Gangotri – A Journey and a Revelation

By Bhagyalakshmi Krishnamurthy

The religiosity of the convent-educated, city-bred Hindu is unique. With limited exposure to rituals when compared to their ilk in the native place and  the presence of other faiths in the foreground of their consciousness alongside a tacit yet mute acceptance of Hinduism by their parents, the city-bred Hindus like myself, straddle a chasm between blind faith and enlightened belief. Therefore, when the environmentalists said that the Gangotri glacier was receding by at least 30 metres every year, I sat up because the Ganga is part of the very basic psyche of every Indian. The ultimate cleanser of all sins, it is mandatory in most Hindu households, even today, to sprinkle its water, on the lips of the dying.  I had seen the Gaumukh (the source of the Ganga) and Gangotri in William Dalrymple’s documentary on his trek to glacier. It looked quite healthy! Now, environmentalists were saying that it would probably melt away in my lifetime. Suddenly, it became important that I see her. I decided to follow the river from Gangotri to Haridwar, the point where she enters the plains. Would it be a spiritual journey resulting in an awakening of sorts? Would my rational and sceptical mind feel different when I stepped into Mother Ganga, so as to start worrying about her survival? I could not tell, but I definitely felt the need to make the journey.

Gangotri 2

I chose to go to Gangotri via Mussoorie as Mussoorie is positioned as the Gateway to Gangotri, although  they are almost 200 kilometres apart. The locals at Musoorie told me that the journey that would take a day and a half.  I hired a car through the hotel, with the hope that the driver would be safe and experienced. Satish Rawat, my driver, looked all that and more – he was a cheerful, devil-may-care, yet, deeply religious Garhwali. “We must halt overnight somewhere”, he said, “and proceed to Gangotri the next day”. Uttarkashi, a hundred kilometres away, was the most familiar place en route. We decided to halt there overnight .The hotels in Uttarkashi seemed low on cleanliness and thoroughly wanting in facilities. Yet, most of them were full, thanks to the bus loads of pilgrims who were on the Chardham (Four destinations or four of the holiest Hindu shrines of North India) Yatra. I zeroed in on a riverside resort with tented accommodation.

Satish Rawat’s Omni van did not inspire confidence. It had to climb 12,313 feet and I started praying.  It was a long drive to Uttarkashi as the roads cut through the Tehri Garhwal hills – a drive that was uninspiring as there was not much scenery to speak of. The van, contrary to appearances, passed muster admirably! I decided to pass the time of the day with Rawat. I was a South Indian and the north, though not alien, was still unfamiliar. To the North Indian every South Indian is a Madrasi from Madras: it does not matter if they are from any one of the other three southern states! Rawat decided that it was time we Madrasis knew something about the state of Uttarakhand and its co ordinates. Water, he said, was difficult to come by and it was not an unusual sight to see women trudge up the difficult, rocky terrain with toddlers tied to their backs, to get two pots of water.

“No rains here and many forest fires,” he said, “due to the continuous deforestation, there isn’t enough vegetation to ensure normal healthy monsoons.”

By the time I reached Uttarkashi, I was an authority on Uttarakhand and her problems. I had also learnt a lesson on water conservation, when Rawat simply positioned the van under a small waterfall on our way up and got it washed thoroughly, without even getting down!

We entered a crowded and thoroughly abused Uttarkashi at six o clock, that rainy evening after an eight hour drive. Under a big board of the Uttarakhand District Board which read” Plastic is not bio-degradable. Avoid plastic”, there was a mountain of garbage with all forms of plastic containers. I did not feel spiritual or religious, I just felt dispirited.

Bisht, the resort manager had said that the resort was just 5 kilometres into the Uttarkashi-Gangotri Road. After the prescribed 5 kilometres, we stopped to check with a passerby, only to have him point to a small clearing in the ground near the van.  Rawat inched the van carefully down the clearing and there before us were 18 neatly laid out Swiss tents and  it was here, a mere two hundred feet from my tent, that I had my first view of the Ganga as Bhagirathi. She seemed to hurry along happily yet purposefully over smooth, round rocks and boulders, surrounded by lofty mountains. I dipped my hand into the river. The water was cold, utterly clean and the current strong.

I remembered my mother recounting the story from the Bhagavath Purana which said that Ganga flows across all three worlds, Swarga (Heaven), Prithvi (Earth) and Patala (Nether world). In his Vamana Avatara, Vishnu asked for three feet of land as measured by his tiny dwarf -like feet. His first step measured the universe and to demarcate a boundary, he pierced a hole in it and sought to cover it with the nail of his big toe. The Divine Ocean is said to have poured through this hole as Ganga and washed the feet of Vishnu. She came to rest at Brahma Loka in heaven till King Baghiratha prayed for her to come down to wash away the ashes of his ancestors – the 60,00 sons of King Sagara. King Sagara performed the Ashwamedha Yaga much to the envy of Indra. Consumed with jealousy, Indra stole the horse and left it near Sage Kapila who was meditating in the nether world. King Sagara sent his 60,000 sons to search for the horse. Their jubilation on finding it, disturbed Sage Kapila and he burnt them to ashes. Sagara, his son Anshuman and Dilip further down that lineage tried to cleanse the sins of these 60,000 but were not successful. Bhagirath took this task upon himself and performed penance till Brahma asked Ganga to leave Brahma Loka and cleanse their souls. Ganga, known to be vain, felt insulted by what she considered to be a menial task and roared down towards earth, with a force that threatened to destroy Earth. It was then that Shiva trapped her in his locks and released her through small rivulets. A suitably chastened Ganga came on to earth at Gomukh and flowed down Gangotri to the plains. She also flowed down to the netherworld and washed away the sins of the 60,000 sons of Sagara. That evening, on the banks of the Bhagirathi, all this seemed very real!

We started the ascent to Gangotri the next morning after a very tasty and cholesterol-laden Indian breakfast. Within minutes Rawat pointed out the Ganga to me – a narrow strip of water running to our right and from here she travelled with us,  sometimes just as wide as a ribbon and at other times no broader than a strip.  As we climbed higher, on treacherous roads that seemed to have been chiselled into the mountains, both, the air and inhabitation became rarer. The hills became more verdant and  snow covered mountains appeared in the horizon.  Rawat stopped when the milestone showed Gangotri to be only a kilometre away, stating that all vehicular traffic was stopped a kilometre away from Gangotri, so that the area does not bear the brunt of vehicular pollution. Trekking up this last kilometre, I came to the Gangotri temple, from where another trek of 18 kilometres over three days would lead me to the Gaumukh glacier, but that would have to be another time.

I picked my way up to the river and there she was, raging down so powerfully, that it became necessary to hold on to the ropes to maintain one’s balance. A silent prayer of thanks went up to Shiva for having reigned in her power by trapping her in his matted locks! Clean and clear, the water chilled me to the bone as I stepped in. I looked around at the snow capped mountains – the sky seemed so close and the air was so clean. I felt the presence of a power, a force and understood why the Hindu philosophy defined God as being manifested in the five natural elements: air, water, earth fire and ether.

Then I turned my attention to the other devotees. They threw in flowers and holy ash, which was fine, but I was mortified to find them chucking in the plastic covers in which they had brought the flowers. I was angry to see some of them wash themselves with soap in the icy cold waters when all they were required to do was to take a dip. I remembered my elders telling me that one of the major sins in the Hindu philosophy was the pollution of the river water and wanted to tell them to collect the water in mud pots rather than in plastic bottles, which got. washed away in the current, only to get bunched up downhill and choke the flow of the river.

That sight at Gangotri led me to the revelation –  that the Ganga was more than just a river, she symbolizes an effort – an effort to cleanse the dirt and pollutants heaped on Mother Earth by man. It was also a sad realization that every Indian is happy cursing the government for not keeping the Ganga clean but continues to sully her at the individual level. I did not bring back cans of Ganga water like my fellow pilgrims did. I brought back the spirit of the Ganga in the form of a pledge to do my bit to keep my surroundings clean.

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