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  1. Ganga's New Pilgrims

Ganga’s New Pilgrims

"Long Live Mother Ganga!" A resounding splash follows this rallying cry. But that is no Indian pilgrim taking a dip in the holiest of holy rivers at the foothills of the majestic Himalayas. Brightly-coloured paddles strike the cool flowing waters as our inflated rubber raft inches forward.

Long ago in mythical times, King Bhagiratha brought the river Ganga down from the heavens to purify the sins of mortals on Earth. Ever since, pilgrims have come from across India for thousands of years to wash away their sins with a holy dip. But a new type of pilgrim is arriving at the banks of the holy river. These new pilgrims wear bright orange helmets rather than the saffron tilaks on their foreheads. They carefully tie the knots of their life jackets instead of the sacred threads across their bodies. Paddles replace the rosary beads in the hands, and the ascetics’ deerskins make way for an inflatable rubber raft. For Ganga’s new pilgrims have adventure in their soul.

Ganga’s Roller Coasters

The pilgrimage takes about five hours by road from Delhi, into the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The holy cities of Haridwar and Rishikhesh fall on the route, and our destination is barely ten kilometres beyond Rishikhesh and at the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. We check into the comfortable river-facing Swiss camps pitched on the banks. Lunch is served shortly thereafter. Large Indian earthen pots simmering with delicious Indian vegetables, rice, and chappatis add a nice ethnic touch to the meal. Soon the rafts are inflated, the guide issues safety instructions, and the oars strike the swirling waters as the silent mountains look on majestically. Most of the rapids we encounter are grade 2, and go by such exotic names as Good Morning, Micky, and Roller Coaster, to name a few. The leisurely evening can be spent with a game of volleyball, followed by dinner and bonfire under the stars. The trip, organised by Wanderlust Travels costs Rs 2,900 per person, and includes accommodation for three days and two nights in the deluxe tents, all meals, tea/coffee, and one exciting river rafting trip once a day, for the first two days. An alternative and shorter package of two days and one night including accommodation, meals, and one rafting trip costs Rs 1,500 per person.

Ganga’s Roller Coasters

Ganga flows downstream from our camps to the small but holy city of Rishikhesh. As evening descends, the chanting of prayers and temple bells fills the air. People throng the temples dotting the city and in the mesmerising prayers and rhythmic music, everything takes on a magical, mystical, dimension. Priests and passer-bys, shopkeepers and businessmen, housewives and children, tourists and travellers, young and old, all merge for a brief moment into one. Fellow travellers on their spiritual journeys. Finally, as the Sun descends on the Ganga, the spell is broken. The prayer halls are empty again. Rishikhesh offers a range of accommodations to suit every type of traveller and budget. In search of the exotic, and something different, we discover superb lodgings within a temple compound. The Sri Sriradhagovind Ji Mandir overlooks the Ganga and offers wonderfully clean, comfortable rooms with attached bathrooms, hot and cold running water, and all basic amenities. Meals are served as ‘prasad’ or a divine offering. People sit on the clean but bare floor, as the temple priests and residents personally serve freshly-cooked, nutritious, and pure vegetarian food to everyone seated. This has been the traditional style of eating meals in India for thousands of years. Amazingly, the accommodation and the meals are provided free and at the temple authorities’ discretion. Guests have no compulsions to pay, though they may make donations to the temple if they wish. All guests are advised to follow four basic guidelines during their stay: 1) No eating of meat, fish, or eggs; 2) no intoxication which even includes tea, coffee, alcohol, or drugs; 3) no gambling and: 4) no illicit sex.

Our journey then took us on to Missourie. This quaint and quiet British hill resort has lost all its colonial old world charm. Transformed into a bustling town, tourism is still its mainstay as it caters to the hordes of tourists, from honeymooners to weekend getaway families. Still, perched among the mountains, Missourie is now positioning itself as a business and conferencing venue. Newly developed hotels, such as the Hotel Green Castle situation on the Mall, break away from the traditional perception of Missourie. Built with modern, ecological, and more cosmopolitan concepts, the Hotel offers a conference facility that may turn into a dance floor at night, rooms with all modern facilities, and a nice restaurant with choice of cuisines. Makes you wonder what other changes will the Ganga witness as it travels across the Indian sub-continent through the arches of time.

01 February 2003 © niyam bhushan

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