blackmailed Sagar only felt compassion. Seems to me that ‘intellectuals’ do nothing but tag labels to what people with a heart do - and the wrong labels at that.
The Chandi Devi temple visit was the next on the itinerary. Although there was a cable car that could be taken to both the Mansa Devi temple and the Chandi Devi temple, I had planned to walk up the 3 Km distance to the Chandi Devi temple this time. (In my last visit I had gone to the Mansa Devi temple along with a colleague, whose pocket was picked there. This, naturally, curbed my enthusiasm for a second visit to the very crowded Mansa Devi temple. The view is great, either from the Cable car or from around midway the trek route, and well worth the vigilance you will need to exercise when inside the temple). The Chandi Devi temple is on the other side of the Ganga from Har-ki-Pauri and the Mansa Devi temple and is reputed to be the place where the Devi rested after vanquishing the demons Shumbh and Nishumbh,.
The trek up the Neel Parvat to Chandi Devi temple was very comfortable and, with all sorts of small waterfalls courtesy the rains, the Neel Parvat made an enchanting picture. The temple, itself, houses an idol reputed to have been installed by the Adi Sankaracharya in 8 A.D. Another temple dedicated to Anjana Devi, the mother of Hanuman is situated nearby. To my surprise I learnt from the temple that she was the daughter of Gautam Rishi and Ahalya. The same Ahalya who was so beautiful that all the demigods vied to marry her but who chose to wed the Rishi; who was deceived by Indra in the guise of the Rishi and cursed by the Rishi to turn to stone and was later redeemed by the touch of Shri Ram’s foot. Thus, it appears that the relationship between Ram and Hanuman has an added dimension - that Ram was the redeemer of Hanuman’s maternal grandmother.
The next stop was Kankhal-the place where Daksh Prajapati had conducted his Yagna where he had refused to invite his illustrious son-in-law, Lord Shiva, in order to spite him. This is the place, then, which is reputed to have seen the presence of all the demigods and the Trinity. Lords Vishnu and Brahma along with all the demigods were participants in the Yagna where Sati, the wife of Shiva, burnt herself because she could not tolerate the insults heaped upon her husband by Daksh. Lord Shiva then sent Veerbhadra to destroy the Yagna and kill Daksh, which he does successfully. Later on Lord Shiva relented and came over to Kankhal to revive Daksh, albeit with a goat-face, and the yagna is completed. The Ganga flows with such ferocious pace here that, with the added impetus of the rains, it was impossible for me to take a dip here. Sagar was not even interested in the attempt since he had had all the wetting he could tolerate with the rains.
We made the mistake of going back to the Ashram and returning later for the famous evening Ganga Arati at Har-ki-Pauri. Our assumption of a 7 PM Arati turned out to be wrong due to the early sunsets and, so, we missed the 10 minute window of 6.25-6.35 PM when the Arati was actually conducted. Sagar had to return to Delhi the same night which left me alone to take care of my intentions to trek up to the Nilkant Mahadev temple in Rishikesh and see the evening Ganga Arati at Haridwar before taking the train to Delhi the next night.
My Haridwar touring was by no means complete. To be the compleat tourist, I ought to have, at least, seen the Mercury Shivling at Harihar Ashram in Kankhal, Bhimgoda - which is a water tank reputed to have been formed by a blow of the Pandava Bhim’s knee, the Bharat Mata Ashram as well as the Saptarishi Ashram, where the Ganga is reputed to have split into seven streams in order to avoid disturbing the meditation of the Saptarishis. I, however, was satisfied for the nonce with my trek up Chandi Devi temple and, with only the Ganga Arati in the evening to go, I set off to Rishikesh on Day 2.
Rishikesh is at the foothills of the Himalayas and is famous for its various Ashrams. It has the reputation of being the Yoga Capital of India and the entry point for all the four major Dhams - Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. Rishikesh also has its own Ganga Arati at the Triveni Ghat. Despite all this, however, the most talked-about sights of Rishikesh are the Ram-Jhula and Lakshman-Jhula - a couple of relatively modern suspension bridges across the Ganga.
My intention was to visit the Nilkant Mahadev Temple, primarily because of the 10 Km trek uphill, which was what it was supposed to take to reach there according to information downloaded from the Net. It is also possible to motor up to the temple by a 30 Km road, again according to the Net. Mr. Dubey (my Haridwar Good Samaritan), however, cast doubts about the trekking distance and claimed that the trek was maybe 15-16 Km.s. This, naturally, made it necessary to factor in more time for the trek and, so, I woke up at the unearthly (for me) hour of 5 AM and was out of the Ashram waiting for a bus / shared motorcycle-taxi to Rishikesh. (What else is the English for the Phat-phati of Delhi or the Vikram of UP? :) It is a motorcycle engine driven multi-passenger vehicle)
As it usually happens with me, my initial wait of 15 minutes proved infructuous. So, I stepped into the nearest dhaba (out of the rains) and ordered a tea. By the time I got the tea and drank it, two buses to Rishikesh had buzzed past. Truly Snell’s Law of Maximum Cussedness holds good for me - Objects do go out of their way to irritate me.
At last one of those ubiquitous Vikrams came over and I boarded it. The customary wait for a surfeit of passengers ensued. I, in the meantime, was mulling the possibility that the trek path would be impassable due to the rains and also wondering about whether the trek could be accomplished with sufficient time left to come over to Haridwar in time for the Ganga Arati. My musings were interrupted by a rustic who had just seated himself in the vehicle.
“How much does it cost to go over to Rishikesh from here?” he queried.
“I am paying Rs.20.” said I and also acknowledged that I had not verified that the fare was fair.
“Why don’t you keep yourself informed?” said he in anger, as though I was his erring secretary.
I could not see how I, who was the least concerned about the fare I was paying, was culpable for not having equipped myself with a knowledge of the going rates while he, who was extremely bothered about the matter, found it all right to remain ignorant. He apparently thought that it was my bounden duty to keep myself equipped with the knowledge that he would find necessary to call upon. Truly a new twist to my nascent career as consultant!
The journey commenced without any satisfactory ending for my new-found and dissatisfied client. With my own concerns uppermost on my mind I set about to find out whether my intended trek was truly 15-16 Km.s one way. At the end of the group discussion that ensued upon my posing the question, I had my choice of options - (a) 30 Km.s (b) 24 Km.s and (c) 15 Km.s. All of them were unanimous in their opinion that it was foolish to even contemplate the very idea of walking the distance - particularly a shehari like me, was the unspoken undertone. By the manner in which they extolled the frequent jeep services to the Nilkant Mahadev temple, you would have thought that they were in for a commission on every passenger they drummed up for the jeeps.
I am a reasonably slothful chap by nature but there are times when a idea gets into my head and refuses to go away. I had made up my mind to walk up to the Nilkant temple and walk I would even if it killed me. Worried though I was about the possibility of not making it back to Haridwar on time, I got off the Vikram at Ram Jhula with the clear intention of continuing with my planned trek.
The incessant rains had caused me to leave my wallet behind at the Ashram in a bid to avoid the dissolution of all my money. Since I was carrying cash in my pockets and the rains showed no sign of abating, I ended up buying the Rs. 10 raincoats that were seeing brisk sales in both Haridwar and Rishikesh. These raincoats are an environmentalist’s nightmare. By the end of a few hours use, they normally hang around you in tatters leaving you with no option but to discard them. The only problem is that I, unfortunately, am of the vast majority for whom principles last only as long as they dont come in the way of their own comfort and, so, I did purchase, use and discard a ‘raincoat’ that day.
The path to Nilkant Mahadev temple starts on the other side of Ram Jhula and, so, I had to cross the suspension bridge. The bridge, itself, struck no chord in me but the majestic sweep of the Ganga below the bridge and the fluffy clouds sailing serenely across the face of an emerald mountain was a truly enthralling sight. The only problem is that the Ram Jhula is normally crowded and with all the pushing and shoving that goes on, it is difficult for you to just relax and enjoy the view. Not that I was in the mood for it anyway. I may have said that I would walk up if it killed me but I did want to give myself a reasonable chance of staying alive at the end of the walk and that meant that I had to return at some reasonable time for lunch. (Do I hear someone pulling out that hoary old chestnut about ‘living to eat’?)
If you turn right while on the road towards Laxman Jhula from Ram Jhula (near the Jeep stand) you are on the right road for the trek path to the Nilkant Mahadev temple. The initial stretch of the road is as good as flat and I managed a very brisk pace on it. After a point a signposted and cemented trek path starts to your left towards the temple.
At two or three points on the path, cool streams cut across the path leaving you with little option but to either wet your shoes or try to dance your way across on precarious footholds (and ending up with more things getting wet than just the feet). I enjoy getting wet anyway (except when I am bothered about currency) so walking across the streams was no problem. The paths carved across the mountain by the streams looked so enchanting that there was this irresistible pull to explore them. Unfortunately, time was a constraint and I did no more than make a mental note to come over at leisure the next time and meander around to my heart’s content.
After the initial couple of kilometers, the path got steeper and it became difficult to maintain a steady pace without taking frequent breaks to catch my breath. The torrential rains were a part of the problem since every lungful of air was half laden with moisture. By the time I reached the first dhaba, I was totally bereft of energy. The single cup of morning tea was insufficient to provide the necessary energy to impel me up this mountain.
I sank thankfully onto the stone parapet near the dhaba, demolished a packet of Parle-G within seconds and gratefully sipped on the hot tea. The dhabawala gave me some welcome news - that I was at the halfway point and that there were only a couple more kilometers of uphill trekking to do followed by a couple of kilometers of downhill walking. The trek, then, was no more than 8-9 kilometers. Those estimates of 15-30 kilometers were widely off the mark.
Within 300 meters of leaving the dhaba I was not so sure that those estimates were off the mark. I said 300 meters only with the benefit of hindsight - while walking uphill they seemed more like 3 kilometers. The vistas that opened out were wonderful. It was a fairyland view of green valleys and the distant glimmer of the Ganga’s meandering course covered in mist but walking uphill under a feeling of time pressure was not conducive to a relaxed trek and, so, fatigue was the overwhelming feeling of the moment instead of the awe that should have been predominant. The grandeur of the mountain would have been appealing were it not for the fact that I had the task of climbing it.
Then came a near vertical stretch of about 200 meters and I nearly fainted at the sight of it. (Well! When I was coming down it morphed into a 45-50 degree incline.). How does one paint an adequate word-picture of a doddering figure tottering on unsteady legs drawing in great rasping breaths with eyes fixed despairingly on the long path ahead? As with all other ordeals, this too came to an end. The path ahead was not too bad even if it was inclined uphill and soon enough the downhill part started. With not much more ado I reached the Nilkant Mahadev temple. This, apparently, was the place where Lord Shiva rested after he drank the Halahal poison that came out of the churning of the Ksheersagar.
The way back starts with a uphill trek but it did not appear too bad to me this time. I was pensive because the difficulty that I faced walking up this hill (well! When on the uphill trek it seemed like a mountain) was not too encouraging for a chap who was thinking in terms of doing the Kailash Mansarover trek in the future. Seemed to me that even the mandatory trek (failing which you had the option of mule/pony rides etc.) in the last 13-15 kilometers on the route to Kedarnath and of Yamunotri seemed beyond my limited capabilities. I stopped for tea at the same dhaba and found a couple of young chaps on their way uphill. One of them had been to Kedar and Yamunotri and he reassured me that the treks there were much easier since the incline wasn’t as bad. In return, by way of thanks for his reassurance, I informed him that the worst was yet to come for him!
I was walking down feeling rather proud of having achieved a difficult trek when I came upon a senior citizen couple holding hands and walking uphill in bare feet with their son holding an umbrella above them. This picture of conjugal harmony, filial affection and devotion to God was very uplifting to the spirits but it did let the air out of the balloon of my pride in having walked up to the temple.
By the time I reached the bottom of the hill I had recovered my spirits. I was feeling very hungry and rushed to the ‘Chotiwala’ restaurant, which is THE place to eat in Rishikesh for tourists. True to the name you will find a Chotiwala (human beings made up to look like the ‘Chettiar Bommai’s of the South) sitting in front of the restaurant. Having polished off a decent meal, I set off for Haridwar since it was already 3.30 PM.
While journeying back, it struck me that this whole trip to Rishikesh had been marred by the fact that I had concentrated too hard on achieving my goal and, in the process, had failed to enjoy the journey. I made a promise to myself that the next time I would spend more time in exploring the wayside rather than rushing about to the destination. In particular, it seemed to me that the best way to do the Nilkant temple was to go up by jeep and walk down - you could enjoy the view without your stomach setting the pace for you! Else, with around 5 hours for the round trip, you would find that aesthetics takes second place to hunger.
As usual, my touring in Rishikesh is not complete. The Ashrams of Rishikesh are a must see according to all reports so my next visit, if any, must involve a more prolonged stay at Rishikesh. But that lies in the womb of the unknown future and that day I had to see the Ganga Arati at Haridwar as per my own itinerary.
I stopped off at the Ashram for an hour of much needed rest and left for Har-ki-Pauri at 5 PM. Though the Arati is between 6.25-6.35, it is advisable to be early in order to seat yourself close to the Ganga so that the Arati on all the temples on the opposite bank are visible. The wait was long, but there was such a lovely and complete rainbow, with a couple of echoes, that I spent most of the time drinking it in even though I had to twist my neck around to see it behind my back.
The last half hour of the wait was marred by the fact that the security chaps there started the spiel about donations for the Ganga Arati. I am probably very unworldly in some ways and I hate the idea of people pestering you for money in temples. It seems to me that it destroys the very feel of a place of worship if you are continuously reminded of the idea that it is money that makes the world go around.
Then the bells started and the incantation. Within seconds the whole atmosphere became surcharged with a feeling of devotion. I came there with a wish to do the sights of the place but those ten minutes seemed to me to belong to another world. The huge multi-flame Aratis shown to the Ganga from all the multiple temples, the chanting, the flowers and diyas set afloat on the river and the slowly darkening sky all combined to create a mystical feeling for a few minutes.Then, suddenly, it was all over and the crowd started dispersing.
On my way back to my room in the Ashram, I suddenly recollected that I had not donated anything to them. I went over to their donation counter, made over my donation and went to my room. Since there was some talk of a strike by the Vikram drivers, while I was travelling from the Har-ki-Pauri to the Ashram, I decided to leave immediately for the Railway Station.
I got off at the Railway Station and took out my wallet only to find that all my currency was gone. Apparently some thief had managed to make his way into my room in the Ashram and nicked my money. He was kind enough to leave behind my train ticket and my mobile and, so, with the aid of the few notes left over in the pocket of my trousers I found myself just about capable of returning home. (I am antediluvian and am yet to take to plastic currency, though this experience has certainly made me think again!)
Unfortunately, my RAC ticket remained RAC and I resigned myself to a sleepless night. Not a very comforting thought, let me tell you, after the near 20 Km trek I had completed during the day. The other chap - a twenty year old called Harish - who was to share my berth sought my help in getting a berth by ‘managing’ the TTE. I had to confess to him that I was unable to help him in any manner owing to the fact that my financial resources were parlous at the moment.
We ended up getting a berth in the normal course and arrived at Delhi. I was proceeding to the Bus Stand, which is about the only mode of transport available to me in my circumstances, when I was accosted by Harish who wanted to know how I was going to get to my residence since I had lost my money. Despite my assurances that I could manage to get to my home he insisted upon dropping me off at my home before he went to his place. It is a heartwarming feeling to come across the few Good Samaritans who still exist in this world.
Thus a wonderful couple of days, which could have ended on a sour note, turned out to have an equally wonderful ending. I only hope that, next time, I will manage to spend time on smelling the flowers in addition to performing the journey.