Some years ago I went on a trek from Gangotri to Tapovan, high in the Himalayas. Gangotri is one of the four main pilgrimage sites called the Char Dham which pilgrims to the Himalayas nowadays strive to visit in a rush of devotion during monsoon, but often end up exhausted and sick.
In the traditional approach to the Char Dham it took months walking to any one of these holy locations, with danger from dacoits, wild animals, landslides, strain of walking at altitude, but with plenty of time to breathe in the beauty and sanctity not only of these holy places, but the splendour of the Himalayas as a whole.
Nowadays a bus ride crammed with other pilgrims racing against the clock to fit in all four locations and get back home promoted by cut price tour and travel agents doesn’t have the old aura of grace, devotion, and respect.
We booked a taxi from Uttarkashi and drove to Gangotri and then walked up to Tapovan (14000ft) in 2-3 days. Gangotri is still revered as the source of the holy mother Ganga, even though the glacier which is really the source of the Ganga has receded over 20 km upstream, where Gaumukh (the cow’s mouth) is the current day source.
In my opinion Gangotri is the most beautiful of the Char Dham, with it’s lovely forests, spectacular peaks, and abundant flow of the Ganga through its midst.
Following are some notes I made at the time of my Gangotri impressions:
“Ganga Ma takes central stage, thundering through and over the rocks unceasingly, unyielding. Her icy cold purifies, shocks, wakes up, blesses.
“It is for her that all the pilgrims come, day after day, year after year, whenever the roads are open. On the temple side, pundits perform Ganga puja for the pilgrims, reciting Vedic shloka’s for health, happiness, success, family, making offerings of flowers, rice, holy water, and tying sacred thread on pilgrim wrists.
“Who in turn climb the stairs, ring the bells by the Shri Ganga Ma temple, buy flowers and other offerings, and line up in the spacious courtyard for their turn to bow down to her temple image and make their offerings.
“While we waited in line, we noticed some village deities (invariably Nagdevatas) in their elaborate palanquins. Soon the village drummers began pounding a rhythm accompanied by discordant trumpets. The palanquins were lifted up and in moments one of the priests went into a trance, body shaking, wielding a sword, attuned to his nagdevata. He was lifted onto the shoulders of a burly man, still wielding the sword, and they followed the palanquins and villagers as the circumambulated the Ganga Ma temple twice.
“There is such a volume of pilgrims that at least 100 shop wallah offering the same trinkets, flowers, water vessels, brass puja implements, and other items to make offerings, make a good living. As do the numerous restaurants, most of them tin sheds.
“Across the river are numerous ashrams, some flourishing, some completely dilapidated, most in-between, On arrival we stayed at the Krishan Ashram, a rustic home for pilgrims and devotees of Krishna. We were proudly given ‘deluxe rooms’, with no running water or toilets which didn’t flush. Relief came with a bucket of hot water in the morning. We heartily enjoyed it’s charms of thick stone walls, low wooden ceilings, wooden shutters for windows.
“We were invited for evening puja at the ashram Krishna temple, enjoyable with crashing bells, chanting and circumambulations of the murti a half dozen times.
Dinner was then served in the stone courtyard, us sitting on a rattan mat on the ground, tali placed in front, and ashram staff dolloping out as much rice, dhal, sabji and rotis as we could eat.
“Rising up either side of the town are deodar forests, then massive embattlements of rock, peaking unto the ridges thousands of feet above. To the east is the gorgeous vista of the snow capped Bhagirathi peals and beautiful Sudarshan mount. The immensity of the surrounding peaks results in localised weather patterns, continually changing. During our stay it tended to cloud over in the afternoons, sometimes, raining, and still cloudy in the morning, but then clearing to beautiful hot sunny weather.
“One of the great attractions of Gangotri is Surya Khund, where at the edge of town Ganga Ma is channelled into two white/yellow rock chutes and thunders down into a gorge below, the water pressure forces the flow to gush far out from the rock face. The name Surya Khund symbolises the morning practice of going to the Shiva temple and pouring water over the Shiva lingam.
“Two hundred meters downstream is Gauri Khund, where the gorge narrows and the Ganga waters surge between higher and higher cliffs as the gorge rapidly becomes narrower and deeper.
“High above, many small ashrams line the gorge on the southern side.
“We visited the largest one here, a haven for Danda Swamis, built around a large courtyard. Some jovial Sikhs and a Collector (senior public servant)insisted we join them for chai and a pleasant conversation. The ashram had a very deep, settled and soft atmosphere.As we left, a gentle and sweet swami engaged us in another conversation and wished us well as we left.
“A couple of ashrams further down there lives Swami Sunderanand, who has published a magnificent book of his travels of the Himalayas, furnished with superb photos, all of which he took himself, many in remote high altitudes. The ashram is a joy, decorated in style and taste with ram’s horns, artistically shaped branches and tree roots, all manner of stones, and with an altar to his guru (Swami Tapovan), accompanied with some of his best photos, poster size. A new photo gallery and meditation tower is under construction.
“On my arrival he called me in and invited me to sit in his small but comfortable kutir, which he said had been his guru’s , built in 1935. He said before 1948, the only other dwelling in Gangotri was the Krishna ashram. Now getting on to 80, Swami remains very clear and alert, but also concerned on the depredations to Gangotri, and the upper Ganges and Himalayas in general from commercialised pilgrimage with over construction of roads, hotels, and damage by pilgrims themselves and their fervour.
“We told him we were with Maharishi in Uttarkashi, and to our surprise he said he know him well, and had walked with him in 1952 from Rishikesh to Tehri and the on to Uttarkashi, where Maharishi had stayed at Gyansu, and swami travelled further on to Gangotri. Her remembers Maharishi as Brahmachari Mahesh, and Maharishi practicing yoga from 4am-6am in their shared room. He said he had also met Guru Dev in JyoshiMath. He remembers the Gangotri glacier being close to where we went at Bhojbasa and that area frosted with trees, now all cut down with a difficult regeneration program underway in the challenging environment.
“Two kilometres below Gauri Khund is Pandu Gufa, a large cave under a massive rock the size of several houses, where legend tells of the Pandavas stayed for 20 years after the Mahabharat war, on their way to heaven. The gufa is located at the sangam of the Ganga and the Rudra Ganga, and in the large cave lives Swami Sitaram, who, when we entered, was watching his acolyte roll and bake chapatis over an open fire. We spent some time with him in our halting Hindi conveyed who we were, his only comment being that we were Indian now after having been in India for so long.
Soon after we left Gangotri to return to Gajoli ashram and enjoyed once again one of the most spectacular drives in the Himalayas.