Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Abode of Bhagirathi- Fountainhead of A Civilisation

....and the lilting poetry of the Shree Gangashtotram, goes on for another 12 stanzas..In a moment of absolute spiritual inspiration...sitting by the banks of the Ganges...thus wrote the great sage Adi Shankaracharya in the 8th century AD.

Of the many travels and treks that have me besotted so comprehensively with the King of the Mountains (Nagadhiraja- described in Kalidasa's Meghadootam) one valley stands out for the amazing admixture of emotion it evokes. This emotion which can only be equated to a divine trance probably stems from the beauty, spirituality, poetry, toil, danger, human and superhuman sacrifice in the Vedic ages ..continuing till date. This is the valley that has seen the Prince Bhagirath in the Mythical Yore lost in deep penance the Great Adi Shankara famously creating greatest of his poems Heinrich Heir on his fugitive path to Tibet ... to the enlightened Gurudev Shree Tapovan Maharaj (Guru to Shree Shivanada Saraswati and Shree Chinmayananda Jee)... to Edmund Hillary in his Jet boat expedition to the source of the myriad mountaineers and trekkers from the West and the East the countless Yogis and Sanyasins who tread the same old path on the eternal quest for truth and salvation.
If there was one river and one valley that would stand out unique for its relationship with would be this .. The Valley of the mighty Bhagirathi......the birth place of Mother Ganga. For ages this place and this mighty river goddess has fed, watered, powered and inspired the body and mind of countless human souls who ever inhabited this great land.....and does so even today.

Beginning of A Life-long Affair

My pilgrimage to this place of astounding natural and spiritual beauty started several years back in 2001. It was possibly a desperate attempt to seek peace within from the grief of the shocking and untimely demise of my Mother, the year before. I had heard of the place first time, a decade prior, way back in 1991, just after returning from my maiden trek to high Himalayas at Pindari Glacier. As they say, pilgrimages are matters of only get to do it when you are destined to. So my journey started with my dear brother Bunty and my recently bereaved father on the 28th of April 2001.
My research was extensive on the route and the trek beyond Gangotri
(some call the place where the Ganges Descends...for is she not the divine Goddess who had chosen to descend upon earth to cleanse humanity of its sins?). I had planned to reach Gangotri the same day starting off in wee hours of the morning from Delhi. That trip set the pattern for my zillion journeys to the same place over the next several years.
Start early from Delhi at 0400 hrs with packed breakfast of Parantha, Subzi and Sweet Halwa, break journey midway between Rishikesh and Narendranagar to have the breakfast and then proceed non-stop to reach Uttarkashi by lunch time and proceed further non-stop for that most beautiful 100 kms of winding roads to reach Gangotri by evening ..Say 1700 hrs. Apart from this itinerary there would be the brief fuel stops at Rishikesh and Matli (7 Kms before Uttarkashi...I always found the Uttarkashi petrol pump horribly congested for a journey weary driver like me) or photo shoot breaks along the beautiful gurgling green Bhagirathi near Dobata, Chinyalsaur, Dunda, Maneri, Loharinag or Harshil. Of course today much has changed due to our power hungry populace. Dobata and Chinyalsaur stretches of the road are submerged due to Tehri Dam reservoir, Loharinag is a melee of concrete wielding giant machines where NTPC is making another Hydel project. All the beauty lost to the cause of development....the course of the meandering Bhagirathi and its pristine virgin sand beaches lost forever.

Uttarkashi- The Varanasi of the North

That lovely day we had made good progress till Uttarkashi stopping by a roadside Dhaba just beyond the bus-stand for lunch. That Dhaba has long since been lost to the anger of the Varanavat Mountain that towers over the little town. Few years back in 2004, the mountain started creating an inexplicable landslide that got geologists baffled. It resulted in several shops and hotels being buried under heavy mud and earth. Half of the town had to relocate. Anyways, coming back to our maiden journey, we were already a bit tired after almost 9 hours of travel and were desperately calculating the Kilometers to cover ahead. As we started off post-lunch the first milestone read 99 Kms to Gangotri. I also spotted an ashram with a signboard in Oriya ...that gladdened my heart..But the 99 Kms sign was not really encouraging. Around this very place is the Ashram of the Late Spiritual Guru Tapovanji Maharaj who had been the inspiration, teacher and spiritual master of such minds as Shree Chinmayananda ji and Shree Shivanada Saraswati…who in turn inspired millions of fellow Indians into the ancient Hindu path of righteousness, love and devotion.

As soon as one crosses the Asi Ganga Bridge at the end of the town, it's as if one enters a different world. The unaware traveler, who doesn't know that he is entering the Himadris, can still find the difference palpable. The meandering Bhagirathi on the side and the serpentine road in the deep valley nestled amongst tall mountains, the chill in the air and the hide-n-seek of snow peaks now appearing ever so closer, makes one feel the awesome power and divine beauty of the almighty apparent all at once. Somehow deep within is a sense of surrender....bowing before the might of Mother Nature. The sandal clad sadhus walking on relentlessly, some cooking their afternoon meal in the shades of the trees, some resting in the little cave shelters, village women carrying heavy loads of fodder and firewood on bent backs only hammers away on ones already-crumbling ego. That fine afternoon I forgot all pain and weariness of travel after I entered the inner sanctuaries of the Bhagirathi Valley beyond the Asi-Ganga bridge. With Yanni playing a soft tune on my stereo, the cool mountain air on my face and new vistas unfolding at every bend, I could have driven on for another 9 hours, I felt. _________________________________________________________________

Shiva’s Matted Locks
A point here about the names of rivers in Uttarakhand. In the entire mountainous kingdom of Garhwal in Uttarakhand there is almost not a river that is named without the suffix Ganga. So you find Asiganga, Rishiganga, Goriganga, Vishnuganga, Laxmanganga, Kaliganga, Jadhganga, Akashganga etc. Essentially most rivers that end up confluence with the Ganges have been suffixed with the name “Ganga” with few exceptions. It took me few more years of roaming around and digging of memory banks that the whole linkage and the beauty of conceptualization dawned upon me.
The story goes that when all the thousand sons of the King Sagara died, burnt to ashes by the curse of sage Kapila. The thousand princes, blind with power had played a sever practical joke on the meditating Sage Kapila by throwing a dead snake around his neck. Upon being disturbed, the sage opened his eyes and was horribly frightened by the dead snake. The fright soon gave way to uncontrollable rage and the venerated sage cast a curse upon the unfortunate princes. They all were burnt to ashes the very next moment and now could only be taken on the path of salvation if only the ashes were touched by the Mother Goddess Ganga. Several of King Sagara’s descendents tried to get Mother Ganga to earth but did not succeed. Finally came the Great-Grandson, King Bhagirath- who took upon himself the duty of ensuring “Moksha” for his ancestors that was long pending. He undertook a stringent penance sitting there on a rock near Gangotri (which till date is worshipped as the Bhagirath Shila) praying Goddess Ganga to come down to earth and wash away the ashes of his ancestors. After several years the Goddess had to relent and agreed to come down to earth but only if someone powerful enough was ready to receive and take the brunt of her large volumes of water cascading down from the heavens...lest Mother Earth shall be troubled. After much thinking Prince Bhagirath prays to Lord Shiva again through years of tough penance and the Lord agreed to do the deed for the sake of greater good. The proud Ganga did not expect such a thing to happen and in her own ego decided to descend with such power so that the descent would be impossible to handle whoever was the receiver. But Lord Shiva came to know of this negative development of thoughts and decided to teach a lesson. All He did was tangled his giant knots and waited for the mighty river to descend. As the Goddess descended she landed in the matted locks of the mighty Lord Shiva- the Master of Destruction and got lost. The whole of the mighty river was lost in the matted locks of Lord Shiva. Thus she prayed to The Trinetra- Lord Shiva for mercy and forgiveness and the Lord Ashutosh(one who pleases easily- a name for Lord Shiva) relented. Thus pronounced the Lord- “Thou shalt be released from my matted locks but not as a Whole but from a thousand places .....each shalt be a small stream....all shalt be named after thou ..O Ganga...and all shalt confluence and form the final form of thou....The Holy Ganga.”....

Even if this is a mythical story, it’s a beautiful attempt at creating a respect for the nature around through a wonderful weave of story-telling, morality and religious belief....Probably this was the start of a culture and society several millennium old rooted on the belief that This was the Devabhumi...Land of the Gods. The Matted Locks of the Three Eyed Lord...(the long and lofty ranges of the mighty Himalayas) and the thousand of Springs and streams and rivers and rivulets ...the small Gangas that feed and create the Mighty river Ganga....her ego neutralised and she springing forth with all simplicity and earnestness.
There is however few exceptions to this generally understood nomenclature. Probably that, there are times when a river large enough by itself has been given its own identity in the mythical nomenclature. For example the largest tributary of Ganges- goes by the name Alakananda( Starting at Alakapuri Glacier north of Badrinath and confluencing the Bhagirathi at Devaprayag). Three of the large tributaries of Alakananda go by their own names..Mandakini(Chorabari glacier near Kedarnath to Rudraprayag), Nandakini (Homkund in Kumaon to Nadaprayag) and Pindar(Pindari Glacier to Karnaprayag). Similarly, Bhagirathi has a major tributary in form of Bhilangana (Khatling Glacier to Tehri). Also there is Hanuman Ganga emanating from the Banderpunch massif that confluences with Supin (one of the tributaries of Yamuna) but has a Ganga suffix. Insufficient exploration and lack of exact knowledge of that vast mountainous topography in those ages, about areas around the rivers like Bhilangana and Hanumanganga, could have been a cause for the misaligned nomenclatures may be?
The pretty winding roads soon ended up in a small bazaar with a police barrier check post...the place- Bhatwari.
A weather worn sign board proclaimed barrier to entry of the sanctuary beyond 6PM in the evening and the need for all travelers to register their entry in a half torn register that was kept in the little tin box-cubicle by the side of the check post. I complied with the local police regulation, bought another pack of cigarettes when we saw a bus pass by.
"Yu…hoooooo!!"- the group of tourists shouted as the bus overtook my car just past Uttarkashi. The group was evidently from the West- probably from Europe or the Americas, perched precariously on the roof top of the local rickety bus. Bunty was suddenly shaken out of his reverie….even he, my die hard navigator of many a long drives was probably getting bored out of the interminably long drive from Delhi.
"Bhai dekha?" he asked …eyes twinkling gleefully.
"Kya dekha?" I enquired back..still concentrating on the twists and turns that abounds the road ahead from Bhatwari to Gangotri.
"Gori Mem ….three of 'em…right on the roof of the bus ….making merry! And the damn bus overtook us…what are you doing bhai?!"
"Hmmmm"…I said as I pumped up the gas and inched closer to the groaning bus as another incline began. Just as I overtook, I could see Bunty leaning out of the window and Yu-hoooing back at the cheerful group on top of the bus. Very soon we christened the three pretty looking ladies in the group…only one of the names I remember, the mature looking one- whom we called Maggie. Still don't know why we chose that name. More of that story later when we catch up with them along the way.
The road onwards from Bhatwari goes on almost straight for several Kilometers till the climb starts beyond a rickety iron bridge (which now has been replaced by a nice concrete structure) to a place called Gangnani housing a hot water spring. All the 4 dhams in Garhwal of Uttarakhand boast of their own hot water springs. This one belongs to the Gangotri dham. The Suryakund at Yamunotri, the Gaurikund at the base of Kedarnath trek and the Taptakund at Badrinath are all unique in their own nature. Suryakund is hot and enough to cook rice bound in muslin cloth, Gaurikund with its luke warm water- at base of Kedarnath trek- a good 14 Kms and 8 hours away, the Taptakund at Badrinath that provides you that Sauna bath right at the temple steps.....
Anyways...back to our journey...
Past Gangnani..even while it's looking like twilight at 1530 Hrs one passes through this 10 kilometers of narrow road with sharp bends cut out of rock walls with hardly any space to pass 2 vehicles and the vast vertical mountain faces beyond the deep gorge through which the Bhagirathi races ahead with great fury. Being on the wheels I was a bit nervous I must admit..can't say if my brother-navigator and my father were aware. Just past that stretch is another rickety iron bridge (again replaced now a days with a nice concrete structure) crossing which one enters another deep valley where strangely the riverbed widens up a hundred meters....leading up to a place called Loharinag and Son gad beyond that. Nowhere would one see such untouched sand banks wide and so big at 2000 mtrs altitude (of course a lot has changed since you would see a 30 ft tall tunnel on the rockwall on the True right of that very place....the entire area filled with machineries, dozers, mechanical shovels, tunnel diggers, pneumatic hammers and dumpers...NTPC is making a 400 MW Hydel plant fine day there would only be sand bank or a reservoir of water without any sand).Little did we know that a Shangri-La..even more wonderful was waiting to unfold and the fact that our day of heavenly surprises had still not ended.

Harshil- The Garden of Eden

Just beyond Sonegad, which boasts of a beautiful waterfall just off the main road, the road rises steeply on a Ghat road for 8 Kilometers, past the little Sukhi village dominated by settlements and facilities of Indian Army onto a place called Sukhitop where a barely visible signboard implores you to stop by and partake of the beauty of the surrounding. Getting down here you get to see the inner sanctum of the Bhagirathi Valley where this little hamlet Harshil greets you. Up from there at Sukhitop one can see about 5 Kms into this beautiful 15 Km stretch Bhagirathi making complex crisscrossing patterns on a wide open sand beach about half a kilometer wide. I am sure there aren't too many places in the world where the course of the river be that wide at that altitude (2600 Mtrs- approx 8500 Ft above MSL) just about 50 Kms from its point of origin! I fell in love with that place in my first glimpse. .....I have visited the same place about 10 times ever summers, spring, autumn and at the peak of winters....the place has had this strong pull......every time I think of unwinding myself..I just land up there...many a times with my dogs. So much so....the local GMVN employees at the guest house call me "Kuttewale Mishraji from Delhi".

Past Harshil is the village of Dharali which also houses the winter abode of the idol of the Mother Goddess Ganga from Gangotri Temple. The villagers live primarily upon the agriculture( Rajmah and Rice) and horticulture(Apples). This place is again as pretty if not more than Harshil. This entire stretch of the road..a beautiful welcome to the Sanctum Sanctorum of the Mother Goddess where she presents herself and nature in boundless beauty.__________________________________________________________________
Harshil- Lord Shiva’s Rock Harshil takes its name from “Har- Name of Lord Shiva” and “Shila- Rock or stone”. Many years ago there was a place nearby where Lord Shiva meditated..sitting on a rock and apparently thus the name. However, the hamlet was made famous and brought to its current form by an English Gentleman Wilson, who made a fortune from logging here at Harshil. He used to float logs down from here all the way till Calcutta through the river Bhagirathi- Ganga. He also got good quality root stocks for the amazingly tasty Harshil Apples as we see today. After a time people use to call him King Wilson or Raja Wilson that area. He ended up marrying a local Garhwali woman and fathered several children. But the history goes mum after that. Where are the children, what happened to the fortune that Wilson made etc. Are not known. What remains however is a beautiful cottage that overlooks the Hamlet...called Wilson converted into a Forest Department – Guest House. The cottage was completely gutted by fire a few years ago but has been restored completely recently.
This is the farthest place in the Bhagirathi Valley that has an all weather road. The place houses the last armament depot and wet canteen on the path to Nelang Tibetan border. Thus, even if there is a 4 ft snowfall, the snow-mowers at Sukhi are promptly pressed into service to clear up the road till Harshil. I have spent Five out of Seven New Year parties in the last seven years and on Four occasions out of that I have had the fortune of a “White” new year!!
This stretch of about 20
Kilometers from Sukhi till Lanka is truly a spell binding experience. The road climbs sharply past Sukhi ...up till Sukhitop and drops in sharp hairpins to Jhala village on the river bank where a bridge takes one to the other side after which a beautiful Marine-Drive of about 15 Kilometers starts. The road tantalizingly close to the level of the river, a heavy canopy of conifers providing shade with several places where you could actually take the car to the water front, few rivulets coming in from ice fed glaciers up above on the right as one moves on towards Lanka. Sian Gad near Jhala and Jalandhari Gad near Harshil join in with the Bhagirathi from the true right, the former leading a trail to Banderpunch base at Dhumdharkandi Pass and the later a trail into Himachal through the Lamkhaga Pass. The points of confluence of these Gads with the Bhagirathi create these little pockets of the “Garden of Eden”.
The village of Harshil is dominated by the presence of the Army. For people of my ilk with a non-vegetarian palette, this is the only place where one gets to eat any non-vegetarian food…all thanks to the Army presence. There are areas where one is forbidden to go without permission from the
Commanding Officer in charge of the place. The villagers are primarily apple farmers who have their orchards perched high up in the hill on the other side of the river beyond the Gangotri highway. On one corner of the village, situated on a slightly higher altitude is the Wilson cottage..the place where “Raja Wilson” used to live when he was alive.
All this is just about half an hour of walk away from the GMVN guesthouse where I usually stay. The twin guest houses of the GMVN and the PWD are located in another pretty corner, on a high bank besides the Bhagirathi. Both guesthouses have some very pretty glasshouses where one lazes around burning ambers in the days when the pretty place gets a snowfall.
In my most recent trip on December 2007, I finally got the time to really explore the village in the right earnest and realized what I had been missing out on for the last seven years!! The almost plain terrain beyond the Wilson Cottage where the Jalandhari Gad tumbles down the gentle slopes of the Lamkhaga valley and confluences the Bhagirathi, can be an absolute soul absorbing experience.


After this refreshing experience, the road winds up to a place called Bhairon Ghati. The name Bhairon Ghati somehow had suggested a bit of sinisterness to my mind earlier, though I found nothing of that sort while crossing that little quaint place with few dhabas. After this, there is a road leading on to the left towards Neylang...the nearest Tibetian border from this part of India. Soon one came across a little makeshift barrier made up of a rope strung across the road. Beyond this barrier was a Girder Bridge. We had to stop there a while to pay up the ten rupee fee to cross the barrier and the bridge. This bridge has a story of its own. Just beside the modern looking girder bridge one can see a wooden structure that might have served as the support for a suspension bridge in some olden days...maybe a few decades old...but is destroyed beyond repair today. If one takes a walk on the bridge and looks below, there flows the tempestuous Jadganga in a gorge almost a thousand meters below, emanating from the Mana peak near Tibet border. Almost half way along that depth is another foot bridge. Apparently the old pilgrim trail went along that foot bridge. In the days of the yore, pilgrims used to toil all the way down that precipitous route to the foot bridge and climb all the way up. Who made that bridge and when is not clearly recorded, but it looks like it's in working condition even today.


After half an hour more of driving along snaking roads one finally saw the welcome arch of Gangotri Town (if one dares call it a town) a few hundred meters after which one arrives at an open parking area, where the road ends. We had arrived at the end point of NH 108 Gangotri.
By the time I parked the vehicle and tipped the traffic policeman handsomely to guard my vehicle, my father had bounded off in a hurry to find the local GMVN bungalow. He had been controlling a bad urge to empty his bowels for well neigh 5 hours. The helpful Mr. Nautiyal who was the in-charge of the GMVN guesthouse was ever so helpful to him and by the time we reached the place, we had already been registered an my father relieved of that little irritant.
As we(Me and Bunty) were strolling around the parking area and the market we hear this bus come to a halt and the same bunch of cacophonous tourists coming down.
"Oye dekh kaun utara"...I say to Bunty!
I didn't know Bunty was already focused there...."Bhai!!!! Kya Baat hai! Maggie and Party boss!! Life main maza aa gaya bade bhai!!"
Upon my asking "Why maza aa gaya", he describes his elaborate plans to Patao .. this lady ...whom we had christened Maggie. I laughed inwardly and suggested that we go find the porters and guide that we require for tomorrow's trek to Tapovan. Having attempted Roopkund together, we were more or less certain that we shall camp at Tapovan the same day!!
Eventually the guide and porter were arranged and we two came back to the GMVN bungalow to listen to the story of the Nagababa from Mr. Nautiyal and his cronies. The Nagababa has an Ashram just beyond the bridge – the bridge that one has to cross to reach the GMVN bungalow from the Bus-stand side. The Nagababa was apparently a true Hathayogi and could drink a liter of Mustard oil through his anus, one enthusiastic young man reported... as we were soaking in the heat from the Bonfire. Reportedly the Baba had indeed taken a Minister from the local government of Uttaranchal to task! He had apparently rebuked the minister in question, publically and rebuked him for enjoying moments with his wife at Gangotri while soldiers were dying in Kargill! Some Baba! We must meet him on the way back...we decided.
Mr. Nautiyal had given us a skeletal description of the trail till Gaumukh already. We were slightly thrilled to know that there would be possibly snow on the way...or at least few glaciers. Bunty and I had planned to trek past Gangotri while we planned to have a pony hired for my father. Upon Nautiyal's advice we got the kitchen to prepare some 30 Paranthas the next day morning to last for our trek onward to Tapovan and back till Bhojwasa. Its only later I realized how futile and utterly "Tasteless" that option was...when the Parantha becomes a piece of leather or a hard wood depending on the ambient temperature....when all the effort at chewing the thing actually makes you lose all perception of taste!! The Parantha packed in tight and neat in a cardboard box made one extra luggage that the guide would have to carry. Very soon we discovered that the weight of the Parantha made for a greater force than the tearing strength of the cardboard. 5 Kilometers into the trail the next day, Paranthas started leaking out of the box...!!
Waking up to a bright morning at the GMVN bungalow the first view that hits one in the morning is the mighty Sudershan (6000 + meters) lording over the little hamlet of Gangotri. Bang opposite onto the north is the vertical rockwall of Bhairon Jhamp (5000 odd mtrs) which prevents one from seeing the Mana group of peaks that stand silent sentinels marking the border between India and Tibet(now China). Just behind the bungalow is the mountain along which the trail leads onto another dangerous yet pretty excursion to Kedartal. Walk along the true left of the roaring Bhagirathi on a trail leading away from the bungalow and one reaches Suryakund. Walk up in the opposite direction and one comes across a beautiful little Ashram with a pretty orchard in the backyard. The Baba living here has published a book on his travels about the spiritual destinations in the Himalayas…its one of the prettiest works of photo journalism that I have ever seen. The apple trees in the orchard were laden with fruits when I visited the place later during my trip to Kedartal. We were like little kids having fun plucking fresh sweet apples from the tree and eating them!
After a darshan at the Gangotri temple we started off on the trail which appeared quite daunting even as we started catching up with the Gangotri – Gaumukh trail through a staircase that leads out from the temple. Surely I and Bunty were out of touch with our cardio vascular fitness, for the simple act of catching onto the trail through a staircase took the breath out of us. We were wondering how we were going to do the rest of the 25 Kilometers to Tapovan. In fact, in a trip that I repeated with a larger team, Aditi, my wife ended up vomiting her guts out as she reached the trail and broke her specs somehow; she was so winded out !
The initial greenery on the sides soon gives ways to majestic views of snow peaks all around. Initially it's the Manda peak on your right beyond the dancing Bhagirathi and soon the Sudershan comes into view straight ahead on the left of the trail almost overhead. Presently we came across a wide open rocky-river bed and a thin rivulet running through with a log bridge over it… the waters flowing down in the general direction of the Bhagirathi. Devgad..the guide announced. Devgad is a crossing over a rivulet that comes from the skyscraping heights of the Sudershan… crossing over the mountain base in the form of Chirbas Parbat. It's is about 5 Kilometers from Gangotri and is the first place of rest for the winded out urban trekker…which we were, that lovely morning! The good thing about this trail is, unlike Kedarnath, the trail is gentle and gradual with the Bhagirathi providing visible companionship all the way. Every few meters the vista changes creating a kaleidoscopic maze of amazing visuals…remnants of an avalanche here, a carpet of greenery there, the shining brightness of the Manda peak..the azure blue sky as you look up, bunches of flower in the bush by the road side and a riot of colors in that dried up bush. The view of the Bhagirathi evokes peace, tranquility, beauty and bliss…unlike the fearsome Yamuna en route Yamunotri.Just after Devgad one sees the beautiful peaks of the Bhagirathi sisters. Bhagirathi II first and then Bhagirathi III and then Bhagirathi I. The wide west face of the Bhagirathi II beacons from that distance ,as you feel goose pimples looking at its serene beauty. Even as we were appreciating the view I noticed the icy remains of a glacier lying on our route from a distance of about a Kilometer. Proximity to snow has always thrilled and for some weird reason my excitement heightened. Soon we were crossing our first glacier toying and teasing each other with a handful of snow . That's the only time I have actually seen a glacier crossing our path….not that it's a very unnatural occurrence….one does expect some snow early in the season. In fact, last year in 2007 there was a foot deep snowfall in the last week of May.

Chirbasa- Café Midway

There is a steep rock section beyond Devgad where one just has a foot wide trail on a hard rock wall of a side…the Bhagirathi gushing fifty feet below and a glacier mass or two on the river. Apparently "a girl travelling with her family slipped and fell in the bergaschund there between the glacier mass and the rockwall. The body could not be retrieved that season"…..the guide narrated morbidly. Soon the Bhagirathi Sisters appear again and one is ever more anxious to reach the next stop- Chirbasa. The increasing altitude begins to take its toll and the cardiovascular activity in the body is acutely pronounced…one dearly wants to stop and rest. But the discipline instilled by years of trekking egged us on till we reached Chirbasa…the abode of "Chid" (Pine) trees. There is a small nursery run by the government there for nursing Pine saplings that would then further be used for afforestation.
Since it was the beginning of the season, shopkeepers were still setting up the place. We had in our preceding party, the newly appointed District Magistrate of Uttarkashi travelling with his family. The amount of Bandobast for the DM Saab's family was worth noticing. The old grandma traveled in the chair-palanquin carried by 4 bearers who would walk in militarisque coordination, the two orderlies carrying oxygen cylinders, the police constables making the escort party and finally a team of healthy mules as the backup in case the DM Saab felt like trading off his effort of pilgrimage with few miles of comfort riding the mule. The arrogant new IAS officer thought of mixing a bit of duty with vacation by way of throwing his weight around with few of the poor shopkeepers, demanding if they have procured the right licenses from the DMs office. Both Bunty and I squirmed seeing the unnecessary façade. In fact I was just a hair's breadth away from accosting the arrogant officer and giving him a piece of my mind. But my tired limbs saved me of all that trouble. That little self control would soon be paid back when the team doctor from the DM Sabb's pack would help me with medication the next day.
The cool shades of the pine wore away all tiredness as we sat there in the little Dhaba chatting up a pretty looking lady from Brazil. Her husband and few of her other friends were attempting Satopanth(7000+ Mtrs) and she was on her way back from the base camp to Rishikesh. That's the first time I saw a Nalgen Drinking Water flask in action, she would sip half a mouthful of water very delicately from the hose valve hanging near her neck..the water bottle connecting the valve secured safely on the top of her rucksack. I was so impressed with it, not to mention the charming owner of the flask that I procured one from Stikage in Delhi the next year. Watching the whining mules, the babbling mule keepers and guides, the arguing pilgrims, the mute looking Sadhu lost in his world, the crackling sound of spices on the tawa in the dhaba and the porters cracking jokes with each other, the contemplative trekker resting with that heavy rucksack and the chirping of the birds …..watching life in progress on a pilgrim trail in the Himalayas can be an absorbing affair. Before we realized we had spent an hour in that beautiful lunch-stop.

Just after the shaded grove of Chid trees at Chirbasa on the way forward to Bhojwasa, a little trail leads downwards to the river bed. The pretty campsite of Chirbasa, located close to the GMVN Rest house can only be seen from the Gaumukh trail after crossing Chirbasa. Although I have never stayed there in more than half a dozen of trips of mine to that place, I can imagine what a pretty place it would be to spend a night on this pretty camp site on that wide open riverbed. That year, a Japanese delegation, that had been accompanying us all the way from Gangotri till Chirbasa, decided to camp there…none of the team members in that group appearing below fifty years of age.
The route afterwards for the next 4 kilometers almost follows a straight line with a gentle gradient up along the Bhujwas Dhar that forms the base of Mount Sudershan, Mt Thelu, Mt Koteswar and the Saife Peak. The trail all the while is along the true right of the river. Soon one comes across a rivulet emanating from the majestic Sudershan again crossing the trail…some call it Sudershan Gad. Weird patterns of rock and soil dot the mountainside there with an occasional Birch here and there. In those dull hours of hiking on a monotonous trail, suddenly as we turn a bend into the Sudershan Gad, we see a Firang couple locked in tight embrace and kissing passionately under a lone Birch Tree. Bunty's spirit perked up at once and soon he was ruing the fact that we did not chase the motley group of European Babes enough. I would remember this place for another reason as well…couple of years later ..during my outing there at Bhojwasa in the first week of May we had a sever snowfall at Bhojwasa and this is the place I stopped for a moment to shake 4 inches thick snow from the furs of my dogs Jackie and Django. I was desperately running away from the blizzard with both of them in tow …running to safety at Chirbasa hoping it would be snowing less there. I had seen blood in fresh pug marks of Jackie on virgin white snow and panic stricken, I was running to get the poor creatures to safety…The date was 5th May 2002. I am sure, Delhi was sweltering and reeling under a 40 degrees Celsius heat wave. The Land of Mother Bhagirathi can spring such surprises!! But then that's another story….

Bhojwasa and Lal Baba

After the Sudershan Gad is a steep climb for few hundred feet after which the trail levels out into a landslide area where, the700 odd meters of trail has two signboards at both end of the stretch…"Quoting and Unquoting" the sinister-ness of the trek. Here, the little pebbles sliding and finally swirling past the ears are a little unfamiliar and sometimes bone-chillingly frightening. Past this stretch, there is again riverside vista of the pristine Bhagirathi. Few hundred meters ahead, the trail rises steadily along the mountain side as the riverbed goes deeper into the valley depth. Yonder one sees a rope bridge strung across the river with a box car attached. There is a little hut across the river surrounded by pine grove settled on the angular slopes of the mountain on the other side. "Apparently a Sanyasi Sadhu used to reside in that hut with his lone Nepali Servant. The Sanyasi was in fact a rich business man from Delhi whom the Nepali Servant murdered and fled one day…." The guide was narrating chilling crime thriller to us as we crossed by trudging on towards Bhojwasa. The stony-dusty trail leads into an area densely rock strewn where the trail bends in a wide circle through a little stream and suddenly one sees the wide bowl of a valley with few houses with slanted roofs. The string of few dhaba with snorting mules on the track confirms the arrival at Bhojwasa. We rested a while in one of the dhabas admiring the view of the bowl of a valley below and the hint of a view of the grayish white walls of the Gangotri Glacier snout- Gomukh. From that distance the sea of white ice seems nestled right under the feet of the Bhagirathi Sisters (I,II,III) and the majestic Mt Shivling.

Someone pointed out at the GMVN bungalow site and we went below to make enquiries about facilities for stay. A weird thought crossed our minds. Since we had carried the tents all the way, we kind of got weighed down by thoughts of asset utilization and decided to stay in the tent outside while retaining the room to use the toilets. By then we had decided that we were not trying going to Tapovan the next day. I had already developed a mild headache and I was not going through a repeat of Roopkund again. We decided to camp on another day and catch up with my father who was slated to come in the next day by horse. We were toying with the idea of consulting the DM Saab's physician….but decided against it. That evening went eventless except for the nagging headache as I spent good part of the evening, night and the morning after, admiring the amazing amphitheater of peaks around….some covered with a canopy of snow and some not.._________________________________________________________________
Bhojwasa- The Birch Forest Rest
Bhojwasa takes its name from a Bhoj forest that used to dominate this bowl shaped valley for last several hundred years. Alas…today barely a stump of a birch tree can be found. It used to be the resting place before the final dash to the glacier snout at Gomukh. A cloudless sky and a bright sun make Bhojwasa the most amazing place to wake up in the morning. As one walks away from the GMVN guest house towards the east, one can appear as if roaming the feet of the very peaks of the Bhagirathi Sisters. At 1 O clock direction…the roof of the Glacier snout and at 2 O Clock the rising spire of the Mt Shivling. To the South (Right Hand side…as one faces towards the glacier) a few hundred meters away, the pretty Bhagirathi gurgles on. The area between the GMVN Bungalow is dotted with few huts of the forest and police department, few camping sites outlined by grounded pebbles, a few wooden pre-fab cabins housing the International Glacial Melt Monitoring Station of the UNESCO and the grazing mules. Bit towards the South West from the GMVN bungalow is Lal-Baba’s Ashram. As I write this, there are legal issues galore on the issue of his succession and the Ashram has become a ground of intrigue. There are times when GMVN guest house is closed but Lal-Baba’s ashram will always greet you with a cup of hot tea.

More than once we have camped at this camping ground in the vast meadow in front of the GMVN guest house at Bhojwasa and have found the experience to be lovelier than staying indoors, weather permitting of course. There are few rocks there on the riverbed where one can lie in the sun on a lazy day, gloriously watched over by the mighty peaks all around…just the kind of place for the poet or the painter. The steep hillside on the true right of the river is usually green in the rainy season- home to large herds of grazing Bharals. Often times they would graze so close to the Gomukh trail that pilgrims and trekkers would stop by to click close-ups.

One out of the three times we have camped out, we were hit by an 80mph blizzard!! That one time we were a large troupe of three families including my dogs Jackie and Django. We were surprised out of our wits when a foot deep snowfall welcomed us in an early May morning. The sudden snowfall had the better of our kitchen tent and threw our second attempt at Tapovan into jeopardy. While the dogs had an amazing time frolicking around, we spent one whole day making snowmen and shooting grazing Bharals.

Barely did we manage to reach Gaumukh for a darshan when the snows hit us again in the evening slowly graduating into a blizzard. The tremulous scampering to escape the wrath of the mountains with the dogs and the ladies of the family in tow was an affair to remember. That’s when I almost ran to Chirbasa to safety after seeing a blood stained pug mark of my older dog Jackie. The poor creatures braved the fearsome blizzard without a flinch with about 4 inches of snow settled on their furs by the time we reached Chirbasa. I had covered the distance in a record time of 90 minutes. Bunty.. my brother, his wife Monica, Aditi wife, Mounik my friend, Ruchi his wife, Vishnu man-Friday and the entire support troupe from Crystal Adventure had their own story to tell …of those few hours of extreme adventure….on an otherwise innocuous trail from Bhojwasa to Chirbasa.

I spent the next day nursing my throbbing headache, which I was certain by that time, was caused by AMS. Occasionally one would step outside the tent that was getting hotter by the moment, to shoot the amazing panorama during various hours of the day, while Bunty was busy feeding the pigeons, the crumbs of Paranthas that we were desperately trying to consume. By then we had given up on the idea of trekking to Tapovan, the guide had long taken excuse and we were somehow too lazy to do anything but laze around in the sun.
Bhojwasa sees a regular pattern of traffic everyday during the early part of the season. The few tourists that stay at Bhojwasa would always leave for Gomukh darshan early in the morning, in the hope that they would trek back till Bhojwasa by 1000 Hrs and then proceed forth till Gangotri to reach destination by late afternoon. Thus around 0600-0800 one sees mules and trekking pilgrims leaving for Gomukh and around 1000, parties leaving for Gangotri. Around 3ish in the afternoon one sees mules, pilgrims and trekkers arriving from Gangotri.. they would have started early in the morning from Gangotri. Some of them would be seen proceeding onwards to Gomukh..they would primarily be trekkers with tents because there is no permanent structure at Gomukh offering rest shed for the night. In one such arriving party we saw the firangi babes arriving on mules. Our spirits perked up after the otherwise dull day. Soon we saw my father arriving on another mule… he was having a bad time sitting on the mule for 14 kilometers and 6 hours. Looked like there was going to be activity in the evening.
After getting my father settled in his room in the GMVN guest house we gathered around at the kitchen, trying to attract attention of the group of British ladies, who seemed mightily occupied chatting away with their guide. The guide, smartly dressed, was obviously having a good time. Somehow finally, we managed to sit in the same table as they were and managed to strike up a conversation, each with a different babe. I was making some progress with this nubile young 24 year old psychology student from Sheffield when Bunty had a bright brain wave. Suddenly he vanishes and rematerializes with an "Herbal Cigarette" made of stuff he had carried all the way from Bhubaneswar, Orissa. As soon as I smelt the sweet smoke of Hash, I got alarmed and hauled him out of the room.
"What on earth are you up to Bunty? You out of your mind? Someone in that room could turn us over to the cops!!" I said.
"You have no idea what this is all about…this is the way you Patao Firangi Mems Bade Bhaiya..You are kind of getting senile..!!"..replied he..non chalantly.
Even while we were having the heated argument, the local kitchen boy appeared and borrowed the joint from us happily dragging away giant puffs. Before we realized, the joint was finished by our giant-puffing-pahadi friend, the babes left the kitchen with the merry guide and we were watching the whole charade dumbly. So much for "herbal" Pataoing. !!
"Saala- guide mazza le raha hai!" ..Bunty muttered under his breath..utterly disgusted with the proceedings of the evening. For the whole of the rest of the evening we could only hear laughter coming from the dormitory and a thoroughly flustered Bunty pacing the corridor like a hungry-angry tiger.

Onwards to Gaumukh….

Early next day our attempts resumed attracting attention of the ladies, but obviously the Guide had made steady progress through the course of the night before. They were all over him now..nary a glance in our direction even. Somehow I managed to strike a conversation with the lady we had christened Maggie…only to be informed that they have decided to quit the trekking and were taking a mule back to Gangotri. All hopes dashed about stealing a chance on the way to Gomukh, we started preparing for the little trip to Gomukh. …downcast eyes, dejected spirit!
Hitting the trail to Gaumukh involves some pretty strenuous climbing that tests ones mettle again early in the morning. Barely few hundred meters ahead one catches the view of the snowy crown of Mt Shivling. The carefully naturally-sculpted symmetry of the peak evokes an elation that can only be called spiritual. Called as the Mt Matterhorn of the East, this is a peak frequently attempted by mountaineers who want an experimental run of higher challenges in the deeper precincts of the Monarch of Mountains. For the devout Hindu, the very shape of the peak represents the divine phallic symbol of Lord Shiva and one bows ones head in reverence. I think my religious propensities got a fillip that day that would probably last a lifetime. I have visited this mountain numerous times after that, having a darshan from various angles and each time it has been an experience of spiritual romance….I get goose pimples even now when I remember that majestic view of this very mountain few years later from a distance of 9 Kilometers walking back from Vasuki Tal along the Chaturangi Glacier ridge… this mountain looks like an aged old Sanyasi deeply lost in the Yoga Mudra. For now, however, it was looking like the famous Shiva-lingam materializing from nowhere, in the sky..behind that ridge called the Meru Ridge. By now I was so very deeply mesmerized by the divine beauty that I was almost ashamed of my thoughts of carnal predilection few hours back…involving the few British Maidens.
The trail is quite rocky for the initial few hundred meters after Bhojwasa and calls for careful walking, lest one twists an ankle. However one forgets the toil with the breath-taking view that unfolds every moment in the progress towards Gaumukh. The massive crumbling ice-wall of the glacier-front, with its gray-brown camouflage of mud and earth beacons one constantly as the body of the Mt Shivling slowly unveils itself. After crossing another rivulet the trail slowly descends unto an almost flat area strewn with rock heaps in a pretty irregular pattern. It's the terminal moraine of the Gangotri Glacier, the receding footprints of one of the largest glacier systems on earth. Soon one sees the mark of the Glacier snout as recorded in 1935. It was about 1400 Hrs in the afternoon "Gaumukh is not far away, We should be there in 5/10 minutes probably" I told my father who was riding a mule a few meters behind. "How far would it be?" I thought after I saw those markings on the stone…but then the glacier was nowhere in sight and it seemed as if the route ahead stretched beyond a kilometer. Just when I was lost in these thoughts, I saw another fresher marking painted in black on another large rock "Gangotri glacier snout was here -> 1971, History Department, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi". I calculated the distance from the previous mark, it must have been about 300 mtrs. That's when the reality hit me, I was actually tracing the path of the receding glacier. Now I was really curious as to how far back the glacier is today? We walked on for another few hundred meters and finally came to the Mule Shed marked by a Dhaba and a Sadhu's cave-ashram. Some red and saffron player flags indicated the beginning of the final stretch of walk to the glacier. Still the snout was nowhere in sight. After another few hundred meters of rocks and sand we finally reached the gushing steam of Bhagirathi and followed it up East to have the Grand Majestic view of the massive ice wall that nestled the glacier snout and defined the termination of the 25 Kilometers long Gangotri Glacier.
Gaumukh means the "Mouth of the Cow", so named because the glacier snout is generally cavernous and resembles the oral cavity of a cow. On both sides are tall heaps of rocks, left behind as the glacier steadily recedes every year. Lumps of ice lie here and there in the wide gushing breasts of the Bhagirathi. Little behind is a marker that announces the altitude at 4000 Mtrs above MSL. At 2 O Clock is the towering Shivling, at 11 O Clock would be the Bhagirathi sisters, and Straight ahead at a distance is the Kedardome. Suddenly there was a loud splash as another large lump of ice came crumbling down the tall ice wall. The whole experience was so paradoxical. The tall snowcapped mountains so massively static and the gushing waters and the crumbling ice-blocks so wildly dynamic!!.A sadhu was absorbed in deep and silent meditation on a sand bed yonder and another pilgrim taking a quick dip in the freezing waters. Since it was afternoon, the three of us and the Sadhu and the pilgrim were the only ones in the kingdom of the Mother Goddess Bhagirathi. The only deafening sounds were that of the gurgling water, the bone-chilling wind and the grind and the crumble of the ice.
Soon it was time to leave. The lights in the skies were dimming by the minutes and we had to be back to Bhojwasa guest house by the nightfall. Bunty quickly jumped to the nearest stone in the river in an effort to fill up the customary jars for holy water that we had to take back home. By the time he filled a bottle in that fast flowing stream, his hands were almost frozen red. The walk back from that little sanctuary of divinity was silent and melancholic. My romance with the valley was complete. I had fallen in love with the abode of Ganga. For several years I would now return back to this place, my dream house would soon form around this place, I would probably create a workplace around it…an excuse to be around there….or just I would redirect my Himalayan Wanderlust to this particular area. The initial objective of reaching Tapovan was not met…but I wasn't sad like the other treks. Probably I thought I had found a mighty good purpose for my Himalayan wanderings.
I was convinced I would return here …to the abode of Mother Bhagirathi again and again…many a times to quench the indomitable thirst of experiencing her sheer beauty. Of the several treks and drives that I have been in this region, this trip was the one etched deepest in the memory. ..Probably like one's first date..may be the first romance. One still remembers the rare rendezvous with the still to be constructed Tehri Dam, the view of the flower bedecked dandelions alongside the boulevard (if I dare call it) at Chinyalsaur, the view of Uttarkashi beyond Matli, the gushing overflow water of Maneri reservoir, the filling up of the check-post register at Bhatwari, the clanging iron bridges at Gangnani- Loharinag stretch, the sand flats at Loharinag –Sonegad stretch, the mute amazement at the first view of Harshil valley from Sukhitop, the maiden experience of Harshil-Lanka marine drive and then the divine pilgrimage to Gaumukh as vividly as one saw in the most recent times (this December 2007). Of course not to forget the most hilarious experience of the silent attempts at wooing the pretty maidens from England.

Tapovan objective was not achieved for another three attempts. Each time I went back from Gaumukh and once out of that in an 80mph blizzard. Then the excursions to VasukiTal and Kedartal and several winter jaunts to Harshil. Soon I would probably attempt the Kalindikhal and Saife-Koteshwar-Thelu expedition. May be a trek over Auden's Col and an exploration of old routes to Tibet, Yamunotri and Baspa valley ..over the Nelang, Dhumdharkandi and Lamkhaga Pass respectively. Hopefully this shall last this lifetime…this amazing romance!!!!


Shaks said...

Thanx for this wonderfullyy detailed info of the Harsil rerion!
It helped me and friends plan our own trip successfully!

Him-Pathik said...

Hey Thanks Shaks!!!
I am glad it was of help

Globewarmer said...

Very thrilling description of the journey. I am longing to do this myself. I live in the US , and would have to do a lot of planning before undertaking the adventure. You are an inspiration!

Urvashi Iyengar said...

What an amazing write-up, Ashu! It has been a long cherished dream to visit Goumukh one day, in this life. Your blog took me right there and enjoyed reading every word of it ...superb! Keep writing and share with us as may be that is how we might plan our trek one day...!

Unknown said...

Dear Ashutosh I have been reading your blogs for quite some time now, I must say you have an excellent way to write and a natural flair for English.Keep it up...
I recently came back(4 days ago) from Gangotri Tapovan Nandanvan vasuki Taal trek and did experience the same feelings.. Good luck..
Dr. Suhas Alekar

Him-Pathik said...

Thanks for the compliments Doc. Hope the details were of some help

Anonymous said...

Wonderful write up.