Notes of a First-time Pilgrim: Experiencing the Ganga

Selfie by the Ganga

October 6, 2015:

I remember a friend once telling me that one had to travel alone to truly appreciate the generosity this universe has to offer. I think of her now, as I write this. I thought of her at odd moments during the entire trip, each time the warmth of the world’s goodness reached out and touched me…filling me with a profound sense of gratitude. 

Maybe that is what pilgrimage is – the quest for the intangible good, within and without, relinquishing all sense of entitlement…  

Sights in passing – from Haridwar to Rishikesh at daybreak


“Kahin yeh toh woh do number wali madam nahi hain?” A man, whom I later came to know was our tour guide Chauhanji, asked the lady manning the desk at Panicker Travels’ office. She confirmed that I was indeed the madam slotted for seat number two of the rather tired-looking bus that was revving on the roadside. If Chauhanji looked a wee bit disappointed at the sight of the jean-clad Amazon towering ahead of him, he covered it up quickly enough and bravely welcomed me.

Eight of us, all noticeably South Indian: three couples looking at retirement, a rather angry-looking man who sat down in the seat behind mine and started staring balefully outside without speaking to anyone (he maintained the stare and the silence throughout the trip!), and yours truly. We settled down inside the bus, which was still waiting for someone.

Soon they arrived in a noisy bustle: a lady who appeared to be in her 50s, accompanied by a young man somewhere in his late twenties or early thirties, evidently from Kerala.

And we were ready to go.

Chauhanji took out his mic. Chauhanji and his mic were to be an integral part of our trip henceforth, briefing us on the places we would be visiting each day, the logistics thereof, and the history and spiritualsignificance of each. He started out with a small sermon on the importance of praying and maintaining a positive spirit throughout the rather tough journey ahead of us as ten pairs of tired and apprehensive eyes stared back silently at him.

…and his mic

Our first stop was a Ganesha temple in Delhi where, true to tradition, the necessary pooja was done for the bus and its passengers to reach Badrinath and return safely, without hitches.

We scrambled back into the bus, made ourselves as comfortable as we could, given the fact that this was no luxury bus we were travelling in, and tried to sleep. Our guide, in the meantime, introduced us to the crew: the driver and his adolescent son, a young assistant, Chauhanji himself and two cooks. The latter would serve us fresh, hot food thrice a day wherever we were stationed, plus bed coffee as room service.

I was half-asleep through the first leg of the journey that deposited us sometime before dawn in a hotel in the vicinity of Haridwar.

Note: The word ‘hotel’ is a euphemism from here onward. The places we stayed in kept us mindful of the fact that this was pilgrimage, not picnic, that we were embarked on. In the course of the trip, I learned to be thankful for simple things like running water, working toilets and decent meals served on time.

Nothing like a pilgrimage to help you sort out the priorities of life.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
And the view thereof

We started for Rishikesh after breakfast. It was there that I first encountered the Ganga – wide, seemingly calm, with temples and closely packed buildings on either bank. We crossed the river across Lakshman Jhula to begin the temple run – temple walk, actually.

Oh we walked, and how! From temple to temple, from temple to cable car and back, from there to the boat that would take us across the Ganga, and beyond to the rickety tea-stall that sold divine ginger tea, then to the cab and finally the bus…

The Ganga at Rishikesh

PIC_5391I find it tough now to keep track of all the temples we visited… What I have is my notebook, where I had made random entries – paragraphs, sentences, at times words – to jog my memory. But those notes stop short of specifics. My bad. 

The cable car that took us to Mansa Devi temple off Rishikesh
From the boat in which we crossed the Ganga

My first entry on that first day, written sometime in the afternoon, reads as follows:

And here I am on this journey, this quest for peace, for a miracle. In the hope that the chaos, the noise within that has risen to a self-devouring crescendo, will subside, dissipate… For, why else had I come? 

Yet, so far there has been no epiphany.

Strange, our temple cities are. Where sanctity co-exists in an uneasy truce with  filth. Where the divine is peddled on street-sides – both by hunger and by greed – to the bewilderment of the seeker.  Where one had to pick one’s way to God with extreme care and caution…

The other side of pilgrimage

And then there is the Ganga, who seems inured to it all, untouched as much by the impurities as by the teeming human presence. She just meanders on with the grace and majesty of a queen.

That has been the single moment of truth thus far – seeing the Ganga, touching it.

For some reason my mind keeps ruminating on differences – between cities, landscapes, cultures, people… between the north and the south… between the temples and rituals thereof…  

The placid Ganga at Rishikesh

I miss the histrionics of south Indian temples, here in the north, where the Gods seem more approachable. Here, one can go right up to the idol, even touch it! Which oddly fazes me, used as I am to the sanctimony of the temples in the south.

There is drama in way the half-clad poojari goes into the ‘garbha griha’ – the sanctum sanctorum – and closes the door behind him… Mystery in the muted sounds of the rites happening inside which no ordinary mortal is privy to, anticipation in the sound of edakka (a small drum shaped like an hour-glass) as we wait with bated breath, praying…

Thrill in the increased pitch of edakka and the rising bass of the ‘sankh’ – conch shell – punctuated by the gong of bronze bells as the doors are suddenly thrown open…  A taste of the mystical at the sight of the dark stone idol lit by a hundred lamps, seen through the haze of incense and camphor smoke… Shock in the sharp spray of holy water that the poojari sprinkles from his lofty heights… Fever in the chanting and occasional loud wails from the waiting crowd…  

Krishnaaa…Krishna, Krishna, Krishnaa…

And pathos. In the streaming eyes, mumbling lips, arms raised in supplication to the divine…

Theatre at its best.

Rudraksh (L) and sandalwood trees at Rishikesh

In the evening, we went to Brahma Kund in Haridwar (or Hardwar) – the ‘dwar’, entrance, to what they call the Devabhoomi, abode of Gods. To take part in Ganga Aarti. 

Ganga, the one that washes away all mortal sins… There was a sudden change in her demeanour here, as if the placid child in Rishikesh had suddenly grown up into a haughty young woman – surefooted, impatient and dismissive of the adoring crowd who waited on her. I could feel her forcefulness, determination, even before I took the first tentative step into her icy waters. 

PIC_5442Ganga at Brahma Kund – Haridwar

Diya jale…

What sins was I hoping to wash off that day, as I stepped into those waters? I don’t know. “Kayena vacha, manasendriyairva…” Surrendering my thoughts, words and deeds, my heart, mind and senses here, at your feet…

She was ravenous, the Ganga, her strong arms pulling me into the depths of her being before my feet could touch the bottom. Death, in retrospect, was just a matter of letting go.

Did I pray? I don’t know. If praying is remembering the ones you lost even as you grit your teeth and lower yourself into the ice-cold waters… If praying is holding on, despite, clinging to the metal chain that was the only thing that stopped you from being carried away by the undercurrent… If praying is desperately acknowledging your own insignificance and surrendering to the will of the universe even for a short while… Then yes, I prayed. Fervently. 

Why did I feel an overwhelming sense of pain as I climbed out of the water? Why did it feel as if my heart would break? Who was I weeping for? Again, there are no answers.

The ones I love, the ones I lost, the ones I wanted to send off in peace… and myself, lost as I am. 

Later, waiting on the banks for the Aarti to begin, I could feel a sense of calm, tranquility, settling in. Idly I recalled  Haridwaril Mani Muzhangunnu (The Bells Toll in Haridwar), the title of a book by Malayalam writer M. Mukundan, that had affected me deeply, back in my teenage days.

Ganga Aarti at Brahma Kund, Haridwar

And there, unfolding before me, was a scene I would forever remember: the restless river in the darkening twilight, the little diyas floating away briskly… The larger-than-life Aarti, and the cold air reverberating with the chant of the thousands that had come to wash off their sins in these waters, the sound of gongs and bronze bells…

My first touch of the spiritual.


Random shots from Rishikesh: 

Alpha male at rest
A bench that has seen a lot of life
Fodder for fish
Holy cow! Moo, please.

2 thoughts on “Notes of a First-time Pilgrim: Experiencing the Ganga

  1. I just discovered your blog through twitter. I look forward to reading your posts carefully. What a journey.

    I have had little opportunity for travel due to life stuff. This year in my 50s I took my first trip of significance to South Africa. My primary goal was to spend time with my best friend in a small village in the Eastern Cape. But I travelled by bus to and from Cape Town and spent a week in the city wandering around, walking or travelling by city transit and talking to people. Apart from galleries, and small museums I focused on book stores. It was fascinating (even depressing at times) to observe people interacting. But I was able to really engage individuals, like the 63 year-old Xhosa pensioner I rode on the bus with for 16 hours. He was on his way to help his brother prepare for a funeral but upset that his income was not sufficient for his wife to travel with him after all the years he helped his former (white) boss build a business. Yet when the bus broke down with no word from the driver, it was my travelling companion who made sure we got ourselves and our bags to the other bus. All those hours in a bus you do build a connection with people. Tour buses are not the same. They are segregated from the experience in some very disturbing ways in a place like South Africa. I enjoyed many special moments and interactions that shaped my journey and arose out of travelling alone. I still need to return and go further.


    1. Thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to read through it. I can see a kindred soul here. Yes, I am a late bloomer too, but I guess that makes us appreciate our journey a little more.

      It’s lovely to read your experiences on the bus, and they’re something I can perfectly relate to. The segregation part seems disturbing – though I have not experienced it the way you must have, I can understand what it feels like.

      Yes, we need to go further. Much further. Here’s wishing us many more such travels…from which we come back richer.

      In the meantime, I shall go through your blog. Good day ahead.


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