Hindus consider the river Ganges as a sin-cleanser and the Himalayas as the abode of our mighty Gods. Hindus also believe that a dip in the holy river Ganges rids them of all past sins.
I had always nurtured a desire to take a holy dip river Ganges in the most pristine and unpolluted waters of the as it first appears right down the Himalayan glaciers of Gaumukh. However, my eagerness to go to the root of the Ganges was more to experience the unadulterated Ganges since down steam the water is polluted.
River Ganges is a glacier-fed river. Himalayan snow melts and comes down in two main streams creating two primary water sources known as Bhagirathi and Alakananda rivers. I decided to go to the Gaumukh glacier that feeds the Bhagirathi stream.
The glacier stream is located at a distance of 20 Kilometer (12 miles) from Gangotri own in the state of Uttarakhand and is at an altitude of 13200 feet. The trail to the source is a scenic 12-mile trek from Gangotri through the Himalayan ridges. 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.
About 9 km (6 miles) ahead of Gangotri is Chirbasa, the abode of Chir(Indian pine) trees. After 3 km (2 miles) of Chirbasa comes the dangerous Gila Pahar, the place well known for landslides where near-sheer cliffs down to the river must now be traversed.
Mamatha and I booked the round-trip flight tickets from Bangalore to Dehradun. We chose’ Glasshouse by the Ganges,’ a famous resort on the banks of the holy Ganges, located on the Ganges Riverbank, 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the City of Hrishikesh.
When you are traveling in the mountainous Uttarakhand, you have to know two important facts;
1) There are no direct roads from one tourist attraction to the other. The aerial distance between Gangotri and Hrishikesh is 120 kilometers (75 miles). Still, the mountain terrain requires a travel time of more than 10 hours, needing an overnight stay.
2) The maximum speed that can be attained in these regions is about 10 to 25 Kilometers per hour, depending upon the road conditions and traffic density. The roads are narrow, go up and down many mountains, with approaching vehicles having a minimal way around. There is a constant danger of landslides and slippery falls into the adjacent gorge or cliff.
My friend guide Anil Rawat came along with owner-driver Sonu to receive us at the airport.
“Glasshouse by the Ganges” has been constructed right on the bank of the Bhagirathi River. It took 3 hours for us to reach our resort situated at a distance of about 65 Kilometers (40 miles) from Dehradun airport, even though a significant part of the road was a highway.
The resort manager, Gajendra, made a disapproving and reproachful face and said “No” when I asked him if there was a bar at the resort or if alcohol was available at the restaurant. So I went to our tent, wondering why he should be upset if his guests drank alcohol.
Sonu told me the next day that alcohol consumption and non-vegetarian dishes were banned around a 60-mile radius of Hrishikesh!
The prohibition of alcohol and non-vegetarian cuisine was more than made up by the spectacular and breath-taking setting of the resort. The resort itself is located at the tip of Rudraprayag. On this legendary geographical site, the Ganges turns around and flows north towards its source.
The tents are erected right on the bank of the holy Bhagirathi River. The running river was just fifty feet away from our tent. The river was three hundred feet wide, flowing through the forest of the foothills of the Himalayas. The sound of the running river was enough of spiritual healing by itself.
Mamatha carried out the traditional Ganga Pooja, a religious prayer ritual that recited a shloka from the Vedas while holding the traditional prayer lamp.
There are many places of mythological and historical significance in Uttarakhand. I was particularly interested in the cave where our ancient sage Vasista was supposed to have meditated for years.
The four-thousand-year-old cave was famous among Tamilians since it is supposed to be where actor Rajinikanth often visited to meditate.
After our return, we slept for an hour and woke up to the evening sound of the running Ganges music and birds chirping.
Right across our resort was a small hill. I like to climb any peak that I see, and Mamatha joins me in every such endeavour. The peak was about 800 feet high, and it had a small hamlet on top.
Gajendra was kind enough to send one of the waiters Manoj with us.
We walked up the 1-mile trail that led to the village on top. There were dense, tall large trees with a thick undergrowth resembling the south Indian forests in my home state of Karnataka.
As we approached the summit, Manoj suddenly stopped in his tracks and yelled to an old man walking up ahead of us.
“This is my grandfather who has lived on top of this hill all his life. He is 92”. The tall man dressed in full sleeves and Pyjama certainly looked old but not anything like a Nonagenarian. He smiled and raised both his hands, saying, “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.”
Once we reached the summit, the guide pointed out to a small hut among a dozen small and large huts;
“That is where I live with my wife, two children, and my grandfather,” Manoj said.
We left the following morning for Gangotri. We drove through the mountains, valleys, and cliffs, enjoying the scenery. It was a good 10-hour drive, and it was six in the evening by the time we reached Gangotri.
Anil, our tour guide and an Alpinist himself, was to take us on the Gaumukh trek. Anil called me as soon as we checked into the small and basic hotel at Gangotri.
After exchanging pleasantries and confirming that we were ready for the trek the following morning, he said;
“Sir, Uttarakhand Government issues only 150 permits a day for Gaumukh. It is a 12-mile trek to Gaumukh from Gangotri.”
“So, can we get the permits, Anil?” I asked him, a little disappointed.
“Yes, Sir. The weather is fine, and we should get the permits. I will know by six in the morning tomorrow,” he said.
Anil came to our hotel at 6 in the morning. He took us right away with him 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 returned to the forest department for our permits. Finally, at around 7, he came back with a smile that reached both his ears and said that we had the permits.
We started the trek sharply at seven.
Gaumukh is situated at an altitude of 15000 feet above sea level and requires a climb of about 2800 feet.
The hike up the Himalayan Mountains was one of the most scenic treks that I have done. The mighty Ganges was flowing spectacularly in the valley between the two Himalayan mountain ridges. The constant panoramic view of the snow-peaked Himalayan Mountain made an incredible contrast of Silver against the stark Blue Sky.
The trail continued to follow the river’s course to our right cutting and running through the thick cedar and pine forest.
At around one in the afternoon, Anil stopped in his tracks.
“We will be able to see the mouth of the Glacier in a couple of minutes,” said Anil.
I looked up and got my first glimpse of Gaumukh.
Gaumukh means Cow’s mouth in Sanskrit. 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.
Within an hour, we reached our first stream of running glacier water in between small boulders.
Anil clapped as soon as we sat down on one of the boulders.
“Sir, you are the fittest among the hundreds of trekkers that I have taken to Gaumukh. Hard to believe you are 60”. I took out my hat and bowed. Anil and I reached our destination much before the arrival of Mamatha on a pony that she hired midway joined us shortly.
The sight of the stream coming down the Glacier, the face of the Shivling Mountain in the backdrop, created an incredible soul-lifting sensation.
Though it was sunny, the ambient temperature was around 50 degrees Farenheit9 degrees Centigrade and the water, which had just melted from the Glacier but was almost ice cold.
I slowly removed all my clothes. Then, with only my Jockey underwear, I entered the freezing cold source water of the holy Ganges. My body was tired, done, and dusted with a temperature of 37 degrees. Taking a dip in the freezing water was highly challenging.
The running stream of water was slitting through large and small boulders with no s visible surface that was smooth on which I could immerse myself and take a bath.
Luckily, 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, borrowed his utensil, and poured a few full containers all over my body. The ice-cold water on my body made me repeatedly catch my breath and look at my huffing and puffing as Mamatha screamed, “Enough Mohan’, “Enough.”
I continued and poured a few more bowls of water over my head and back, ignoring Mamatha’s yells to get out. She was scared that I would get into hypothermia.
I got a sensation of a spiritual cleansing that went deep down to my bones on both occasions, but this time it felt holier. I do not know if dunking in waters below 5 degrees centigrade has that effect or is due to the religious placebo effect. But deep inside, I felt satisfaction and fulfillment for having taken a bath in the purest part of the holiest river on the planet, worshipped by over a billion people.
When we started back to our camping site for our overnight stay at Bojbasa, it was nearing 4 in the afternoon. We reached our destination at 5 in the evening.
Bojbasa is a tiny hamlet on the way back to Gangotri with no places to stay. So a clearing has been created where there are about four large tents. Each tent had 8 cots arranged with just a foot gap between them. It was getting dark, and we were tired.
As soon as I finished my hot tea and bread toast, I hit the sack. There was a woolen 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 12-mile (20 Kilometre) trek back to Gangotri.
On this morning, the sun was scorching sun by 10 in the morning, and our exposed skin started burning since we had not carried any skin protection cream. It took us six hours to get back to Gangotri.
Sonu was waiting at the designated parking area outside the small temple town, and we returned to our lodge.
Our flight back to Bangalore from Dehradun was a day after.
We returned home with me very happy that I had been able to de-saturate my wife’s psyche and pleasingly feed me for the next couple of weeks.