Saturday, October 13, 2001
S I T E S   A N D  S C E N E S

A climb to the heights of spirituality
Reet Singh

Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting — a wayside sacrament. Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every fair flower, and thank God for it is as a cup of blessing.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

LOCATED at a height of 15,210 feet above sea level, Hemkunt Sahib is the only gurdwara of its kind. According to a legend, during satyug, Goddess Durga was engaged in a battle with demons who had terrorised humans and gods alike. Seeking help, she fled to the mountains and came upon a great sage who agreed to help her. Since he was a Brahmin and could not be involved in battle, he created a khatri who slayed the demons. Pleased, Durga blessed him and gave him the name of Dusht Dama, and the sage asked him to meditate at Hemkunt. He was asked by the Almighty to undertake the task of being reborn in kalyug to ward off evil from the face of the earth. This is his reincarnation.


One comes across a number of scenic sights on way to Hemkunt Sahib
One comes across a number of scenic sights on way to Hemkunt Sahib

One begins the journey begins from Rishikesh then goes to Srinagar to Joshimath and upwards to Govind Ghat from where the journey has to be made on foot to Govind Dham and finally one reaches the Hemkunt road and river, both meandering through the mountains. One can make the journey either by foot or by mules that are available, or by dandis. As one moves across the suspension bridge spanning the Alaknanda, one feels the bridge shaking due to powerful gushing of the river beneath. One starts the climb up the mountains with a prayer. The path is slippery due to rains. After about two kilometres, the trail begins to follow a stream — the Hem Ganga originating from Hemkunt Lake and falling into Alaknanda. Drinking in the beauty of the surrounding mountains and dark forests, one edges forward, greeting fellow pilgrims with "Waheguru". The climb can take anywhere between 5 hrs to 7 hrs, depending on one’s speed. The path leading from Govind Dham to Hemkunt Sahib is far steeper than that leading from Govind Ghat to Govind Dham. One keeps falling as the path is wet and slippery. The area is surrounded by mist and snow-capped mountains. As the pilgrims climb up they keep chanting "Satnam Waheguru" and hymns in praise of the Almighty. The beauty of Sri Hemkunt is extraordinary and has an almost supernatural effect on one’s mind. In the atmosphere of this place, one forgets one’s ‘self’, thoughts subside and one is at peace. The worries and cares of the mortal world are forgotten. One is so engrossed in the marvels of nature and glimpses of the snow-clad peaks that one loses track of time.

As one walks onwards, one experiences summer showers. One is drenched by the sudden showers, but still one continues to walk. One listens deeply to the quietness and everything is so still. Nature, it seems, lays its hand of healing quietness upon everyone and one can actually feel one’s tensions draining away. Just being among the majestic mountains, gentle valleys and singing streams, the latter clean and sun speckled and babbling over rocks, is healing.

When one has such experiences one can store them in one’s mind to be relived over and over again.

The Hemkunt Sahib gurdwara
The Hemkunt Sahib gurdwara

One can hear the sound of the wind in the trees and the murmur of insects, and one discovers that in all these sounds there is a well-regulated tempo. There are tea stalls all over the route where pilgrims stop to rest, refresh themselves with tea and a few eats and then carry on. The tea stalls are made from locally available material and roofed with plastic sheets. These are run by villagers. The climb keeps getting steeper. The path winds through dense forests and a helipad can be seen at Ghangaria.

One’s eyes search for the Nishaan Sahib which indicates how much more a pilgrim has to travel. It also marks the end of the ascent and gives encouragement and hope to the weary pilgrim. Aching feet and tired spirits are revived by singing hymns in praise of the Almighty. People encourage anyone climbing up with prasad. There is a sense of togetherness among strangers. Its only then that one realises how small, how insignificant one is in front of His Divine Self.

Not far from the gurdwara, one is faced with two choices of route. One is the path one has been following so far and the other is a steep stretch of 1,175 steps that lead to the gurdwara. When one actually sees the entire gurdwara one is left awestruck at the beauty of the structure and of the surroundings and one is filled with happiness at the thought of having reached one’s destination. The mind purges itself of fear, hate, insecurity, regret and guilt. One experiences a sense of release in the beautiful valley as the shadows lengthen and the sun sinks to rest.

With the place shrouded in fog, the pilgrim gets the impression that the double-storeyed pentagonal gurdwara is suspended amidst seven peaks and anchored to the ground by the gleaming silver of the Hemkunt Lake. One is overwhelmed by the darshan of Shri Hemkunt Sahib. The whole atmosphere is so charged that one falls on the ground and feels the urge to pray. A plunge in the sarovar to cleanse oneself is a must. This is a holy ritual followed in most gurdwaras. The thought of plunging into the icy water originating from glacier is daunting, but the holy bath refreshes one, not just physically but spiritually too. Piping hot cups of tea are served after the ishnaan. Pilgrims wear new clothes after the bath. People take photographs to capture the visual splendour in their frames. One cannot stay for more than a few hours because the place becomes too cold and the air is rarefied. One has to start one’s downward journey in time because going down is more difficult then climbing up. The objective is to either reach Govind Dham to halt for the night or proceed further to Govind Ghat to spend the night.

As one undertakes the journey back home, one wonders that if in spite of modern roads, this journey is so difficult, how much more difficult it must have been for those who built this gurdwara at a time when there were virtually no roads. It is natural to utter silent words of gratitude and admiration for the people whose dedicated efforts made the gurdwara possible. It leaves a deep impression on one’s mind and this is why, in spite of all hardships, one keeps returning to undertake the sacred journey to Hemkunt Sahib time and again.

The gurdwara symbolises human effort, dedication and single-minded courage. It stands as a testimony to the human spirit that battles against obstacles to achieve its objectives.

The everyday responsibilities and worries which ordinarily bog one down seems far away, and one is enveloped with peace. The beauty of the place becomes enshrined in one’s memory as a prized retreat to which one’s mind can return to find peace.