Just like our 2016 trip, our 2017 trip to India (October 18th – November 1st) started in Gurgaon, so that Mrs Chrisparkle could go to her company’s office there and catch up with all her Indian staff. Once again I had to fend for myself by the pool and the lunchtime buffet. As in the previous year, we stayed at the Oberoi; no grand upgrade this time like last time, but I’m never going to complain at any of the rooms at that hotel. Our Premier Room had a wonderful view of the front pool and was immensely comfortable as always. Our evening was spent relaxing in the Piano Bar; we decided we didn’t need a massive meal that night so we overdosed on their bar snacks and that was more than enough for us! The evening coincided with Diwali, but we were too tired to join any Delhi celebrations; and in fact we were surprised that the hotel itself was so quiet. But it’s always impressive to see the beautiful decorations that they place around the hotel to celebrate the festival.
It’s a good six hour drive, even without breaks, from Gurgaon to Haridwar, and to get to our hotel – the Aalia on the Ganges – you have to drive into Haridwar then out the other side and come back down the east bank of the river. When you come off that main road, you really feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. Driving through farming villages with narrow roads (although in surprisingly good condition) you realise this is genuine Indian countryside, not teeming with people. Eventually our driver Mr Singh found the hotel, and we checked into our River Suite room. It was a comfortable room, with a door leading to a passageway, where the main wardrobes were kept, and then another door to our bathroom. We spent the next two days playing enjoyable games of “chase the gecko” who clung to the bathroom window for dear life.
The only problem with the room was that the aircon was a) extremely noisy and b) extremely cold. We decided to turn it off the first night but were gasping for breath a few hours later because it was so warm! You pay your money and you take your choice. The benefits of this hotel are not inconsiderable. You can walk down close to the banks of the Ganges and sit under canopies to watch the world go by. There are lots of sports too – but that’s not really our thing. There’s a pleasant, if understocked, bar – the usual problem in India of plenty of gin but no tonic; and the restaurant was extremely good value with delicious food. But it’s very quiet. After you’ve had dinner there’s absolutely nothing to do apart from go to bed.
The next morning, Mr Singh drove us in to Haridwar, where we picked up our guide for the day, Satish, and we drove on to Rishikesh. It’s only 20 miles but the route is hilly and full of all kinds of traffic so it took a good hour and a half to get there. I’d always wanted to see Rishikesh, ever since I discovered it was where the Beatles met their guru. It’s a holy city – they all are when they’re on the Ganges – and you quickly realise it’s a magnet for tourists. Not only from the West, but also from all over India. As a result, it has quite a relaxed vibe to it, and is one of those rare places in India, where the locals don’t stare with fascination at a Caucasian face. There’s far too many of those everywhere.
Satish took us for a brief walk through the town, down to the first of two major pedestrian bridges that span the Ganges. This is the Laxman Bridge, built in 1929, when I sense there was less pedestrian traffic than today. It’s only six feet wide so you have to have your wits about you when crossing – and indeed pausing to take photographs, as the views are irresistible. At the other side, it’s a 2 kilometre walk to the other bridge, the Ram bridge (1986, bigger than the Laxman Bridge, but even narrower), in order to make a full circuit.
Rishikesh is charming; full of funny Indian signs, little shops, bathing places; and the main sight along this route is the Parmarth Niketan Ashram founded in 1942. It’s like a cross between an Oxbridge college (Indian style) and a small village. Full of people, gardens, study rooms; there are photographs on the walls of the Pope (understandable), Prince Charles and Camilla (also understandable) and Keith Vaz (perhaps a little surprising.) Alas we did not get to see the Beatles Ashram. Satish assured us that it has been left to wrack and ruin, and I’ve seen pictures of it since we were there and he’s right.
After a very brief visit, it was time to return to Haridwar, for a short tour of the town and to spend the evening watching the Aarti ceremony. Our first stop was at a beautiful Jain Temple, Shri Chintamani Parshwnath Jain Shwetambar Mandir, to give it its full name. It was only built in the 1990s, and has all the intricacy and elegance that you would expect. It’s notable for its lovely circular inlaid floor. We also visited the Bhuma Niketan Ashram; which has all the appearance of a modern temple, and when you go inside, it’s like you’ve discovered its Disneyland equivalent. There are some steps up and a path that goes underneath the surface of the main temple frontage, and shows you scenes from Hindu scriptures in what I can only describe as Disney format. It’s quite incredible!
Satish then took us back into the centre of Haridwar, where we strolled around for an hour just taking in the street scenes – all the usual shops and mini-industries, market stalls and cows. We stopped at the Hotel Chotiwala – it’s a café really – for some tea and rest. It’s useful that there is a glass frontage separating the diners from the outside scene, as we spent our time there being stared at by monkeys thumping on the windows for attention. It was then just for us to wander round, observe all the pilgrims washing away their sins in the Ganges, and to get a good spot to watch the evening ceremony. One of the more amusing things about being in an area where people bathe in the Ganges, is their care to look decent whilst doing so. As we were wandering around, among the more unexpected items of litter in the area were discarded empty boxes of fresh underpants!
Last year we witnessed the Aarti ceremony in Varanasi, and for scale and sheer showbiz, that one comes top of the game. The ceremony in Haridwar is much smaller; it all takes place on one side of the river bank, and is, as always, an excuse for family outings, picnics, and a general celebration, as well as a holy experience – although you get the feeling that the ceremony itself is nothing like as holy an experience as simply dipping into the Ganges. Eleven priests were involved; a lot of preliminary introductions which finalised in a series of chants to which the crowd replied, and, as it got darker, the priests performed with fire, and the crowd joined in with the tinkling of bells. It’s quite a moving experience, and despite the inevitable discomfort of finding somewhere lumpy to sit for several hours, the time flies by.
And that more or less was our Haridwar and Rishikesh experience. We returned to the Aalia for drinks, dinner and sleep. Tomorrow was going to be a very long and very tiring drive up into the Himalayas.