A trip to Gangotri and Yamnotri

      The Ganges or the Ganga occupies a predominant place in Indian myth and legend. When a mother finishes bathing her child, she chants a traditional invocation that pays homage to the rivers of India, "Ganga, Sindhu, Saraswati cha Yamuna, Godavari, Narmada" and Ganga occupies the pride of place in this pantheon. Therefore, when an opportunity arose to go to the source of the Ganga we couldn't say no.

The Ever Genial Bond - Ruskin Bond 
      We set off from Dehradun, passing through the hill station of Mussoorie established by the British as a place for R&R away from the heat and dust of the Indian plains. Now it is more famous as the hometown of Ruskin Bond who visits the Cambridge Book Store on the Mall Road every Saturday in the afternoons to interact with his many readers and sign his books. Ruskin Bond who has celebrated the environs of the Doon valley in his various writings is my favourite reason to visit Mussoorie. A very nice person to know, unlike Khushwant Singh! The traffic is disheartening though especially in June when it appears as though the whole of Delhi has descended on Mussoorie. Our destination, however, was Uttarkashi roughly 130 km from Mussoorie on the road to Gangotri and the road branches out at Mussoorie - the North Western fork leading to the Yamnotri Valley. 


Uttarkashi on the banks of the Bhagirathi
    Uttarkashi  is located on the banks of the Bhagirathi yet another name for the Ganga. Uttarkashi has a lovely ancient temple to Kashi Vishwanath. The priest explained to us that at Purv Kashi or Benares the statue of Kashi Vishwanath has been installed. But on the banks of the Bhagirathi, Shiva manifested himself and hence the importance of the temple. By now a light drizzle was falling and despite getting wet the spiritual vibes of the place were palpable. 


The Kashi Vishwanath Temple at Uttarkashi




The Ganga seen as a flash of silver











      

     


View from the Uttarkashi - Harsil Road

        As the road winds its way upwards 
to Harsil our next destination some 74 kms away from Uttarkashi one is rewarded with spectacular vistas of tall mountains with impossibly sharp knife line ridges through which  the Ganga inexorably makes its way plunging and rising while determinedly rushing downwards to the plains.   







Harsil
       Harsil has been made famous by the iconic director Raj Kapoor where he shot his famous movie "Ram Teri Ganga Maili". The pristine purity of the actress essaying the role of Ganga in Harsil has been contrasted with defilement of her body and soul by cruel men as she finally meets the Bay of Bengal near Kolkata.  Harsil is truly pristine and the view was breathtaking even as we searched for the locations where the movie had been filmed. As per the locals due to the land slides and ecological deterioration physical correlation of those locations is not possible now. A sad commentary on the inevitable side effects of rampant development. There was a distinct chill in the air as we hurriedly clad ourselves in shawls and sweaters. We decided to spend the night at Harsil as Gangotri was another 25 kms away. 


Bhairon Ghat
         Early next morning we left for Gangotri. At Bhairon Ghat the bridge perched high above the Bhagirathi is vertigo inducing as one gazes down at the narrow gorge through which the river inexorably rushes through. The River has been likened to a Goddess in Indian myth and is also called Jhanvi. Jhanvi is the place where the tempestuous Ganga was captured by sage Jhanu since she was making a lot of noise disturbing his meditation and flooding his fields. She was released only when the Devas made entreaties to the Sage so that she could proceed on her mission to absolve the sins of the ancestors of Bhagirath. Travelling further upstream we finally reach Gangotri where a temple has been  constructed by the Gurkha General Amar SIngh Thapa in the 18th century.  At Gangotri the legend makes its presence felt yet again. King Sagara had  conducted an Ashwamegh Yagna to rule the world which involved letting a horse roam around the domain he wanted to conquer. Indra, the king of the Gods, worried that Sagara would become more powerful than him abducted the horse and tied it at  the ashram of Sage Kapila. Sagara's 60000 sons who came in search of the horse enraged Kapil who reduced them to ashes by just opening his eyes. To raise them Sagara underwent a penance but was unsuccessful as was his grandson Ansumat who however managed to recover the horse by mollifying Kapila who said that the Ganga which would emerge from Vishnu's toe after Bhagirath's penance  would be the source of salvation for not just Sagara's sons but for any one who bathed in it and merged with it after death. While Bhagirath's penance did bring the Ganga down she still had to be controlled which was done at Surya Kund by Shiva himself at Gangotri. 

       As I mused on the legend it appeared that this story merely foretold the inevitability of Sagara or Oceans submerging the world unless conscious effort is made by man to safeguard and nurture rivers. For this the Gods are willing accomplices!




Surya Kund where the Ganga was trapped in Shiva's Locks 
Gangotri Dham



    Apparently many centuries ago the Gangotri glacier actually extended till here. Now the source of the Ganga at Gaumukh is 19 km further upstream and reachable only by foot trail. A telling comment on global warming and its effect on the glacier. We would have dearly loved to trek to Gaumukh but it could not be done in a day so we chose a more doable target of the Gangotri national park some 2 km upstream and were rewarded with the view of ice capped peaks fringing the river and cleverly built houses using overhanging cliffs as roofs.    
A cleverly built house using the overhanging cliff
       

Ma Lalitha
On the suggestion of the Gangotri National Park guard we met up with Ma Lalitha who  had an ashram a little distance away. She lived in one of the many caves tucked away into the mountainside leading a simple life. Originally from Bangalore she had found this cave overlooking the Ganga some years ago. She had noticed that no one in her life was really happy and she had been fascinated with the lives of saints like Vivekananda and Yogananda. She had been a teacher in the Vivekananda Schools for 16 years before she decided to retire to the mountains. What had she learned in all the while she had spent in the cave? Bhakti was the key to attain happiness by striking a personal equation with God. And was she happy? She seemed happy but I was not too sure. There was a mobile phone nearby being charged by a solar panel. Her mother in Bangalore was probably the reason she could not totally break all ties. 
       
      Now it was time to return to Dehradun and we accordingly set off for Uttarkashi. Having always had a sneaking sympathy with the underdog I wondered at the sibling rivalry between the Ganga and the Yamuna.  While Ganga occupies pride of place the Yamuna is very much the lesser sibling. To me, unfortunately, Yamuna is  associated with Delhi where its life force has been choked due to all the polluting industries. This needed to be corrected. I took the help of legend. The Yamuna is said to be the sister of Yama who sought a boon from Yama that all those who visited her be spared the travails of hell. Yama refused since this would mean that Yamlok would be empty. He finally agreed when she said that only the devotees that she called would be able to reach her.   Apparently she had called us for we took an unplanned detour from Dharasu by turning towards Yamnotri on our way back from Gangotri. We hoped to cover the distance of 90 km or so in three hours time. Since we planned to return to Dehradun the same day we needed to make the 10 km trek  in good time. Fortunately for us  the traffic on this route was relatively less and indeed the views were more scenic. 
       The trek is fairly difficult but again the views made it worth the effort. The Yamuna was certainly more reticent than the Ganga in revealing her charms.
Ice capped Peaks overlooking the Yamnotri Valley
 

Pilgrim's Progress
During the trek a light drizzle had begun and we hastily bought ponchos from one of the roadside vendors to protect ourselves. In the distance we could see a procession of pilgrims painstakingly making their way up the hill. At long last about 500 metres short of the temple we could finally spot the temple. 

Yamnotri Dham
The Priest explained to us that at Yamunotri there was a hot water spring that emerged from a cave and joined the river which had its source some 14 km upstream. He quickly disabused us of any notion of  going there by stating that unlike the Gangotri, nobody born in Kalyuga could hope to go there.  



The Yamuna emerges 

       As we walked back I mused on the strange attraction that the Ganga and the Yamuna have exercised over the people of the subcontinent over so many millennia. Even today hordes of tourists were thronging this destination. Even today a devout Hindu wishes for a few drops of the Ganga to be placed on his lips before he takes his last breath. The Yamuna is associated with Krishna and his Ras Leela as he unabashedly made everyone conscious of the power of love and the importance of Karma. Myth and legend have been interwoven as a result of the farsighted sages who realized the importance of rivers to sustain life in the hot and dusty plains of India.  By imbuing the rivers with sacredness they had hoped that it would not be defiled. These destinations were  important milestones in my search for divinity. I again found myself infused with a renewed reverence for the bountifulness of nature and the immense task we have of safeguarding and nurturing this fragile resource. God is indeed in every atom of the universe. If we truly believe this humanity still has a chance.  




Comments

  1. Such beautiful writing and insights! It is a privilege to read your blog and look at these places through your eyes. And I wish I could meet Ma Lalitha and understand the thought process which goes through when one decides to dedicate her life to such a task. And really found poignant your musings about the possibility of happiness in such scenario! Please do write more. It inspires us and keeps us going :)

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