As most religious places, Haridwar too has its fair share of supporters and detractors. While the former vouch for the soothing touch of prayers, pundits and aartis that give them strength as they come to immerse the ashes of their dear ones, for the latter it is akin to going to a chamber of horrors, being accosted by beggars, guides and gurus of all shapes and sizes who speak in an irritating English accent, tugging at your emotions, imploring you to loosen your purse strings, leaving no stone unturned to hoodwink you.
Now, whether you love it or hate it, Haridwar with its unending flow of tourists who transit the town as they move up to Rishikesh, Dehradun and beyond or the spiritual seekers who come and stay in one of the affordable ashrams that dot the city for weeks and months at end, learning yoga and meditation, is finding a lot of takers who want to just visit Haridwar and stay there for 3-4 days. They can be seen sipping a cuppa by the Ganges, not paying heed to their laptops and mobile phones and just allowing their spirits to soar as they try seeking answers to existential questions and dilemmas.
For me, a resident of Haridwar for over three decades, I still retain a childlike sense of awe when I see the magic and power of prayers, community gatherings and stories of miracles that make me aware of a new and emerging side to a city that never sleeps.
Holiest of the holy
Haridwar is regarded as one of the seven holiest places for Hindus. The river Ganges after covering over 250 kms from Gangotri glacier in the Himalayas reaches the plains at Hardwar. Etymologically speaking, 'Hari' means Lord Vishnu, and 'Dwar' means the Gateway. Hence to reach 'Badrinath' the temple of Lord Vishnu, pilgrims begin their spiritual ascent from Haridwar .On the other hand, Haridwar is also called ' Hardwar' where ' Har' means 'Lord Shiva' and Kedarnath, the holy shrine of Shiva ,the journey to which too commences from Hardwar and hence the names.
Stories abound in this holy city and if you are lucky you can end up spending time with some of the most interesting story tellers you are ever likely to encounter. The advent of Ganga has an interesting myth backing it. The legendary king, Bhagirath is said to have brought Ganga from the heavens through years of penance for the salvation of his ancestors. A tradition, which is adopted by all devout Hindus, who bring the ashes of their departed relatives to the banks of the Ganges.
The 'pandas' of Haridwar keep genealogical records called 'Vahi' of all Hindu descendents as per their ancestral lineage. They serve as keepers of a repository that houses vast family trees which go as far back as seven previous generations.
Mythology has it that Haridwar, Ujjain, Nasik and Allahabad were places where the holy elixir of immortality accidentally spilled from the pitcher while being carried by the celestial bird 'garuda' after the 'sagar manthan'. This occasion is also celebrated as the Kumbh mela every three years in each of these cities and thus every 12 years in Haridwar. Kumbh mela is also the largest congregation of people, where a crowd several thousand strong take a dip at the Brahm kund. Pilgrims throng Haridwar to visit the hilltop temples of Mansa Devi, Chandi Devi, Daksh Prajapati and Shantikunj to seek redemption and be expiated of their past karma.
Haridwar itself has 'panch tirth' within its periphery. The Har-ki-pauri, Kushawart ghat at Kankhal, Mansa Devi temple, Chandi Devi temple and the Neel Dhara. The evening aarti at the Har- ki- Pauri is an ethereal experience for any pilgrim visiting Hardwar. The aarti amidst the chanting of mantras and floral lamps floating in the river is an enchanting view. As the pristine waters flow quietly, the raging fire from hundreds of wick brass holders set afloat by pilgrims and visitors, against a scarlet sky conjure a sight that makes the human spirit seek oneness with god in what is a moment of great energy and peace.
Abundance of art and culture
Haridwar, is hardly your quaint sleepy and unassuming town in Uttarakhand. It finds a laudable mention in history as an annexe of Mauryan and Kushan empire in the 3rd century. The archaeological findings from the terracotta culture also give us good reason to believe that there was plenty of art that existed in this region. Little wonder then that there are some prominent references that hark back to Haridwar, in the famed travel accounts of Chinese traveller Huan Tsang. The Mughal emperor Akbar religiously drank water from the Ganges. His attendants ensured that he received its waters - dispatched in sealed silverware to wherever he was stationed. His minister, Raja Man Singh of Amber laid the foundation of the present city of Haridwar and constructed the ghats at Har- ki- pauri.
The Sikh guru, Guru Nanak Dev and Guru Amardass frequently visited Haridwar to meditate and preach. In fact the holy 'Tap stal of guru Amar Dass, Dera Baba Dargah Singh, in Kankhal, is a revered destination for the Sikhs. Today, it is managed by a young mahant, Ranjai Singh who has studied at the prestigious Doon school and is currently studying at Delhi university. Its cultural lineage is evident when you see the exquisite murals and intricate stone carvings in the old havelis in Kankhal.
Going beyond religion
Piran Kaliyar, the dargah of one of the most revered Muslim saints Alaudin Sabir Kaliyari, is situated at about half an hour's drive from Hardwar. It was built by Ibrahim Lodhi in the 13th century.
The Neel Dhara Pakshi Vihar and the Rajaji National Park are popular with nature lovers and trekkers. Neel Dhara also bears the remains of an ancient port while Rajaji Park is accessible through various gates, namely the Ramgarh gate and the Mohund gate, Motichur, Chilla and Ranipur gate. Known for the reserves of many extinct as well as migratory birds, tigers, antelopes and elephants; the jungle safari is a must- do for the adventure thirsty.
River rafting from the month of October to February is a thrilling experience for water lovers. It is monitored by expert divers and intrepid brave hearts who can also enjoy cliff jumping into the deep waters while enjoying sighting waterfowl.
The Devsanskriti Vishwavidyala is known for diploma and certificate courses in theology, yogic sciences , alternative therapies and spiritual counselling. The Sanskrit university here, is the only university in the world dedicated to studies of ancient Hindu scriptures. The building is an eclectic mix of various Indian architectural styles. The Gurukal Kangri University is one of the oldest Indian university and a must see for those who want to be taken back in time to the guru-shishya parampara.
The ones who have known Haridwar only as a humble transit destination, would be surprised to note that there is a strong industrial side to the town too. The Bharat Heavy Electrical Limited, a Navratna public sector undertaking has over its 15 kilometres campus a mini township with schools, recreational clubs, squash and tennis courts, swimming pool and hospitals. Then there is the State Industrial Development Corporation of Uttarakhand, a public sector township again with over 5000 plants and an integrated industrial estate with business houses like Hindustan Lever, Hero Honda, Havell's, Dabur, Mahindra & Mahindra and ITC. Most of them allow visitors a day tour.
Gastronomic delights by old timers
The almost 100 years of service in terms of finger licking food is provided by the well known Mathurawale and Mohan puriwale. Still warped in a time and age of its own, they serve simmering gravies and puris that have no equal and mithai that makes it impossible to quell the impulse to indulge.
The main shopping area is the 'Moti bazaar' which connects the town to the ha