I landed in Haridwar en route to Rishikesh. Whereas Rishikesh has been embraced by the West (with its unofficial reputation as “Yoga Capital of the World” and even an Oprah-approved wellness retreat taking place in its foothills), Haridwar remains much more of a destination for Hindus.
One of the holy pilgrimage sites of India, Haridwar is also a vegetarian and dry city. Instead of bars, visitors go to holy temples. And each night, thousands of the devout congregate on the shores of their only living goddess — the Ganges River —for an aarti (devotional ceremony) at Har Ki Pauri, Haridwar’s most famous ghat (steps leading to the banks of a river).
After scoring a samosa from a street stand in the lively commerce section adjacent to the Ganga Aarti ceremony, I headed for the river. There, I was surrounded by groups sitting on the steps of the ghat and sprawled out on blankets. Some topless men were submerged in the Ganges, just a short swim away from a towering statue of Lord Shiva.
Men in white robes began chanting, and their prayers continued through sunset. Handheld torches and floating candles lit the scene. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said, that it was dark and that I was surrounded by strangers. There’s little more unifying than devotion.