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. I grew up beside the river and ‘where from the river comes?’ is a question that has haunted me from my childhood.
At last my curiosity will be satiated, or at least I hope so for my experience in travelling in the Himalayas has taught me at least one very important thing – never to take anything for granted – and when the train to Haridwar left Howrah on the day of DurgaSasthi, 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, hired a Tata Sumo from the Taxi Association close to the station to commence our journey to UttarKashi, at a distance of 174Km. Last year a devastating flood inundated a large part of the district and miles after miles of road were washed away by the rampaging river Ganga. The State Government has done an excellent job and the newly built roads are just perfect for a smooth and comfortable ride. We reached Tehri, at a distance of 94km from Haridwar after around two and half hours and after spending some time at the dam, continued our journey to Uttarkashi – meaning ‘to the north of Kashi’. A turbulent Ganga flows through this hill town which is also home to NIM – Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, one of the best of its kind in the world. But neither I nor my companions were interested in spending time here and we proceed to Netala, further 13km. from UttarKashi for a night halt. Let me take the liberty of introducing you to my companions – apart from the two of us a friend of mine and his family makes it a group of seven – trying to reach Gomukh, the origin of the river that made our very existence possible, shaped our civilization as we are today. We had prior booking and a night of rest at Hotel Gangaputra was more than welcome after two days of arduous journey. But this is only the beginning and early tomorrow morning we start for Gongotri, 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 4pm 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 Debaprayag to meet with the green waters of Alakananda to turn into yellowish brown in color and also take the name ‘Ganga’ for the rest of her journey. Dumping all luggage in the hotel room everybody came out in no time as the sun was soon going to set and an October sunset at this height in the Himalayas – no fool of us is going to miss that. There was 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 that I have seen in my life of a few decades
Sunset as viewed from Gangotri.
Everything around me is thousands of years old and this same phenomenon is taking place for thousands of years. 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 golden hue. This was simply overwhelming. Such sunsets are taking place for millions of years, and today I fill my heart and senses with a few moments of that eternity – moments those will stay with me as long as I live.
We returned to the hotel only when there was no light left in the sky and stars came out – so many of them that you can see only when you are high up in the mountains. From there we went to the river bank to watch the Sandhyarati, evening prayer to the holy river. Compared to the one that take place on the steps of Har ki Pauri in Haridwar, Bhagirathi-Vandana here in Gomukh is 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 Sandharati takes place at the Ganga Temple, made of white marble in which the beautiful idol of mother Ganga is worshipped. The Aarti takes no more fifteen minutes and though there is little pomp and extravagance, you will be touched by its pious devotion.
Tomorrow morning we will start for Gomukh. My friend’s parents, uncle and aunty, two of the oldest members of our team will spend the day here. Gomukh is at a distance of 18km from here which one has to walk and it will not be possible for them to walk the distance. While we were taking an early dinner at our hotel and chitchatting, a gentleman came and requested that he and his wife wanted to join us and we immediately agreed. Anup and Sanyukta joined us the next morning and I found that we are still a team of seven.
After offering prayer to Mother Ganga in the Gangamata Temple.
We started our journey at 6am in the morning. One has to climb around 70 steps to reach the forest department office and after registering the namesand the camera we were carrying with the department, the actual trek began. The road to Gomukh from Gangotri via Chirbasa and Bhujbasa is nothing more than a hill track upon which we walked on to reach Bhujbasa, at a distance of 14km. We had prior booking for a night at the GMVN dormitory while Anup and Sanjukta will spend the night at Lalbaba’s Ashram. Keeping Bhagirathi on the right, we walked through trees of various shades and boulders of innumerable shapes and colours. The river has carried the boulders down a long distance and with time, water and wind has turned them into natural sculptures – works of art those can inspire 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.
At last I am going to see the source of the river, the snout point I have grown up with. The path is climbing up and we needed rest after every few minutes. We are not alone; there are many other pilgrims and trekkers – all going to Gomukh, some further to Tapovan. After walking for a couple of hours, we came up with two shops – made of plastic sheets selling water, biscuit, cold drinks etc. along with tea and maggy. Everybody familiar with travelling high in Himalayas knows that maggi is a great choice here for some food and we too had no hesitation about that. After having a bowl of hot soupy magi and a cup of steaming tea we resumed our journey.
On our way we crossed a few small streams but they are so thin that one can easily cross them by stepping over the boulders. But on a couple of them there were bridges made of wood or rock. 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 sides of it.
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 made with pure milk. After enjoying the paratha and tea and getting some much needed rest we started our journey again. The path winded uphill amidst pine forest and though every one of us was tiring down, the blue autumn sky with white floating clouds, 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 too can be pretty destructive. We covered the distance as cautiously as possible and also as quickly as possible for 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. When we reached Bhujbasa just before dark, a bolt from the blue struck us. In spite of having 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. Debjani and I had no other option and went inside the room of the staff and just sat down. We really couldn’t stand any longer. We had only one simple demand – we have booking and we need a place to stay overnight. After some more time he at last agreed to provide us with one eight-men tentinside the premises of the GMVN. As there was no options left, we kept our sacks there and after getting fresh had an early dinner with roti, alu sabji and achar. After a long and arduous day the food tasted great and we had no more complain about anything – for all we need at that moment is some sleep…sound sleep.
The wind was picking up speed and getting colder every passing second – making us shiver to our bones and just when we were ready to go inside the tents and fell asleep – came the warning that made us go further cold. We must not come out of the tent at night and must shut the entry down properly 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 morning. Inside the tent eight beds were arranged in two rows and each bed had two rajais kept on it. Normally a single rajai is provided in most places and that suffice but here two were given and I instantly understood that temperature is going to fall quite a few degrees during the night. Shivering in cold we were inside the rajais within minutes with the help of another team-mate, Bappa. Debjani and I chose the two facing beds at the far end of the tent while other occupied theirs beside us. The zipper of the tent won’t be able to keep away a cheetah, so we decided to pile the remaining rajais and pillows at the entrance for some extra security.
When you are extremely tired, sleep may take a long time to come. Moreover the journey of the day starts to replay 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. Thinking about all these I don’t know when I feel asleep. Suddenly I felt some one was nudging at my legs. I was still wearing all a body warmer, a t-shirt, a sweater and a jacket and had two rajais wrapped around me – but still the cold was chewing my bones. The bed was so cold that I didn’t even turned once. The first think that came to my mind after realizing the nudge was the cheetah. For once I thought it was a mistake but another push at that moment proved me wrong and now I was very much sure that a cheetah was trying to get inside the tent. I softly called for Bappa but heard nothing back except his snoring. I felt dryness inside my throat. Rendezvous with a cheetah at the middle of night so high up in the Himalayas is not a good idea at all and I desperately called Debjani, who immediately replied – what happened?
-“I think it is the Cheetah trying to get in.”
-“Dhus, that’s nothing, you were dreaming. Sleep.”
But after about five minutes there was the push again and again I called out
Debjani replied, “Yes, it nudged at my legs too.” I got angry and said, “You were telling I was dreaming. Now what?”
Debjani called out her brother, Bappa, “Will you go and check once please? It seems that a Cheetah is trying to get in.”
Bappa sleepily replied he won’t be able to get in like that. Don’t worry and go to sleep.
How can one sleep when a cheetah is nudging at your feet after every five or ten minutes? There was also a soft bell ringing like sound that was making me really uncomfortable. A cheetah with a bell tried around its neck? Why did I chose this bed? I was thinking. I should have chosen the one Bappa is sleeping on. At last I decided to stop thinking and keep lying still and wait for may what happen and I don’t know when I slept.
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 early next morning, we found the water in the drain has turned into ice. But the real surprise was something else. It was a horse that strayed behind and couldn’t get out as the compound gate was closed. It was this horse that was nudging at our tent during the night for an exit point and we mistook it for a cheetah. We looked at each other and laughed out. 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. In front of us Bhagirathi II, III and I are standing side by side as they are standing for ages.
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.
Gongotri glacier is receding at an alarming rate and researches have 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 isjust 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 sun-down and must reach there before nightfall. We started our return journey.
I captured everything in my mind as well as in 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 a 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
Travelling the same boulder path winding down amidst pine and birch forest we reached Chirbasa and decided to take some rest there. Everybody was hungry so hot alu paratha and tea was most welcome. 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, chilled wind starts blowing and makes you shiver to the bones. Uncle and aunty must be getting restless in the hotel. 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. But I can’t walk any more. At last when I dragged my almost limp body inside the hotel – I was smiling like one can smile 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.