Gomukh - The origin of River Ganga
Visiting the origin of the Ganga has been a long-cherished dream for me and this year I have planned and arranged it well in advance. Because I grew up beside the river the question I always asked was ‘where from the river Ganga originates?’
At last, my curiosity will be satiated, or at least that's what I hoped. But my experience of traveling in the Himalayas has taught me at least one very important thing – never take anything for granted. So when the train to Haridwar left Howrah on the day of Durga Ashtami, I silently prayed to be lucky, because this time my childhood dream is going to be realized.
We reached Haridwar almost on time and after freshening up at the station retiring room, we hired a Tata Sumo from the Taxi Association close to the station to commence our journey to Uttarkashi, at a distance of 174Km.
We reached Tehri (at a distance of 94km from Haridwar) after around two and a half hours. After spending some time at the Tehri dam, we continued our journey to Uttarkashi – meaning ‘to the north of Kashi’. A turbulent Ganga flows through this hill town. We took a night halt at Netala, which is 13 km further from Uttarkashi.
In my group apart from the two of us, a friend of mine and his family make it a total of seven – trying to reach Gomukh, the origin of the river Ganga which made our very existence possible, shaped our civilization as we are today.
The next morning we started for Gangotri, which was at a distance of 87Km.
The ride to Gangotri, at an altitude of 10,058ftwas smooth and comfortable as the road condition, was extremely good. We reached there well before 4 pm and checked in Hotel Gangaputra, where accommodation was booked beforehand.
Here in Gangotri, the river is known not as Ganga, but “Bhagirathi” which flows till Devprayag to meet the emerald green waters of Alakananda to finally turn into yellowish-brown in color and also take the name ‘Ganga’ for the rest of its journey.
We dumped all our luggage and came out in no time as the sun was soon going to set and we didn't want to miss the October sunset.
There is a small concrete bridge under which Bhagirathi flows amidst rocks and boulders, and standing on that bridge, I witnessed one of the most beautiful sunsets of my few decades of life.
Sunset as viewed from Gangotri.
At a distance, the peaks of the Bhagirathi Sisters have turned golden. The top of Mt. Shivling has turned into gold too. Looking around I could see Mt. Sudarshan in its regal beauty, draped in a golden hue. This was simply overwhelming. Such sunsets are there for millions of years, and today I fill my heart and senses with a few moments of that eternity – moments that will stay with me as long as I live.
We returned to the hotel only when it was pitch dark. It was a beautiful starry night. From there we went to the river bank to watch the Sandhyarati, evening prayer to the holy river. Compared to the one that takes place on the steps of Har ki Pauri in Haridwar, Bhagirathi-Vandana here in Gomukh is a lot simpler, but feels like closure to the heart and anybody can pray to this holy water coming from Gomukh with a burning lamp in his or her hand.
The next morning we had to start our journey for Gomukh.
We started our journey to Gomukh at 6 am in the morning.
One has to climb around 70 steps to reach the forest department office. After getting our names and cameras registered with the department the actual trek began.
The road to Gomukh from Gangotri via Chirbasa and Bhujbasa is nothing more than a hill trail upon which we walked on to reach Bhujbasa, at a distance of 14km. We had the prior booking for a night at the GMVN dormitory while Anup and Sanjukta had to spend the night at Lalbaba’s Ashram.
We walked on the right of Bhagirathi through trees of various shades and boulders of innumerable shapes and colors. The river has carried the boulders down a long-distance and with time, water and wind have turned them into natural sculptures – work of art that inspires the human mind to explore new realms of creativity. Different shades of colors on a single rock make them look like huge canvasses painted by the greatest artist of the universe – nature itself.
The trek to Gomukh was steep and we needed rest after every few minutes. We were not alone; there were many other pilgrims and trekkers – all going to Gomukh, some even further to Tapovan.
After walking for a couple of hours, we came across two shops made of plastic sheets selling water, biscuit, cold drinks, etc. along with tea and Maggie. Anybody familiar with traveling high in the Himalayas knows how Maggie is popular in the mountains After having a bowl of hot soupy Maggie and a cup of steaming tea we resumed our journey.
We also crossed a few small streams. There were wooden bridges to cross some o the streams. After crossing one such bridge and numerous boulders Chirbasa became visible at a distance – a green patch to the foothills, with steep hills on both its sides.
Chirbasa distant view
Chirbasa, at a distance of 9km from Gangotri, is a green patch of ‘Chir’ or pine trees. Here we found a similar shop made of plastic sheet selling hot alu paratha and tea.
After enjoying the paratha and tea and getting some much-needed rest we started our journey again. Though we were all tired of walking the snow-clad mountains, the green pines and the mesmerizing beauty all around energized us to keep walking.
We have to reach Bhujbasa today and before that, we have to walk a distance of about one kilometer in complete silence, named “Gila-Pahar”.
This area is made of loose rocks. Small rocks and dust is always coming down from the mountain slope. The vibration made by even a little sound can disturb the balance and trigger a small avalanche that could be quite destructive. We covered the distance as cautiously as possible and also as quickly as possible.
Though we can now see Bhujbasa at a distance, it will still take more than two hours to get there and we must reach before the dark. We kept walking as quickly as possible to our destination for the night and with us went the river Bhagirathi on the right side – roaring downhill and making everybody aware of her pervading presence.
Bhujbasa has got its name from the Birch trees that are found in abundance here. Birch is called ‘Bhurja’ in Sanskrit.
The bark of this tree is very long lasting and in ancient India was used for writing on. We reached Bhujbasa just before dark. In spite of having the prior booking, the staff of the GVMN informed us that there was no booking in our name and he has already allotted the dormitory to somebody else.
Even showing him the booking papers drew the same repeated answer – what can we do? We did not receive any information. But after some more time, he, at last, agreed to provide us with one eight-man tent inside the premises of the GMVN.
The night was freezing cold. And just when we were ready to go inside the tents and fall asleep came the warning that made us go further cold. We must not come out of the tent at night because cheetahs regularly prowl here at night. At that moment I was least interested in a cheetah and decided to have a sound sleep till the morning.
When you are extremely tired, sleep may take a long time to come. Moreover the journey of the day start replaying in your head and add to it the excitement for the following day – the excitement of a dream, at last, coming true – I will see the Gomukh, the origin of the holiest river in the country, a river that has attained godhood by being the mother of one of the oldest civilizations of the world.
Next morning we needed to start very early for we had to return to Gangotri the same day and it’s going to be a really long day for us. When we came out of the tent the next morning, we found the water in the drain has turned into ice. The staffs of the GMVN were not ready to get up that early in the morning to provide us with some hot water. We somehow washed our faces in that ice cold water and started for Gomukh.
After going up for some distance there was nothing but boulders to walk on – as if you are walking on a sea of boulders.
Sometimes you also get a glimpse of Mount Shivling.
We kept on walking on boulders towards Gomukh. I was filled with a strange excitement. On the way we met one of the great mountaineers of our time – Sudhangshu Mallik. Very few people know his name outside a very close circle but he is the man who has spent a lifetime in the Himalayas. Again and again he has gone to the most difficult to reaches places – he has a treasure trove of experiences in his collection and he had also paid the price for that. Half of his right feet has to be imputed due to frost bite and he is still going strong. This time his destination is Tapovan and he will continue to walk beyond Gomukh – our final destination.
After touching his feet and taking blessings – we started again – filled with new found energy and excitement. The nearer we were moving in, the view of Mt. Basuki and Chandra Parvat was clearer. After crossing the moraine or the boulder zone of the glacier we reached a place beyond which Gangotri glacier stretches with its full glory.
The boulder zone on the way to Gomukh
I can also see the snout point, the Gomukh, the origin of the Ganga. We kept going closer still walking on boulders. Some of them are as high as 14ft to 15ft. crawling at some places and slipping in some at last we reached the place we have come for - The Gomukh. Located at a height of 13,200ft, the place that I have read in the geography books, a place that I always wanted to visit. Now I can check out does it really look like a cow head? As a matter of fact I found little similarity. May be it looked like that a few thousand years ago and the name was given at that time. The shape has changed with time but not the name.
The snout point of Ganga (Photo Courtesy: Tapas Roy Chowdhury)
Gangotri glacier, perched in the magnificent Garhwal Himalayas originates at the northern slope of Chaukhamba range of peaks, is the largest glacier in the Himalayas, having an estimated volume of about 27 cubic km. This glacier is about 30 km long and about 2 to 4 km wide.
The Gangotri glacier is surrounded by majestic peaks of Gangotri Group, offering arduous trekking to Shivling, Thalay Sagar, Meru, and Bhagirathi III. This glacier is a combination of several other glaciers that drains into it and forms a huge mass of ice. The Bhrigupanth (6772m), Kirti stambh (6285), Sumeru Parvat (6380) respectively and, Ratavana Bamak, Chaturangi Bamak and Swachand Bamak which lies on the northeast slope of Srikailash, Man parvat, Satopanth and an un-named group of peaks.
Gangotri glacier is receding at an alarming rate and researches has shown that in the last 70 years the snout point has gone back by almost one kilometer. In front of us is standing a never-ending wall of ice and sun is shining from behind the snow-clad mountains – reflecting on the boulders of ice scrapped from the body of the glacier. We went close to the snout point as much as possible and found that a thin stream of water is coming out from a crack in the ice and flowing down making its way amidst the boulders& the chunk of broken ice of the glacier wall. A great river is just born, like a baby… clear, serene and holy.
Sitting there and enjoying the beauty all around fill my body and soul with a kind of satisfaction like never before.
Sitting at Gomukh
As if time has come to a standstill with the great mountains. But it is not allowed to spend a long time there as the sound made by many people can easily result in an avalanche. Moreover, we have to walk back to 18km to Gangotri within the sun-down and must reach there before nightfall. We started our return journey.
I captured everything in my mind as well as on camera. Some pilgrims were taking a dip in that ice-cold water. I don’t know how much moksha they gain but one can easily get cold, I thought. We will be returning the same way only there will be no more stopping at Bhujbasa.
Way back to Gangotri from Gomukh
Traveling the same boulder path winding down amidst pine and birch forest we reached Chirbasa and decided to take some rest there. It was already noon and Gangotri was a long way away so we had to hurry. On the way, we found the plastic sheet made shops are already closed and it may be dangerous if you don’t reach your destination before nightfall. The moment the sun goes behind the mountains, the chilled wind starts blowing and makes you shiver to the bones. Walking on those boulders in complete darkness was next to impossible yet we had to keep on walking. At last, it was nearly 7.30 when we reached the steps from where the lights of Gangotri can be seen. At last when I dragged my almost limp body inside the hotel – I was smiling like one smiles only when a kind of happiness fills the heart that one can never express in words.
Somebody once asked me what is the point of all these hardships and pain?
Thinking of that I smiled once more, I feel lucky to witness this beauty of the Himalayas, I feel privileged. One has to come here to feel it and then he will keep coming. That is the magic of the Himalayas.
Trekking to Gangotri-Gomukh is indeed a holy journey of a lifetime to see the origin point of the river Ganga. However, if you want to take it up a notch and challenge yourself then you should opt to trek to Vasuki Tal via Tapovan. The trail of Vasuki Tal Trek goes through Gaumukh and involves crossing many glaciers and boulders making it really thrilling and adventurous. Since this trek is still less explored, it gives you a unique chance of walking on the Meru glacier for miles and camp at the foot of towering Himalayan peaks like Mount Shivling. With the highest altitude of 4800 M, the Vasuki Tal & Meru Glacier trek is a better and more challenging trail from Gangotri and back, making the best of it.