Four hours north of Delhi sits the holy city of Haridwar; there, the Ganges River meets the Himalayan foothills. Though the town is mostly brown, it’s inhabitants and visitors come dressed in the brightest of colors; red, orange, yellow, green and blue , meeting in absolute chaos. But this sense of excess is exactly what Haridwar thrives on.

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Each day, thousands of pilgrims come to worship Mother Ganga by bathing in her icy waters. Others come to fulfill an ancient prophecy, bringing the ashes of their dearly departed to the river, which is said to guide their souls to salvation.

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The Ganges river is named after Ganga, the daughter of the Himalayas.
Ancient scriptures tell of a brave prince who sacrificed himself here to release the souls of his ancestors from an ancient curse. To honor his sacrifice, Lord Shiva unleashed the goddess Ganga from the locks of his matted hair. Ganga went on to release the souls of the Prince’s family line, continuing to carry them on to the afterlife. This sacrifice is still honored with every pilgrim who submerges into the early morning waters to set their loved one free.

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My first encounter with (what I thought was) a local happened as soon as I set foot on the frenzied ghats. Out of nowhere, a man bathed in bright orange paint emerged, pointed at my camera and promptly began to pose. I was happy to oblige. But after I took a few shots, he claimed himself an anointed priest of the monkey-god Hanuman and demanded hundreds of Rupees. I did give him some, but he followed me to the entrance of my hotel, continuing to demand more money and scream curses at me until the hotel manager sent him away. I later learned that not everyone here was an authentic spiritual; many come only to fill their pockets.

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Standing at the ghats at any time of the day is absolute madness. To one side are mourners and to the other, people experiencing laughter and joy. Some come to worship, some to mourn and some to sell trinkets. The real holy men sleep on the streets, covered in ashes and dreadlocks performing rituals for the dead. Somehow, the people seem strangely unaffected by this dissonance, choosing instead to go about their business. Only at night would it be quiet enough to hear the river flow.

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These photographs were from an early morning walk I took as the city slowly awakened. New mourners were just coming in, laden with bags and burdens to say goodbye. If you are visiting Haridwar and want to photograph its chaos, I’d recommend keeping a respectful distance from the people and not making an obvious show of your camera – unless someone consciously wants to be in front of it. I moved quietly, photographed unobtrusively, and tried to understand how color and chaos thrived alongside the sadness.

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I come from a colorful island, but when we mourn, we mourn in white. This is probably why seeing a few thousand mourners in so many colors was at best, startling. Hindus also wear white to perform funeral rites but a young widow is expected to wear red, the color she of her wedding sari, to remember the undying bond to her husband in both life and death. What’s more, when they come to Haridwar, they come to send their loved ones off to the afterlife, once the funeral and cremation are over. This final gesture is a colorful one. Yes it is sad, but there is joy in knowing your loved one will be moving on to a better place.

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I went on to see many other parts of India while I was there, including to Rishikesh just an hour away, where The Beatles spent many months in an ashram, finding inspiration for the White Album. But it was Haridwar’s chaos that would continue to resonate with me when I returned to Colombo. Sorrow and joy sat side-by-side, unaffected. Mad colors clashed with dull browns. And Ganga kept moving on.

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Natalie Soysa is a writer, photographer and curator based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. After a 12-year sentence in the ad-industry, she picked up a camera in 2010 and never looked back. Natalie’s main body of published work is in travel and social documentary but she moonlights as a gig-photographer for rock & roll and heavy metal bands where her love of photography first began. See more on her Instagram, Facebook, Blog, Behance or Twitter.

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