“ Mansa Devi is one of the most popular temples in the holy city of Haridwar „
~What to do when you're not in the river~
The pilgrimage city of Haridwar draws people from all over the Hindu world who come to take part in ceremonies and ritual bathing in the river Ganges. Since the big ceremony of the day takes place at sundown, there's plenty of time to go looking for other things to fill the day during your visit. The city has two famous hilltop temples - Mansa Devi and Chandi Devi - and since the former is easily accessible from the centre of the city whilst the latter needs a bus trip to reach it, we kept life simple and opted for visiting the Mansa Devi temple.
The auto-rickshaw driver dropped us near the ticket office and we were pointed in the right direction by a couple of shop keepers. My husband queued for the tickets, appraising the various package 'deals' on offer. With uncharacteristic foresight and organisation, the two temples cooperated by selling combination tickets with or without the bus shuttle between and the cable cars options. It's a bit like a Disney theme park with its different complex ticketing options.
~One of the most organised attractions in the country~
We weren't sure whether we'd have the time or the urge to see both temples so my husband picked up the single temple tickets which included the cable car. Unless you really like climbing up steep hills in scorching sunshine with lots of potential for getting lost, I recommend you do the same. For entry to the temple and a ride on the cable car up the hillside we paid considerably less than a pound each (I don't recall the exact cost but it wasn't much). With our tickets in hand we wandered towards the cable car station passing all the stalls selling flowers and prasad (offerings) for the temple. Without someone to guide you and explain how to use the elements of these offerings you are likely to be completely confused so we kept it simple - made sure that each of us had a stash of small denomination notes and skipped the goodie bags.
We presented our tickets and found ourselves walking through some pretty gardens to the holding pen which was just like you'd see at a cattle market where we waited for the cable car. Fortunately the area was well ventilated with lots of ceiling fans and the lines moved quite quickly and we were soon out of the holding area and working our way past lots more prasad stalls towards the loading area.
~Cable Car Challenge~
My husband hates heights and probably hates cable cars even more but he's a brave little soldier and wasn't going to let fear stop him. We'd been on a cable car in Mussoorie a few days earlier that was quite small and not too scary and I think he was feeling brave. I suspect that it he'd realised quite how long the ride on this one would be, he might have thought differently. This is a pretty major cable car and it's a long way up the hill. The views from the cable car are impressive and would be spectacular on a clear day. When we visited it was a bit polluted and hazy but even so you could see the entire town and a long stretch of the Ganges from the cabins on the cable car. Whilst it's a long haul to get up the hill, you're never very far above the ground in the event of catastrophic failure (you can see I've been with my husband a LONG time now).
~Holy holy holy~
On arrival at the top we simply employed the tried and trusted technique of just following everyone else and doing whatever they did. We passed through an area where souvenirs and celebratory sweets were sold and then left our shoes with the shoe-minder. It's not compulsory to cover your head but I always do if I have something with me - I'm not entirely sure why but it's probably just habit. If in doubt in a religious place, cover your head.
At no time did we really get a sense of what the temple actually looked like - indeed most of the time we were under cover and just following the lines of people. Being perched on top of a hill I expected to be able to find a spot from which I could photograph the entire place but no such spot existed.
We joined the line and shuffled round the temples and chatted to the priests (who all wanted to know where we came from!), depositing small amounts of money wherever we saw others doing so. Unlike many Hindu temples which follow a particular floor plan, this place seemed to just be a collection of different small shrines, each with a holy chappie sitting around giving blessings and chatting to weird foreign tourists like us. The usual dark and slightly gloomy incense-heavy atmosphere of stone temples was missing and I struggled to work out quite what we were seeing.
In the middle of Mansa Devi there's a tree covered in red string where pilgrims tie a string to make a wish. In most places the habit is that if the wish comes true you should go back and untie another string but with no guide to inform us, this is just my assumption. I'm not sure how big the tree inside was because it appeared to be a rather lumpy swollen thing but that could have been many years of string building up the volume. As we completed the circuit of all the little temples and found ourselves back in the area where the shoes had been left, happy pilgrims pressed fresh sweets upon us, leaving us with the age old conundrum of 'do I eat it and risk getting sick or avoid it and risk offending people'. I shuffled off where nobody was looking and wrapped mine in a tissue.
We found a spot with great views and took some photos. Pilgrims were having their photos taken dressed in fancy dress and others were indulging in some local fast food or buying souvenirs. There was a lovely atmosphere of celebration and festivity and nobody seemed to mind that we weren't Hindus and didn't really have a clue what we were doing.
~It's all downhill from here~
Unaware of whether we'd bought return tickets or not, and keen to stretch our legs, we decided to walk back down the hill. We were a bit overwhelmed by all the people and the festivities so we bought some bottles of soft drink and went to sit on some benches outside the temple and rather too close to the latrines. After watching a father run at a sprint to get his son to the toilet and observing the evidence that he wasn't quite fast enough, we decided not to linger.
We weren't in a hurry to go elsewhere so we decided to spare my husband the cable car ride and walk down the hill instead. I'm really pleased that we did as the walk down Mansa Devi hill was a highlight of our trip. It's not often that you can get away from people in India and this was a peaceful, though rather steep walk. The hill is popular with monkeys who lie in wait to mug passers-by for their edible gifts when they're walking up the hill to visit the temple. We thought we'd be fine heading down and my sister's girlfriend Joyce was happy to sacrifice a rather soggy bag of unpleasant corn puffs that had been lingering in her bag for a few days. Handing over the snacks to a monkey and her baby, Joyce stood back laughing at them with her bottle of Limca (a local lemon soda) hanging between her fingers. Distracted by the monkey checking the pack was empty, she let out a squeal as a another monkey grabbed the bottle and ran off with it. "Oy, the monkey's got my Limca" she squealed.
I've got a bad record for monkey attacks - there was the baby baboon in Malawi who bit me after my travel companions had been teasing it, another in Zambia who fell asleep on my lap whilst I sat nervously hoping she wouldn't wake after someone told me she had a habit of waking up and peeing on people, and I got mugged at a temple in Shimla by a very determined macaque. Monkeys and me don't mix - so I was thrilled that just once it wasn't ME on the receiving end of the simian mugger.
The monkey held tight to the bottle and bared its teeth in a clear indication that as far as she was concerned it was now HER Limca and not Joyce's. I stood laughing myself silly until the tears were rolling down my face whilst Joyce got most indignant about the monkey and the monkey proceeded to try to bite through the bottle. One hairpin bend further down the hill we looked up to see the monkey had pierced the bottle and was sucking down the fizzy drink. Sugar addicted monkeys are bad news.
~Monkey Men and Flutterbys~
It wasn't the end of the monkey madness on the hill as we turned a corner to find three men dressed as monkeys leaping about in the hope of getting paid for photographs. We smiled, laughed and pushed on to get away from them. They were seriously creepy. All the way down the hill there are wonderful views over the city and the river below and, with the exception of the occasional motorcyclist heading up the hill we met only pilgrims walking up to the temple.
Despite being only minutes out of the big city, the area was very quiet and clean. We found large butterflies on pretty bushes by the road side, song birds and squirrels bouncing around the trees and eventually came to the auto-rickshaw stop by the side of the road. The roadside from there on was really run down and it was shocking to see the slums alongside the railway line. Crossing the railway line we found masses of rubbish strewn by the side of the line with cows and pigs grazing happily on the city's refuse.
Coming down the hill had taken us about 20 to 30 minutes and given us a rare opportunity to get some peace and quiet in a very full-on city where peace was at a premium. If you find yourself visiting the temple, I really do recommend to walk back down the hill. This is the sort of temple where the getting there and getting back again are rather more impressive than the destination itself - just watch out for the monkeys!