Bathing in the Ganges…

…This weekend is a special adventure. My host family has decided to join us in our journey north to Haridwar, Rishikesh, and Mussoorie.

Traveling is a great luxury for the vast majority of Indians. Even most of the doctors we have met have only traveled to a few select places within 500 km, with the exceptions of Mumbai and Goa. Although most of the younger generations wish to travel to Europe and the United States, most of the adults have never been outside of India and have no desire to do so.

My host-family, especially my host-mother, is incredibly excited to travel with us this weekend. Usually, “India Time” means that we leave 30 minutes to an hour after we intend to. Today, however, my host-mother was knocking on our door four minutes ahead of the 5:30am scheduled wake-up time. We four volunteers, two kids, two parents, and driver Ashok set out soon thereafter in a seven-passenger SUV called a Mahindra Xylo.

Today is Republic Day, which commemorates the implementation of India’s Constitution on January 26, 1950 (in case you were wondering, India gained its independence from British rule on August 15, 1947). Spirited parades lined the roads of almost every town we passed through. We were all very amused that we had the chance to stop at McDonald’s for a mid-morning breakfast of Veggie or Egg McMuffins. It was only my second egg in two months and it tasted delicious!

After five hours of driving past crops scattered with towering brick ovens and through small villages filled with festive and proud locals, the plains came to a gradual end as we entered the foothills of the Himalayas in Haridwar (in the state of Uttarakhand).

Haridwar is one of the seven holiest places for Hindus and the location where the Ganges emerges from the Himalayas on its 2,525 km trip to the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. It is said that drops of Amrit, a potion for immortality, were dropped here accidentally by a mythical bird-like God called Garuda. As a result, millions of pilgrims flock to Haridwar every year to bathe in the river, thereby absolving their sins and attaining freedom from the endless suffering caused by the repeated cycle of life, death, and reincarnation.

My host-parents told me that a trip to Haridwar would not be complete without a proper bath. We checked our shoes and entered Har ki Pauri, the holiest ghat (stairs along the river) where the drops of Amrit are believed to have fallen.

After some slight hesitation and investigation of the water quality, I stripped down to my boxers and walked down to the lower steps. My blinding paleness gathered the attention of many, but I tried not to notice as I made the most of this unique and spiritual moment in life. The water was chilly but the sense of community and humanity at the ghat greatly overpowered any discomfort. As I leaned into the swift current, lifted my head out of the Ganges, and looked out over hundreds of worshipers into the Himalayas, I said a prayer that I will always remember.

Beautiful flower boats with candles are set off into the river by many of the worshipers.

We ate lunch at a famous little street food vendor that also had tables. I had my first sweet lassi, a yogurt-based drink that is, as I found out, the perfect accompaniment to a spicy meal.

Next, we took a gondola ride to the Manasa Devi Temple on top of the mountain overlooking Haridwar.

Then, back down we went. Walking with the kids, ladies, and our host-mother through the market was like trying to paddle a canoe through a lake of molasses. However, there is no better place to get held up than India because there is always something new to look at and think about.

–Tikka powder for making tilaks or tikas on one’s forehead–

We then visited some popular modern Hindu temples with our host-family. They tried to explain the relationships of each of the Gods. However, to be honest, I am still finding it a very difficult religion to understand. The sheer number, requirements, and rolls of each God are astonishing. Unlike some other religions that forbid the worship of idols, Hindus place enormous effort into idolization.

As we drove out of town toward Rishikesh, the sun back-lit an enormous statue of Shiva, the destroyer God, with the Manasa Devi Temple in the background.

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