My soul mate and better half becomes spiritually and psychologically exhausted every few months from bearing the brunt of keeping yours truly fed. Her tolerance level nosedives from the drudgery and her mind turns into an insufferable fault-finding device. My life then becomes a precipice or a tightrope that I must walk while being ever watchful and alert to avoid getting into harm’s way. I simply cannot make serious mistakes like forgetting to fetch her pair of socks along with mine before our daily morning walks or turn on the ceiling fan without asking her or blunder by adding a few milligrams of extra sugar in the only meal I prepare for, her morning coffee.
Hence, when I surprised her with a ‘one-week Himalayan vacation’ within 45 days of our ‘Ten-day Ajanta-Ellora Mumbai’ vacation, she had every reason to get excited and respond by preparing an unusual 4-course lunch on two straight days.
We Hindus consider dunking in river Ganges a sin cleanser and trekking the holy Himalaya Mountains a sure way to find eternal salvation. I had always nurtured a desire to take a holy dip in the most pristine and unpolluted waters of the Ganges as it first appears at the base of the Himalayan glaciers, Gaumukh and Katling. I wanted to go more out of spiritual curiosity than to absolve myself of my past sins, a number I am sure surpasses the number of pine trees in the Himalayas.
Due to the belief that the soul attains salvation when the ashes of its cremated body are immersed in the Ganges, mortal remains often find their way into the holy river along with ashes apart from the left overs of rituals. Hence the only place where pure and unpolluted Ganges water that I could think of to dunk my body was at its birthplace in the Himalayas, right at the Glacier that feeds it.
The River Ganges is a glacier-fed river that runs down the Himalayas in two main streams, the Bagirathi and Alakananda rivers. I decided to go to Gaumukh glacier for my endeavour since it also involved a highly scenic 12-mile trek from Gangotri through the Himalayan range popularly known as the Gaumukh trek.
Gangotri is located in the mountainous region of Uttarakhand state in Northern India and is about 120 miles from Dehradun, the nearest airport and its state capital.
I booked the round trip flight tickets from Bangalore to Dehradun through New Delhi and planned on staying there for a week. I chose a highly rated resort, ‘Glass house by the Ganges,’ on the banks of the holy Ganges as our hub for our week long stay since Dehradun, Valley of Flowers, Gangotri, and the trek to Gaumukh all appeared to be located pretty close to each other on Google Maps. I was confident that there was ample time to visit all the three places.
I was wrong.
When you are travelling in the mountainous Uttarakhand, you must know these things:
1) There are no direct roads from one tourist attraction to the other. For instance, it is not possible to go to the Valley of Flowers from Hrishikesh and then to go on to Gangotri since they are in two different directions and there is no direct road between Valley of Flowers and Gangotri. The aerial distance between Gangotri and Valley of flowers is 40 miles but the mountainous terrain requires travelling a distance of more than 120 miles over two days unless, of course, your fitness is the caliber of Edmund Hillary and you can hike all the mountains within a day.
2) The maximum speed that can be attained in these regions is about 10 to 25 miles per hour depending upon the road conditions and density of traffic. The roads are not much more than one lane wide so as they wind through the mountains, approaching vehicles having very little space to move around each other. There is a constant danger of landslides and slippery falls into the adjacent gorge or cliff.
The taxi rental agency from which I had booked a new Toyota Cresta advised me to hire the vehicle for the entire duration of my stay since it was not easy to get taxis in the interior towns. 6000 Rs(USD 80) per day was the amount stipulated by Guddu, the broker and the English-speaking intermediary between the taxi owner and us.
Driver Sonu. whose full name was Sohan Negi. was a handsome young man with fashionably trimmed bear. He received us at the airport. He owned the car along with his brother-in-law. His trousers dropped so much below his crotch that I was afraid I would face the torture of witnessing that spectacle any time.
“Hi. I am Mohan and this is Mamatha” I said joyfully. After giving us the faintest of bows and the tiniest of nods, he reached out to our suitcases in our hands.
“Glasshouse by the Ganges” is located at around 40 miles close to a small town called Shivpuri and it took 3 hours for us to reach our resort. The manager of the resort, Gajendra, had been appropriately christened since his physique could be compared to a pachyderm (Gajendra means a male elephant in Sanskrit). He made a disapproving and a reproachful face and said “No.” when I asked him if there was bar at the resort or if alcohol was available at the restaurant since a glass of beer is a greatly welcomed drink after long travel. I went to our tent wondering why he should be upset if his guests drank alcohol.
It was only after Sonu told me the next day that consumption of both alcohol and non-vegetarian dishes was banned around 60-mile radius of Hrishikesh due its holy reverence that I understood Gajrndra’s ire. The absence of alcohol was more than made up by the spectacular and breath-taking setting of the resort. Located at Rudraprayag, an extraordinary geographical site where the Ganges turns around and flows north towards its source and is home of many man-eating tigers. The tents are erected right on the bank just a few feet away from Bagirathi River. The setting was surreal with the greenery of the valley against the backdrop of Himalayan Mountain range
The tent interiors were as good as any five Star Hotel. The river was about three hundred feet wide and made a great rafting choice with rapids of grades 2 and 3. The sound of the running river was like spiritual healing music to our souls. Mamatha and I carried out the traditional Ganaga Pooja, a religious prayer ritual that consists of as holding the traditional prayer lamp with five small flames on a long and large metallic spatula in our hands and rotating it clockwise facing the mighty river as the Pundit recites the Vedic chants from behind.
My better half worshipping Ganga
I like to climb any peak that I see and Mamatha joins me in every such endeavor. We decided to climb up a small peak that we had noticed close to the resort. The peak was about 800 feet high and it had a small hamlet on top.
Gajendra the resort manager was kind enough to send a guide with us who happened to be one of the waiters at the restaurant.
We walked up the mile long trail that led to the village on top. There were large trees, mostly pine, with a thick undergrowth that resembled the forests back in my home state of Karnataka.
As we approached the summit, our guide suddenly stopped in his tracks and yelled to an old man walking up ahead of us. He turned to me and said “This is my grandfather who has lived on top of this hill all his life. He is 92.” The tall man was dressed in full sleeves and pajama-looking pants. He was old but not anything like a nonagenarian, and smiled at us, raised both his hands and said, “Namaste.”
“He comes down to the base for a chat with his friends and climbs up the 800 feet peak daily.” said our guide. The old man started climbing back with ease and our guide said proudly. “even I cannot match his speed”.
The old man and the peak.
Once we reached the summit, the guide pointed out to a small hut among a dozen small and large huts and said, “that is where I live with my wife, two children, and my grandfather.”
“Sir, why don’t you visit us and have tea?’ he asked. It was very late in the evening and turning almost dark.
“No thanks, some other time” I said.
By the time we were half way down it was dark and the flash light helped us little but we made our way back to the resort by 7p.m.
We went straight to the buffet, ate our supper, and spent the rest of the evening listening to the Ganges flowing just a few feet away from us and sound of distant temple bells.
My son Rahul had shared the contact details of his trekking guide Anil Rawat who had taken him on his 3-day trek to Tapovan from Gangotri two years back. I called Anil and he was free to take us on the Gaumukh Galcier trek where the Ganges takes birth. One of the primary sources of Bhagirathi River, Gomukh is a snout of the Gangotri Glacier at an elevation of 13,200 ft in Uttarkashi district, Uttarakhand. With an estimated volume of 27 cubic Kilometers (in other words imagine a water cube measuring 2 miles by 2 miles by 2 miles and 27 such water cubes), the glacier is one of its kind and second largest in Himalayas. Besides being a favourite haunt for trekkers, the glacier carries a vast mythological significance and sages from different corners of India make their way to Gomukh to attain enlightenment.
Anil would be meeting us at Uttarkashi on our drive to Gangotri from our resort. His biceps and his trapezoid muscles were a stark contrast to his smooth face and feminine demeanor, which very unlike an alpinist.
I have seen the Alps in Europe, the mountains of New Zealand, and Alaska and the Rocky Mountains in U.S. All of them are incredibly beautiful but the Himalayas holds a special place in my heart since it has an energy that stokes my philosophical and spiritual inquiry.
The drive from our resort to Gangotri, the starting point of our Gaumuks trek, was incredibly scenic with constant views of valleys with rivers mountain ridges with snow-capped peaks.
A Himalayan valley on the way to Gangotri.
With the intention of protecting the precious Himalayan ecosystem, the Govt. of Uttarakhand issues only 150 permits a day for trekkers wanting to trek to Gaumukh, weather permitting. It is a 12 mile trek to Gaumukh from Gangotri. Anil went to get permits for us as we stayed overnight at a hotel at Gangotri where hot water was not available.
We visited the famous Gangotri Ganga temple. The sacred temple and the surroundings offer a scenic view of the Himalayas. Gangotri is one of the four sacred Dhams (holy destinations) in Uttarakhand including Yamunotri, Badrinath, and Kedarnath. Thousands of devotees from all over visit the glorious temple every year to seek blessings from Goddess Ganga. It is perched at an elevation of over 3000 metres above sea level, amidst lush green hills with the captivating Ganga flowing by its side.
By around 5 in the evening, it suddenly started to rain very heavily, which threatened our trek of the following day as landslides often follow rain. Just the previous month a few pilgrims had lost their lives due to landslides in the wake of a sudden downpour.
‘What is plan B if we don’t get the permits tomorrow, Anil?’ I asked Anil when he called me at 7 in the evening to tell me that he would know the status of our permits only the following morning.
“Sir,” he said, “please don’t utter anything negative. There is no need for plan B.”
Anil came to our hotel at 6 in the morning and took us to the starting point of the trek, a check post located about a mile from our hotel. After dropping us off at the check post, he went back to the forest department for our permits. He came back with a smile that reached both his ears and said that we had the permits. We started our trek at 7:30 in the morning.
The trekking trail would be taking us through Chirbasa and to Gaumukh. Initially, the trekking trail lead us through dense forests, streams, open spaces, and then the trail was dotted with huge pine trees. After trekking for a mile, Mamatha took a pony. The pony owners make a fortune as they are aware that a few trekkers would need them and offer their ponies at several places on the trail. We went together for some distance and the pony rider stopped for some refreshments. Anil and I continued on, thinking that the pony with Mamatha on it would catch up with us soon.
The change in the mountain formations and the landscape was mesmerizing. After walking for about 2 hours, we stopped at a teashop near the midpoint called Chirbasa. We had tea and biscuits and continued our trek. A few minutes into our trek, we sighted a tribe of wild mountain goats with the alpha male posing majestically.
On the way to Gaumukh Glacier
The trail continued to follow the course of River Bhagirathi to our right, cutting and running through the thick cedar and pine forest. Further, it embarked upon a beautiful alpine meadow that was dotted and patched with several wild and colourful orchids.
The path wound uphill amidst pine forests and, though every one of us was tiring, the blue autumn sky with white floating clouds, the snow capped mountains, the green pines, and the mesmerizing beauty energized us all.
We were able to see parts of the glacier from Bhojbasa, our second stop, which we reached at around 11 in the morning. The trek from Bhojbasa to Gaumukh lead us through a flat narrow valley, surrounded by meadows, to rocky terrain. We had to make our way through boulders before finally arriving at Gaumukh.
Gaumukh is situated at an altitude of 15,000 feet above sea level. We had climbed of about 2800 feet. The hike up the Himalayan mountain was one of the most scenic treks that I have done. The Bagirathi river, the main supply source of the mighty Ganges, was flowing spectacularly in the valley between Himalayan mountain ridges. The constant panoramic view of the snow-capped Himalayan mountain peaks made an incredible contrast of silver against the blue sky which made our trek an incredibly beautiful experience.
“We will be able to see the mouth of the glacier in a couple of minutes,” Anil said as the incline of the trail increased. Ahead of us, the train turned right. As we walked around the bend, we got our first view of Gaumukh.
Gaumukh means Cow’s mouth in Sanskrit and it is the spot where the Gangotri Glacier melts, forming the starting point of the Ganges, called Bhagirathi, among Hindus. The glacier is the second largest in India and lies at an altitude of 13000 feet.
Anil and I reached our destination within a few minutes, well ahead of arrival of Mamatha and the ponys’ arrival. Anil rewarded me with a clap, praising me that I was the fittest among the hundreds of trekkers that he had taken up to Gaumukh, that too at my age of 60. The sight of the formation of Ganges as a small stream coming down the glacier, the face of the Shivling Mountain in the back drop, the scorching sun, the occasional bone chilling cold wind were all demonstrations of the versatility and peculiarity of mother nature. Adjectives mean nothing while describing such experiences but it truly was an incredibly beautiful setting that was a soul lifting experience.
First stream of Ganges
Though it was very sunny, the ambient temperature was not more than 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Centigrade) and the water that had just melted from the glacier was almost ice-cold.
I slowly removed all my clothes, and with only my Jockey underwear, I entered the freezing cold source water of the holy Ganges. As my body was tired, taking a dip in the 37 degree water–nearly freezing–was extremely challenging.
The running stream of water poured over large and small boulders and I could find no surface large enough to sit on or a pool deep enough that I could immerse myself and take bath.
Taking my Holy bath
Luckily, there was another guy was sitting on another rock nearby. He was scooping out and pouring water over his head in a steel bowl. I waited for him to finish and then I borrowed his bowl and poured a few containers full all over my body. The ice-cold water on my body made me catch my breath repeatedly. As she watched my huffing and puffing, Mamatha screamed, “Enough, Mohan, enough!” She was scared that I would become hypothermic. I continued with a few more bowls of water over my head and back ignoring Mamatha’s yells to get out.
I got a sensation of a spiritual cleansing that went deep down to my bones. I do not know if dunking in waters below 5 degrees centigrade has that effect or if it is due to the religious placebo effect. But deep inside I felt a satisfaction and fulfillment for having taken bath in the purest part of the holiest river on the planet worshiped by over a billion people. The towel that we had bought had so much starch in it that it hardly absorbed any water and for me not to catch a cold can only be attributed to the curative powers of the Ganges.
By the time we started back to our camping site for our overnight stay at Bojbasa, it was nearly 4 in the afternoon. We reached our destination at 5 in the evening. Bojbasa is a small town on the way back to Gangotri, and has a few places to stay in the form of taurpaline tents with an opening not wide enough for bears to enter.
The place that Anil was able to get for us had four large tents with about 8 cots arranged with just a foot gap between them. As soon as I finished my hot tea and bread toast, I hit the sack. There was a woollen blanket and a comforter that was so heavy that it required two persons to lift and unroll it. Once I snuggled into it, it took a good ten minutes before my cave became warm and my shivering stopped.
We set out promptly at 6 in the morning since we had to hike our 20 Kilometre trek back to Gangotri. The sun was scorching and burnt the back part of my neck and my hands badly. We had not carried any skin protection cream. It took us six hours to get back to Gangotri but more than six days for my skin to get back to normalcy.
We were famished and headed straight to a restaurant on the main street of Gangaotri. To welcome us was a Yogi clad in Saffron robe with a bowl in his hand, asking for alms at the entrance of the restaurant . Out of fear of falling into the wrath of a Himalayan Yogi with psychic powers, Mamatha gave him ten Rupees before entering the restaurant. She was shocked out of her wits when, through the window, she saw the Yogi take out three different cell phones from his pocket before putting her ten rupee note deep inside.
Sonu was waiting at the designated parking area outside the small temple town and seeing him and his car after having hiked 42 kilometers (25 miles) over 36 hours was a bigger treat to my eyes than the Himalayan landscapes.
Our flight back to Bangalore from Dehradun was the following day.
Jim Corbett was my childhood hero. The Scottish hunter who killed many man-eating tigers during 1920’s and 30’s had lived in the Nanital, on the other side of Uttarakhand. There is a memorial built in his name at Rudraprayag where a man-eater had killed and devoured more than 900 men and women. The memorial mentions the list of 920 victims of the “Man-eater of Rudraprayag” in six years between 1926 and 1932. My visit to his memorial was the icing on the Cake of our 10-day trip.
When we returned home, I was very happy to find that my wife so enjoyed the trip that she made delicious meals for me for the next couple of weeks.
About Jim Corbett and Tigers in my next blog.