After taking a very leisurely stroll up and down the river, I took some time to just chill out, dip my feet, and listen to the distant praying, singing, and ringing bells as the cool fresh air wafted off the Ganges.
I loved my day in Haridwar. It’s a one-of-a-kind city in India, full of ancient temples, scenic walks along the Ganges river, great shopping, and lots of spectacles that arouse all of the senses.
Haridwar is based at the exact point where the holy Ganges river stops its decent down the Himalayan mountains and starts to enter the Indo-Gangetic plains. As such, it’s marked as an extremely holy pilgrimage site flocked by thousands of people. The Ganges river itself of course being the holiest of rivers in India, Hindus are compelled to do the plunge into the river at least once in their lifetime (to clean away their sins), and also do a “puja” ceremony by the river as well as present offerings (flowers, etc) that float down the river into eternity.
The city is ancient, founded in the 1st century BC by King Vikramaditya as a testament to its unique geographic location per the location of the Ganges. As such, many varieties of architecture have been built along the banks of the Ganges over time. Parts of the city almost had a Venice-like feel!
After spending a long but very eventful day, a few must-see things were etched into my memory, which I’ve outlined below. You can easily accomplish all of this in one day, all at a nice leisurely pace. Hope you enjoy!
1) A stroll along the haridwar “Boardwalk”
The areas along the Ganges are well developed into a sort of Boardwalk, complete with hawkers, food stalls, and holy priests aggressively asking to lead a puja for you “for only 100 rupees”. It has an almost carnival type feel to it, since this is the area where thousands make a pilgrimage and are quite happy to be there! Being Hindu myself, I can admit that I got swept up in it all (sort of like one going to the Vatican or Jerusalem or Mecca or whatever).
After taking a slow stroll up and down the river, I took some time to just chill out, dip my feet, and listen to the distant praying, singing, and ringing bells as the cool fresh air wafted off the Ganges. After, I grabbed some street food (remember: anything fried is usually ok for the stomach!) and just people watched
2) Har Ki Pauri Temple: Haridwar’s gem
Now we enter the holiest of holy territory: the ancient Har Ki Pauri temple, built in 100BC by King Vikramaditya. The tiny temple is naturally located right on the bank of the Ganges. There are loads of people going in out of premise (you WILL get yelled at if you don’t take your shoes off after a certain point), doing all sorts of activities. Some are fully bathing in the water. Some are half-bathing. Some are getting their head shaved before a dip. Some are doing “puja” holy ceremonies, lead by the many priests hanging waiting to give services. And some are just soaking it all in.
I was instantly marked as a foreigner on my arrival, and was aggressively pursued by a priest to do a private “puja” ceremony along the river. Being Hindu and all, I thought why not? I inquired on the price before he started, to which he responded “You pay what you like, no problem! 500 rupees, 1000 rupees, 2000 rupees, no problem!!” (this is anywhere from $10 – $40…extremely pricey for Indian standards). I just gave him a condescending look, and we agreed on 300 rupees ($6), which included a food donation to the temple. The ceremony itself was quite nice and pleasant, lasting for about 15 minutes. The priest was nice enough to take pictures even!
I even managed to cram into the tiny temple itself (literally a hole in a cave) to sneak in a quick prayer among the hoards of people. All in all, the visit was well worth it!
3) A trip up to Mansa Devi Temple
The other must-see temple in Haridwar is the Mansa Devi temple, located at the highest point in the hills within the city. Getting there in an experience, either by a newly built cable car (only 50 rupees per person), or going about it the “classic” way by climbing like a thousand steps (whatever the real count, it took me about 30 minutes to climb and left me drenched in sweat). Either way, be prepared for crowds upon arrival, the Mansa Devi being another focal point for the pilgrimages in Haridwar.
The temple is seriously crowd-controlled with barriers, about people along a very specific route within the structure, the alternative being free-for-all madness outside each of the 3 holy shrines within the building (in fact, most popular temples in India are this way). I paid respects to the Hindu gods and goddesses of Hanuman and Laxmi. The temple is also home to the goddess Mansa Devi, the folk goddess of snakes and the focal point of the structure.
NOTE: if you have more time, you should certainly check out the Chandi Devi temple a little in the outskirts of Haridwar. I didn’t have time but I’m told it’s also worth it!
4) Evening Ganga Puja outside Har Ki Pauri
Think: daily Mass at the Vatican. Every sunset, thousands of people congregate onto the banks of the Ganges outside Har Ki Pauri to hear a sermon and pray in unison at this very holy site. I patiently sat and listened and observed (it was all in Hindi so I had no idea what was really going on), and joined in at the points where the crowd all rose their arms in unison and screamed “Jai Mataji!”. This happened about 5 times over the 30 minute speech as dusk faded to darkness.
After the sermon, arti is followed. People line up at the river to sing, light a flame within a small basket of flowers (an offering to the gods) and send it down the Ganges. It was a nice peaceful experience! At the same time, I didn’t stick around to the very end to avoid the massive crowds as I had a bus to catch back to Rishikesh.
5) Shopping in the windy roads of haridwar
You and also wander the endless narrow streets of Rishikesh, eating various snacks, chatting with various store owners, and just soaking in the scene. It had almost a medieval feel to it. I picked up lots of little snacks like dried mangoes, pistachios, and more.
6) Afternoon Tea at the Haveli Hari Ganga Hotel
I needed a break and some quiet relaxation to get away from the hustle and bustle of visiting temples. So I strolled into the Haveli Hari Ganga Hotel for lunch and tea. A stunning colonial 4-star hotel (it once housed the Maharajah of Pilibit) located it right along the banks of the Ganges, this beautiful little hotel is only a 5 minute walk from Har Ki Pauri and the base of the cable-car entrance to Mansa Devi Temple. A little on the pricey end, it was still a welcome break to get some light snacks and fresh masala chai!