As you enter Haridwar in Uttarakhand, you see the Ganga flowing on one side and a noisy stream of traffic on the other. It feels as if a wave of pedestrians, tuk-tuks and scooters has scooped you up to eventually deposit you at your destination, Pilibhit House. Once the massive blue doors to this nearly 110-year-old mansion open, though, the noise and chaos outside are left behind.
You enter an open courtyard; the white facade of the building around it gleams. Within this pristine milky space, the stark blue of a Nandi sculpture stands out. And then your eye falls on the highlight of the property—a flight of steps leading down to the private ghat, where the Ganga flows by in its azure glory.
The river here is not as languid as in the plains of Varanasi. It dances and leaps across Haridwar, retaining a strain of its wild mountainous spirit. As the sunshine breaks into a million spangles on the river, it feels as if some of that glow is being transferred to your soul, battered by the daily city grind and pressures. Here, the river is framed by mountains from the Shivalik range and it’s quite a sight to watch the movement of the sun all day along the hills and the river waters.
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I have come to this pilgrimage spot not for religious reasons but in search of spiritual succour. The sound of the shankh and the damru as you enter Pilibhit House, and the sight of the river, feel healing. For someone deeply interested in myths and legends, there are stories all around—for instance, about Kankhal, located mere kilometres away, which was once the home of Prajapati Daksh, and is considered the site of Sati’s sacrifice.
When you visit Pilibhit House, now part of the IHCL SeleQtions hotels, go without agendas or to–do lists. Just go with the flow. Each day by the river feels like a time of unlearning, where you shed older skin and allow a period of gestation, of rest, before taking on newer burdens of the world. You could spend your days in one of the 35 rooms overlooking the river or the courtyard, all designed to mirror the mystical vibe of the city. “The interior design had to fall in line with the glorious architecture of the building. The most important element of this project is the river Ganga. So we went for soft pink, the colour of Har ki Pauri…as the main colour for the interiors. A pop of colour springs up every now and then,” explained Khozema Chitalwala, principal architect and designer at Designers Group, in an interview to the Architectural Digest last year.
Or, like me, you could head down to the riverside terrace and sit with a book under a massive, nearly 90-year-old mango tree with roots going down all the way to the river. One of the staff members tells me its fruit is one of the sweetest he has ever tasted.
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The property is owned by the Prasads, a prominent family from Pilibhit, located in the sugar belt of Uttar Pradesh. Some time ago, the family diversified into the hospitality sector and decided to restore parts of the mansion. A year and a half ago, it tied up with IHCL SeleQtions. “You will find these kinds of mansions along the river which were built by old business houses,” says Amit Kumar Thakur, general manager of the hotel. “Pilibhit House, for one, is themed around four tenets of purushaarth, which is dharma, kama, moksha and artha. The elements here hope to connect you with the spirituality and divinity within you.”
To me, it is important to see if the hotel gives back to the river.
The private ghat, where the daily evening aarti takes place, is kept clean, with none of the debris allowed to make its way into the Ganga. The hotel has a no-plastic policy and you won’t find bottles and packets floating by. The team has adopted a community centre (rainbasera) where it provides free accommodation to yatris (pilgrims). They have planted trees nearby and taken on the upkeep of three-four ghats as well.
The team curates a number of experiences for you. You could spend a day on the outskirts of the city, in the buffer zone of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve, interacting with the nomadic buffalo herders, the Van Gujjars. Or, if it is food that is balm for your soul, you could opt for a city street food tour, savouring poori, samosa and kachori from the famous Mohan ji Puri Wale. You could also take the Kimsar forest and mountain drive, which starts with a 15km drive through the buffer zone of the tiger reserve, along the upper Ganga canal. You end up driving through the sal forest, leading up to a scenic mountain drive. From a vantage point of 3,500ft, you can watch the sun set on the plains of Haridwar.
I want to go on an uncharted journey, of sorts, so I choose the trip to the hidden Vidyavasini temple. It’s a beautiful drive in an open jeep, with the Ganga canal keeping you company till the edge of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve. Once you enter the forest, it is an exhilarating ride through the dry riverbed, with pebbles gleaming all around you. It really feels as if you are in the middle of nowhere, with just nature, in all its glory, beaming back at you. You stop at puddles and small streams to see tadpoles swimming by. As the sun sets, members of the Van Gujjar community come by with their herds to the tri-junction of streams that leads up to the Vidyavasini temple.
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As we drive back, we come across two peacocks vying for a peahen’s attention. Both unfurl their plumes, making for a resplendent sight. It is another matter that the peahen walks off, ignoring the twin displays of vanity.
The next day, I go for a walk with a hotel guide along the ghats in the city of Haridwar, and it may sound cliched but there is a charm to getting lost in the crowd. There is a moment of alarm when a young man taking a dip in the waters stares in horror as his shorts are claimed by the gushing river. Nearby, a member of a family that has come to immerse the ashes of a loved one, dives in to reclaim the garment and restore it to the owner, to loud cheers from the bystanders.
Connections are formed by the river, memories are immersed in it—it’s just fascinating to walk by and take in these myriad engagements with the Ganga. No matter what the nature of this interaction—religious or otherwise—everyone comes with the single-minded purpose of emerging from the river waters a renewed being. Just like I did.