Haridwar, "the Gateway to God", is one of the oldest living cities and one of the seven holiest places in India. (The others are Varanasi/Kashi, Kanchipuram, Ayodhya, Ujjain, Mathura, and Dwarka). Hindu gods are believed to have incarnated at these places various avatars. For Hindus, a pilgrimage to Haridwar will provide liberation from the endless cycle of death and rebirth.
The area around the Ganga River is made up of a fascinating and colorful collection of sadhus (holy men), pundits (Hindu priests), pilgrims, guides, and beggars. Every evening, the river comes alive with the magic of the aarti (worship with fire), as lamps are lit, prayers are offered, and small candles are floated down the river. A visit to this holy city will give you great insight into some of what makes India tick.
History and Mythology
Haridwar's long history can be traced all the way back to ancient Hindu texts such as the Rig Veda and The Mahabharata. During that time it was also referred to as Gangadwara, the gate of the Ganga River (where it descends from the mountains to the plains).
Hindu mythology says that a king named Bhagiratha brought the Ganga River to earth, with the help of Lord Shiva, to remove a curse and purify the ashes of his ancestors so they could go to heaven. Apparently, Lord Shiva released the river from his hair at Haridwar.
Sacred Har ki Pauri ghat is believed to have been built in the 1st century BC by Emperor Vikaramaditya in memory of his brother, Bharthari, who came to Haridwar to meditate by the river and passed away there. Legend has it that Lord Vishnu came and left his footprint on a stone wall at Har ki Pauri, giving rise to its name meaning "Footsteps of God".
Haridwar sits alongside the Ganga (Ganges) River near Rishikesh, at the base of the Shivalik mountain range in Uttarakhand.
How to Get There
Trains from major cities all over India stop at Haridwar on their way to Dehradun. For those coming from Delhi to Haridwar, it takes a minimum of four hours to get there by train or six hours by road.
The nearest airport is Dehradun's Jolly Grant Airport, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Haridwar. Travel time from the airport to Haridwar is about an hour. Expect to pay 1,500-2,000 rupees upwards for a private taxi, depending on the type of vehicle. Shubh Yatra Travels offers a reliable service that you can book in advance. Taxis are available at the airport. However, demand is high during peak season and drivers may quote inflated prices.
When to Go
The best time to visit Haridwar is from October to March. Summers, from April to July, get very hot in Haridwar. Temperatures hover around 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). The clean water of the Ganges is really refreshing though, and May to June is regarded as peak season. The monsoon season, from July to September, is unsuitable to taking a dip in the Ganges as the river bank becomes unstable and currents are strong because of the rain. Winters, from November until February, get cold during the night. As a result, the water is chilly, but there's also mist in the air which makes Haridwar particularly scenic at that time of year.
The most famous festival to take place at Haridwar is the Kumbh Mela, held there once every 12 years. It draws tens of millions of pilgrims who come to bathe in the Ganges and be absolved of their sins. The next Kumbh Mela will be held in Haridwar in 2021.
In addition, many other religious Hindu festivals are celebrated in Haridwar. Some of the most popular ones are the Kanwar Mela (July or August) devoted to Lord Shiva, Somwati Amavasya (July), Ganga Dussehra (June), Kartik Poornima (November), and Baisakhi (April).
What to Do
Haridwar's top attractions are its temples (particularly Mansa Devi temple, where the wish fulfilling goddess resides), ghats (steps leading down to the river), and Ganga River. Take a holy dip and cleanse your sins.
The city's iconic Ghanta Ghar (clock tower) at Har ki Pauri ghat was recently given a new look as part of the Haridwar Mural Project, which aims to explore unconventional canvases for public art. The project is being undertaken by art retailer Mojarto in association with Namami Gange (an initiative for the rejuvenation and preservation of the Ganga River). The painting of the clock tower, by artist Harshvardhan Kadam (who led the Pune Street Art Project), is based on the scriptures and theories of the Viman Shastra. It blends Indian mythology with contemporary art. Haridwar's new Chandi Ghat has also been decorated with a colorful turtle and ocean scene, painted by celebrated Mexican artist Senkoe. It signifies how the cleaning of the river and ghats is bringing wildlife back.
As the sun sets, head to Har ki Pauri ghat to witness the captivating Ganga Aarti (prayer ceremony) at around 6-7 p.m. every night depending on the time of year. Fiery lamps combined with the chanting of mantras, clanking of bells and enthusiastic crowd, is very powerful and moving.
Daksha Mahadev temple, the oldest temple in the area, also has some intriguing evening rituals. According to legend, Lord Shiva's first wife Sati jumped into the holy fire and died there, in response to her father spurning him.
If you're interested in Ayurvedic medicine, you'll find many roots and shrubs that are grown in the Himalayas readily available there.
Bara Bazaar, on Railway Road between Har ki Pauri and Upper Road, is a popular area to shop. It has all sorts of brass items, religious items, and Ayurvedic medicines. A bit further along, Moti Bazaar on Upper Road towards the north of the canal, is Haridwar's main market area. It offers a wide variety of inexpensive goods as well.
Where to Stay
Haridwar is quite spread out and hotels are all about location, location! There are plenty of options but you'll want to stay somewhere along the river to really enjoy and appreciate Haridwar. These Haridwar hotels for all budgets are all well-positioned and decent.
Where to Eat
The food in Haridwar is mostly vegetarian, and alcohol is banned in the city as it's a holy place.
Chotiwala, at Subhash Ghat, is renowned for its thalis (platters). Bhagwati's Chhole Bhature, on the way to Mansa Devi Temple, is a popular breakfast joint for those who want to fill up on this iconic dish. Mohan Ji Puri Wale, near the police chowki at Har Ki Pauri, is the best place to go for aloo (potato) puri. The sweet ghee items at Mathura Walo ki Pracheen Dukan, near Thanda Kuan Moti Bazaar, always draw a crowd. Hoshiyar Puri, on Upper Road, serves yummy north Indian vegetarian cuisine at reasonable prices (the daal makhani and paneer masala are signature dishes). For somewhere more fancy, head to Ksheer Sagar at Pilibhit House, Ramghat.
Rajaji National Park offers unspoiled natural beauty only 10 kilometers (six miles) from Haridwar. Its eco-system is estimated to be 10 million years old, and a diverse range of wildlife can be seen there, including elephants.
Those keen to learn more about yoga and Ayurveda can visit Baba Ramdev's Patanjali Yogpreeth, at Bahadrabad near Haridwar. This interesting educational institution aims to link ancient wisdom with modern science.
Many people visit Rishikesh as a side trip as well. Although it's only less than an hour from Haridwar, the vibe is very different there. Haridwar is popular with Hindu pilgrims, who come to cleanse their sins. Rishikesh attracts foreigners who come to study yoga and spend time at its many ashrams.