By Tanmayee Dass
Sheer drops into ravines, breathtaking scenery, a dead man to climb over on the path—all this and more is encountered on one woman’s brave journey to Gomukh glacier, source of the Ganga. An account of a resolutely non-religious quest, and its surprisingly intense outcome
How could you possibly describe this incredible experience?” asked Swati, the New Yorker I had met barely two weeks ago. The ‘incredible experience’ was Gomukh—our trek up to 14,000 feet to feel on our skins and in our hearts the source of river Ganga…the river of Shiva’s cosmic dance, the keeper of a civilization, the eternal giver.
I didn’t know how right she was until I returned to Delhi. “So you went to Gomukh,” asked my ex-boss. “On pilgrimage?” I felt the compulsion to explain that here wasn’t a pilgrimage as pilgrimage may be understood. But I lamely replied: “Yes.” I fared better the next time. “Was it a spiritual experience?” asked a friend. “Yes, it was. But not temple-spiritual. Universal spiritual.” Pilgrimage, yes. Of the intense, personal, transcendental kind.
As you sit cross-legged under the glacier, against the river, and the peaks tower all around you, all questions are answered. The world is a naught; there is only you and the mountains. The ice melts before your eyes forming the river and all desire is stilled. The glacier reflects all shades of happiness—cobalt blue, turquoise green, untouched white—holding mankind’s secrets in its womb, you suspect. Splash the water on your face and you feel purged: deeply tranquil, exuberantly free.
Makings of a Journey
It all started on an innocuous gin-and-tonic evening in Mussoorie.
Swati (excited): “Bhim the Swiss walked up to Gomukh in chappals and even took a dip.”
Me (laidback): “I’m sure it is beautiful up there. Imagine, the source of the Ganga!”
Swati (more excited): “So let’s go-o-o-o.”
Me (after a surprised silence): “Yes, let’s go. What’s stopping us indeed!”
Both of us had found that we could walk a bit. That made us feel reasonably confident about each other’s trekking capabilities. “Two women together can make it,” we kept reminding ourselves. We weighed our options. Early morning bus from Mussoorie to Gangotri. Bus again from Rishikesh after a stay with friends in Dehradun. Then taxi all the way to Gangotri.
Fortunately we found a taxi that offered a good bargain. Rs 4,000 for four days (he would wait for us in Gangotri while we did Gomukh) seemed a steal. Jyoti, the guesthouse owner’s wife, was a bit disturbed. “Are you sure the two of you want to do this alone? After all, you never know…” Yes Jyoti, you never know how beautiful an experience can be until you decide to experience it. But of course, she made us write down the driver’s name, car number…
On The Road
On the first evening in Gangotri, under the dim glow of a bulb, cocooned in a sleeping bag, I wrote…The river, the incredible river roars right under my terrace. It splashes on the rocks here, in a glorious, maddening declaration. And if I stood out, I’d feel the wet droplets on my face. But it’s freezing…. Gangotri. Of the Ganges.
Did we follow the river or did the river follow us? We felt beckoned, all along, as the taxi skirted its way through a mountainous landscape that assumed so many characters over a ten-hour drive. Dhanaulty to Chamba, of cedars and early sunrise, Tehri dam and the fertile Tehri valley—warm, paddy green, sub-tropical. And here began the river saga.
Uttarkashi, of temple flags and savvy dhaba owners. And thereafter, sheer mountains, slopes, a gregarious river that threatens the might of boulders, peaks so snowy and so close that you can see ice turn to water and trickle down the mountainsides to join the great river. Harsil, of rolling meadows, gurgling streams…
Commercialized holiness, a scamper to sell rooms, an audience to watch us bargain, stoned sadhus in saffron robes and matted hair squatting in their little round huts all along the paved path to the temple, handsome Garhwali men carrying on their backs mule-loads or disabled elders in search of salvation…Temple-bells, mountains so huge all around you—a sense of something bigger than you, of an ancient way of life, a touch of the infinite. And the river roars by. Mother Ganga.
The next day would bring us the real thing. The 14 km walk up to Bhojpasa where we would stay the night and finish the final four kilometers the following morning. However, we are delayed by our visit to the Gangotri temple and a search for the driver. As for the temple, our friend Jon might describe the sanctum sanctorum as a place with lots of ‘energy’ but it defies my understanding why people on pilgrimage in search of peace would want to jostle, shout, jump queues, bargain with priests and policemen to be allowed first…
But we managed the darshan, got the tikka. (It’s a different matter that you are shoved out of the sanctum before you can form the first words of a prayer!) Eventually we found the driver, left the luggage in the taxi and set off with small backpacks.
Even as I write this, I know that I will not be able to convey how achingly beautiful the walk from Gangotri to Gomukh is. The narrow footpath, traversed over centuries by men in search of God, has a straight fall into the river all along. One wrong step, and you could be done in. The gurgling sound of the water follows you all the way, as if not willing you to let go of the reason you are here.
The gurgling sound of water follows you all the way, as if reminding you why you are here
The cliffs shelter you on the left, as you literally walk under them and against them. The snowy peaks tease and haunt as the Himalayan mist hugs and releases them. And the vegetation changes constantly, surprising you with its splendor. From dense undergrowth, scurrying chameleons included, to sparse pines and cedars, and eventually, sheer rocks, stark brown and blinding grey. The climb is gentle, never too trying.
Four kilometers into the walk and we came to a ‘tea-hut’. (It is somewhat quirky that every little shop Mussoorie upward sells cooked Maggi noodles!) A group of young city girls were on their way back to Gangotri. “How much further?” they questioned us with harried faces. “That didn’t look too inspiring,” Swati pointed out. And there was the other end of generation too—elders of Bengali families doing it on mule-backs. But there was soon to be an encounter we wouldn’t forget in a hurry.
The Dead Man
Swati was walking ahead. As I turned a bend I saw lying on the path a human body, respectfully covered with a blanket—stone dead. Swati stood beyond him, face towards me, smiling. I felt a chill run down my spine. I would have to literally climb over him on the 12-inch broad path to get to where Swati stood. I swallowed a deep breath, hoping he was at peace and walked past. Later in the evening, as we lay in our sleeping bags, I whispered: “Swati, the dead man on the way…”
“Dead?” It was Swati’s turn to be horrified. “But I thought he was sleeping. And what a cute way he seemed to have devised to make sure the blanket did not fly off. He had it attached to his toe with a ring.” Now I figured Swati’s smile. “Oh, you must’ve thought what a strange, insensitive American woman I am,” she was obviously shaken. “Well, at least he would’ve believed that he was heaven-bound.” Everybody in the dormitory at Bhojpasa agreed.
A slow drizzle had started as we neared Bhojpasa. It was five in the evening. We made it to the GMVN guesthouse just in time to save ourselves from being drenched in snow and hail. Revived by jugfuls of warm water to wash our faces with, we decided that GMVN was truly gracious. Forget central heating, electricity or a warm bath. Dim bulbs glowed on generator power here.
Our dormitory had scuba diving instructors from Goa, two Australian girls and a young Indian girl from Dehradun who was traveling alone. (I am not the only freak, I thought.)
Thankfully, the rain stopped. Early next morning, we left our backpacks at the guesthouse and set off. Into the final walk, every few meters we were reminded: “Oxygen levels are low. Please walk slowly.” Indeed, for the first time in my life, my lungs hurt with the effort to breathe. We encountered sadhus walking in torn chappals and meagre clothing. A Swiss couple was climbing down with mountain spikes; others were already back from holy dips.
The mountainscape was harsh; we were beyond the tree line, only a few stray bushes and daisies reminded us of the green world. And there were the peaks—Shivling and Trishul. We were among the gods. It took us another hour and a half to finally get to the glacier.
We clicked photographs impulsively, knowing perfectly well that pictures would never be able to tell it all. I think we hoped that every time we came upon these in an album, we’d be able to remind ourselves of all that you do not see. But feel.
Like the touch of water on your skin. Like an overflowing heart. The beginning of Ganga. End of a journey.
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