Typed up at: Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, USA Hotel in Hong Kong
Posted from: Internet Cafe in Hong Kong
Haridwar is a Hindu holy city. It is situated more or less where the Ganges leaves the Himalayas, meaning that it hasn't yet had a chance to become completely polluted. We really just wanted to stay there for one night and then move on to the Corbett Tiger Reserve. Unfortunately Corbett is one of the few places that requires serious advance booking. When we walked into Mohan's Adventure Tours to say that we wanted to stay in Corbett "tomorrow" he told us that would not be possible. So we decided to stay in Haridwar an extra day to tour the nearby Raijij National Park, and then stay outside Corbett and do a few half-day safaris into the park.
We stayed at the Alpana Hotel which was right in the middle of the bazaar area close to the river. In the evening we went to watch the daily religious spectacle along the Ganges. In this town the river still had a lot of force behind it. It flowed very quickly, to the point where there were fences in the water to prevent bathers from going in too far. Just in the river was an island, creating a narrow channel between the city and the island.
We gathered on this island with a few hundred other people, some tourists but mostly Hindus. We sat on a big sheet of plastic that had originally been prepared to be turned into Skittles wrappers. On the other side of the channel were concrete steps where more people, including several priests, had gathered. As it got dark the western hare krishnas stopped their chanting, and rhythmic music was piped in through some loud speakers. The priests held in their hands small bowls of fire, moving them around in circles and lines. Occasionally bells were rung.
After a while, religious folk walked down to the water with their offerings. An offering consisted of a bowl made out of banana(?) leaves, filled with flowers, probably some food, and some flammable wax. Each person lit their offering on fire and put it in the water, where it was quickly taken away by the current. There were quite a few offerings, but most people appeared to be content just to watch the ceremony and maybe give a few rupees to the uniformed men collecting donations. (These men were also giving out receipts for the donations. I have no idea why.)
We watched a bit longer, and then Danielle made an offering (which are available for purchase in all kinds of sizes right there) for her stepfather Bill, who is currently waiting for a liver transplant. She was unable not to be helped by a variety of locals (fire-lighter, in-the-water-putter, ...) who all demanded their share of the transaction.
I'd just bought some ISO 400 film to put in my camera but, sitting down on our Skittles sheet, I discovered there was no tab sticking out of the canister so I was unable to put it in my camera. Later we stopped by the shop where I'd bought the film and the salesman used pliers to get the end out, and then tape and scissors to thread it through the camera. It really drove home to me how, except for the chemistry, film photography is infinitely simpler and lower tech than digital. But there are no pictures of this ceremony.
The next morning we visited another holy site. Just up the hill from Haridwar is a popular temple which we visited. The guidebook had warned about aggressive monkeys trying to steal offerings and recommended you buy or rent a stick to beat them off with. This sounded pretty exciting so we took the walking path instead of the cable car. The monkey menace must have been dealt with since the book was written, because they were not a problem at all.
It was a hot walk, but we got some satisfying views along the way. We passed one man who was going up by lying on the ground, then getting up to lie down with his feet at the farthest point his hand had previously touched. We'd brought another offering, and at the top a salesman tried to convince it that it wasn't good enough. We've been in India long enough now to ignore such people, but he did have a very convincing thing going. (As the guidebook says, if anybody approaches you and tells you something surprising they're probably lying.)
The temple was surrounded by shops and food stands, and also plenty of places where you could buy offerings. As such we didn't see much of it, but we shuffled around with everybody else. One part on the inside was decorated with red bindis ("forehead dots") which was neat. At another people tied red thread (you get one free when you buy an offering) around a pole, presumably for more good luck.
I've been reading the God Delusion lately, and it does make me think about religion's value a lot more. For instance, it seems atrocious that a salesman is trying taking advantage of our gullibility in religious matters. The previous night several people profited of Danielle's offering, and didn't give her much choice about it. Is that the kind of thing Hindu gods condone? I was also struck how, at one point, this was surely a narrow, taxing trail to a mountain with a shrine where you would bring whatever food you'd grown yourselves that you could spare. It used to take some real effort to make the offering. Nowadays most people ride the cable car up, buy an offering right there, go through the motions and sit at the restaurant. (There are of course many people in India for whom buying a 5 rupee offering does consist of a real sacrifice.)
The following morning we got up early so we could take a 7am taxi to Corbett. This was part of the package we'd booked through Mohan, and I didn't feel like arguing to save a little money and take a lot more time getting there. The ride was very good, although our taxi driver drove like a typical Indian. (Imagine the kind of driving you'd have to do to get a reckless driving ticket. That's pretty much how half the people here drive all the time.)