The majestic Himalayas have invoked a sense of awe in mankind for centuries. This legendary range is home to some of the tallest mountains on earth that are revered by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains alike. Since ancient times, pilgrims and yogis have made long and arduous treks to some of the holy places associated with the Himalayas.
The Himalayas stretch across five countries – India, China, Nepal, Pakistan and Bhutan. However, it is the Garhwal Himalayas found in the Indian state of Uttarkhand that is arguably the most important. Uttarkhand is known as ‘The Land of the Gods’ because it’s Himalayan region is where some of the most significant holy places of India are situated – in particular the temples of Badarinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri and Gangotri.
These four sacred places are known collectively as the ‘Chota Char-dham.’ The term ‘char-dham’ (which literally means ‘the four holy abodes’) refers to the four holy cities of Dvaraka in Gujarat, Ramesvaram in Tamil Nadu, Jagannatha Puri in Orissa and Badarinath in Uttarkhand, all of which are located in the four cardinal directions of the Indian subcontinent. The origin of the grouping of these four sites is unknown, but it is generally credited to the famous 8th Century Indian philosopher, Adi Shankara who established four monasteries in these holy towns.
Similarly, the importance of the Chota Char-dham (‘the four smaller holy abodes’) has also been ascribed to Shankara, who built two of the main temples, namely Badarinath and Kedarnath. However, in North India, the term ‘char-dham’ generally refers to the Himalayan pilgrimage circuit.
Until the 1950’s, this pilgrimage was only accessible for wandering sadhus and those who could afford a travelling retinue. After the 1962 border dispute between India and China, the Indian government invested greater energy into infrastructure in the Garhwal region and built better roads throughout the state. This enabled more people to travel to the Char-dhams.
Most pilgrims go on Char-dhama pilgrimage during the months of May-June or from September to late October or early November. During the winter season, all the temples and roads are closed due to heavy snows and the intense cold weather.
It was during the month of May this year that we embarked on our own pilgrimage to the Char-dhams. Armed with our collective 50kg of gear which consisted of our camera equipment, tent, sleeping bags, various clothes and electronic equipment as well as couple of guidebooks, we started our Himalayan journey from the town of Haridwar.
– The Gateway to Vishnu
Haridwar is one of the seven holy cities (sapta-puri) mentioned in the Puranas. Vaishnavas (followers of Vishnu, or Krishna) call this place Hari-dwar (‘the gateway to Hari, or Vishnu’), while the followers of Shiva refer to it as Hara-dwar (the gateway to Hara, or Shiva). This is because Haridwar is the starting point for all pilgrims to visit the temple of Badarinath (Vishnu) and Kedaranath (Shiva).
Situated on the banks of the Ganga, Haridwar is said to have been where the Sage Kapila had his hermitage, hence the town’s ancient name of Kapilasthan. Agastya Muni also performed penances here and Goddess Sati left her body in Haridwar when her father, Prajapati Daksha, insulted her husband, Lord Shiva. Haridwar is also one of the four holy cities that hosts the Kumbha-Mela.
As the only main attraction in Haridwar is the bathing ghats along the Ganga, we stayed here for just two days. We walked along the ghats and took pictures of pilgrims taking holy bath and offering various pujas to Mother Ganga. The most famous ghat in Haridwar is Brahma-kunda at Hari Ki Pauri. Here, there is a large footprint of Lord Vishnu set in stone (Hari ki Pauri literally means, ‘the footprint of Vishnu’). This ghat was built by the famous Indian king, Vikramaditya, in memory of his brother Bhatrihari.
Every evening, pilgrims gather on the banks of Brahma-kunda as priests offer lamps in worship of Mother Ganga. The sounds of Vedic hymns, temple bells and the pilgrims calling out, “Ganga-mayi ki jaya!” (All glories to Mother Ganga) creates a wonderful divine atmosphere.
– A Macrocosm of Hinduism
Our next stop was the scenic town of Rishikesh, about 20km north of Haridwar. We immediately noticed the change in landscape as our bus climbed into the valley with the foothills of the Himalayas rising up on both sides. The town derives its name from Lord Vishnu, who is also known as Hrishikesh, the Master of the senses. The Skanda Purana narrates how Vishnu appeared here under a mango tree to bless His devotee, Raibya Rishi.
Rishikesh has some spectacular views, surrounded on three sides by hills with the Ganga flowing through the middle – it’s also a good place to relax before undertaking the rigorous Char-dham pilgrimage. It was pleasant to discover when we reached Rishikesh that due the town’s religious significance, no meat or alcohol is allowed. This ban is also enforced in Haridwar. The state government is also trying to implement the banning of plastic bags by shopkeepers as they have already done in several Himalayan regions.
Currently accommodation isn’t a problem in Rishikesh. Prior to the 1950’s the Rishikesh valley was barely inhabited with only a few sadhus and ashrams situated on the banks of the Ganga. But after the Beatles visited the town in 1968, the fame of Rishikesh suddenly grew and more and more ashrams and yoga centres sprang up. Since the time of the Beatles, foreign yoga-students and pilgrims are a frequent sight in Rishikesh and can be seen rubbing shoulders with the many sadhus, yogis and swamis that frequent the town. Rishikesh has sometimes been described as a macrocosm of Hinduism due to the religious and cultural atmosphere that it imbibes. Simultaneously however, one can observe that there is an international vibe here when one sees the many restaurants that offer Italian, Israeli and Japanese cuisine as well as German bakeries and spas offering Swedish foot massage.
When we arrived, we checked into a hotel called the Hotel Swiss Hilltop. It was a hotel, and it was on a hilltop, but there was actually nothing Swiss about it whatsoever. However, as far as accommodation goes, this was one of the cheapest, cleanest and friendliest hotels that we stayed in during our whole journey.
After freshening up, we went out to explore the town a little. The best way to get around the valley is on a two-wheeler. We found a local mechanic renting out motorcycles for 500 rupees a day and went for a ride. The most famous landmark here is a bridge known as the Lakshman-jhula. There is a story that Lord Rama and His brother Lakshman came here and crossed the Ganga using jute-rope. In fact, the bridge continued to be made of jute up until 1924 when it was destroyed by floods. In 1939 it was finally replaced by the much stronger steel suspension bridge that we see today.
Just as in Haridwar, there is an arati to the Ganga in Rishikesh every evening. The most popular arati ceremony is held at Parmarth Niketan, a prestigious ashram and gurukula school. Students chant devotional songs to the accompaniment of harmonium, tabla and hand-cymbals till dusk, and then offer large lamps in honour of Mother Ganga.
The afternoon before we left Rishikesh, we decided to take a bath in the Ganga. As we swam in the cool, refreshing waters for a few minutes, a raft came by full of Indian tourists dressed in helmets and life jackets. “Hi!” they screamed shrilly, “Which country?” I smiled at the irony of the scene – there we were, two white sadhus bathing in the sacred Ganga while eight Hindus floated past on a rafting run…
Yamunotri is the first place that pilgrims begin their Char-dham pilgrimage. Like most of the holy places in Garhwal, getting there is not easy. Unless you have your own vehicle, or you have money to burn and you can afford to travel everywhere by taxi, public transport is your only option. However, buses in Garhwal are slow, poorly maintained, always overcrowded and never reach their destination on time (as a rule of thumb, always add an extra hour or three to the official time of arrival). The distance between the benches on these buses seem to have been measured for small children as there is no room to actually sit straight with your legs facing forwards. The same goes for the width of the seat where two people are expected to sit side by side it’s really only enough space for one. We found these vehicles to be great tolerance-builders.
Direct buses to the major holy places are very few or non-existent. Thus, we were sometimes forced to travel town to town catching one bus after the next. The bus from Rishikesh took six grueling hours to travel 120km to Dharasu. That’s an average of 20km an hour to reach this mere stopover on the way to Yamunotri. Our time inside buses however wasn’t finished for the day and we immediately jumped on another bus heading to Barkot (the halfway point) which took another seven hours.
By the time we finally reached Barkot in the early evening, the weather had taken a turn for the worse and it began to rain heavily. This only accentuated the gloom of this podunk town. However, from here we got our first glimpse of the Himalayas, whose white peaks stood out in the dark gloom. Hotels and guesthouses are few and far between in Barkot and, like most things in Garhwal during peak pilgrimage season, hoteliers charge much more than usual.
Early the next morning we procured a shared jeep, which is probably the best way for budget pilgrims to travel in Garhwal. It basically entails the driver cramming as many travellers as possible into his jeep (I counted fourteen of us altogether). In fact, you are squeezed in so tightly, that inevitably the occupants end up sitting on each others laps and clashing heads whenever the jeep goes over a speed bump. It certainly isn’t comfortable, but it’s much faster than a bus. In fact, it’s the only way to travel, as there are no buses from Barkot to Yamunotri.
From Barkot we drove four hours to Janakichatti. This is the point where wheeled transport stops and the steep, long climb to Yamunotri begins. At this time of year, Janakichatti is a busy, bustling village with a multitude of mules, a plethora of porters and scores of stall-vendors selling their wares. Initially we had decided to carry our own backpacks and camera gear to Yamunotri, but when we realised how steep the climb would be, we quickly came to our senses and hired a porter.
The climb to Yamunotri is supposedly 7km. However, signs up to Yamunotri can be misleading and we figured that in reality, the distance was probably about 10 kilometres. The ascent to Yamunotri is like an obstacle course – we were forever maneuvering our way around fellow trekkers as well as dodging people on ponies, porters hauling insane amounts of luggage and palanquins carrying the elderly, the infirm and the morbidly obese. Twenty years ago, one would only pass about 5 or 10 people on the way up to Yamunotri – now you pass between 5 and 1000.
The problem is that there are just as many people leaving Yamunotri as there are arriving. To make matters worse, the width of the path leading up is only 3-4 metres wide, with a sheer rock-face on one side and a rickety metal railing over which there is a drop into a deep ravine on the other. With so many people and ponies heading from both directions, jams are inevitable. We were forced to wait for almost an hour before the train of descending pilgrims had cleared and we were able to continue our journey.
Yamunotri has hardly any amenities. It is a small temple near the end of a steep mountain valley with the Yamuna river flowing past it. Most pilgrims take darshan at the temple and descend again to Janakichatti the very same day. Aside from the temple there are a few dhabas (roadside eateries), a couple of guesthouses and a police station. Ironically even though this small hamlet is on the banks of one of the major rivers of India, there is no running water and electricity is scarce. We stayed in Yamunotri for two nights in a small guesthouse which was made of rammed earth and stone. We ate in the guesthouse kitchen where all the food was prepared on a wood-fired mud stove. Although this type of rustic living was very charming, there was one major disappointment in Yamunotri.
The small shrine of Yamunotri at the end of this majestic Himalayan valley was never meant to accommodate so many people. The huge influx of pilgrims has made its black mark here in the form of the huge piles of litter that cascade into the holy river on all sides. It seems that unlike Haridwar and Rishikesh, there is no law banning plastic bags at Yamunotri – or if there is, it is not enforced. It was sad to see pilgrims coming up from Janakichatti shouting, “Yamuna-mayi ki jaya!” as they casually threw cheap plastic rain-coats that they had bought on the way up, into the waters of Yamuna-devi. Thousands of old plastic bottles, chip packets, plastic tarpaulins, cheap nylon saris and plastic bags are strewn along the banks and are eventually taken downstream by the current of the river.
Protection of the environment is an unknown concept at Yamunotri.
After a bite to eat, we headed over to the temple of Goddess Yamuna which is situated on the right bank of the river and was constructed by Maharana Pratap Shah in the 19th Century. Before that, the temple was destroyed twice – once by an avalanche and once by a flood. Every year the temple opens on the auspicious day of Akshaya-tritiya in May, and closes for winter two days after Divali in October/November. The main deity in the temple is Yamuna, the river-goddess herself, and throughout the day there is a constant stream of pilgrims entering the shrine and offering prayers to her. Just below the temple are some hot springs, where weary pilgrims bathe before entering the temple to offer puja. There is also a smaller, and much hotter spring known as Surya-kunda, where devotees take uncooked rice and potatoes, tie them in a thin cloth and submerge them in the boiling water. When the rice and potatoes are cooked, they take it back home as prasadam from Yamuna-devi.
It is said that the sage Asita had his ashram here and throughout his life, he only bathed in the water of the Ganga and the Yamuna. When he was too old to travel to Gangotri to bathe in the Ganga, the river Ganga appeared here alongside the Yamuna in order to facilitate the sage.
Although Yamunotri is said to be the source of the Yamuna, the actual source of the river is far above Yamunotri at the Champasar Glacier (also known as Sapta-Rishi Kunda) near to the Kalinda Mountain. At 4,421 metres above sea level, the glacier is almost inaccessible, thus the temple of Yamuna-devi has been constructed at the top of the valley just under the precipitous mountain slopes.
Although Sapta-Rishi Kunda is considered to be one of the more difficult treks in the Indian Himalayas, we had actually planned to go there. With a spirit of mad adventure, we set off to the local police station to find out more information about the journey, only to be informed that it was strictly off-limits to those without a hiking permit from the Forestry Department and District Magistrate in Uttarkashi (274km away), and at this time of year it was far too dangerous for anyone to attempt. Later on, we heard stories directly from some travellers who had made the journey to Sapta-Rishi Kunda. There is no proper trail up the mountain and the weather is mercurial and at any time a rainstorm, a blizzard or thick fog can appear. To climb some of the steeper sections of the mountain, travellers have to grab handfuls of thick grass and pull themselves up. One traveller told us that two of his party fell sick while ascending – one of them became so incapacitated that they had to leave him in a small cave overnight, while the rest of the party continued up the mountain. Another member of their group broke his leg and had to be carried back down to Yamunotri. Such tales made us glad that we hadn’t attempted the trek to Sapta-Rishi Kunda…
The next place we planned to visit was Gangotri, one of the four major Char-dhams. It is also the last town before the trek to Gaumukh (the glacier source of the Ganga). After another cramped 6 hour jeep ride back to Barkot, we immediately found a bus going directly to the town of Uttarkashi. Uttarkashi means ‘Kashi of the North’ due to its similarity to the holy city of Kashi (Benares). Compared to Barkot, Uttarkashi is quite modern and is one of the few places in this part of Uttarkhand that actually has internet facilities, but they are few and far between. There are quite a few guesthouses and hotels here, but one has to be very choosey - there are many places that offer rooms at dirt-cheap rates (emphasis on dirt) and you really get what you pay for. The first hotel we stayed in seemed decent, but the management was unhelpful and it was a chore just to get running water. During the peak pilgrimage season, without pre-booking, one should be prepared to hike around the entire town to look for accommodation. We found, on our way back from Gangotri, that almost everything was booked up and (as usual), the decent hotels were charging exorbitant prices.
During our stay in Uttarkashi, we had to get permission from the Forestry Department for our planned trek to Gaumukh. In a positive move to keep the environment near the Ganges Glacier clean, the Forestry Department has enforced some restrictions on the number of people who can go there. Once we had gone through the paperwork and paid for our hiking permits, we left for Gangotri the next morning. Buses from Uttarkashi to Gangotri are infrequent and only about two leave every day. We took the early bus at around 7:30am and arrived in Gangotri at midday.
Gangotri is one of the nicer temple towns in Uttarkhand. It is clean, well kept and quite spacious. Situated on the banks of the Ganga, there are many guesthouses and hotels to choose from. There are also many ashrams here and wherever you look, sadhus and swamis in their saffron robes can be seen. As one looks upriver, one sees the beautiful peak of Mount Sudarshan shining in the distance.
Ganga has many names during her course. When she first leaves the celestial planets she is known as Sursari. When she becomes entangled in the matted locks of Lord Shiva, she is called Jata-Shankari. Here at Gangotri, the Ganga is known as Bhagirathi and she only acquires the name Ganga from Devprayag onwards when she meets the Alakananda River.
The original temple at Gangotri, made of white granite, was built by the Nepalese General Amar Singh Thapa in the early 19th Century. Later, in the 1920’s, after suffering damage from an avalanche, the Maharaja of Jaipur renovated it. Naturally, the main deity within the temple’s sanctum-sanctorum is Ganga-devi, and when we arrived there for darshan, there was a long queue of pilgrims waiting to obtain the blessings of the goddess.
Next to the temple is a small shrine where one can see a deity of Maharaja Bhagiratha, who originally called down Goddess Ganga from her celestial abode in order to liberate his ancestors. Next to the deity of Bhagiratha is a stone known as the Bhagiratha-shila, which is said to be the actual stone where Bhagiratha sat and meditated when he invoked Ganga. All day long pilgrims come and offer prayers and puja with the help of the local priests. Unlike many holy places in India, the priests here seem to be quite friendly and do not harass the pilgrims to come and offer worship.
About half a kilometre away from the Ganga, the river falls into a small canyon forming a pool known as Gauri-kunda before continuing it’s course. It is said that here, Shiva tamed the tumultuous Ganga by trapping her in his matted locks.
After a short exploratory walk around Gangotri town, we found a decent guesthouse, dropped off our backpacks and began planning our trek to Gaumukh. Since our backpacks weighed in at 20 kgs a piece, not including our camera gear (another 10kg), we crossed the bridge, went to the Forestry Department and in no time at all we had hired two porters to carry our bags which would leave us free to take pictures on the way.
After two days in Gangotri, we started our trek to Gaumukh accompanied by our porters. Half an hour into our journey we had to stop off at the forest check-post at Kankshu, show them our permits and pay a tax for the use of our own tent (?). We were asked if we would be using a video camera, to which we replied in the negative. When we exited the small check-post, we saw a signboard that gave a price list for video cameras, tents, documentary filming, feature filming and more. By far, the strangest thing was the price difference for foreign trekkers and Indian trekkers. The prices for foreigners were rather steep in comparison – usually 4-5 times greater than for Indians. This system may have had its merit 20 years ago, but considering the economic boom in India today and the fact that many of the Indians who travel these routes are wealthier than their foreign counterparts, this policy seems unbalanced and outdated.
The forestry department strictly enforces the rule that only 150 trekkers are allowed daily to Gaumukh – this restriction seems to help keep the route free of litter and is mainly in place to preserve the natural environment of the Gaumukh valley.
Gaumukh is 19 kilometres from Gangotri and the landscapes on the way are breathtaking. Although our porters were carrying our backpacks and tent, we were still carrying somewhere in the range of 10 kgs of camera gear between us. On a high altitude trek, one is supposed to allow the body to acclimatise for 3-5 days before hiking any long distance – unfortunately our time was too short to wait longer than 1 day in Gangotri before starting out. This led to slight altitude sickness in both of us in the form of nausea, dizziness and breathlessness. As we climbed the steadily ascending path, with the river below on our right-hand side, we were able to get a closer look at Mount Sudarshan and the surrounding range.
At midday we had covered 9 kilometres when we arrived at Chirbasa. Chirbasa is a small rest stop amongst pine trees where weary travellers can rest and recuperate. There was a small shack with a local man cooking untraditional instant noodles that have now become a staple diet for trekkers and porters in many himalayan towns. We found a small shaded area away from the clatter of the dhaba and the braying ponies and we lay under the trees for an hour before starting off again.
Our destination for that day was Bhojbasa, where most trekkers stop overnight before continuing to Gaumukh the next morning. On the way there we saw on our right side the three majestic Bhagirathi peaks as we walked along paths next to overhanging moraine. We reached an area of the path which looked like it had seen many mudslides and avalanches during different seasons. At this point our porters told us to stay close together as there was a danger of landslides. Here, the narrow path was almost like silt and every footstep caused the loose earth to slide away down the steep slope into the ravine below us. One missed step could result in an unstoppable downhill tumble until hitting the piles of river rocks below.
At around 4:00pm we stood atop a hill looking down at Bhojbasa and saw in the distance the great Ganges Glacier. Bhojbasa literally means ‘the abode of Birch trees’ which is ironic because there was not one tree in sight. We were later told that at some point in recent history, a mad sadhu had cut down all the trees in the vicinity. Now the encampment is so desolate that it almost looks like a moonscape. Facilities are nonexistent here. There is nowhere to buy provisions, no bathrooms and no drinking water. There is one guesthouse (using the term loosely) which has missing walls and looks like it has suffered a bombardment by enemy mortar shells. There is also the Lal Baba Ashram, which is the main hangout for most of the porters that arrive there with trekkers. However, the accommodation there is somewhat crude.
As soon as a suitable area had been found, we quickly pitched our tent. It had been an arduous day and we had walked 14kms along very rough terrain at an altitude of 3,700m and above. We drank some hot tea, ate some noodles and lay down on the hard ground to try and get some sleep before the next day’s hike. Sleep was elusive however. Strong howling winds blew down the Gaumukh Valley towards our tent, and throughout the night we were anticipating that the tent would be lifted off the ground along with its occupants.
Despite an almost sleepless night, we were surprisingly energetic the next morning. Perhaps it was due to the anticipation of taking darshan of the source of the Ganga. After a late start we were able to traverse the remaining 5km to Gaumukh without much difficulty, and by the time we arrived at the glacier it was midday.
We put down our bags about 500m from the Ganges Glacier. Immediately opposite us, was the towering white pinnacle of Mount Shivling – the whole scene seemed unreal and otherworldly. There were already a few pilgrims on the banks of the Ganga, taking bath with small brass pots, offering prayers, or taking photos. We had promised ourselves that we had to take a bath in the icy waters of the river, otherwise our pilgrimage here would feel incomplete. Prior to our pilgrimage, we had been taking baths with ice water to prepare ourselves for this occasion. Compared to the waters of the Ganges Glacier however, our ice baths seemed tepid. As soon as we stepped into the river, our legs felt stabbing pains from the intense cold. We immersed ourselves under the water three times and the feeling was unlike anything we had ever experienced before. It was akin to being attacked by a hundred angry acupuncturists simultaneously. It was probably the fastest bath we have ever taken. We jumped out as fast as we could and stood shivering on the bank, staring at each other wide-eyed in a state of mild shock as we tried to take in the warmth of the midday sun. If you’ve never bathed in water emerging directly from the mouth of a glacier, the feeling is hard to imagine.
As the blood began to flow in our bodies again and the numbness wore off, we decided to take a closer look at the glacier itself. One of our porters helped us over the rocks and after 10 minutes, there we were – right next to the glacier itself. As we stood marvelling at this sheer wall of ice with the Bhagirathi Peaks in the background, huge shards would sometimes break off and with a loud splash, they would be carried downriver by the strong current.
The Sanskrit word Gaumukh means ‘cow’s face’– perhaps at some point in hoary antiquity this mighty ice monolith did indeed resemble the face of a cow, but at present one’s imagination is stretched to its limits to see anything remotely ‘bovine’ about the shape of this glacier. In fact, the glacier has been steadily receding for hundreds of years. In recent times, the rate of recession has increased drastically causing some concern over the fate of India’s most renowned river. Whatever the case, the Ganges Glacier is still very impressive. As we stood looking at this marvel of nature, we remembered something our Guru Maharaja had said in regards to the Ganga when he was at Kumbha-Mela in January:
You look at the water and it’s silty and has a muddy colour. Normally, when you take bath in muddy water you do not feel fresh, you do not feel clean – you feel that you have to go and take a bath again in clean water. But when you take a bath in the Ganga, you feel light and fresh. This is because when you take bath in the Ganga, you become purified. Our consciousness is released. The tendency of consciousness is to rise up.
We had now completed half of our Char-dham pilgrimage. Our next journey was to the abode of Lord Shiva at Kedarnath, and the Vishnu Temple of Badarinath.