Bright flowers bobbed down the Ganges in leafy baskets, each with a tiny flame flickering in the centre. The incense from the offerings wafted across the water to the crowds seated on the riverbank. The devotees raised their arms as one, chanting along with the preachers. Across the river, holy men crouched on the steps of the ghat. They splashed handfuls of the murky brown water over their heads and rinsed out their mouths. One then poured a carton of milk into the river where it swirled away among the floral offerings. For Hindus, Haridwar is one of the seven holiest towns in India. Pilgrims journey here to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganges and take part in the daily Ganga Aarti ritual.
The music started up, a mesmerising song that seemed to go on forever. Priests appeared at the water's edge, each bearing a multi-tiered oil lamp. The multitude of little flames merged into one as the brass lamps were gently swung in circles, an offering of light to Mother Ganga. The worshippers sat transfixed. Then suddenly, it was over. The music stopped and the crowds quickly dispersed.
The River At Har Ki Pauri Ghat
Cycle-Rickshaw Misadventures in Haridwar
On arrival in Haridwar, we emerged bleary-eyed from the train station. The first rays of light were just crossing the horizon but the street outside was already buzzing. Motorbikes whizzed by, a street vendor peddled hot snacks fresh from a sizzling vat of oil, and a small army of tuk-tuk drivers stood around in groups chatting. As soon as we appeared, their attentions turned to us. We were approached from every side with offers of transport and queries about our chosen hotel. Ill prepared, we had no idea where our hotel even was, or how far it was from the station. We realised we would have to rely on local knowledge and accepted an offer of transport.
It was the first time we had travelled by cycle-rickshaw. It will also be the last. Setting off at snail's pace, we began to regret our choice. The driver was stick-thin and wizened with an impressive snow-white beard. He really struggled to get anywhere with both of us, and two substantial rucksacks, weighing down his rickety cart. Encountering just the slightest of inclines, we felt even more guilty as he got out to push.
Haridwar and the Ganges
He took us a short distance to a random hotel and stopped, hoping for commission if we could be convinced to stay there instead. Realising we already had a reservation elsewhere, the staff berated our driver at length and directed him to another hotel further along the street. It turned out the Ganges View was not the Ganga View and we were at the wrong hotel, again. We gave up, paid our driver and walked back to Haridwar station. It took less time on foot.
Trying Again By Tuk-Tuk
Back at the station, we were again accosted by tuk-tuk drivers. We generally refused their offers until we met someone who convinced us he knew where our hotel was. He didn't. As soon as we were in his tuk-tuk, he made a looping u-turn in the road and set off in the wrong direction, stopping en route to ask advice from his friends. A few minutes later we arrived at the Ganges View for the second time. A longer journey then ensued and we had another detour to yet another similarly named hotel. We did get there eventually though.
Har Ki Pauri In The Rain
Har Ki Pauri, Haridwar's Number One Ghat
Having recovered from our journey, we ventured to Har Ki Pauri, the most revered of the many ghats in Haridwar. A constant stream of worshippers made their way down the steps to the waters edge. Many stepped gingerly into the water and crouched down, washing away a lifetime of sins. Chain fences prevent the devoted from venturing too far into the fast-flowing currents. The additional rows of chains hanging down across the river suggest that not everyone stays safely behind the barriers though. Thankfully we didn't see anyone making use of the extra chains to avoid being swept away.
Diyas For Sale At Ganga Aarti
What Is The Ganga Aarti?
Every evening at sunset, crowds gather at Har Ki Pauri ghat to give prayers and offerings of light to Mother Ganga in a ritual known as the Ganga Aarti. We watched worshippers purchasing diyas, flower-filled offerings for the river. The baskets were topped with incense sticks and an oil-soaked wick. The worshippers lit the candle and chanted a mantra as they carefully floated each offering on the water.
As the diyas floated downstream, more light was offered by the Hindu priests. They waved larger oil lamps around in a synchronised and strictly clockwise manner. Even the milk poured into the river was an offering, known as Ganga Abhishek. Despite the lengthy build up, the Ganga Aarti ritual ends quite abruptly. Once the offerings have been made, the pilgrims quickly depart.
Ganga Aarti Travel Tips
Har Ki Pauri is the most famous ghat in Haridwar. This is where the Ganga Aarti takes place.
The Ganga Aarti is held every morning at sunrise and every evening at sunset. The evening worship is more popular. Check the time of sunset before you visit as it does change throughout the year.
Even an hour before the Ganga Aarti begins, worshippers are already staking out the prime spots on the steps of Har Ki Pauri ghat. Get there early to secure a good seat.
Shiva In A Riverside Park
Haridwar Travel Tips
As a holy town, Haridwar is strictly vegetarian and alcohol free. There is an astonishing range of vegetarian food on offer though so you won't go hungry.
As we learned, tuk-tuk drivers in Haridwar will tell you they know where they are going, even if they don't. It's a good idea to have a map to hand so you can check you're going the right way.
Nearly every tuk-tuk driver we met in Haridwar opened the conversation with “Hello, Rishikesh?” The touristy part of Rishikesh is around 25km from Haridwar so tuk-tuk is not the best way to get there. Take a train, bus or taxi instead.
How To Get To Haridwar
By Train: It's easiest to take a train to Haridwar. Trains run directly from Delhi to Haridwar.
By Bus: Take a bus directly from Delhi to Haridwar.
By Air: Fly from Delhi to Dehradun airport, around 50km from Haridwar. Take a train or bus from there to Haridwar.