Three decades after she made India her home following an unplanned visit to this Hindu holy town, German Maria Wirth is still in love with this country.
"India is special. Only in India I realized that one can actually feel love for a country," says Wirth, now 58, as she awaits the launch in English of her German book that captures the spiritual essence of Haridwar, an ancient city of temples on the banks of the Ganges.
Yet, this was not how Wirth came to view India after her first visit -- in 1974. Those were the times when going to exotic India was considered a must in the West.
She did that. But the young woman used to Western orderliness was disappointed with the heat, the beggars and the teeming crowds. Worse, she fell sick.
She decided she would never go to India again. But in 1980, when she was on her way to Australia, a friend persuaded her to make a halt in India. She had finished her studies in psychology at Hamburg University, earned some money, and wanted to see if Australia would be a place for her to live and work.
That stopover changed the track of her life. Twenty-eight years on, Maria is still in India, and is yet to make the trip to Australia.
Haridwar, she says, played a major role in her desire to embrace India and its largely Hindu way of life.
When she made it to Haridwar in April 1980, the Ardha Kumbh Mela was on. The town was packed to capacity and there were no rooms for the young woman. She slept on the roof of a tourist bungalow.
In Haridwar, she met two gurus who impressed her a lot and allowed her to see a side of India hidden under the noisy, chaotic surface. They were Anandamayi Ma and Devaraha Baba.
"I had the distinct feeling that there was nobody there behind their eyes. There was stillness, vastness. Maybe it was love, because I felt greatly attracted to them," Wirth says.
From then on, India's ancient wisdom fascinated her. She devoured spiritual books, ancient and new, and met several gurus, some genuine and some not so genuine. The entire process gradually changed her life.
The German admits that many gurus influenced her life.
"Everyone had something to give. Ramana Maharshi's talks and the scriptures of Kashmir Shaivism probably helped most in clarifying what it all is about."
She told IANS: "I knew that ancient Indian analogy was right: our people are all like waves on one ocean, temporarily with form, yet all of us reach deep down into the one ocean, are in fact one with it. If the wave (person) dies, nothing is really lost. In a sense, Haridwar was truly the 'door to God' (Hari ka dwar) for me."
She began to feel at home in India. She was surprised to realize how friendly, open and curious the people were, the same people who had put her off in 1974.
She journeyed in India a lot - for seven years almost non-stop. She met most of the known gurus of that time and visited many places of Hindu pilgrimage.
She decided to write about India with a special focus on spirituality, to get a long-term visa and replenish her funds.
"I wanted to share what I had learnt as I felt India has a lot to offer and most people in the West don't know about it. India has an amazing treasure in its ancient philosophy and this knowledge is still alive. Trust in god comes naturally to most Indians."
She writes for German and Indian magazines. Her first article was published in 1981. It was on Advaita Vedanta, put in a simple, easy to understand way. It was printed and reprinted twice by other magazines in Germany.
"I never took a course in writing, but maybe my motivation was okay, so things turned out well," she says. "Frankly, I don't think of myself as a writer. I want to share something, which I feel is worth sharing, so I write.
"The flow has to happen. Right from my first article I asked for divine help, that what should be expressed may find expression. Sometimes, when I read some of my writings, I wonder how it turned out so well."
The last 25 years Wirth has lived in India, visiting Germany once a year. She retains her German citizenship. A former trainee with Lufthansa, she had flown to some 40 countries before landing in India. "I liked most of the countries. But India is special."
(Radhika Nagrath can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)