The One Memory From Haridwar That Will Stay With Me.
Red and yellow bracelets, cable cars, and an amusement park temple.
Haridwar is another holy city in India, downstream on the Ganges about 30km from Rishikesh. Originally, we had planned on only spending an hour here, as this was just a stopover point to catch our train to Varanasi. But, this is India, and of course things didn’t go as planned. We arrived to the train station an hour before our 9pm departure to find -- surpise! -- that our train had been cancelled. This news was delivered to us most unapologetically and cold-heartedly by the frowning gate attendant, who also suggested no alternative way for us to get to Varanasi. So we ended up spending 2 nights in Haridwar, and the one thing ‘ll remember most from those days is how I got a bracelet at Mata Mansa Devi Mandir temple.
It is possible to get to the temple by cable car or walking a few kilometers up a steep paved walkway. We took the cable car. Its accessed by buying entry at the Udan Khatola cable car ticket counter, and then going through a series of multiple checkpoints, with about the same amount of security as when you get your boarding pass checked at the airport. After the metal detector, we had to wait 30 minutes in a concrete waiting area, next to a concession stand selling soda and ice cream. Then -- requisite selfies with Indians, and our number was called. Thirty more minutes of waiting in the queue, and we made it to our encaged cable car. The ride was okay -- most interesting was watching masses of people and monkeys milling below and going about their daily lives. The view would have been incredible if the sky had been clear, but alas, pollution once again obscured our view.
We arrive to Mata Mansi at the top of the hill, and enter into the anthill of activity. No, anthill isn’t the right image here, as that would imply an orderliness to everything. Rather, more like a disturbed beehive or the floor of the New York Stock Exchange when brokers are clamoring for a new hot startup IPO. We left our shoes in the shoe-check area and descended into the chaos of the main body of the temple.
Once you enter the the stream of people of this temple, it’s useless to fight against the current. No one seemed to care that we obviously weren’t Hindu, we were just another couple bodies to be added to the conveyor belt. The temple was low ceilinged and made of meandering narrow stone passageways, walls adorned by sculptures and black with the soot of candles and incense. At the first stop we got blessed on the top of the head by a brahmin, had some orange paste rubbed onto our third eye, and then asked for a donation of some rupees. This was all in a familiar yet expedited way, crowded on all sides by people anxious for the blessing. Then we shuttle to the next station, and the next, and the next, with this process essentially being repeated, the only difference being a new shrine or blessing from the brahmin.
Our last stop was the holy-bracelet weavers. By this time we were in a daze, laughing at the craziness of it all but also very impressed by the religious fervor of everyone in the temple. I mean, imagine that you were going to a place, and could recieve dozens of blessings in exchange for a small offering and some devout energy. This was serious business, and we got to be in the middle of it all.
We get towards the end of the temple, and a brahmin grabs my arm and asks my name. I tell him, and he takes a spool of thread and starts wrapping my wrist swiftly, so quickly and unconsciously its obvious he’s done this before, all the while repeating a mantra. Twenty seconds later and the bracelet is done and he asks for donation. I have no idea what this piece of thread around my wrist means, but somehow it has connected me to this place and experience. I donate some rupees, and by this time he’s already on to the next pilgrim. We leave the temple, with our prevailing emotions being amazement and incredulity, again just stunned at what happened. And then, we take the cable cars down the hill (included in the ticket purchase).
On the descent, we see a man making his way down the stone pathway by prostration, slowly bowing to the temple, going on his stomach, taking a step downhill, and beginning the process anew. All I could wonder at the time is: what is this mystery force that drives human beings to be so fervent about religion? Is belief so strong that it can compel thousands of people to make pilgrimages up a mountain, or spend their very limited monetary resources for blessings, or engage in hours of prostration to and from a temple? Somehow this doesn’t really hit home until you see it in person, and after my time in Haridwar I have to conclude that, whether this religion is ‘true’ or not, it certainly is a powerful force and can compel people to do amazing things. I haven’t found that force in my life yet, but the red and yellow bracelet reminds me of its potential and that life is full of unseen mysteries and unreceived blessings. Until it falls off, at least, and then I’ll have to find another temple and start the process again...