The Tribune - Spectrum



Sunday, June 3, 2001

Gangotri — a place bathed in purity
Saikat Neogi

IT could be a scene frozen in a picture-frame. Rays of the early morning sun cutting through the fog which envelopes Kedarghat, a quaint township in the Garhwal Himalayas. A sadhu sits motionless with his feet dipped in the gurgling waters of the Bhagirathi river.

No this is not fantasy. This is fantasy land experienced by anyone traversing to Gangotri in Uttar Pradesh — a five-hour drive from Hardwar.

Ganges flowing down from UttarkashiIt is at Uttarkashi that the mighty river takes the form of the Ganges and becoming less turbulent, meanders past kutcha flower-lined pathways, temples and sleepy little hamlets.

It is here, before the sky changes from grey to amber, that you experience the sublime reality emerging in the holy Ganges. Breathtaking landscapes overshadowed by giant blue mountains and alpine meadows. It’s as if nature has broken into a dance.

Nothing had prepared us for this nature’s marvel. Nothing ever could. For, between description and reality there lies a deep chasm.


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We reached Uttarkashi at the crack of dawn. It is here, at a height of 3,000 metres, that the snow melts in a deep recess of a mountain to form the sacred Ganges and Bhagirathi rivers.

Garhwal Himalayas is a land of coloursUttarkashi is an important pilgrimage centre equated with Varanasi or Kashi. A trip here is incomplete without visiting the temples of Vishwanath and Kuteti Devi where a puja is performed for the safety of an expedition before the ceremonial flag-off.

The drive from Uttarkashi to Gangotri is 100 km. The sights around are breathtaking. The countryside is resplendent with fruit-laden trees. The large round purple plums, the big juicy peaches and apples, they are all there.

This is the land that finds mention in the scriptures and is called Tapobhoomi, the place for practising austerities.

The valley narrows as the bus approaches Gangnani, a regular stopover with hot sulphur springs and an old temple of Rishi Parashar.

The climb now becomes arduous as the bus nears Gangotri and enters Bhaironghati. What a few moments ago was a barren mountain now becomes pine forests and a gushing gargling Bhagirathi. This is a naturalist’s dream come true. Specially in the interior and off the proverbially beaten track. The whiff of the aromatic chir trees and a cold breeze are fragrances that linger in the mind.

From Bhagirathi to Gangotri is a 12-km stretch that affords brilliant views of the peaks. Among others, reflecting the bright sun is the proud Bhagirathi peak.

As you reach Gangotri, you realise that the place is full of activity. The trekking guides are busy organising tents and mules for myriad treks that can be undertaken from here, Gaumukh and Tapovan being a few.

At 3,150 metres above sea level, Gangotri is the holiest of the Hindu pilgrimage sites. Strewn with ashrams and spiritual institutions the place bathes in purity. The atmosphere here is as much of spirituality as of fun and frolic. Sages chanting, "Om namah shivaya" and people haggling for cheap accommodation form the paradoxical irony of Gangotri.

Gangotri is a part of the char dhams of the Hindus. According to mythology, this is one of the world’s most sacred spots. Legend has it that in answer to the prayers of King Bhagirath that Goddess Ganga descended on earth and Lord Shiva received her into his matted locks to break the great force of her fall.

From the locks of Shiva, Ganga broke out in many streams. One stream, which started from Gangotri, was called Bhagirathi, the others, Ganges and Yamuna. Even today, a pilgrimage to Gangotri is a journey of discovery and enlightenment undertaken by thousands of Hindus.

The temple at Gangotri, which is visited by thousands of pilgrims between May and November, was built by a Gorkha Commander, Amar Singh Thapa in the early 18th century.

Picturesque Gangotri -- land of Lord ShivaIt is said that Raja Bhagirath used to worship Lord Shiva at the sacred stone here. Goddess Ganga is believed to have first descended to Earth from Heaven on this stone. Legend has it that the Pandavas came here to perform the great ‘Deva Yagna’ to atone for the death of their kinsmen in the battle of Mahabharata.

This is the place for those with deep-rooted religiosity. Walking past the local post office down to the river and finally to thickly wooded forest one finds oneself humming with delight. There is music in the forest. The sounds of the river and small streams with the strong breeze brushing the trees and chirping of birds all make for an acoustic delight without the help of electronic gadgetry.

Further up and finally down one ends up behind the Dandi Swamy Ashram — among the largest in Gangotri. Once at the main gate, a visit inside is a must. The ashram is headed by a sanyasi who calls himself a chela but immaculately manages the eight double rooms, three dormitories and a large Angan plus a will-spread-out kitchen.

The other hot spot in Gangotri is the Gauri Kund — this is where Parvathi — consort of Lord Shiva — first bathed. And a bath here is actually and ritually a must for the devout.

There are quiet a few treks from here. In fact, the most sought after is the one to Gaumukh. This is a three-hour walk up to the point of origin of the Bhagirathi.

The snows which have once melted in the matted locks of Shiva are present here in the form of a huge glacier. It is this glacier that feeds the Ganges. Ahead of Gaumukh is Tapovan, a place meant for meditating sadhus.

After spending sometimes in Gangotri it is time to head back. All the familiar sites on the way up whiz past on the way down. Sukhi, Gangnani, Bhatwari Sarai, Uttarkashi, Tehri and the final drop off at Deoprayag.

It is at Deoprayag that the Bhagirathi river from Gangotri meets the Alaknanda from Badrinath. It is here that the real Ganges, as we know it, emerges at the confluence of the two rivers — Bhagirathi and Alaknanda — traversing through undulating green slopes carpeted with colourful flowers.

The journey back to civilisation is the most difficult as it means leaving behind a clean world of pristine beauty which is such a rare sight for city dwellers. No hustle-bustle, no rush, no cars. Just the rustling of leaves, chirping of birds and the whistling of the wind. Truly it is time spent in ‘God’s own land’.

Tourist information

What to see in Gangotri:
The 18th century Gangotri Temple.

Bhairon Ghati: It is situated at a distance of 9km from Gangotri towards Uttarkashi. The temple of Bhairav Nath in thick forests, is an added attraction.

Kedartal: This enchanting lake lies 18 km from Gangotri, and is about 15,000 feet above sea level. It is a base camp for trekking to the surrounding peaks.

How to get there: Nearest airport is Jolly Grant, 18 km from Rishikesh. Nearest railway station is at Rishikesh, 248 km. Regular bus services from Hardwar and Rishikesh.

Trekking: Gangotri offers many trekking opportunities.

Mountaineering: Gangotri is surrounded by high peaks which offer many challenging opportunities for this exciting sport.

Guidance and assistance for both the above can be obtained from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi.

Where to stay: Many dharamshalas, ashrams and private hotels are there to suit all budgets.

Where to eat: Mostly local eating houses. Non-vegetarian food and alcoholic drinks are prohibited in these areas.

— Newsmen Features—


This feature was published on May 27, 2001