The next stop was to visit Haridwar, in the state of Uttarakhand, where tourists can witness devotees washing their sins away in the holy Ganges river in the daily Aarti ritual to attain Moksha or true freedom. The river flows from the Himalayas and enters North India for the first time in this city. It is regarded as one of the 7 holiest places to Hindus. It is said that Amrit, the elixir of immortality, was spilt at Har ki Pauri while carried by the celestial bird Garuda and that is celebrated every 12 years with a huge festival of ritualistic bathing by both pilgrims and tourists alike. Nevertheless, even the daily rituals are incredible to behold, where sadhus or pilgrims clad in orange robes or just loincloths join the masses on the banks of the Ganges with both pilgrims and devotees bathing in the freezing waters as the priests chant. Everyone else can also join in the fun by lighting the beautiful flower offerings and setting them afloat in the river and joining in the chants.
Just a short distance away (25km) is Rishikesh, also known to many Western yoga enthusiasts as the Yoga Capital of the World and to Hindu pilgrims, one of the holiest places where sages have visited to gain enlightenment since ancient times. The city is meat and alcohol free, one where cows have right of way and cow poop is constantly swept away. Rishikesh came to fame thanks to the Beatles who visited in 1968 and were inspired to record the ‘The Happy Rishikesh Song’. Here, one is reminded of the extremes of India, where poverty and pollution litter the streets. However, when one steps into an Ashram, it’s a completely different story – almost as though they were two separate places.
The largest ashram with over 1000 rooms in Rishikesh is the Parmarth Niketan, along the banks of the Ganges, founded in 1942. Visitors can stay in its many rooms to take pan in the daily schedules of yoga, meditation, kirtan, lectures and enjoy Ayurvedic treatments.
At sunset, everything comes to a halt as everyone is treated to a world-renowned Ganga Aarti. Aarti means to remove darkness, usually with a flame or light. After songs in praise of a deity, devotees cup their downturned hands over the flame and raise their palms to their forehead as a blessing. The flame is waved around clockwise around a centre, suggesting how one lives with the universe or God at the centre of all activities. It was an honour to be right in front, on the river bank, dipping my feet in the holy river and even participating in the Aarti as the priests chanted.
The ceremony is open to all, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality and religion, to gather on the banks soaking in the magical atmosphere as the skies dim. After the Aarti, the spiritual head and President of the Ashram, Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji Maharaja and Sadvhi Bhagawati Saraswatiji engage in an open dialogue again open to all who seek any guidance.