The Tribune - Spectrum

, March 3, 2002

Making a sacred experience come alive with words
Vinaya Katoch

Sacred Waters a pilgrimage to the many sources of the Ganga
by Stephen Alter.

THE waters of the sky or those that flow,Those that are dug out or those that arise by themselves, Those pure and clear waters that seek the ocean As their goal-let the waters, who are goddesses, help me here and nowRig Veda.

Sacred Waters a pilgrimage to the many sources of the GangaBorn in Uttarakhand and well familiar with the region of Garhwal, Stephen Alter had taken up this pilgrimage of the `char dhams' from Rishikesh to Badrin ath,unlike most travellers who limit their account of the journey as mere catalogues for future travellers.

Sacred Waters could be more truly described as the opening of a person to a culture, a religion, and to his own inner self. `Every pilgrimage begins with a question. It is a journey in search of answers, not just spiritual but physical, emotional, personal, and sometimes even scientific. One could just as easily stay at home and meditate on the conundrums of existence, but setting out on a pilgrimage involves a different form of inquiry, committing body as well as mind and soul to the rigours of a quest that is both internal and external.


For this reason, our most important discoveries are likely to be those that transcend both rationality and religion, taking us beyond the conventions of ordinary belief and revealing the essential connection between man and nature.' Stephen's familiarity with the language, culture as well as the Indian scriptures comes to light with his inferences of stories from the ancient mythologies to temples and historical spots he passes through in his journey. "The Jagdamba tributary is also known as Jahnavi, the daughter of Jahnu, and this name is sometimes applied to the Ganga as a whole. The Puranas contain a myth about a rishi named Jahnu who was meditating in the Himalayas soon after Ganga was released from the tangled rocks of Shiv's hair. The loud roar of her waters disturbed the rishi as he was performing tapasya and in his anger he swallowed up the river. Alarmed by this event, the gods immediately tried to placate Jahnu and only after much persuasion did he agree to let the river flow out of his ear."

The discovery of his own self is visible throughout his account of the journey. Nature truly makes a man open up to the deep realms within one's self, bringing one face to face with his true picture. Stephen's peculiarity of going down to the minutest detail in describing the beauty of nature brings alive his total experience to the reader.

His simplicity of language further adds to the charm of the book. In places, one can also feel the contempt of the writer at the total neglect of the nature by the government and the way they had misused it, destroying its beauty by turning a holy pilgrimage into a source of income.

Somehow, it is a reflection unfortunately of most nature lovers who come from all over the world to enjoy the beauty of India only to find a commercial entrepreneurship in its place. One also cannot help notice his disapproval of the hypocricy of lots of pilgrims who prefer comfort and see the spots merely as picnic spots rather than a religious venture. Stephen has managed in his book to appropriately bring up prevailing and past issues and tucking them rightly between a recount of the journey ,like a delicious sandwich. The regular sprinkle of local dialect and Hindi words further adds to the flavour of the book. Sacred Waters seems to be more or less the gradual unfolding of his spiritual self as his quest to tour the pilgrim on foot takes him through experiences which help him realise the hidden self. `Just beyond the amphitheatre I came to a saddle in the ridge, where I collapsed beneath a moru oak…When I eventually opened my eyes, I felt sure that I had breathed my last and gone straight o heaven Two rays of sunlight were streaming through the branches of the oaks and falling directly on a smaller tree that stood twenty feet away. Though it had no leaves this tree was covered in flowers that seemed to glow in the shafts of light. Lying there against the roots of the massive oak, my first impression was that I must be hallucinating, for the vision of this flowering tree and the sunlit grade was magical. I dared not move for move for fear of disturbing the perfection of that scene. The amphitheater lay just beyond the tree and the surrounding forest gave me a comforting sense of enclosure, particularly the overarching branches of the oak. There was no spectacular view of snow peaks or dramatic cliffs, no lammergeiers soaring overhead, not even the slightest breeze. But in the stillness of that glade I was acutely aware of something much greater than myself. Awe is the only word that might describe the experience. ….. Lying there I found myself in tears, emotions welling up inside my chest, as if the roots of that tree had penetrated deep into my soul. When I finally got to my feet I knew that I had experienced something profoundly spiritual. But at the same time I could not help but question my response, trying to rationalize what I had observed."