I leave Harsil by a jeep on its way up to Gangotri. A group of women pilgrims in the vehicle are singing a bhajan in praise of the river. One leads while the others repeat in chorus. They clap in slow beats. The lyrics contain ‘Bhagiratha’ and ‘Ganga Ma.’ In such an atmosphere of devotion it is difficult to hold on to one’s cynical views. A little of their beliefs is bound to make some sense. I may not regard the river as a goddess descended on to earth from heaven; but I do regard it highly, for much of India and her people depend on it. It is not only a lifegiver to millions but has also shaped the cultural identity of the land.
By now the spectacular route climbing towards Gangotri has become customary. The steep rugged slopes are beyond visual wonder. They tell the tale of earth’s history and its making. The deep narrow gorges are the result of Bhagirathi’s constant flow in the ancient path of long lost glaciers. The tall trees are simply the richness and beauty of earth.
I take a room and enquire about the trek route to Gaumukh. Although Gangotri is regarded as the place of Ganga’s origin, Gaumukh is where the glacier sits. It is where the flow of the river begins from the melting ice.
‘You need permission from the Forest Department,’ tells me a traffic warden at the busy parking space. He points to a building across the road, ‘You can get it there in the evening after six.’
I head to the main temple at Gangotri. Understandably, it is dedicated to the river goddess. The deity is a beautiful image in silver richly decorated. Such display of wealth and richness is perhaps befitting a goddess. Perhaps they are there to instil in devotees a sense of awe; but I find them distracting from the original purpose of prayer. Simplicity works for me. I collect the prasad from the attending priest, take a few snaps of the temple building and head down to the ghat.
A family is seated around an assortment of things. A priest leads them in the rituals. Each one does his or her part as directed by the all-knowing priest. Others assembled at the ghat are taking their desired dips in the river. A woman is sitting in a posture of meditation. She is looking out towards distant mountains northeast through which the river has travelled to be here at Gangotri. She recites for many minutes some mantras. Then I see two familiar faces on the ghat.
‘When did you guys reach?’ I ask the man. He is on a pilgrimage with his son. I had seen them yesterday on my way to Harsil. They guy wheels a bicycle loaded with small luggage and a garlanded and framed picture of Shiva. The boy usually walks a few paces behind. They are from Panipat and have travelled to Gangotri on foot. It has taken them fourteen days to get here.
‘This afternoon,’ he says cheerfully. Neither of them shows any sign of tiredness.
‘Will you be going to Gaumukh?’
‘Not thi time. Our next stop is Badrinath.’
That’s a long way from here. I wish them luck, collect my boots from the temple entrance and go in search of Surya Kund. Surya Kund is a short walk from the temple and it is a sight not to be missed. The river drops down about thirty feet into a swirling pool of water. It is not a high waterfall by any means but the volume of water is tremendous. The sound is awesome. The rocks by which the river drops down have been sculpted into smooth forms.
There is yet another spot of interest at Gangotri that should not be missed. It is a longer walk through pine woods following the high cliffs on the left bank of the river. It is called Pandav Caves. It is good that the Pandavas were banished into exile. They seem to have visited places all across India. Their exile is a convenience to claim association and blessed sojourns. So I’m going in search of the cave where they stayed many centuries ago.
It is a medium-sized cave. I find a man sleeping in a corner. It is a cold day and he is all wrapped up in a woollen blanket. He is surrounded by an assortment of things. He has clearly made this his home. A kettle, blackened thoroughly with soot, sits quietly on the dying embers of a recently put out cooking fire. Perhaps if I were to wake this man up, a nice brew of tea would be in order. A little trident stands in the middle of some offerings of flowers. This man has given force to the Pandava legend and has reinforced its sanctity. He expects donations from those who take the trouble to walk this way from town.
I leave the man to his afternoon nap and find a rocky ledge jutting out boldly over a precipice. A stream flows down from my left, follows the slopes of the land and disappears to my right. It would later join the Bhagirathi downstream. The views on the way back to Gangotri are spectacular. When the sun comes out for brief spells, there are scenes of momentary magic. I sit down on a boulder for half an hour dwarfed by mountains, cliffs, forests, peaks and clouds.
I return to Gangotri in good time to apply for my permit. The office is open from six to eight every evening. I fill up a form. My ID is checked. I pay a fee of ten rupees but the park entrance fees of Rs. 150 is to be paid tomorrow on the way to Gaumukh. I collect my permit and step out. A local guy is waiting outside. He offers his services to guide me to Gaumukh. It is a simple trek with a clear track. I prefer to walk on my own. I leave the guide to find other trekkers.
At the GMVN, a government tourist organization, I have a simple dinner of rice and daal. Up here, even a meal as simple as this costs nearly a hundred rupees. I return to my room, pack only essentials for the trek and hit the pillow early. The rush of the Bhagirathi sings its lullaby.
The first thing I check when I wake up is the weather. It’s a brilliant day. It may even be hot and I better make an early start. I dump half my luggage at the hotel and walk through a row of shops just opening for the day. Soon I’m on the hillside on the river’s right bank and heading towards snowy peaks.
‘Polythene is not allowed. I have to check your bag,’ tells me the guard at the forest check post. I am about to enter Gangotri National Park. This checkpost is two kilometers from Gangotri.
I have lots of polythene bags with me wrapping food, clothes, tablets or books to keep them dry in case of rain. But they have a nice system here. The guy counts the number of plastic bottles and polythene bags I carry. The bag will be checked again when I leave the park. Should there be a shortfall in the count, I’ll forfeit my deposit of two hundred rupees. After settling the formalities, I hit the trail.
Gaumukh is 18 kms from Gangotri. Some people do the entire distance of 36 kms in a day but I’ve chosen to spread it over a couple of days. At Chirbasa there is another checkpost where my entry slip gets checked and stamped. Farther, 14 kms from Gangotri, is the settlement of Bhojbasa. There are a couple of options here to spend the night. I take a bed in Lal Baba’s Ashram, a simple luxury that suits my humble budget.
Till Bhojbasa, the mountain slopes alternate between low shrub cover and green clusters of pine trees. Bhagirathi meandering through the valley to a backdrop of steep rocky slopes and pointed pinnacles seems to be in excited rush. The river is keen to leave its valley of birth and childhood, venture out to the world and disciver what’s beyond. The world really is what you make of it. This river is really a thread in the weave of India’s fabric.
Since I’m in Bhojbasa fairly early, I walk to Gaumukh the same afternoon. The glacier can be seen two kilometers away. Its bluish veins of ice are laid layer upon layer. What I’m seeing is actually a cross-section of the glacier. It stands a massive 80 meters. The ground around is rocky and barren. No spot of green can be seen. Nothing seems to grow here. In winter, it must make a scene of bleak prospect and surreal spectacle.
Approaching the glacier close is prohibited. My conscience does not allow me to violate the prohibition in the footsteps of other visitors. Nature at Gaumukh is magnificent yet fragile. To lost the glacier would be a disaster. I sit by the river bank a few paces from a little shrine open to the sky. As the sun moves in and out of the clouds, the valley, the peaks and the glacier wear different shades. Once in a while a heavy thud comes from the glacier. The splash that follows tells of a chunk of ice fallen off the glacier. Large blocks of ice float downstream in the rushing current. Some leave the midstream and hug the margins. These ice blocks will float here for days till the height of summer melts them away. Others are dashed to pieces and are carried away on a longer adventure.
I pick up a block of ice. It shivers in the warmth of my palm. Drop by drop it falls to the icy river. I take a few sips from the melt. Perhaps for years it had been locked in an icy state at Gaumukh. Each drop is like a tear of great deliverance. This drop is the tear of Nepture himself. It is finally going to make it to the ocean’s great expanse, a final homecoming.
It isn’t cold at Gaumukh although the water is frigid. Sadhus who have made it this far for a holy dip hesitate. They settle to washing their hands, feet and face. Except for a handful of these sadhus, no tourists can be seen. Perhaps they will arrive later or the next morning. I take one last look at the place and at Gaumukh. This is the place where Ganges make its first appearance from beneath melting glacier. It is a special place. There are some places for which the writer needs no exaggeration to impress the reader. Plain words will do. Gaumukh is one such place.
On the return to Bhojbasa, I pass some wild goats grazing on the slopes above me. Their sweeping pointed horns give them a handsome look. They furry coats are perfect for this climate. With quizzical expressions they watch the intruder in their midst. There are also the rare musk deers but since they are noctural, spotting them by day is simply a matter of chance. Other than places of rocky barreness, the Bhagirathi Valley in these parts is home to lovely alpine flowers, wild roses and colourful little birs hardly seen in the plains.
I return to my room for a short nap. Each room at the ashram is built to accommodate three but there are not many tourists or sadhus here tonight. I have the room to myself. There is no furniture within. Through a low door, I enter the room that stands only seven feet high. The floor is covered with a couple of layers of woollen blankets. At the far end by the single small window is a little elevation that functions as a pillow. The ambience is truly like one of those Buddhist caves centuries past. There is no electricity for most part of the day but the lights come on for an hour in the evening. I suspect they are powered by solar.
At about quarter past seven, a guy makes his rounds calling people out for dinner. By half past seven, everyone is assembled in the dining hall. We sit on long mats unrolled by the walls. Steel plates, bowls and tumblers and nearly laid out. Sadhus sit next to tourists, tourists sit next to pilgrims. As we sit cross-legged waiting eagerly for food, warm water is poured into the tumblers. It is a welcome drink for many who are not used to the cold.
‘Shri Ram. Jai Ram. Jai jai Ram,’ leads a man in prayer with folded palms, after politely reminding us not to waste anything. There is an effort to cultivate crops at Bhojbasa but I guess most of it comes from below carried by hardy porters or mules.
As we repeat the prayer after him, food is served quickly to all. Rotis, daal, rice and sabji are served. It is tassty. The sadhus next to me are enjoying the meal just as I do.
‘I guess you come here often?’ I ask the sadhu seated to my left.
‘This is my first visit,’ he replies sharply. He is clearly annoyed by the place. ‘Very cold here. Very cold. I have a headache and a fever.’
Someone talks about going to Gaumukh in the morning.
‘What is in Gaumukh? What is so special?’ explodes the same sadhu. ‘Listen to me. Just bathe in the river here. There is nothing in Gaumukh. What difference does it make if you bathe here or there?’
He calls out for more warm water. As the water is poured out, he continues, ‘If you ask me, sit at home and pray. No use coming all the way up here.’
No one dares to question him or provide a counter argument. There are less than twenty of us seated at dinner. Everyone is quietly eating and listening to the sadhu’s complaints.
Dinner is concluded with a simple prayer:
Shankar Bhagwan ki…jai!
Ganga Mata ki…jai!
Annapoorna Devi ki…jai!
Lal Baba ki…jai!
I take my plate, bowl and tumbler as I leave the dining hall. A man pours out warm water from a kettle as I wash them clean. I like this idea of each one doing his or her own dishes, like in a Sikh langer. The setting sun has coloured some of the slopes golden. The peaks are lost in clouds. It looks like it might rain tonight. I return to my cosy bed. For the third night in a row, the sound of Bhagirathi sings its lullaby.
After a wonderful breakfast of just boiled channa rightly spiced and salted, I take leave of Bhojbasa. This ashram was founded in 1962 and it makes a great place to enjoy simple hospitality and comfort. The irritated sadhu, whom I meet on the return to Gangotri, does not agree.
‘Yeh Dev Bhoomi hai?’ he challenges. ‘Yeh Dev Bhoomi nahi hai. Baenchod, dayi sau rupya liye hai ek bistar ke liye.’
‘I agree. They could have charged a reasonable Rs. 150,’ I add, but really in a remote place as this opportunism precedes philanthropy.
‘Aur aaj aisa chai pilaya, aaj tak aisa ghatia chai kabhi piya nahi main ne.’
He is travelling with two others who make quiet companions. They are from a town in Uttar Pradesh, Muzzafarnagar. They travel by foot, eat in free bandars and stay in ashrams.
‘You come to U.P. during the month of shravan. There are bandars everywhere. You will learn what is seva. You will see real Dev Bhoomi.’
I walk with the sadhus for half an hour chatting about dhams, yatras and ashrams. There are lots of sadhus walking on this route to Gaumukh. With saffron clothes, thickly matted hair, necklaces of rudraksha beads, walking staffs, tridents, arm rests and little pots filled with Ganga’s holy nectar from its very source, they make quite a picture. Most of them appear lost, wandering without a spiritual guru but I say this only because I do not understand them. They live off donations. Only once on this trek did I see a sadhu who was different. He has a wonderful smile. His face beamed of radiance. His eyes spoke of an inner light. Such sadhus are rare but they do exist.
I leave the trio at a clear mountain stream. They are stopping to take bath. I move on. As I reach Gangotri well before noon, the question that plays on my mind is the one the sadhu has asked me earlier today, ‘Yahan aakar kya mila tuje?’