Hundreds gather for the evening worship of the Ganga River at Har Ki Pauri ghat in central Haridwar


This ancient locale continues to fulfill its role as a place of sacred baths and last rites, a center of monastic orders and home to famous temples and traditional—as well as modern—educational institutions


HARIDWAR IS LAUDED IN The Ancient Upanishads, Puranas and the Mahabharata as one of India’s most sacred cities, then called Mayapuri, Gangadwara or Kapilasthana. It is here that the mighty river personified as the Goddess Ganga emerges from the Himalayan foothills onto the plains of India on Her course to the Bay of Bengal 1,400 miles away. The Gangetic river system is the world’s third largest, draining an area of 390,000 square miles, home to half a billion people.

Just 12 miles upstream from Haridwar is the popular spiritual destination of Rishikesh. Until recent times, Rishikesh was the site of just a few hermitages. Only around 1920, with the founding of the Divine Life Society there, did Rishikesh start to become popular as a spiritual center. Haridwar, however, is the place of historic importance. It is one of the seven sacred cities said to bestow moksha upon human beings, along with Ayodhya, Mathura, Varanasi, Kanchi, Ujjain and Dwarka. In addition, the Kumbha Mela is held here every 12th year, attracting millions of pilgrims. Huge crowds also attend Haridwar’s Ardha Kumbha Mela (the “half” mela, on the sixth year in-between). In 2016 the festival extends from January to April.

Haridwar is also the departure point for the Chota Char Dham pilgrimage to the sacred Himalayan temples: Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath, frequently reaching altitudes of 12,000 feet. Until 1950, this was an arduous trek on foot. Now it is possible, though still hazardous, to drive to these temples.


Haridwar: Pilgrims gather before the evening arati

Haridwar literally means “Gateway of the Gods.” When spelled Hardwar, it refers to Lord Siva and when Haridwar (the official spelling) to Lord Vishnu. Its central focus is the Har Ki Pauri ghat—a ghat being a flight of steps along a river bank area leading into the water to facilitate religious ceremonies, such as a sacred bath and making offerings, as well as mundane chores such as fetching water and washing clothes. Har Ki Pauri means “footsteps of the Lord,” either those of Siva or of Vishnu, as one is inclined.

Locals here will correct you if you refer to the Ganga as containing mere water (pani) rather than nectar (amrit). Their belief derives from the story of how Ganga, which used to flow only in Swarga, the heaven world, came to flow on Earth. Various scriptures recount how Sage Bhagiratha, an ancestor of Lord Rama, had performed penance to bring the Goddess down so Her waters could liberate the souls of 60,000 of his ancestors trapped in the Narakaloka, the lower world. He succeeded by the grace of Lord Siva, who caught the torrential river in His hair, releasing Her gently onto the Himalayas. As Haridwar is the first city Ganga passes through, it became famed as a place for last rites, deposition of ashes and the worship of one’s ancestors, all to assure liberation of souls.

Photographer Dev Raj Agarwal and I have visited Haridwar during the Kumbha Melas, but now (October, 2015) it was the “off season”—and quite a different experience. Not only were far fewer outside pilgrims present, but many of the sadhus usually resident here in abundance had not yet returned from the Kumbha Mela at Nashik. This meant there were fewer saints to interview. On the other hand, we had unfettered access to the city’s pundits, temple priests, educators and other residents at a time when they were not overwhelmed by the Mela, which swells this city of 300,000 to more than a million.


Sage Bhagiratha leads the Goddess Ganga across India to the sea after Her descent from the heaven world

With its long history and deep religious significance, Haridwar is not something one can cover in a week. We were remonstrated by Mahant Raghumani Ji Maharaj of Sri Panchayati Akhara Bada Udasin that it was impossible to understand the significance of the city and the river in such a short time. Nevertheless, he blessed our visit and wished us every success with the grace of Mother Ganga. He was correct, and this report can only be considered an overview of the many sacred temples, monasteries, schools and sites dotting this ancient city.


Offering the flame to Ganga; satellite photo shows location of Haridwar


Haridwar’s three most prominent ghats are Har Ki Pauri in central Haridwar, Kushavarta Ghat, just downstream from Har Ki Pauri, and Kankhal Sati Ghat, about three miles south along a branch of the Ganga. Most devotees come to Har Ki Pauri to worship the Ganga or to perform last rites, while Kankhal Sati and Kushavarta are almost exclusively devoted to last rites, including the immersion of ashes. The priests who perform the rites, we learned, are known by different names depending on where their client comes from: those from Bihar and Purvanchal call them pandas; from Punjab, purohits; from Haryana, dada, and from Gujarat, gaur.

We were fortunate to stay at Ganga Lahari Hotel on Gau Ghat, just a six-minute walk from Har Ki Pauri. From the early hours of the morning, pilgrims and devotees came to pray, take their holy bath and worship the Goddess Ganga and the Sun God Surya with Vedic mantras and folded hands. The elite of Hindu society, often arriving by plane at nearby Dehradun airport, mingle here with the rural folk who arrive by bus from a distant village. On the steps of Har Ki Pauri, turban-clad farmers in kurta shirt and dhoti beside women in saris and other Indian traditional dress worship alongside the jean-clad generation of India’s information technology professionals. To me, the sight was confirmation that despite the different backgrounds and lifestyles, the traditions of Sanatana Dharma are the binding and unifying force of India, and reverence for our sacred places of pilgrimage has not abated in modern India.

Both groups returned to the river’s edge in the evening to attend Ganga arati, visit the riverside temples and offer lighted diyas and beautifully packaged flowers to the Goddess while praying reverently for the welfare of their ancestors and families. Every evening the ghat steps and Malviya Dwipa, the small island opposite the ghat, were crowded with residents and pilgrims for the Ganga arati. All present are affected by this beautiful evening ceremony, as a dozen priests chant Sanskrit in unison and offer large lamps before the river while the nearby temple bells ring thunderously. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of cell phones are held aloft to record the evening worship.


Busy worship: A woman makes an offering of water while behind her another woman fills a jug to take home; urgent family meeting to map out the day

The ceremony here is believed to be the original Ganga arati, begun in 1916 when the Ganga Sabha was founded by freedom fighter Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya. It has since been duplicated in Rishikesh and Varanasi. The Sabha still manages the worship, and its members are responsible for crowd control. They also man tables to collect donations once the worship is concluded. Earlier they used to solicit money during the worship, but complaints from the devotees resulted in this less intrusive system.

Kushavarta Ghat is much different. From morning to night a battery of priests perform the pind daan food offering ritual for those whose close relatives have passed away (see Hindus—and some non-Hindus as well, the priests told us—come here not just from India, but all over the world for this purpose. We saw the trays of mortal remains collected from the cremation grounds being offered into the water from the ghat and occasionally from the adjacent bridge.

On one visit to Kushavarta Ghat we were able to meet Pandit Virender Kirtipal, a senior priest, leader of the Teerth Purohit Society of Kushavarta Ghat and a prominent Vishva Hindu Parishad leader of the area. He was fully booked from early morning to late afternoon performing rituals for his yajmans, or clients, from all over India, so we could only meet him in the evening. Here the pandits, or pandas as they are also known, perform three types of ceremonies: 1) worship of the Gods and devas, including Ganesha and the nine planets, 2) the pitr karmas to honor ancestors and 3) the pret karmas, rituals performed when a recently departed soul is felt to be disturbed and not moving on to higher inner worlds but lingering around the family. These are performed for the thousands who come to this ghat daily, without regard for the jati or varna of the person concerned, as Kirtipal explained. “There are days when 5,000 come and other days just a few hundred come. At times it is so crowded one cannot find a place to stand.” Other rites of passage may be performed on the ghats as well, including head shaving and bestowal of the sacred thread. Many legends and stories are associated with Kushavarta Ghat. Lord Dattatreya is said to have performed penance in this area for thousands of years.

Head shaving is one of several rites of passage carried out along the ghats

There is no school for the purohits to learn their profession; this knowledge is only passed on from father to son. Virender Kirtipal estimates there are 2,500 purohit families in Haridwar. Today some youth are entering other professions for the income, but still retain the right to perform the rituals.

Kankhal Sati Ghat lies along a natural channel of the river and is reached through narrow lanes lined with beggars. This is the main site for the immersion of ashes, while Kushavarta is mostly for the pind daan ceremony, which takes place weeks and months after the death of a loved one. We saw dozens of families there with priests attending their needs.

Of the several small temples here, the most prominent is Ganga Mata Temple–Sati Ghat, dedicated to the river Goddess. According to the temple priest, Jitendra Shastri, three to four hundred families of priests work here, following the rituals prescribed in the Garuda Purana.

Riverside store: Everything needed for worship: fresh flowers in a ready-to-launch leaf boat, lamps, coconuts and bottles for taking Ganga water home

In some cases, according to their carefully maintained records, these priests have been serving the same family for 500 years. The genealogy records kept by the pandas are famous in their own right, sometimes serving as evidence in court over inheritance disputes, according to Vishal Joshi, a priest at Har Ki Pauri. The voluminous documents are kept at home, Vishal said, and only when a client wants to see the complete details of their forefathers are they brought to the ghats. At such times, the records are updated with new information about the family, including whoever has come to Haridwar. These days, when there are fewer extended-family households, the pandas request their clients to kindly check up on their relatives so the records can be updated accordingly. Starting around 1977, these records have been microfilmed by the Mormons, who have used them in an attempt to “convert” the souls of those who have passed on—a practice denounced even by other Christians.

Two kinds of priests perform the last rites, according to Jitendra Shastri. The mahabrahmins conduct the rituals at the cremation ground itself. Jitendra’s own community of brahmins perform not only last rites but all of the 16 samskaras (rites of passage), from birth to death. Certain pandas handle designated districts of India, some of which are now in Pakistan.

Shastri said about 80 percent of those who come enlist the services of the priests, while 20 percent immerse the ashes themselves without any assistance. He does not endorse this practice: “When the due rituals are performed by the relatives of the deceased, then everyone is a recipient of peace—the departed soul, the relatives and the priest.”

We did not interact with many families here, especially wishing to respect those coping with a young or untimely death. We did speak with Sunil Khanna, who with his family was distributing the clothes of the deceased to assembled beggars—such items are not normally kept at home. Sunil expressed indignation with what he considered the money-minded approach of his priest compared to the last time he had rituals done here.

Jitendra Shastri explained that there are no fixed rates for the priests’ services; they are paid anywhere from US$1.50 to $1,500. “We are not here to demand; it is not a tax fixed by anyone. The money is given out of the sweet will of those who have the rituals performed.”

Yes, he acknowledged, there are claims that the purohits exploit their clients—but “the fact is that our yajmans come here to offer us money and get their rituals performed. This is clear to us. There can be no fixed fee or charges, as people here come from different income backgrounds. If someone has money and does not pay the taxes due to him, then he will be a defaulter in the eyes of the government. Similarly, if someone has the money or the capacity to pay the money and does not spend it on the rituals related to the ancestors, then ultimately such a person will be considered a defaulter in the eyes of the ancestors. It is the duty of us all to pay our obeisance and reverence to our ancestors, as they have provided us this human body.”

We parted company with these words of assurance from him: “God Himself takes care of the Sanatana Dharma, Hinduism, which has no beginning and no end. We should not have any doubts about this.”

Pandas at work: Blessing the ashes prior to immersion


There are hundreds of temples in the Haridwar area, ranging from miniature to medium size. Many are quite ancient. Maya Devi is the first temple a pilgrim is expected to visit, as Goddess Maya is the presiding Deity of Haridwar. The present temple, considered by locals as one of the 51 Shakti Peeths of India, dates back at least to the 11th century.

Maya Devi is located in the large compound of the Juna Akhara (monastic order). When we visited, young sadhus of the order could be seen distributing prashadam to the many devotees who had come to worship the Goddess during the October Navaratri festival. The chief priest, Mahant Sewagiri Ji, is himself a sadhu in the akhara since age ten. In addition to Maya Devi Herself, the temple has murtis of the Goddesses Kamakhya Devi, Mahakali, Chamunda and Tara. Sewagiri explains, “We all need the shakti (power or energy) of the Goddess to run our lives and bodies in an efficient manner.”

One devotee, Radhika, tells me her college is quite close by and many of her classmates visit this temple to get the blessings of the Goddess. Another, Keshav Chandra Sharma, told us the temple is popular with the business community, who believe that “if one can somehow please Mother Maya, then one can have control over the worldly maya.”


Pandas sitting on the small platforms at right perform ceremonies for devotees; hundreds of shila shrines, miniature temples for one’s ancestors, pack the courtyard of the Naryana Shila temple

Another famous temple, Prachin Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple, also has a sannyasin as priest—Swami Bimal Van of the Niranjani Akhara. Outside of temples under their direct control, it would be unusual for a sannyasin to fulfill the roll of priest. In the case of the Hanuman temple, there is also a second priest, Shiv Narayan Shastri, a householder, who conducts much of the worship. Shastri was emphatic that anyone who learned Sanskrit properly, as he had, would never lack for suitable employment—contrary to the general impression that such scholars can’t make a decent living.

A panda updates the hand-bound record book of a client family

The traditional Panch Tirth (five holy places) in Haridwar are Har Ki Pauri, Kushavarta Ghat, Mansa Devi, Chandi Devi and Kankhal. The latter is a sacred area with many temples, including for Sheetla Mata, Lakshmi Narayan, Mahakaleshwar, Hanuman, Siva and Kali, as well as the famed Shri Daksheshwar Prajapati Temple—all within a few meters of each other. Our late-evening visit to the Kankhal area was a magical experience. It felt more like one big temple compound than individual places.

Mansa Devi and Chandi Devi are hilltop temples. Both take planning and time to reach. As with Maya Devi, they are considered Shakti Peethas, though not on the standard list of 51. Earlier, the only way to reach the Mansa Devi temple was a three-kilometer trek via trail and stairs. Many still do hike, but now pilgrims can get there in an effortless few minutes by cable car, at the same time enjoying a breathtaking view of Haridwar.

Mansa means wish, and the Goddess is believed to fulfill the wishes of all who worship her sincerely. A form of Shakti, Mansa is said to have come out of the mind of Lord Siva. The temple seems to have a fairly spacious compound. We visited the main shrine, which was beautifully decorated with flowers and costumes. The inner shrine contains two murtis, one with eight arms and the other with five arms and three heads. The place had strong positive vibrations.

There was a big rush of devotees when we visited, linked to the fall season Navratri festival which was under way. Many were crowded around a special tree in the temple, tying threads to its branches while making a wish. Once the wish is fulfilled, people return to untie their thread from the tree.

We next visited the Chandi Devi Temple atop the Neel Mountain a few kilometers away, again reached via ropeway. It is said that the two Goddesses, Mansa and Chandi are different forms of Goddess Parvati and therefore they reside close to each other. The present temple was built in 1929 by Maharaja Suchat Singh of Kashmir. It, too, was packed with worshipers when we arrived.


Gurukulam boys at Anandamayi Ma Ashram

The popular Bharat Mata Mandir is actually an exhibition hall dedicated to Mother India. This prominent eight-story building, opened in 1983, was built by Swami Satyamitrananda Giri Maharaj. Each floor depicts an era in Indian history, from the days of Ramayana up to India’s independence day. One floor is dedicated to India’s revered women, including Radha, Mira, Savitri, Draupadi, Ahilya, Anusuya, Maitri and Gargi; another commemorates the great saints of Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism; another displays the forms of the Goddess Shakti; and the top floor is devoted to Lord Siva. We met several rural youth there who were excited not about the exhibits but to take the elevator, for two rupees, to the top floor—their first experience of that modern marvel.

Pawan Dham temple is famed for its exquisite glass and mirror work. Even the Deities are so made. This temple is presently managed by Swami Sahaj Prakash, a Mahamandaleshwar of the Panchayati Mahanirvani Akhara.



The hilltop Mansa Devi Temple; Swami Bimal Van, priest, Prachin Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple

Many tiny temples dot the ghat area, and one evening at Ganga arati we spoke with the owner and priest of one, Vasant Budhkar, age 72, at his Prachin Sri Ganga Temple. He tells me the temple was established in the 16th century by a king, Amir Naresh, during the reign of Akbar. It has been in his family for 14 generations, but now his sons have taken to different work and he is not sure how the temple will be managed after him. The owners of other temples, he explained, have hired outside priests. Some have even sublet their temple to someone else for a lump-sum annual payment.

Bilkeshwar Mahadev Temple, owned by the Niranjani Akhara, is located in a hilly area surrounded by huge trees. The temple is renowned as the place where Goddess Parvati did penance for thousands of years until Lord Siva accepted Her as His wife. It houses a powerful and ancient Sivalingam. The devotees here said that whatever they asked of Lord Siva as Bilkeshwar (Lord of the Bilva Tree) Mahadev at this temple was granted, just as was the wish of Parvati. They make their wish by whispering into the ear of the beautiful metal statue of Nandi, the bull, just outside the temple. Two girls, Indu Sharma and Sonia, were doing exactly that when I visited. They told me every one of their past wishes had been granted. We also met an elderly businessman, Shri Bhagwan Maheshwari, who was worshiping Lord Siva with great reverence and dedication. He gives credit for everything good that has happened in his life to Bilkeshwar Temple. He has been associated with it for many decades and every year sponsors Rudrabhishekam here.


Indu Sharma confides her prayers to Nandi at the Bilkeshwar Mahadev temple the hilltop Mansa Devi Temple

I was moved by the great bond between this temple’s devotees and Lord Siva. True devotion to Lord Siva can be life transforming for even the most ordinary and commonplace souls who worship and serve Him with complete and unflinching commitment at such a powerful temple as this.

The Narayana Shila Temple was abuzz with activity when I visited. At least a dozen priests of this Vishnu temple were performing elaborate pind daan rituals by which Hindus honor their ancestors. Prominent here are thousands of small structures, shila, built by people who felt their relatives were unsettled in the next world, especially by an untimely or accidental death.

One of the priests, Acharya Pandit Manoj Kumar Shastri, lamented that people today are in too great a rush to be finished with the death rituals. The young priest feels too much importance is being given to rituals connected with happy events, such as birth and marriage, and not enough to the sad event of death. Wedding celebrations, he pointed out, commonly go on for a week, while people come here asking for the death rituals to be cut short. “According to our scriptures,” Manoj Kumar said, “if the proper rites and rituals are not performed after the death, the deceased attracts 64 types of faults, which become an impediment to liberation.” The reason mourning takes a year, he explained, is because the nine pranas (forms of energy) leave as soon as the ashes of the deceased are immersed in the Ganga, but the tenth prana, which is in the ashes themselves, takes one year to dissolve, and during that year the departed soul is believed to be living with us.

We were disappointed by our visit to Bhimgoda Tank, a small reservoir said to have been created when the Pandava brothers passed through here on their way to the Himalayas. The area was completely ill maintained, and not a single devotee could be seen. This historic place is just a few kilometers from Har Ki Pauri and in the middle of a residential and commercial area, but no Hindu organization, ashram or the government is caring for it.

Bhimgoda aside, Haridwar has hundreds of wonderful temples. Visiting them all, even briefly, could take weeks; to do them justice, as we were told, would take lifetimes. The pilgrim here is never more than a few steps from a place of worship!


Temples and Ashrams: Devotees tie a red string to a tree at Mansa Devi Temple; Shilpa Madhukar and Radhika outside Maya Devi Temple


All thirteen akharas (monastic orders) maintain facilities in Haridwar, and three akharas—Panchayati, Juna and Udasin are headquartered here. But the first ashram we visited was that of Anandamayi Ma (1896-1982) which houses her samadhi shrine and is located in Haridwar’s Kankhal area. Devotees of the famed Bengali mystic were in deep meditation in the main hall when we arrived, and the entire place emanated a strong spiritual vibration. We stayed for the evening arati, which was accompanied by bhajans sung by children of the ashram school.

The devotees we spoke to told us Ma’s message was always simple and down to earth: “With earnestness, love and goodwill, carry out life’s everyday duties and try to elevate yourself step by step. In all human activities let there be a live contact with the Divine and you will not have to leave off anything. Your work will then be done well and you will be on the right track to find the Master.” She also said, “Just as there is a definite timetable for work at school, office or the shop, so should we set apart for divine contemplation a few minutes out of the 24 hours of every day, preferably in the morning and evening. Once this habit is established, the future course of your life will be made quite easy. You will feel the flow of the mysterious divine grace feeding all your thoughts and giving you new strength.”

Sri Panchayati Akhara Bada Udasin is located in Kankhal not far from Sati Ghat. The Panchayati Akhara, so named for its worship of five Gods and locally known as Bada Akhara, has many ashrams and Sanskrit schools, with its contingent of resident sadhus varying from 20 to 200. We spoke with Mahant Raghumani Ji Maharaj, who explained that Panchayati was founded about 300 years ago for the “security of the nation” (one meaning of akhara is “place of military practice”). In those days the sannyasins were prepared to fight; and even today they parade with weapons at the Kumbha Melas.

“Today,” the Mahant explained, “we need not hold sticks in our hands to fight, as times have changed. Now we extend our help to the nation whenever there is a crisis or an emergency situation.” In addition to its ashrams and free Sanskrit schools in the Kankhal area, Bada Akhara has 12,000 ashrams in India, including 20 in Delhi. They have 100 educational institutions in Dehradun alone, plus a medical college.


Mahant Raghumani Ji Maharaj of Bada Akahara; samadhi shrine of Sri Anandamayi Ma

Stepping inside the huge fort-like compound of Bada Akhara is like being transported into ancient times. “This ashram is not made of just brick and mortar,” the Mahant told us. “It stands on the energies of penance and sadhana done here by highly evolved rishis.”

The Mahant believes the youth are being attracted to Hinduism, pointing out their interest in the Kumbha Mela. Young people have shown up in substantial numbers in Prayag, Nashik and Ujjain when the colleges and universities were all closed for the event. Not uncommonly, the youth had insisted their reluctant parents take them. “To benefit, they need to meet us face to face, not on Facebook,” the Mahant insisted.

He had much to say about current issues, especially the placement of the elderly in old-folks homes in India, which he called the “biggest sin,” warning, “God will never forgive people who do not care for their parents.” With regard to the Ganga, he feels it should be freed from all dams, thereby allowing the natural force of the river to flush out all the pollution. But, he acknowledged, cutting off the many canals now leading from the river is impractical, given the dependence of entire cities on the water. He also issued this advice: “My message to the Hindus all over the world is that all of us must have love and respect for all the other religions. We can never progress if we look down upon the other religions. Those people who do not have love and respect for other religions cannot even be true to their own religion.” Finally, the Mahant chided us for attempting to cover Haridwar in a week’s time and a single article, stating, “It would take many births to cover Haridwar and do justice to its akharas, saints and temples.”

We paid a visit to the Sapt Rishi Ashram, located near Bharat Mata Mandir in a rather unkempt part of town. While there we encountered Swami Vijayananda Bharati, a Mahant of Juna Akhara. He lamented recent changes in the character of Haridwar, saying it is no longer easy for pilgrims to gain access to the genuine ashrams and the saints connected with them. He described a commercial trend which is off-putting to devotees: “Most of the good ashrams with highly educated saints and modern facilities are only affordable for the rich. To me this is both painful and worrisome.” He also lamented the dearth of well-educated saints in the akharas able to offer the knowledge and wisdom of the scriptures.

As soon as one enters the Nath Sampradaya Ashram, one is transported back thousands of years, such is the atmosphere prevailing there due to the ancient Brithari cave, the dhuna (ever-burning sacred fire) and the Gorakshnath Temple. The ashram building itself is huge and majestic, with a number of spacious courtyards which call to mind a royal palace of India’s glorious past. The head of the institution is Yogi Aditya Nath, presently a member of India’s parliament from Gorakhpur. The number of resident saints varies through the year from five to 150, mostly sadhus connected with the Nath Sampradaya, many of whom come for festivals in the months of July and August.

We met with Mahant Chetai Nath, a down-to-earth monk with a great sense of humor who joined the order at age 13 and took over as manager of this ashram in 1974. He pointed out that the infrastructure of Haridwar needs improvement, complaining that government funds allocated during the Kumbha Melas are not being used properly. He also bemoaned the fact that nonvegetarian food and the drinking of alcohol were becoming more commonplace, when in theory both are banned in the holy city. “The government is not doing much to maintain the purity in the holy city of Haridwar, keeping in view its spiritual background and the faith with which pilgrims come here.”

Asked to share his message to the readers of HINDUISM TODAY, the Mahant offered, “Guru Gorakshnath Ji’s message is that we must all abide by the yamas and the niyamas, which are applicable to everyone of us. God has given us this human body, and if we perform good karmas then we will be blessed by happiness and peace.”


Religious and Secular Teaching: Main library at GKV; their management school


“Few cities in India have so many institutions teaching Hindu culture, ancient sciences and philosophy as you find in Haridwar.” So declared Prof. Surendra Kumar, vice chancellor of one of the largest such institutions, the world-famous Gurukul Kangri Vishwavidyalaya. GKV was founded in 1902 by Swami Shraddhananda Ji of the Arya Samaj to revive the ancient gurukul system and thus counter the British education policy of Lord Macaulay. Swami became famous for his reconversion work during India’s struggle for independence, which ultimately resulted in his assassination in 1926 by a Muslim fanatic. He is also known for bestowing the title of “Mahatma” on Mohandas K. Gandhi.

GKV is recognized by the Indian government’s University Grants Commission as “deemed to be a university,” more or less on the same level as the country’s 130 deemed universities. This is similar to being fully accredited in the US system.

GKV maintains two campuses in Haridwar, one for 4,500 boys and another for 3,000 girls—both several miles south of Har Ki Pauri—and a third for 3,000 girls in nearby Dehradun. It provides undergraduate and graduate courses in ancient Indian culture, Vedic philosophy, yoga and other disciplines as well as mainstream degree programs in engineering, business administration and life sciences, including environmental science. The campus is a small city covering hundreds of acres, with residential housing for the faculty and a hostel for the students. Adjoining the main university campus is a gurukulam for young men pursuing a spiritual life. This is run independently by the Arya Pratinidhi Sabha, an affiliate of the Arya Samaj.

Pantajali Yogpeeth Vedic Gurukul for women; and for men led by Acharya Pradumn (in orange)

Though we came with no firm appointment, we were graciously received by the vice chancellor, Prof. Kumar, who organized a complete tour of the campus on the spot. We visited their large museum, which showcases Indian history and the life of the founder, and their campus library, which houses 260,000 books, including a substantial collection of ancient manuscripts. Dr. Shrawan Sharma, professor of English and in charge of the library, described to us their efforts to preserve the books and manuscripts. Near the library is a huge yagasala where students and faculty members perform homas, fire worship, in the Arya Samaj style.

Also located on the campus, but not a formal part of the university, is the manufacturing plant of the Gurukul Kangri Pharmacy, known all over India for its ayurvedic products. It has recently been placed in government receivership due to management problems, leaving it unable to contribute to the upkeep of the university.

Prof. Kumar is a well-known academician, and himself a graduate of the school where he has taught for 35 years. “Our students are deeply religious, and even at the postgraduate level follow the guru-shishya traditions, such as touching the feet of their gurus. Modern subjects here are beautifully blended with our ancient philosophy,” he explained. “In other institutions of learning you will not find this kind of blending, or it will be only in a very small way.”

About 100 students here specialize in Sanskrit, yoga and jyotish (astrology) these days. As GKV is under the government’s University Grants Commission rules, they must charge some fees, while free Vedic schools run by the Haridwar ashrams have proliferated over the last few decades. Also competing for students are the Sanskrit University established by the Uttarakhand government and run by Shanti Kunj.

Girls at Acharyakulam Shikshan Sansthanam chant Sanskrit

Prof. Kumar told us students with degrees in Sanskrit and related fields have no problem finding jobs. Nearly every school and university requires Sanskrit teachers, but the biggest area of employment is the priesthood, where knowledge of Sanskrit is a necessity. Also some of these students of Sanskrit may go on to become sannyasins.

Patanjali Yogpeeth and its related institutions were founded in 2006 by Baba Ramdev and Acharya Balkrishna, from the pair’s simple inspiration to promote yoga and Ayurveda. Today the various projects are situated at five separate campuses between Haridwar and Roorkee and occupy a thousand acres of land. According to Siddharth Bhargava of Pantanjali Yogpeeth, their Acharya Gurukulam has about 800 students (two-thirds boys and one-third girls, on separate residential campuses) studying from 5th to 12th standard—nicely complementing GKV, which is university level. The study includes both general and Vedic education. They hope one day to establish 500 such schools, one in nearly every major district of India.

We were most fortunate in being able to meet Acharya Balkrishna himself, who directed his staff to give us a tour of the facility. We immediately noted the modernity of the buildings here, unlike the GKV’s architecture, which is quintessential early 19th century.

The Acharya Gurukulam ( []) is housed in a multi-story building fronted by a sprawling lawn where the children perform yoga and other physical exercises early each morning. As we visited various classroom, the children rose to greet us with hands in namaskar, chanting Vedic mantras with complete devotion. They can converse in both Sanskrit and English, in addition to their native Hindi. The hostels were immaculate and the classroom facilities state-of-the-art for both the boys’ and girls’ sections.

Siddharth Bhargava, one of the key people here, told us that the idea is to give their students such a strong foundation that wherever they go in the world they will not be influenced by the sensual materialism of the West. Students need to be prepared as completely awakened and conscious scholars so they will be able to change the course current social evolution. During my interaction with the faculty and students, it became obvious that there is a high level of emphasis on spirituality and high moral values here.


The Entrepreneurs: Malas, prayer beads, of all types are the specialty of this small shop; Ramendra Singh in his shop which sells religious books

On a much larger scale than the school is the ayurvedic treatment and research hospital, Ayurveda college and the Patanjali Food & Herbal Park. The latter is now a multi-million-dollar company whose ultra-modern plant provides sharp contrast to the GKV’s dated production methods. Its story is so remarkable we decided to cover it separately in the next issue of HINDUISM TODAY.

Another impressive facility here is the Yoga Bhawan, where 40,000 people at once can attend lectures and yoga classes with Baba Ramdev. These programs are a main focus of the Yogpeeth.

Dev Sanskriti Vishwavidyalaya ( []) is a fully residential university established by the Uttarakhand government and run by Shri Vedamata Trust, Shantikunj, Haridwar. Shantikunj is popularly known as the Gayatri Parivar Family. Founded in 1971 by Pandit Shriram Sharma, it is located about five miles north of Haridwar on the road to Rishikesh. The campus infrastructure is excellent, and I was impressed by the traditional Indian dress worn by teachers and students alike and their dedication to the guru-shishya system.

We met Dr. Pranav Pandaya, son-in-law of Shriram Sharma, Chancellor of DSVV and head of All World Gayatri Parivar. He proudly states that DSVV was the first private university in the state and is completely self-supporting. The university has 1,600 students, while the associated Gayatri Vidyapeeth (to 12th standard) on the same campus has 1,400 students. Four hundred students are taking a five-year course in yoga, which Pranav believes is unmatched anywhere else. In fact, he said, most of the schools in Haridwar teaching yoga have faculty members who graduated from DSVV. They also have departments in the sciences, including Ayurveda, rural management and the arts, including animation. There is no tuition or meal fee, and residential students pay just US$35/month for housing. Aside from their majors, every student must take courses in life management, scientific spirituality, Sanskrit and English.

Anil Gupta specializes in rudraksha beads and other religious items; a seller of sweets


With its constant flow of outside visitors and occasional influx of hundreds of thousands, Haridwar is a shopper’s—and therefore an entrepreneur’s—paradise. A few businesses operate right on the ghats, selling flower, lamp and coconut offerings and providing head-shaving and, incongruously, full-body massages; but the main business activity is from the top steps of the ghats onward. Parallel to Har Ki Pauri is a solid bank of restaurants and shops selling everything from bottled water to gutkas, the small areca nut and tobacco pouches popular with locals despite the substance being a known carcinogen.

It is common for pilgrims here to distribute food to the needy, and some restaurants are set up just for this purpose. Devotees come in and, according to their budget, buy food to be given out. The restaurant owner loudly announces to everyone in earshot that free food is now available, and anyone who comes is fed up to the budget, or a bit more.

Almost every road in the vicinity of the ghats is packed with stores offering textiles, rudraksha malas, souvenirs, ayurvedic medicines, books, and more. There are sundry restaurants, where visitors and townspeople line up to enjoy puri with chana or halwa, lassi, hot milk, sweets (like jalebi, gulab jamun, rabri, kalakand) and innumerable other Indian food items. The beautifully decorated and well-lit shops and restaurants remain open late into the night, creating a nearly 24-hour festive atmosphere.

The narrow lanes of Haridwar’s shopping area

One evening we walked from Har Ki Pauri to the shop of our long-time friend here, Anil Gupta. The area is one big market, colorful and charming in the night lighting, and full of customers. Gupta’s store, Navratna Emporium, is located at Gau Ghat. It was discovered by HINDUISM TODAY’S editors in 1995 when they noticed a number of sadhus shopping there and decided to investigate. The store is a wonderland of religious items: rudraksha beads (a speciality), Deity murtis, crystal Sivalingams, birth stones, conches, sandalwood, japa malas, framed art—in short, everything for personal worship and observance.

Anil tells us the business was started by his grandfather, who moved here from Harayana 150 years ago and started out by dealing in rudraksha malas. He said business is very good for everyone in Haridwar. Even a small vendor selling from a hand cart does well. Anil, his father and his son own a chain of shops, which they operate jointly. While we were there, they opened yet another—Navratna, the Culture Shop.

Karma Singh, Amar Singh is a small shop located near Har Ki Pauri that is absolutely packed from floor to ceiling and wall to wall with religious books, nearly all in Sanskrit or Hindi. The shop is run by Ramendra Singh and his son Parminder, who told us Hindu priests and scholars are among their frequent customers. The business was founded in 1908 by Ramendra’s grandfather, who had come from Amritsar. With the blessings of Mother Ganga, they are satisfied with the business, they told me, as did all the businessmen we met.


The main purpose of coming to Haridwar, of course, is to bathe in the Ganga. I do so on our last day here, a chilly early winter morning. There are large groups of people at Har Ki Pauri when we arrive, many of them from rural areas and most too shy to speak to a reporter. As I enter the river, I find the flow so strong that I have to hold on to one of the chains anchored to the ghat steps to avoid being swept away. With folded hands I pray to Mother Ganga and the Sun, whose golden rays are so soothing and comforting while I stand in the extremely cold Ganga water. Finally I come out, feeling spiritually refreshed and blessed. Teerth Priest Babu Lal Sharma helps me perform Ganga puja with the chanting of mantras and offering of flowers. It is a fitting finale to our sojourn.

During the flight back to Delhi, greetings of “Har Har Gange, Jai Ganga Maiya, Jai Ma Ganga” reverberate in me, stirring up my soul and consciousness. I had visited Haridwar many times before, but on this trip I was overwhelmed with blissfulness and joy. Ganga is a living Goddess who can be felt in one’s life and can have a positive and profound impact every time one has Her divine darshan.



Built in 1854 to prevent famines, it was at the time the largest irrigation project in human history


THE DISASTROUS FAILURE OF THE MONSOON rains in 1837-1838 resulted in 800,000 deaths by starvation—from an area population of six million, the loss of a far larger number of cattle and a cost to the British East India Company of ten million rupees in relief aid. A single English engineer, Proby T. Cautley, convinced the Company that an extensive canal system could avert future famines in the region, and the Ganga Canal was opened in 1854. It flowed 348 miles, irrigating 767,000 acres of land in 5,000 villages, then returned to both the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers.

As part of preparing this report on Haridwar, we asked those we interviewed about the construction of the canal. Surprisingly, no one knew anything about it. One otherwise well informed person ventured that it was built in 1924—off by 70 years.

Perhaps the problem is that today Haridwar and its ghats sit alongside the canal, not on the river bank itself—as evidenced each year when the canal locks are closed to allow cleaning and repair of the ghats. But that was not the case prior to 1854. To learn more, we located several reports and descriptions from that time period, including those of Cautley himself.

We found an 1837 steel engraving (top right) titled “Hurdwar” that carries this description on the back, “The town of Hurdwar, which is small but well built, is adorned with several commodious ghauts, constructed of cut freestone, descending by long flights of steps to the river. The Ganges River is a mile in width at Hurdwar. The resident population of Hurdwar being small, the accommodation for pilgrims and others, who repair in great numbers to the place at certain seasons, is of a temporary description only, the wealthy portion of the pilgrims being alone indulged with the shelter of a roof over them; the remainder of the vast multitude whom religion, pleasure, or business brings to the spot, being content to bivouac under canvas, or beneath the shadows of the trees. Hurdwar is also the place of celebrated fair, held in month of April and lasts nearly a month.”



Portraits of life: Cleaning the ghats while the canal gates are closed; then and now shots of Haridwar from across the canal

In Cautley’s 1860 “Report on the Ganges Canal Works,” he describes the situation prior to construction: “The main stream of the Ganges, the discharge of which is estimated in the driest months of the year at 8,000 cubic feet per second, opens upon the plains of India by a well defined gorge in the Sewalik mountains. Immediately on the right, and close at the foot of these mountains, are situated the town and temples of Hurdwar. The river may be said to occupy the whole of this gorge, the width of which at its narrowest point is about one mile.

“A branch passed directly under the town of Hurdwar, and, proceeding onwards in a tolerably even and unbroken section, rejoined the parent river at a point below Kunkhul, a large town situated about 1¼ mile below Hurdwar. From this branch the inhabitants of Hurdwar and Kunkhul had been in the habit of bringing a water course for the purpose of supplying the towns, the priests being interested in maintaining water at their ghats or bathing places; the community in general depending upon this supply for water both for drinking, for turning corn-mills, and to a moderate extent for the irrigation of the gardens. The head works of the Ganges Canal, therefore, were, in limine [“at the outset”], determined by the priests and the people; so far as supply was concerned, it was only a matter of degree” [i.e., the river water was already being diverted for various uses].

Cautley recounts how the priests and holy men of Haridwar agreed on the project under the conditions that it begin with a puja to Ganesha and that the barrage or dam across the Ganga, which diverted 84 percent of the river at low flow into the canal, allow at least a small portion of the river to always freely flow downstream. Cautley’s construction team also rebuilt the ghats to be safer for the pilgrims, with deep areas filled in and railings and chains installed along the sides, as we see today. This improvement to the ghats, Cautley wrote, “may be received by the Hindoo as some atonement for the liberties taken with the Ganges, as well as with the tutelary deity of the ghat upon the site of which these works were constructed.”


The canal cost 1.5 million pounds in 1850. While it is difficult to estimate the current value of money in the past, by one accepted method (based on GDP), this would be £4.85 billion, or us$6.9 billion. That’s in the same general price range as the similar-sized California aqueduct project of the 1960s.

A description of the opening ceremonies appearing in the Delhi Gazette, April 12, 1854, reads in part, “The first letting on of the water [into the canal from the Ganga at Haridwar] was attended with no ceremony, but was marked by a remarkable incident. Hurdwar, as one of the holiest places in India, is peopled by devotees, priests and religious mendicants, many of whom had regarded the progress of the canal with mingled feelings and selfish dislike and superstitious abhorrence. They dreaded less it might interfere with their gains from the liberal piety of pilgrims by lessening the reputed sanctity of the town, and they looked upon it as an impious work offensive to the mighty Gunga herself. It had been feared that some of the more fanatical among them might undertake to interfere with violence at this last moment. But fortunately they chose a different course, and on this occasion ten Fakeers led the working party of their own accord, and thus settled the religious question by accepting the canal as an undeniable fact.”



The ghats in the 1840s?; in the 1880s and in 1837, prior to the canal construction

The official opening ceremonies were held at Rourkee, 35 miles down from Haridwar, as this was the headquarters of the project and site of some its most difficult construction. Half a million people attended the opening, including representatives from all over north India. “On foot, on horseback, drawn by cattle in all kinds of carriages, on elephants covered with showy trappings, in palanquins, on unwieldy camels, one by one, or in troops, Hindoo and Buddhist, Parsee and Mussulman, Jew and Christian have met together to welcome the birth of the new stream.”

The British-led ceremonies were, of course, Christian in tone and imperious: “It was difficult to conceive of a more impressive service than this. A few hundred Christians in the heart of a foreign country, surrounded by many thousand heathens, are dedicating to God the work of civilization which they had undertaken for the benefit of these unenlightened multitudes. In the light of that early morning, under the shadow of the eternal hills, they stand as the missionaries of the religion of peace and goodwill.”

With the actual opening of the locks at Rourkee, which allowed the canal’s water to move downstream in full force, “The Lieutenant-Governor led the way in three hearty cheers, and one cheer more for Cautley. The cry spread among the crowd, and half a million voices shouted welcome to Gunga-jee, and for half an hour the great mass of human beings swayed to and from under intense excitement.”

The writer then offers a self-serving yet somewhat conciliatory conclusion: “Miserable as have been the pretexts, and bloody as has been the course of many of the English wars in India, they have been in the end of greater advantage to the conquered than to the conquerors.” This statement is all the more remarkable, coming as it did at the beginning, not the end, of the colonial era.