The history of Tehri Garhwal is fraught with drama and pathos. Now a small constituency forming a part of the state of Uttaranchal, it was once a princely state ruled by the Shah family, with Narendra Nagar as its summer capital and the Palace as the official residence – where the vice regal suite of Ananda in the Himalayas, is situated.
The neat little town of Narendrangar, with its charming market, it’s wide central road and its location serving far flung hill hamlets is a tribute to the Maharaja. In the days of the British Raj the beautiful palace was known to welcome Viceroys and people of eminence – including Mahatama Gandhi and Mira Ben and post independence it has played host to several eminent political and religious personalities.
Ma Anandmayi, a well known spiritual guide, whose wise teachings, gentle ways and immensely charismatic presence attracted a very large following from all parts of the world, often visited the Maharaja’s family and her room, quaint, simple and still holding much of her spiritual energy, is tucked away in a quiet corner of the Viceregal terrace, overlooking the valley and the grounds and stands testimonial to the old Maharaja’s close links with the history of spiritual India.
His son, Maharaja Manabendra Shah, father of the current Maharaja, took over from his father, but the changing face of post-freedom India, soon wiped out princely roles and the family turned to politics in order to keep alive their roots.
A venture into the Himalayas is more than a mere journey: it is a “yatra” (a pilgrimage). A pilgrimage does not hold more importance than it does in Garhwal and Kumaon, once known as “Uttarakhand” – the ‘northern territories’ – in the pre Vedic era. This is the domain of the ascetic Lord Shiva, the destroyer; it is a land charged with “Shakti”, the power and energy of the goddess Parvati, consort of Shiva and the daughter of Himavat, Lord of the Mountains. Together, Garhwal and Kumaon form a sizable wedge in the Central Himalayas, joining India and Nepal.
Garhwal today remains a land of myth and legend, where every stone tells a story. The earliest historical references to the region are found in the Vedas, paeans to the purity of the Himalayas. Specific mention of the mountains exists in the Mahabharata, dated around 1000 BC. This is when the protagonists of the epic, the Pandavas, are said to have ended their life on earth by ascending the slopes of the peak in western Garhwal called Swargarohini – literally, the Ascent to Heaven’. The epic also mentions this region being the home of the Kirata, Puolinda and Tangara tribes.
It is said that when Gods left their footprints on the land of Haridwar, metaphorically they also left an indelible mark on the spiritual ethos of every Hindu – more so the devout, who would later follow their holy paths all across this blessed land. Of such significance is Haridwar in the thought of India’s traditional Hindus that it has earned its sobriquet of honor as The Gateway to the Gods.
Legend has it that the holy Ganga, the holiest of all rivers, which flows through this sacred city, has actually been sanctified by the powerful trinity of Hindu mythology- Lord Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Down the ages, this special importance of Haridwar as the ever-refreshing mystic venue for the purification of the mind, body and soul gained more impetus and today manifests itself in two great events that take place here – the memorable Kumbh Mela which is held every 12 years and the Ardh Kumbh Mela, which is held once every 6 years.
Yet, beyond the mystic aura and mythology, Haridwar casts another magic spell on the visitor. Being one of the oldest living cities, Haridwar finds its mention in the ancient India scriptures as it weaves through the life and times, from the period of Lord Buddha to the more recent British advent.
Haridwar is one of the first towns where Ganga emerges from the mountains to touch the plains. In the evening, the Ghats (places built on the banks of the river for the holy dip in the river Ganga) look breathtakingly beautiful as thousands of diyas (earthen lamps) and marigold flowers illuminate the holy waters at the time of the Ganga Aarti – a much awaited daily ritual, where the river Ganga is propitiated for all the bounty that she bestows on the Indian plains.
The town of Rishikesh lies in the foothills of the Garhwal region. Located 1160 feet above sea level, it is the gateway to the upper Garhwal region and the starting point to the Char Dham – four famous pilgrim centers namely Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamnotri. It is believed that meditation at this place leads to attainment of salvation.
The Ganga flows through the town and is worshipped here. Rishikesh has long been a spiritual centre. It has numerous ashrams, some of which are internationally recognized, as places for philosophical studies, yoga and meditation. An international ‘Yoga Week’ is organized here every year in the first week of February.
Back in the 1960’s Rishikesh gained instant fame as the site, when the Beatles came to stay here with their guru, Maharshi Mahesh Yogi, famous and well loved exponent of Yoga throughout the Western world and at home in India.