As dusk fell over the holy Hindu city of Haridwar in northern India, the glassy green waters of the Ganges River turned amber. Reflecting the light of hundreds of flames, some in small clay pots, others in towering candelabras circulated by saffron-robed priests, the river became alive and luminous.
Thousands of Hindu pilgrims who’d come to wash away their sins in the sacred river or to perform last rites with the ashes of their loved ones, gathered on the banks to join the chanting of evening prayers.
My own pilgrimage to Haridwar was for a different reason. Seven months pregnant, I’d travelled an entire day on rutted, grinding roads to find my past.
Indeed, I’d travelled a lifetime for this moment.
I grew up in a leafy cul-de-sac in Raleigh, North Carolina, with hot summers spent swimming under fragrant pine trees; yellow school bus journeys in autumn; and an abiding love for the annual State Fair. Yet, unlike my classmates, many of whom could trace their ancestors in public records or family Bibles; or whose family histories were inextricably linked to the Civil War we studied at school... my own Hindu ancestry was completely lost.
When Hindus cremate their dead, it’s considered vital to immerse the ashes in the waters of the holy Ganges River. In the process, they make contact with personal Brahmin priests, or ‘pandas’, to record recent births, marriages, and deaths.
There are dozens of holy sites in India where such family records can be found, but Haridwar remains the most comprehensive and well-preserved repository. There are an estimated 300 pandas still carrying on a tradition that began thousands of years ago.
As evening prayers ended, I set off into the warren of alleys in the old city to find the panda in charge of my family’s history.
“I’m looking for the Anands, originally from Rawalpindi,” I told the men I found loitering outside carved wooden doorways leading to ancient havelis, or traditional mansions built around open courtyards. My father’s Hindu family had lived across the border in what is now Pakistan before the British divided India in 1947.
Glancing over their shoulders, I could see shelves and shelves of long paper scrolls bound in fabric. Each panda family is responsible for certain clans, classified by geographical districts.
One panda invited me inside as he leafed through a scroll, its pages scrawled with names and dates; the script alternating between the three main languages of north India: Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi. I felt my heart begin to race with anticipation.
I wasn’t expecting to find any kings, spies or luminaries in my family tree... just a confirmation that I belonged somewhere – anywhere – to fill the rootless void I’d felt since childhood, living in an adopted country that I loved, but didn’t really belong to.
It was not to be.
Three pandas later, I was giving up hope. With no visitors’ center, no computerized records or even a registry of ‘pandas’, I began to realize the search for the right priest could take weeks, which I didn’t have. In desperation, I phoned my cousin, Amit, in Delhi.
“Your dad came to Haridwar when your grandfather died,” Amit told me. “I remember he did visit the Anand family panda... but I couldn’t tell you anything more.”
I was speechless.
It was typical of my parents to have visited the very man I was searching for and never mentioned it. Like so many of their generation, they never spoke of the past, never seemed interested in examining it or passing it on. Focused only on the immediate rituals of birth, marriage and death, they completely ignored the details or lessons I felt only the past could offer.
“I did go with him,” Amit said. “All I remember is a giant tree – huge – in a courtyard. That’s where we found him.”
A tree... great! Dusk had turned to night, so I abandoned the search. Where in this warren of alleys was I going to find that tree?
I slept badly that night.
Not only was my enormous belly a source of constant discomfort; the thought of failing my soon to be first-born child was bitterly disappointing.
There are no official figures for how many Indian- Americans seek their family history in places like Haridwar. But anecdotally, according to pandas and travel agents, they are coming in ever-greater numbers. Many can’t ignore the yearning for their lost history and seem to value it more than Indians who never left.
The next morning, I re-doubled my efforts. I stopped at each and every panda in the old city, starting from the bazaar, asking for the ‘Anands’ as well as the ‘giant’ tree.
Finally, paydirt. A local man overheard my entreaties and tapped me on the shoulder. “I know this tree,” he said.
A few minutes later, we opened the heavy double doors to a courtyard, and right in the middle was one of the thickest banyan trees I’ve ever seen. Centuries of girth, literally hundreds of tangled roots reached for the ground, obscuring a doorway behind it.
Inside, Mahendra Kumar, a round, jovial man laughed appreciatively as he heard me recount my search.
“Yes, yes, I remember your father’s visit,” he said. “Mohan Anand from Flor-ee-da!”
And moments later, as my eyes watered with delight and my hands shook with glee, he unravelled two scrolls, going back to the early 1800s.
In each, he showed me entries written in the hand of my father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfathers going back a staggering ten generations.
My father’s family had originated from a village called Mianiwale, outside Rawalpindi, he said. They had been traders and businessmen, selling wholesale grain and dried fruit across northern India. One entry from 1881 was written by my great-great-great-grandfather, Amirchand, re-telling how the family made the journey from Rawalpindi for a redemptive dip in the Ganges.
Disappointingly, few of my female ancestors are listed in the records. But the thrill of seeing a physical link with my own past, one that I’d now be able to pass onto my own children, was overwhelming.
At the end of our meeting, Mr. Kumar invited me to make my own entry in his scroll.
Under the date, I put my name, as well as my white, English husband’s name: Tarquin Hall. Reflexively, I added my email address... it looked utterly out of place!
Perhaps in another seven generations, one of our offspring will come across my looping American scrawl. No doubt, like everyone else, they will wonder what strange sort of name ‘Tarquin’ is. And yet hopefully, they will find the same sense of belonging as I finally did.