06 December 2010 – Monday – Haridwar, India
H and I and The Little One awoke at 4:30 this morning with the chickens. Today was the day we had to catch the 6:45am train for Haridwar. H’s sister, R, recommended we take the short trip up to Haridwar as she said it was spectacularly beautiful and well worth visiting. And it was. Like Varanasi, it is one of the most holy cities in all of Hinduism as it is considered the beginning of the River Gunga, or the Ganges River. From Haridwar and Rishikesh, the Ganges begins its 2700 km voyage across northern India where it empties out into the Bay of Bengal. But unlike the river when it reaches Varanasi, which is about 3/4s of the way, the river at Hardiwar is a very nearly clean and pure and the water grey-white and oh so cold. It hasn’t had a zillion tons of raw sewage and dead people and every imaginable piece of garbage dumped into it at that point like it has by the time it reaches Varanasi.
We reached Haridwar at around 11am and were literally blown off our feet by the volume of noise and commotion as we made our way out of the train station and out onto the street where the prepaid taxi stand was. It was such a shock to go from the relative calm of the rail car, through the terminal building and then smack dab into total chaos. I just never expected it to be so insanely loud and out of control in such a small town.
After we settled into our hotel and rested for a bit, we hired a car to take us down to Haridwar’s bathing ghats, or steps. We wandered around them for a couple of hours as the sun was setting. It really was beautiful and I got some great people shots, but it’s nothing like Varanasi. Varanasi is so old and derelict, so drenched in the dirt and grime of its own history, that nothing can compare to it. Haridwar is pretty, Varanasi is simply repulsive. But it’s the best kind of repulsive as it is a terribly photogenic repulsive. And I think that is what makes it so appealing to be there. At least that’s what I liked about being in Varanasi.
Being down at the Haridwar ghats at the end of the day gave us a preview of what I wanted to shoot when we arrived at sunrise the next morning.
Again, the next morning, we were up just after 5am and were picked up by our sleepy driver and taken back to the same place we had been the afternoon before just as the sun broke over the mountain tops to the east of the town. It was a great idea to scope the place out the day before because the morning light was just so beautiful and I was able to get some wonderful shots.After spending 3 hours at the Haridwar ghats, we had our driver take us further north to Rishikesh, about 30 km distance, which is another holy site in Hinduism and where the Beatles first visited back in the late 60’s.
In order to get to the main part of Rishikesh and all the ashrams on the other side of the river, you have to pass over this very long, very narrow suspension bridge. It’s basically a footbridge, wide enough for two people, but it’s got crowds of people crossing it in both directions, kids playing on it, beggars begging, and even cows sleeping on it. But the worst thing by far is the non-stop motorcycle traffic constantly screaming back and forth by you, blasting their loud and stupid horns every two seconds for you to get the hell out of their way. It really is enough to drive you insane and up and over the edge of the bridge in terror. This is what makes the crossing such a stressful, harrowing experience. Why in the hell would they open a stupid walking bridge up to motorcycles of all things? The cars and the trucks on the other side must be able to cross over on another bridge somewhere. Why not make the motorcycles cross right along with them? Why terrorize the foot traffic all the bloody time? It’s just another thing here that doesn’t make a lick of sense.
Another thing that doesn’t make a lick of sense either is the complete lack of anything resembling the religious or spiritual at these supposed super holy sites. These towns and villages propose to be the great centres of spirituality and learning, and the world flocks to them, wide-eyed and in earnest, deeply committed to discovering the hidden truths of life. And when they arrive, they must be so discouraged to discover how commercialized and decidedly un-religious these places have become. An entire community of sellers and hawkers has grown up around the sites to harass and bilk as many foreign bills from the poor suckers who flock as they possibly can. Even the supreme holy men themselves have realized how lucrative it can be to sit around and pretend to be doing holy work, while the phirangis drop money in their cups.
So why do people follow them?
I could never understand that. Why are so many people so desperate to find someone to follow? Why are they so eager to prostrate themselves before a guru or maharishi or yogi, give up their sense of self, their individualism, their ability to think and reason for themselves, and pretend that this is a good and honourable thing to do? And for what? Why do people need someone to follow anyway? It seems to me the truths you discover for yourself are far more valuable and useful than the ones some pompous, saffron-clad holy person bestows upon you from the front of the room while you sit there, cross legged and in agony on the hard floor behind him, mumbling some whacked out nonsense to yourself, all the while trying to maintain an unearned sense of superiority to everyone else in the world. What the hell is that all about? And really, what the fuck do these gurus know about living anyway? Seriously? They sit in caves or tiny little rooms in an ashram somewhere all day long, waited on hand and foot, meditating on their theories of life, while the real world whizzes by them at the speed of light. They don’t have to deal with the difficulties and trivialities of everyday living, like the rest of us do. And yet they feel perfectly justified in doling out the advice on how to be better people then everyone else, or achieve nirvana or some other such rubbish that is supposed to help them exist better in the real world. What have they done to deserve the right to do that? Get them a real job, for god’s sake. Make them work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, like the rest of us do. Make them deal with stupid customers, or incompetent bosses, jealous co-workers or megalomaniacal supervisors, let them push a heavy wheelbarrow up a muddy slope all day long or try to sell useless stuff no one needs, and then see what they have to say about living life properly.
I bet they’d be singing a different tone then.
So why do people follow them?
I could never understand that…
These and many more questions just like them flooded through my mind as I walked the so-called holy streets of Rishikesh, avoiding the crowds and the annoying motorcycles, the cows and cow shit everywhere, searching for some sign that this was indeed a centre of spirituality for the world.
I couldn’t find it.
Even as I sipped my café latte in air conditioned comfort at the brand new Café Coffee Day, which was just built about 30m from the holiest of ashrams in Rishikesh, I couldn’t come up with the answer.
So we left, disillusioned and unimpressed. The entire ‘spiritual journey’ thing seemed like such a complete waste of time, and totally self-delusional. We drove back to Haridwar in silence and caught the 6:30pm train back to Delhi.
There was nothing to say.