On the map, India is shaped something like a heart, and veined diagonally across its middle is one of the most fascinating thin blue lines in the world. From its icy origin in a Himalayan glacier to its delta in the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges is the spiritual lifeblood of India, a river of heaven with 108 names.
The River Ganges is Hinduism’s holiest river, beginning in the Himalayan peaks of Uttar Pradesh and spilling out into the Bay of Bengal more than 2000km later. For Hindus, the source of the Ganges is a holy of holies, and many thousands make the pilgrimage to its source near Gangotri. To join them requires a trek of 24km from Gangotri, threading through Himalayan valleys to Gaumukh, where you’ll find the trickle of water that will flow on to become one of Asia’s major rivers. Pilgrims perform darshans (offerings) as near as possible to the point where water flows from the ice wall beneath the terminal moraine.
To the devout, it is Himacalendra-tanaya—Daughter of the Lord of the Himalayas. It is Dear to Siva, and Liberator of the 60,000 Sons of Sagara. It is Melodious. It is Ocean-Flowing, and Lucky. It is White, and Happy, and Colorless. It Carries Away Fear, Brings Happiness, Destroys Illusion. And always it is Ramya—it is Beautiful.
For a Hindu, it is at once a physical and a metaphysical destination. To die on its banks brings release from the tiresome chain of death and rebirth; to bathe in its waters is to be touched by God.
Varanasi is considered one of the holiest and most overwhelming cities in India.
Few places in India are as colourful, charismatic or spiritual as the bathing ghats lining the Ganges in Varanasi. The city of Shiva is one of the holiest places in India, where Hindu pilgrims come to wash away a lifetime of sins in the Ganges or to cremate their loved ones. Varanasi, previously named Benares and Kashi (City of Light) – it was renamed after the Varuna and Asi Rivers, which meet here – has always been an auspicious place to die, since expiring here offers moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death). The city is the beating heart of the Hindu universe, a crossing place between the physical and spiritual worlds, and the Ganges is viewed as a river of salvation, an everlasting symbol of hope to past, present and future generations. The magical but sometimes overwhelming city is where the most intimate rituals of life and death take place in public on the city’s ghats. The accessibility to the practices of an ancient but still living religious tradition is what captivates many visitors, and a walk along the ghats or a boat ride on the river is one of India’s most absorbing experiences.
Propitiously located at the point where the Ganges emerges from the Himalaya, Haridwar (also called Hardwar) is Uttarakhand’s holiest Hindu city and pilgrims arrive here in droves to bathe in the often fast-flowing Ganges. The sheer numbers of people gathering around Har-ki-Pairi Ghat give Haridwar a chaotic but reverent feel – as in Varanasi, it’s easy to get caught up in the spiritual clamour here. Within the religious architecture of India, Haridwar is much more significant than Rishikesh, an hour further north, and every evening the river comes alive with flickering flames as floating offerings are released onto the Ganges.
Dotted around the city are impressive temples, both ancient and modern, dharamsalas (pilgrims’ rest houses) and ashrams, some of which are the size of small villages. Famous for its Ayurvedic medicines, the city is relatively hassle-free and is also the gateway to nearby Rajaji National Park.
Haridwar is busy during the yatra season from April to November, but the big annual event is the Magh Mela in January or February, which every six years becomes a bigger Ardh Magh Mela. Every 12 years the mega Kumbh Mela (the next one in Haridwar is 2010) attracts millions of pilgrims.
Ever since the Beatles rocked up at the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the late ’60s, Rishikesh has been a magnet for spiritual seekers. Today it styles itself as the ‘Yoga Capital of the World’ – with some justification – as there are masses of ashrams and all kinds of yoga and meditation classes. Most of this action is north of the main town, where the exquisite setting on the fast-flowing Ganges, surrounded by forested hills, is conducive to meditation and mind expansion. In the evening, the breeze blows down the valley, setting temple bells ringing as sadhus (spiritual men), pilgrims and tourists prepare for the nightly ganga aarti ceremony.
Rishikesh is very New Age: you can learn to play the sitar or tabla on your hotel roof; try laughing yoga; practise humming or gong meditation; experience crystal healing and all styles of massage; have a go at chanting mantras; and listen to spiritually uplifting CDs as you sip Ayurvedic tea with your vegetarian meal.
But it’s not all spiritual. Rishikesh is now a popular white-water rafting centre, backpacker hang-out, and gateway to treks in the Himalayas.
Travel from Delhi to Allahabad in 11 days
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