We travelled to Rishikesh on the Diwali weekend a few months back. It was a truncated family of three as my younger daughter unable to take the weekend off. It was the three of us heading by the morning Shatabadi train to the cooler, and hopefully cleaner, climate of Rishikesh by the side of river Ganges on the foothills. We entered the two-bedroom apartment in a luxury resort almost eight hours from the time that we had left home, braving the roads to Delhi railway station, then a comfortable train journey to Hardwar, and the final lap to Rishikesh again by a cab.
As we opened our balcony, we were awed by the majestic view laid out in front of us. It was almost like a painting. We could see a beautiful swimming pool on the property we were staying in and then the river Ganges flowing majestically past the property. Our place was a little beyond Lakshman Jhula and we were looking forward to a quiet holiday away from the hustle and bustle of the city life. We had read on the property brochure earlier that they had evening ganga arti every day and we looked forward to a detox holiday – no drinks and no non vegetarian meals for the entire duration.
Come evening, and we went down to the pool deck. Three priests in saffron clothes – dhoti and kurta- had prepared for the arti. The deck had other guests also – both Indians and foreigners. There was excitement all around as the head priest started speaking on the microphone about the origins of the ritual. Sharp at sunset, the priests lit the lamps and started. It was a beautiful sight, uplifting for soul. Many men and women moved ahead to hold the lit lamp in obeisance to Mother Ganga as the priests were chanting to the hymns played on the music system. Ladies from abroad were equally excited to hold the lamp – this was probably something which they could see only in India. We also overheard a few guests talking about the arti at Triveni Ghat and Parmarth Ashram being the best ones in town. We decided to visit Triveni Ghat the next evening. The priests told us that time for event at both the places was 5.15 in the evening.
Next evening, we took a tuktuk to reach the ghat by 5 to catch the event. It was still early and there were many like us who were there for the arti. We finally realised that the arti was performed after sunset and the time for the same was 6.15 pm. Twelve tables were kept on the riverside with big unlit lamps on each of the table. Announcements were being made on loudspeakers for devotees to approach the office in case they wanted special prayers offered on their behalf and make the necessary donations. Slowly people started settling down on the steps of the riverside facing the river. Volunteers – they were probably the trustees – continued to exhort devotees for donations for special prayers. The frontmost steps were kept reserved for such special devotees. In fact, any person, who had not made the donations, and who was sitting on the frontmost steps, was being politely but firmly requested by the trustees or volunteers to move up on the steps. My wife had already floated a lit lamp down the river as a token of her prayers. There were many more devotees whose lit diyas were floating down the river. We deposited our footwear at the designated space and walked to the steps to sit on one of the top steps under the tin shed, specially erected for the event.
The tempo was now building up. Behind us artists had come and sat down with their musical instruments. Trustees were moving up and down the riverside exhorting devotees for the special prayers. Busloads of foreign tourists had come and were also settling down on the steps with their cameras ready to shoot everything. The foreigners were equally excited to see the spectacle. Some of them had purchased unlit lamps from vendors sitting on the steps. They were accompanied by English speaking guides who were explaining to them in perfect English the importance of the event and stories from our mythology about the importance of Mother Ganga. I have never been given to outward show of my religious sentiments as I have always felt that religion is my personal matter and how I perform my prayers I need not show to the world; even I was now getting into the spirit of things.
As the clock approached 6.15, one by one twelve young priests walked down to the tables and sharp at 6.15 they all mounted the tables. Conches were blown by the artists sitting behind us – and the twelve lamps in front of us were lit and picked up by the twelve priests. They stood facing the river. The next 30 minutes or so were a visually mesmerising treat. The arti had started and the twelve priests were practically performing a dance on the tables with lit lamps in their hands in obeisance to the Mother. We and so also the foreigner tourists and so many like us who had come to witness the spectacle and so many who were there performing prayers for their near and dear ones were all spellbound for that half an hour. I am sure even the best of the Bollywood choreographers or directors could not have envisaged a spectacle as beautiful as the one that unfolded before my eyes. I was moved – not only by the spectacle, but also by a sentiment that I cannot define – was it devotion, maybe; was it seeing the devotion of others around me, maybe. Or maybe it was a combination of everything that made that evening beautiful.
The prayers over, we walked back to our tuktuk and the more rational me kicked in. This was religion tourism and the scale at which this was performed, it had given immense means of livelihood to so many diverse people. The people selling lamps, snacks, tea, the artists, the trustees, the priests, the people cleaning the riverside, the tourist buses, the tourist guides, the hotels and resorts, the way side eateries and restaurants, the staff working in the hotels, the taxis and their owners and drivers, the tuktuks and their owners and drivers. So many more ancillary activities had also come up in the shape of adventure sports like river rafting and bungee jumping. I may be missing a lot many classes of people who may be earning their daily livelihood out of this tourism.
People of the town had already contributed their might to create an event around which a whole town could survive; only what was needed was a little more investment in infrastructure like creating a permanent structure, build public conveniences, do up the river front with better lighting, better roads – these are issues which can be tackled by the government; rest would be taken care of by people, and this place and this event can become a tourist circuit by itself for maybe even a day trip out of Delhi (like people do Bath, Stonehenge and a few other destinations out of London). I was staggered by my own musings – lunch at the famed Chotiwala, followed by ganga arti by the side of holy river Ganges.
Many years back I was posted in Dhanbad – it was part of Bihar then. One weekend we went to a lake a little out of the city. It was an out of place location for which you had to get off the main road and as you turned a bend on the road you had the lake spread out, surrounded by trees and bushes. This was really an isolated place and way back in 1989 it did not have even a shack for tea or any shelter. Obviously, there were no public conveniences even. Back in those days if you had gone for a picnic and had carried beer bottles with you, then the gentlemen emptied their bladders most primitively by the bushes; and the ladies just bore the inconvenience till we had reached back home. I do not know if this lake continues to be as isolated – of course isolation was one of the charms of this place – but then the place could have been developed into a tourist destination. I remember once driving to Interlaken from Zurich, we had come across Lake Thun, a beautiful place to sit and rest. This isolated lake near Dhanbad had the same potential. We also visited beautiful waterfalls near Dhanbad. They were nature at its best. We also visited the Dudhsagar falls on the Konkan belt – this is more popularly shown in the movies or when one travels by train on the Konkan railways, but is so much more beautiful when you actually dunk yourself in the cold water cascading down in a lagoon which you approach after a short walk through the forests surrounding it.
I have been told that the entire belt comprising of now Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Odisha and possibly the entire country itself has so many beautiful places which are known only to the locals and have the potential to become tourist attractions with investment in infrastructure through creation of facilities – not an unplanned creation, but very much structured and catering to the requirement of tourists as also the locals. Is this wishful thinking – I do not think so. Our Prime Minister has shown the importance of tourism as an industry by recently walking through Corbett Park with Bear Grylls. It is up to the involved government departments and the industry itself to take up the gauntlet and create beautiful new tourist destinations across the country. I am looking forward to exploring the unexplored.