Outside, a teeming mass of humanity filled the evil-smelling alleys and the broad promenades along the Ganges. Hawkers, fakirs, beggars, and pilgrims mingled with sacred cows and temple monkeys in an unending, noisy stream along the river.
But inside the monk-like cell was quiet and concentration. Sri Prasad Dixit leaned intently over the thick bundle of pages."Had you gone to your father and brought the proper information, you would have saved us a great deal of trouble," he reproached as he flipped through the pages.
"But here. This name. Here is your father, recorded 40 years ago when he came to immerse the ashes of a son." Dixit's aged father, sitting quietly by, nodded confirmation.
More pages. Then a smile of triumph.
"And here is your grandfather. He came here 70 years ago. Here is his father. And his father. And his father."
Five generations, each recorded in turn as faithful Hindus came to Hardwar to cast ashes of loved ones into the Ganges.
"I felt a shiver as he read those names of my ancestors," Raj Kumar declared later. "It was the spirit of Elijah."
The Dixits, father and son, are pandas, keepers of some of the oldest and most unique genealogical records in existence. It's a record the Utah Genealogical Society is undertaking to preserve on microfilm.
Hardwar, regarded by Hindus as the most holy place in India, lies just where the Ganges spills out of the foothills after its tumultuous passage down from the Himalayas. Here begin the vast Gangetic plains that stretch a thousand miles to Calcutta and the Bay of Bengal.
Hindus revere Hardwar as the "Door of Gods," the gateway to paradise, as well as the gateway to the Himalays. They worship the Ganges as the "holy mother" who is the cleanser of all sins.
It was here that 400 Hindus were trampled to death in 1986 as a great throng of worshippers tried to reach the river at the same time.
To experience Hardwar is better to understand such fervor. With its many shrines and countless pilgrims and holy men, it comes close to the core of Hinduism and its 465 million adherents.
In the ancient temple of Shiwa, where, Hindus believe, Shiwa's wife committed suttee, (threw herself on her deceased husband's funeral pyre) worshippers, young and old, dip fingers in the fountain, anoint their foreheads, and cast marigold blossoms on the water.
Sacred cows wander past the temples and along the river. Monkeys clamber over temple walls. Pitiable men, women, children, maimed, leprous, blind, rattle their begging cups. Fakirs with pythons coiling around their shoulders compete for coins. Stalls sell marigold blossoms or food offerings for worship. Long lines of hungry people queue up for food handouts.
Holy men, hair hanging in waist-long ropes, bathe in the Ganges morning and evening and emerge to smear bodies with cow-dung ashes.
"It's for beauty of the mind, beauty of the soul, and beauty of skin," one of them explains.
Ghats for the burning of bodies loom above the river bank. At river's edge, small family groups cluster to cast into the holy waters the charred bones raked from the ashes.
A white-robed priest chants verses from the Veda. A son of the dead washes himself thoroughly. He and other family members sprinkle blossoms, then water from the river on the scarf-wrapped bone fragments. Reverently, the son places the bundle in the river. It sinks. The blossoms float downstream.
For yards out from the bank, the river bed is white with bone shards.
This ceremony, to some, is suggestive of baptism for the dead. There are other similarities. Hindus may be the only people other than Mormons who believe in a heavenly mother. They believe strongly in the family. They practice a code of health, including the forbidding of alcohol and tobacco.
At sunset, a great throng fills the amphitheater above the river for evening prayers. Over a loudspeaker comes a call. The crowd chants in response. Bells clang. Everyone stands. From 10,000 throats, in unison, comes a song:
"Oh mother Ganges, you are immortal. You make us happy. All Hindus worship you. You give eternal life, you cure their sickness. You give prosperity and happiness. Thank you."
As darkness falls, hundreds of little boats, formed of leaves and filled with flower petals floating in oil, are set alight and pushed out into the river.
A stream of lights, they float under the bridge and walkway known as "The Stairway to God" and on toward the sea.
For thousands of years the pilgrims have come. For at least 1,000 years, pandas like the Dixits have recorded their passage.
Three thousand pandas operate at Hardwar today. Each represents a specific village or district of India. In most cases, the office passes from father to son; in the case of the Dixits, that has gone on for 15 generations.
Existing records go back some 500 years. None are found before that time because a conquering mogul emperor, steeped in Islam, ordered the records destroyed.
Names are written in flowing Hindi on handmade paper sheets roughly 8 by 24 inches. These are bound at one end into bundles eight to 10 inches thick, each bundle rolled up and protected by a steerhide cover.
The Dixits possess 32 such books reaching back 300 years. Many pandas have more and older books.
The system seems disorganized, but the way it works is astonishing. A pilgrim hits town, coming from any of hundreds of places in India or abroad. He asks around for the panda representing his particular area. Somehow he is directed to the right place, as was Raj Kumar.
Once having found his particular panda and identified his family name, the pilgrim finds a mind that works like a computer. With amazing inter-generational memory, the panda pulls the right book out of his safe, thumbs through the pages, and produces the names.
These are the records the Utah Genealogical Society has been microfilming the past six years. Two operators under direction of Kumar photograph some 8,000 pages a month, each page containing around 50 names.
So far, records of about 40 pandas have been processed - something like 24 million names. Projecting these figures, one can figure there are 1.8 billion names yet to process on the records held by the remaining 2,960 pandas.
And that's only in Hardwar. There are at least three other pilgrimage destinations in India where pandas keep similar records.
A lengthy search fails to reveal any more of Raj Kumar's ancestors.
"But I will keep looking. I will prepare your family tree," the panda assures him.
Money is offered for the time already spent. The refusal is emphatic. "We can talk about money when the work is done."
These particular pandas serve the people of Armitsar, Kumar's home town, 800 miles away in the Punjab. They have been doing so, father and son, for 15 generations, but have no family or geographical connection with the place. None of them has ever been there.
How a particular line of pandas came to serve a particular town seemed beyond explanation.
Armitsar is the site of the Sikh Golden Temple where hundreds of Sikhs were slaughtered four years ago by Hindu troops. Hindu-Sikh tensions continue to mount, with multiple killings recorded in the papers almost daily.
But there is no such tension in Panda Dixit's little cell. Here he records Sikh names and Hindu without discrimination, testimony to the truth that in the eternal view the hatreds dividing men must and will be forgotten.
"Our work is to serve our people," he explains.