Ganga - The river wild

Bisleri bottle... polythene bag...”
I was sitting by the banks of the Ganga at Haridwar, on my hotel’s little private ghat, idly playing Spot-The-Garbage in the choppy brown waters hurrying past. It hadn’t been a particularly exciting 210 km from Delhi, what with antsy highway towns and piled-up truckjams, but to compensate was the calm satisfaction of reaching my day’s destination and dangling my feet ankle-deep in the blessed waters, listening to the sweet-nothings of India’s most venerated river. 

I planned to follow the Ganga all the way to its revered source – Gaumukh,  270 km away and nearly 4000m up in the Garhwal Himalaya. Of course, I’d be merely treading a time-worn pilgrim path, but that’s the blight of being born in the 20th century. Right now, my ECG was pretty horizontal as the water lapped gently at my dusty mind.


Taking my now-purified toes out of the cold flow, I headed out towards the main bathing ghats, through streets lined with wrinkled old houses and bazaars packed with a sensory-overload of small stalls and shops. Here a vendor frying, there a hawker arranging, everywhere a clamour and a bustle as people bought edibles, cloth, trinkets, plastic ganga-jal bottles, a hundred things in a blaze of noise and colour. I eventually got to the Har-ki-Pairi – the Footstep of God, the holiest spot of them all. And my camera, fed a shutterful of visual E-tabs, sped 36ward.  

The Ganga, channeled into canals, bucked and frothed against the constriction. Lining it were broad concrete steps, with chains attached to stout poles to cling on to as you took a dip. And, metal links in hand, in surged the faithful. Thousands of people of all paunch-sizes and regionalities, in underwear, rolled-up trousers and wet saris, swirled their sins away as they pinched their noses and dunked. Some drank the water, others splashed their faces with it. Local youth jumped in from a little overbridge and were carried several metres by the fast current before they got a handhold somewhere and came up again. A few foreign tourists gingerly picked their way through the dense human foliage. Stalls sold little bundles of flowers wrapped in leaves, which, carrying a lit lamp and a prayer, would be set downriver by the dozen as dusk fell. Offerings of coconuts also bobbed speedily by; at a bridge further down, young boys fished them out with expertly-slung nets. Sadhus with worn saffron robes and a lifetime’s worth of resilient faith looked up to a backlit sky. Belief and hope hung thick in the air. I’m not a religious person, but the sheer electric force of the spectacle had me bound. 

There was a light rain falling the next morning as I left Haridwar, past Rishikesh and hit the hills. The first few kilometres were a cauldron of fog as some clouds in a low mood sauntered up the hillsides. Past Narendra Nagar, though, they successfully rappelled over, and a landscape of rolling green foothills tumbled into visor-view, etched with step-farms and dotted with small houses. For six leisurely hours I wound up glistening black tarmac,slowing down for the occasional cloudburst and then letting the sun dry me up as much as it could before another gale of rain hit. Selective autumn had turned some trees crimson, and rashes of wildflowers sent streaks of pink and yellow racing across rich green meadows. All through, the Bhagirathi (the Ganga before it hits Deoprayag) went by single-mindedly, glassy in some places and raging against impertinent boulders in others. Equally single-minded, the occasional sadhu trudged up, carrying a stained cloth bundle, steel kinna in the crook of his elbow and a promise of salvation in his eyes. The BRO, as usual, had its joke-book safety messages out in force. Peep Peep, Don’t Sleep.The entrance to the town of Uttarkashi, famous for its Shiva Temple, was cut off by a landslide that looked like a concrete-mixer had taken a dump. I got in through some complicated side-route and settled down, damp and hungry, at a small eatery for a late lunch of dal, veggie and rice (the most exciting fare on this route – unholy meat is a definite no-no). I topped it off with a dessert of another hundred kilometres to Gangotri, drizzled with winding roads and generously smothered with soaring coniferous slopes, tumbling waterfalls and the evening sun tearing through stubborn cloud when it could. Dozens of times, the view deserved to be framed and hung up large-format on a living-room wall.

Non-electrified Gangotri, in the cold dim light of Himalayan dusk, looked even tinier than it was, with a couple of small hotel/restaurants before the bus-stand, and a little shop-flanked street leading up to the 18th century temple built by Amar Singh Thapa. The Gangotri Glacier, then at this point, had since played the prankster and hoofed off about 18 kilometres away. Half-an-hour by bike, you say? Try a day’s trek on foot, on a narrow rocky path etched along the mountainsides... look, I walk twice a day – from my house door to my bike and from the office bike-park to my desk! In a feeble attempt to be full of beans for the morrow, and for lack of a rockin’ nightlife in Gangotri, I turned in at an insane 8 pm, piled under quilts in a dark, still room (my hotel’s generator, of all the generators in town, had conked) and lulled by the unresting river below.
I woke up at seven to the stare of a crisp blue sky and a craggy, towering cone of rock. My guide Kedar, a chap my age but far fitter – “I can go to Gaumukh and back in a day. You, hmm...” – was raring to go, and we were off half an hour later. Ten minutes into the trek, as the path hairpinned steeply up away from Gangotri, I was breathing heavily and the cloth jungli shoes I’d bought in Uttarkashi – “Very good item, sir, all the locals use only these, just rupees two hundred!” – were biting piranha-like at my heels and little-toes. Kedar’s idea of guiding was to gallop ahead and wait for me to catch up about six corners later, barely-concealed exasperation at my pace evident on his thin features. Three old men in white shirts, dhotis and walking-sticks were setting a scorching pace, offering me a hardboiled candy as they passed. The surroundings, at least, were magnificent; I didn’t need to fake surreptitiously-get-my-breath-back photography stops.

On we went, and roundabouts the 4-km mark, I caught up with Anoop Bhonsle, the tail-end of a five-member Marathi family on the first leg of their Char Dham pilgrimage. The engineering graduate, carrying a heavy rucksack and wearing three sweaters on a warm day, looked as city-bred as I felt, so I joined up with him. His mom had a supply of Turkish delight and almond-crunch ‘for energy’ which she handed out copiously; bolstered by these and later some aloo-parathas at a dhaba at Chidvasa (the halfway point), we kept putting one foot in front of the other. 

By afternoon, clambering over endless boulders and crossing icy churning riverlets on instep-wide planks of wood, my pinched feet wanted nothing more than amputation. Anoop and his brother generously accommodated my hobbling pace, occasionally pointing out a shimmering-white snowy peak making a guest appearance as the clouds rearranged themselves, or a herd of mountain deer grazing on the slopes above us. My retinae swam with the sheer perfectness of it all, while my blistered feet hotly contested that idea.

Grey clouds had begun to spread as we reached the tent-camps of Bhojwasa at five that evening, everyone instantly collapsing on the quilt-strewn bed-equivalents and ordering up hot chai. Mr Bhonsle immediately negotiated ponies for all of us for the next morning’s trek to Gaumukh and back to Gangotri. “We have learnt our capacity,” he said with a shrug, “But we have tried our best.” The three old men, meanwhile, must have reached Gaumukh already, its parent mountain visible in the distance.

The night brought fog, pattering rain, and another noisy group of eight, but the simple act of removing those dratted shoes and drawing a thick quilt over myself brought deep and relieved sleep.I woke at half-past five as six scraggly ponies were being saddled up in the morning cold. The Bhonsles were already up, and I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes as I got on my mount. “Hrrr-ah!” barked Kedar, now doubling up as my horsekeeper, and off we went in single file, the keepers bounding along at horse-pace and guiding the steeds. My animal’s hooves slid about heart-joltingly on the stones, its periliously- perched rider tipping this way and that as the path climbed and dropped. But we covered 3.5 km in barely an hour, finally dismounting half a kilometre from Gaumukh for the final leg on foot again (groan). Some sadhus had set up a rough tent nearby, a little ahead some Korean hikers were emerging from their far-more-sophisticated camp. More boulders, lightly pilgrim- scuffed along the path, a flat and flowery patch of land, another climb, and there we were.

Chunks of fresh ice lay strewn by the banks of the nascent Ganga, which burst forth from a bluish-green wall of rocky ice ahead – Gaumukh. A snow-encrusted, cloud-wrapped mountain stood over it like a sentinel, as the river of life screamed its way into the world. I stood still for a while, with a strange sense of respect, while people collected their precious canfuls of ganga-jal and prayed. Then I squatted, dipped my hand into the numbingly-cold water and scooped up a mouthful. It was
as clean and pure as each pilgrim wanted to be.

TRAVEL LOG

Northern Uttaranchal, or Garhwal, draws the faithful millions who wash away their sins in the Ganga where it enters the plains at Haridwar and do the ‘Char Dham’ circuit of Gangotri, Yamnotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath – the sources of the four holy rivers, the Bhagirathi (Ganga), Yamuna, Mandakini and Alaknanda. Following the winding Ganga up through Uttarkashi and Gangotri is guaranteed moto-fun, and the scenery is grand. And the trek to Gaumukh, where the river actually emerges from the Gangotri Glacier, can be tiring, but in true Himalayan style, is well worth it. Peak season is pre-monsoon (May-June) or post-monsoon (Sep-Oct) but we went bang in the middle of the rains and weren’t the worse for it – much. Gangotri completely shuts down for the winter, so you can safely make other plans for the New Year.

Getting out of Delhi’s never-ending gol-chakkars,ring-roads and whatnot onto the NH24 towards Ghaziabad is half the headache, and the other half is the crowded 155-km run via Meerut and Muzaffarnagar. The next 55 km through Roorkee to Haridwar is more peaceful, though still hardly of note. Most hotels in Haridwar are in the Har-ki-Pairi area, try the ugly but well-located Hotel Teerth (Rs 900-1200) on the riverbank. Southward, hotels like Sagar Ganga Resort (Tel: 0133-4222115, Rs 750-1250) offer the serenity of private ghats. The Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) has tidy acco (Tel: 4228686) for Rs 500-1050/660-1400 (low/high season).

After another 30 km to Rishikesh, the ‘Yoga Capital of the World’, it’s time to tuck your feet up on the pegs as the acrobatic NH94 starts spiralling and twisting up 150 km past Narendra Nagar, Tehri and Chamba to reach Uttarkashi, the last big town on the route. The road starts off especially well, and is for the most part very rideable – but watch out for muddy sections where landslides have been cleared, scattered rocks and occasional flowing water. If you want to halt here for the night try the basic Hotel Himanshu (Rs 200-300) on Gangotri road; on the other side of the bridge is Akash Ganga, more expensive at Rs 600 up, but offers much better facilities and views too. GMVN’s Tourist Rest House (Tel: 01374-222222, Rs 110-950/100-750) is a fine choice.

The last 103 km to Gangotri is free and fast with often breathtaking scenery and a fair number of army/BRO outposts. Vehicles are not allowed beyond the bus/jeep-stand as you enter Gangotri, so consider parking your bike and yourself at Manisha or Toyashi cottage restaurants (Rs 100 onwards) right at the first turn in. The GMVN resthouse (Tel: 013772-22221, Rs 140-880/100-650) is uptown.The final 18 km to Gaumukh is an eight-hour trek on foot on a narrow mountain path. Guides (Rs 200/day) are an option if you’re alone - oh and wear good walking shoes! ‘Trekking’ on horseback (Rs 750 to-and-fro) takes half the time. You have to spend the night 4 km away at Bhojbasa, either at tent-camps (Rs 30) or the ashram (Rs 101).