India – Baam Baam Bhole -The Lord Shiva Festival



A vignette of two days in India

 ……It all started on the express train from Delhi to Haridwar.  My Delhi guide managed to persuade the ‘hippy’ in the window seat to swap with me so I could look out and watch the countryside unfold. He really didn’t have any choice as Rawal  looked very persuasive!  It turned out he was an Australian, classically trained saxophonist, living in Munich but came to India each year to learn the sitar and tambour. By the time the journey ended I had his full life story. 

 We sat chatting until breakfast arrived – a real treat – vegetable patties with sambol followed by tea/coffee and biscuits with a small chocolate. Plus a bottle of water and flask of hot water to make the tea – all in the price of a   1st class A/C ticket.

 The trip passed quickly by. As we left the outskirts of Delhi the scenery started changing from the sprawling urban metropolis to isolated villages.  Tall elegant brick chimneys dotted the landscape – this was an area for making  red bricks for the local house construction –mile upon mile of bricks could be seen methodically arrange like serried ranks of soldiers dressed in their company colours. Later the factories gave way to endless acres of sugar cane – it’s estimated 40% of India’s crop comes from here – and, I gather owned by one family. 

I arrived in Haridwar around noon – but no car waiting as promised.  Finally I was collected and placed in a ‘pedi-rickshaw’ (the PC name!). A painfully thin man peddled me, a very heavy suitcase and my guide to a bridge over the Ganges.  I offered to walk but was pushed back in by the guide. We passed hordes of Pilgrims heading to the River Ganges to do their Pooja (prayer/devotion). Finally we ran out of road and had to climb steep steps to cross the river – the guide, refusing my offer to help, struggled to manhandle my case through the milling throng of excited Pilgrims.

I had arrived in the middle of the biggest feast of the year – the Festival to Lord Shiva. All the main central town roads had been closed and became a seething, teeming mêlée of humanity as Pilgrims, from all over India, came to pay their respects to the mighty Lord Shiva.  It’s estimated that over the course of 4 days, 10 million devotees would come to the city………… I didn’t worry about the crush of crowds – this was the real India –pulsating, alive and oh, so noisy – horns blared, religious songs screamed out from giant speakers – each trying to out do the next.  People chanted:  BAAM BAAM BHOLE…………

Finally I arrived at the Haveli Ganga Spa: an unpretentious hotel – a former home of local Princes- and now a small friendly hotel with delightful staff.  My comfortable room overlooked the Ganges and I had strict instructions not to leave the door to the balcony open, or, I might find a not too friendly monkey dart inside hunting for a snack!  The hotels food was traditional vegetarian and delicious. I liked the Haveli with it’s relaxed and faded elegance: a perfect place to slip into the rhythm of India. I gather that it’s being upgraded shortly. 

The next day I met Rahul, who was to be my guide, and an MBA student earning extra money to support his studies.  He started off by explaining that I was witnessing the Shiv Ratri – (Fair of Kawarias).  Simplistically, a Kawarias (or the carrier) is a devotee of Shiv, dressed in orange, and goes to (in this case) Haridwar to collect the Holy Water from the Ganges and return it to his or her village to anoint the ‘Shivaling’  – the phallic symbol of Lord Shiva . They carry a brightly decorated long bamboo stick with small containers – gangajj- tied to either end which they fill with the water.  Journeying on foot, sometimes for hundreds of kilometres, they are sustained on their expedition by government and local support. 

It was an awesome sight – the place pulsated with people, all in a frantic rush to get their water and to visit two Temples – the Mansa Devi and Chandi Devi   Both are reached by cable cars, unfortunately when I visited Mansa Devi the cable car wasn’t working so I had to climb the tortuous winding 2km road to the top in the fierce heat.  The devotees, like me I noted with relief, were also sweating – but many had every cause – especially the young men in their village ‘teams’, who raced to the top whistles blowing……….. hooting and a hollering praises to Lord Shiva. – BAAM BAAM BHOLE!

 On the way down many would stop and huddle round me eager to try their English and find out why a ‘foreigner’ was here.  They were mostly farm boys enjoying a well earned break from the harsh conditions at home – you felt the party air, as for them, this was the highlight of the year.  There were also devotees who were more sober in their approach – prostrating themselves up the steep slope – some had been doing it for weeks, travelling from far away villages- inch by inch!

Wherever you looked there was life – vibrant and effervescent.  Acre upon acre of the Ganges flood plain became home to the seething millions.  Lorries became ‘mobile homes’ – one I saw had a division – ‘downstairs’ was the garage with a big powerful motor bike and a generator, whilst ‘upstairs’ housed the sleeping platform.  Outside there was a BBQ!   Obviously this rig belonged to a rich person. Not far away, on the flood plain black sheets of plastic covered ‘tents’ spreadingg over the land as far as the eye could see- scant protection from the fierce sun.

Colour dominated the scenery. Gaudy, flashy, garish – you name it – no subtly here.  Every car/lorry/bike/rickshaw was covered in flags and plastic flowers all dedicated to Lord Shiva.  But the most bizarre thing were the stereo kits carried by many vehicles.  Gigantic speakers blared out the latest pop and spiritual songs. It was a bit weird hearing the theme tune to an Eddie Murphy movie! Heaven help you if you had a headache as the cacophony of sound was deafening.  Even cocooned in my hotel room I could hear the boom boom boom of the base from far across the other side of the Ganges.

Naturally commerce flourishes during the festival season: the narrow alleyways of the town, lined with small shops. sold everything from devotional plastic figures and beautiful ornate carvings of Shiva, to flasks of Ganges water, henna, bangles, pots and pans – in fact you could probably buy most anything in the winding streets.

Finally, in the evening, we went to watch ‘Aarti’ a devotional service on the riverside when priests placed lighted candles in ‘boats’ to float down stream. Immediately following this ceremony, hundreds of miniature lamps were floated by reverential devotees. Their fervour and passion was undeniable and I felt privileged to witness the occasion.                                                                                           

The nexy morning my brief visit was over: the hotel said I had to walk for about 10 minutes to the car as the crowds were still too thick to allow a vehicle through.  Indu, a friend of my guide, and a Master Yogi, offered to take me on the back of his beautiful Italian scooter to the car.  What amazing fun, careering through the twisting crowd jammed alleyways, horn blaring, brakes screeching and tempers flaring as we roared through.  Many stopped in amazement to see this crazy woman hanging on for grim death with a manic grin firmly fixed on her face.  As it was not ‘proper’ for me to firmly grasp Indu I was literally hanging on by the skin of my teeth!  The manic grin was for real! What a relief to get to the car!

My relief was short-lived.

My car driver was a jovial sort of person – and he really needed his sense of humour as, our  1 ½ hr ride to my next destination turned into a 7 hr marathon. We were jammed in by the hordes piling into Haridwar for the final day of the festival. No words can adequately describe the estimated 1.2 million devotees on the move.  Gridlock was an understatement. Progress was so slow we cheered if we moved a cars length. The noise was deafening. There was only one road in and one road out and that had become a 6 lane highway as all pretense of road etiquette disappeared into thin air.

It was pandemonium. Everyone was trying to outdo the next with the size of their sound system!  Flags were flying, chants bellowed (no finesse as otherwise you couldn’t hear your own thoughts) shrill whistles pierced the air and the constant sound of engines labouring enflamed the stagnant heat.  The air was rank with diesel, dust and sweat.  So we had to shut the windows and switch off the a/c to conserve fuel.  I wasn’t allowed out of the car to stretch my legs as the driver felt it could be dangerous……… the riot police were out in force and freely using their batons. So I boiled and baked and literally ‘shut down’.

Would I go again?   Most certainly…it was such an experience, meeting and talking with the devotees, learning about another way of life and trying to understand the complexities of Hinduism.  Within a few minutes of reaching my next destination (albeit hours late)  – the hotel ‘The Glass House on the Ganges’ – all I could remember was the welcome of strangers to their very special festival and a longing to return – after all India would not be India without adventure!  BAAM BAAM BHOLE!

 Fact Box

Flights: Emirates : 

Tour Operator: Indus Discoveries:

Indian Tourist Office:





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