Descent of the Ganga: Gangotri, Gaumukh, Tapovan & beyond

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY come across fantastic stories, treacherous terrain and colourful people on their trek to the source of the Ganga 

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‘Sinking Area, Shooting Stones, Sliding Zone.’ The signboards whizzing past seemed more apt for a war zone rather than the road to India’s holiest river. We were in a shared jeep on a bone-jangling drive from Uttarkashi to Gangotri in the Garhwal Himalayas. After rumbling down the narrow bridge at Bhaironghati over a jaw-dropping gorge, our driver pulled over and shook his head helplessly.

An overturned army truck in the middle of the road set the tone for the trip ahead… Forced to alight 8km short of our destination, we set off on foot, knowing that there would be no vehicles beyond Gangotri anyway. The walk was a perfect warm up. Besides, the 1km long line of stranded vehicles on the other side of the truck left us with little choice.

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It was a dusty meandering path between craggy hills and a sheer drop. After a 2-hour trudge, we reached Gangotri by evening, only to discover cops on walkie-talkies still trying to arrange a crane to remove the truck. We had been warned at Uttarkashi to stock up dry fruits, dates and provisions, as ‘there was nothing available at Gangotri’. Humbug. Gangotri was a long row of hotels and shops overflowing with everything from walnuts and pistachios to biscuits and munchies in every flavour, besides every form of religious paraphernalia. 

Isha Vasyam Ashram, located on the other side of the river was our first choice to stay. Sadly, it was booked to capacity as Swami Chidanand Saraswati of Parmarth Niketan Ashram was visiting from Rishikesh with his entourage. So we checked into Purohit, a tidy little lodge overlooking the bathing ghat with the mighty Sudarshan, Bhagirathi and other snowcapped peaks in the distance.

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Down by the ghats, the machinery of faith was in full swing. A mass of shivering pilgrims of all ages taking a holy dip in the freezing waters, groups performing sacred ceremonies to pray for the salvation of departed souls, people filling cans and kamandalas (pots) with holy water, some patiently getting the lids sealed with wax and customers briskly buying an assortment of religious items at the stalls. A pilgrim from Rajasthan observed wryly, “Mano toh Ganga maiyya, nahin toh behta paani” (To those with faith it’s Mother Ganga, or else just flowing water).

At sundown, it was time for the magical Ganga arti, a daily lamp-lit homage to the sacred river. We were fortunate to witness it, in the presence of Swami Chidanand Saraswati, whose mission is to protect the Ganga. Soulful music and sacred chants filled the air as people waved oil lamps to honour and celebrate the river deity. After the ceremony we were invited to learn more about Ganga Action Parivar over dinner at Isha Vasyam. Since Swamiji’s birthday coincided with World Environment Day, he chose to emphasize the need for conservation through a tree-planting campaign, river-cleaning drive and distribution of cloth bags to cut down plastic.

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At the Gangotri temple, priest Semwal ji outlined Ganga’s fascinating story. Sage Bhagirathi wished to bring the Ganga from the heavens to wash the ashes of his 60,000 ancestors, thereby providing them salvation. Jahnu rishi was responsible for building a canal for Ganga to flow through. The celestial elephant Airavat cleaved the mountains to channel a path.

But during her tumultuous descent, Sage Jahnu’s ashram at Jangla was washed away. In anger, he swallowed Ganga. It was at Pachchiyari (literally ‘look behind’) that Bhagirathi turned around to notice that Ganga had disappeared. When he begged Sage Jahnu for forgiveness, he relented and released the Ganga from his right ear. 

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Thus Ganga is known by different names in her course. As she emerges from Brahma’s kamandala in the heavens, she is Sursari; when she tumbles down Shiva’s matted locks, she is Jatashankari; as she lands on earth she is Bhagirathi and after emerging through Jahnu, she is Jahnavi. Hence, the place where Ganga descended came to be known as Gangotri. “Ganga jahan utri, wohi Gangotri”, said the priest. Incidentally, Gauri Kund marks the site where Shiva took Ganga into his matted locks to tame her forceful descent.

Just across the metal bridge near Surya Kund, a small wooden hut decorated with deer horns, driftwood and stones drew us to the ashram of Swami Sundaranandji. This maverick mountaineer and photographer, popularly known as the Clicking Swami, came here in 1948 and documented the Himalayas across seasons like no one else. Eight quintals of priceless photographs and slides, a coffee table book translated into three languages and a cache of stories that he regaled us with…

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The path continued to Pandava Gufa (cave) and their yagna bhoomi (place of penance). It is believed that after the Mahabharata war, the Pandavas came here to perform a sacred yagna in repentance of the bloodshed they had caused. They took a dip in the Hatyaharini and ascended to Kedarnath via the treacherous Bhrigupanth. Colloquially, ‘Going to Bhrigupanth’ is a metaphor for heading towards sure death or taking an impossible path.

The next day, we had charted our own hazardous path. Our Tapovan trek got off on a shaky start. The fickle Himalayan weather had changed drastically. The previous day had been bright and sunny but when we woke up at 5.30am, it was gloomy and shrouded in dense mist. By 6 it had began to drizzle. Our guide Janakshahi, a young Nepali lad asked us warily if we wanted to go, as things could get worse at higher altitude. After monitoring the weather over breakfast and endless cups of black tea, we armed ourselves with cheap raincoats and set off at 8:30am.

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The 9km trek from Gangotri to Chirbasa was a steady ascent tracing the course of the river. Dark jagged mountains swooped up to the left like giants peering over our heads. At the forest check post in Kankhu, 2km from Gangotri, we showed our permit (procured from the Forest Department office at Gangotri jeep stand). Although the Gangotri National Park (GNP) was created in 1989, the region witnessed hordes of tourists travelling on foot or mules on a daily basis, littering and polluting the place beyond recognition. Very recently, steps to protect this ecologically fragile zone were strictly enforced. Spread over 2,39,002.4 hectares at 3250 m, GNP is India’s third largest park with only 150 visitors allowed per day.

In the woods of Chirbasa, we drew in lungfuls of fresh pine-scented air as we padded along. Some sections of the 5km stretch to Bhojbasa were tricky and prone to landslide. As we negotiated the undulating path and crossed a few crystal clear streams on makeshift log bridges, we came upon a big herd of Bharal (blue sheep) on a mountain slope. Their proximity made us whip out our cameras and click away, before continuing ahead.

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After turning a curve, the path got narrower and we were halfway up a barefaced rocky slope with a sharp drop, when we heard a mild clatter of stones. Nearly 250 ft above, a herd of grazing Bharal had dislodged a volley of stones that were crashing down at us. “Run!” yelled Janak. Unable to look away from the rolling stones and simultaneously fearing how one faulty step could send us over the edge, we made a wild dash for cover. But things got out of control.

One projectile smashed into a precariously perched football-sized rock at full speed, sending it hurtling down. Like a scene from 127 Hours, that rock had been waiting all its life with ‘Priya’, written on it. Instead of rolling straight down, it bounded and bounced in an unhinged zig-zag manner as if its only mission was a full impact body blow to knock someone off the mountain. Life decisions had to be made in seconds – running backwards was no-go as it was still raining stones, running forward was suicide, being directly in the collision course of the boulder…

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Escape was only a miracle. With no place to run or hide, an accident seemed inevitable yet the overhang yards away held a possibility. So we bolted ahead on shaking legs, skidding over loose shale. A heart-stopping moment later, it hit…but just grazed the ankle support of a sturdy Size 7 Quechua shoe before plummeting into the abyss below. We were breathing raggedly but could only shake our heads in disbelief.

The remaining trudge to the campsite of Bhojbasa was tackled with greater caution. We opted for the quieter Ram Baba Ashram instead of the popular Lal Baba Ashram.  In these camps a snug bed and hot meals came at Rs.300 per head. Our clothes were soaked and we spent the evening by the kitchen fire. At twilight, the sky cleared briefly and the snowy peaks of Bhagirathi I, II and III were illumined by some divine light. 

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We devoured the food hungrily, embarrassed to ask for more but Gopi a local guide egged us on, “Don’t worry. Ration sarkari hai, par pet private hai.” The morning was bright and we were off for the 4km hike to Gaumukh, named after the cow-faced mouth of the glacier from where Ganga emerged. Some say, the mouth of the glacier was originally near Gangotri but had receded by 18km over the years!

At a small Ganga shrine near the riverbank, Nirmal Baba (not the TV godman) blessed visitors. Looking around furtively, a Bengali trekker scowled ‘Gleshiyarrr kothai?’ (Where’s the glacier?) His guide laughed and pointed at the endless grayish brown mass far ahead. The Bengali mumbled incoherently, as if he had just been gypped.

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While most tourists return from Gaumukh, we continued 5km to the high altitude meadow of Tapovan. The path was barely discernible – just a massive rubble of stone wedged in muddy ice. Small chortens (piles of stones) flagged off the general route. As we climbed higher, the sun was harsh and the incessant sound of snowmelt was broken only by the occasional rumble and crash of ice chunks falling into the river. Often we seemed surrounded by crevasses, chasms and fractures. Janak’s constant chant ‘Yahan bahut danger hai’ goaded us to move swiftly.

If the 2½ km glacier walk was tricky, the final 1½ km ascent was a true test of endurance – a near vertical incline with the Amar Ganga stream rushing down the rock face. Our breaths were heavy, but our feet were light as we were afraid of dislodging any loose rock that could accidentally trigger a stonefall. About halfway up, we faced the challenge of fording the stream and lumbered on, before hauling ourselves over the lip of the mountain. The vision ahead was sublime – Shivling loomed up at 21,750 ft like a gigantic cone of ice.

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A short trudge along the murmuring Amar Ganga and we reached Mauni Baba’s Ashram. Though sworn to silence, he never refused anyone who knocked at his door for refuge or food – including the blue sheep that flocked in the evenings for salt. Curious visitors would barrage him with questions – ‘What is your real name? Where are you from? How old are you? Why are you silent?’ And he would patiently scribble answers, shake his head, laugh and gesture crazy replies. Warmed up with tea, hot chocolate and his divine food, we were cajoled into a round of devotional singing, before we crawled into bed.

The night was biting cold. When stepped outside in the morning – the landscape was awash in white as tiny snowflakes fell in fairytale fashion to the wet earth. The night’s storm had made the young dreadlocked mystic switch from saffron and white robes to blue thermals. Donning glares and a hat someone had gifted him, Mauni Baba seemed more like the frontman of a reggae band instead of an ascetic. He insisted that we eat breakfast before leaving.

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When we bade goodbye, the weather was clear. Like stages in a video game we tackled the tricky descent, glacier crossing, stone hopping, landslide zone, bridges and trekked 23km straight from Tapovan to Gangotri in one day.

The trip would have been incomplete without a visit to Mukhwa, the winter seat of Gangotri, where the idol of Ganga shifts after Diwali. Leisure Hotel’s luxurious Char Dham Camp at Dharali, with riverside tents in an apple grove set in an amphitheatre of hills, was the perfect base. Swami Narasimh Tirth at the Kalp Kedar temple nearby made us unlearn everything we knew.

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‘Many kalpas (eons) ago, all four dhams (Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath) were said to have been located in this region. Jahnu rishi drank the Ganga and released it from his mouth not his ear, hence the place was called Mukhwa. And the place where Ganga reached the earth (dharaa), became Dharali! Nearly 240 temples stood between Dharali and Sukhi, all submerged in the great flood of 1802, barring this one.’

It was here at Dharali that Sage Markandeya composed the Markandeya Purana after being blessed by Shiva with the Mahamrintyunjaya Mantra. This was where the demon Jalandhara’s pious wife Brinda cast Vishnu into stone is Hari Shila (Harsil). Even the Pandavas came here in exile. And so did Pahadi Wilson…

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Frederick E. Wilson or Pahadi Wilson was an adventurer who deserted the British army after the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. He came to Garhwal and on being denied sanctuary by the Maharaja of Tehri, Wilson fled to Harsil and married Gulabi, a local girl. He built a fortune and gained notoriety for smuggling fur, musk and timber.

After chopping forests of deodar, he would cleverly float the logs down the Ganga. He even supplied wood to the British government to make railway sleepers from Rishikesh to Calcutta! To strengthen his local standing, Wilson married again – at Mukhwa and Dharali and constructed large wood houses for his extended family.

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At Dharali, the 300-year-old Panwar House of Wilson’s wife Ruda Godavari has an old Bhagavathy temple with woodcarvings by Himachali artists. After forcibly marrying her, Wilson took her to the British cantonment in Harsil but left soon after on an errand. He returned after a month to find Godavari had run back to her parent’s home.

Wilson came on horseback to take her by force but Godavari hid in the Bhagavathy temple. Rumour has it when Wilson barged into the sanctum with his boots on to drag her out, he received a shock, went mad and was carried away, never to return. Sadly, Ruda Godavari was ostracized for her alliance with a foreigner and stayed alone in a cubbyhole below the house.

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We walked across the bridge to Mukhwa village where local children played guides, leading us to the jharna (waterfall), where imprints created by Bhima, Arjun and their horses were cast in stone. But there were other trails – Danda Pokhri for a view of Sudarshan and Sumeru, Sat Tal on the opposite side or the Pandava trail to Kedarnath via the proverbial Bhrigupanth. We were ready to take on anything, but not this time…

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the August 2012 issue of Rail Bandhu, the Indian Railways magazine.

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