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INDIA - Coimbatore to Rishikesh and Haridwar

INDIA | Wednesday, 10 November 2010 | Views [882]

Our journey into India began in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, where we attended the wedding of my darling friend Veenaa. Like all Indian weddings it was a big celebration, with loud music, plenty of strange and comical rituals, lots of good food, and numerous costume changes. Veenaa and my classmates from secondary school, Geraldine, Dorothy, and Rachel, also attended and we spent the days shopping. The sales people at the shops were very intrigued by our party of three Chinese girls, one white girl, and one random non-South Indian.  We had no trouble getting served, although plenty of the local customers were left hanging with no one attending to them. The sales girls at one of the sari stores treated Emma like a dress-up doll, each jostling for the chance to tie her sari, which really wasn’t required as she was just trying to buy a blouse. She finally relented and was then paraded around the store all the while being told how beautiful she looked. We came away with plenty of dazzling jewellery, tinkling bangles, sparkling shoes, outfits, and henna on our hands. Veena’s wedding was on the 4th of November, and the 5th was Diwali; the Indian New Year and the most striking of all festivals. It is celebrated all over India and the highlight of the festival is the lighting of fireworks and firecrackers. In the days leading up to the festival we were often awakened at an ungodly hour by someone setting off deafening firecrackers outside their house to ward off evil spirits. At night, every once in a while we would hear the sound of fireworks. However, nothing could have prepared us for the magical night of November 5th; we went up to the roof of our hotel and watched enthralled as the night sky lit up with thousands of fireworks being launched from rooftops all around us. Diwali in India needs to be experienced by all.

From Coimbatore, we set off on a ridiculously long journey over land by train to Rishikesh to begin our travels proper. 7 hours to Chennai, one day and two nights from Chennai to Delhi, 7 hours from Delhi to Haridwar, and finally, one hour on a cramped public bus to Rishikesh. The bus ride was a very interesting experience and it perfectly sums up all that intrigues, baffles, and delights me about India. As soon as we got to Haridwar, we were assured by everyone we asked that there was indeed a bus to Rishikesh which left from the bus station across the road from the train station. The bus station appeared to be more a bus graveyard than a functioning station. Haridwar is one of Hinduism’s holiest cities and numerous Hindus come to Haridwar to perform last rites. Fittingly, the buses parked in the lot also looked like they had wearily made their way to Haridwar to die - ancient pieces of tin, dented in several places, so exhausted from over-work and lack of maintenance that they seemed happy to sink slowly into the muddy, wet earth in the station. A few of them were filled with people, however, and were leaving for Delhi. I was staggered by the thought that people were willing, not only to board the decrepit vehicles, but also to undertake a tedious overnight journey in them, with no apparent fear for their personal safety. I have no doubt that, had I questioned any of them, they would have replied, “It’s fine! No tension.” In India, this is an attitude that seems to be embraced by all and sundry. I digress…No one knew where the Haridwar to Rishikesh bus was although everyone agreed that there most definitely was one. We were hanging around the depot trying to figure out the buses when suddenly, we heard loud shouting. We looked around in confusion and someone said “There’s the Rishikesh bus! It’s across the road! Hurry or you’ll miss it!” People yelled out and the conductor bounded across to where we were standing, and then helped us cross the chaotic road. The bus looked full and there were still plenty of people trying to board. Loud shouting ensued; the conductor was hollering at people to move up, people in the bus were yelling at seated passengers to move in and make room for them, others were calling out to family members to ascertain the whereabouts of luggage and children, children were calling out to parents, while all around us cars, rickshaws, trucks and cycles contributed their honks, beeps and bells to the din. Emma and I finally boarded the bus, very nervously, because it looked like we would be hanging out the door. The conductor banged twice on the bus, signalling to the driver that everyone had boarded, and we were off. And then, a strange thing happened. In a matter of minutes, Emma, the conductor and I were the only people still standing. The bus, which only a few minutes before was impossibly packed, seemed to have magically expanded to fit everyone. On closer inspection, I could see that there were three people seated on seats meant for two, the rows with 4 seats accommodated 6 people, and every child was sitting on someone’s lap. A man sitting near where I was standing indicated a pile of luggage in the aisle and told me to drop my backpack there. Others started moving around bags in the overhead space to fit my smaller bag. And soon enough, I also somehow had a seat. It was remarkable. In a country of a billion plus people, there will always be more people than space to fit them comfortably. However, after the initial pushing and shoving, people usually move around and find a way to accommodate everyone.  

When we finally reached Rishikesh, it was very late and we were exhausted beyond comprehension. We couldn’t find our guesthouse so we found a room at the Bombay guesthouse instead. The guy at the guesthouse was annoyingly obnoxious, and the bed was akin to a plank of wood, but I slept the restful sleep of the dead.  

We changed guesthouse the next day and spent three days wandering around Rishikesh. Rishikesh is pretty great for people-watching; it’s full of large numbers of Indian pilgrims who are visiting temples, large numbers of Israeli tourists who spend days smoking up in the cafes, and large numbers of “spiritual” travellers (unfortunately I just can’t take them seriously) and hippies complete with saffron robes, dreadlocks, and ash on their foreheads. We saw a particularly weird couple who made us cringe and laugh simultaneously; they were walking majestically along the street (to the sound of surreptitious sniggers) in matching floor-length, white, shiny robes and large turbans with huge jewels on them. There was no way to get a picture. I was crushed.

We spent an evening at the Ram Jhula ghat observing women from Bihar perform rituals for the Chatth festival during which they worship the Sun God. Streamers had been hung up, women and children sat around in groups on the steps of the ghat, others prayed by the river, while the hard-core set stood waist deep in the icy cold water of the Ganges with flower offerings in their hands watching the setting sun. The ghat was a riot of colours, and one of my favourite memories of Rishikesh.


From Rishikesh we headed back to Haridwar and spent the day there before boarding the train to Amritsar. Like all very old cities, Haridwar is comprised of numerous narrow streets and lanes, constructed in a time before automobiles and buses. Now, the roads are choked with traffic – vehicular and pedestrian - and the city has grown without the infrastructure growing with it. When we were there I felt that it was ridiculously crowded; however, we weren’t in Haridwar during any major festivals. The Kumbh Mela pilgrimage was held in 2010 in Haridwar over a period of 4 months; during that period almost 40 million people visited the town. I honestly cannot imagine what Haridwar must have been like at that time.

We headed to the main ghat to watch the Ganga puja (prayer to the Ganges River) which is held every evening. There are many little temples to various gods built at the ghat, and it was a hive of activity. The Ganges is a sacred river; many people were taking a dip in the water, some were filling plastic bottles with holy water, and many others were floating earthen lamps and garlands of flowers down the river. A family was praying together with a priest by the river bank, and numerous people were standing around or sitting on the steps of the ghat waiting for the evening prayers to begin.

The prayers started once the sun set. Priests lit oil lamps and held them aloft, and a hymn played from the loudspeakers around the ghat. People clapped and sang along and fifteen minutes later it was all over. As we headed back towards the train station, we came across a procession. I initially thought it was a lavish wedding due to the marching band and loudspeakers, but it turned out to be a procession from a Gurudwara, complete with a painted elephant with its head covered.

Tags: coimbatore, dodgy train journeys, exhaustion, fireworks, haridwar, india, places of worship, prayer, rishikesh, weddings



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