A year after my walk along the Ganges, I returned to Uttarakhand to reach the source of the river that I had not managed to reach last year. Leaving in November from the Ganges delta to reach the Kumbh Mela of Allahabad in time, I was not able to enter Gangotri Park, which protects the source of the Ganges and opens only in May. But this time I was in May at just the right moment.
The Ganges is formed 800 meters above sea level in the small town of Devprayag. The three tributaries that give birth to the river are Bhagirathi, Alaknanda and Mandakini. They take their source from three glaciers located between 4000 and 6000 meters of altitude. These are Gaumukh, Satopanth and Chorabari.
A few kilometers under these glaciers, in more accessible places, around 3000 meters of altitude, are the temples of Gangotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath. They are dedicated to Ganga, Shiva and Vishnu. With the Yamunotri Temple, dedicated to the source of Yamuna, they form the Chota Char Dham. The complete pilgrimage of Chota Char Dham represents a distance of 1000 kilometers. Today, only the sadhus undertake it. They are seen walking on barefoot roads, with their wallets and their little brass pots.
Day 1 - Rishikesh
We leave New Delhi around 7:50 for a day's drive by car. The crossing of New Delhi happens without much difficulty thanks to the early hour but things are spoiled in Ghaziabad. Our GPS makes us go through an impassable road which makes us waste a lot of time. The roads are then relatively good, especially between Meerut and Muzaffarnagar. Further north, the quality deteriorates and some portions, near Saharanpur, are very bumpy.
Fortunately, the population density is gradually decreasing and so is the traffic. We arrive at Rishikesh shortly before 6 pm. Traffic is difficult on very narrow streets. I found a guest house. It's cool tonight.
Day 2 - Devprayag
Rishikesh this morning is in the fog that will persist for most of the day. There are many people because Rishikesh is a pilgrimage town frequented by Indians and many foreigners. Meditation and yoga are offered everywhere.
We take a short walk on the banks of the Ganges where pilgrims are in crowds, especially on the left bank that is reached by the Lakshman Jhula. The Ganges at Rishikesh is more torrential than at Kanpur or Benares because it comes out of the Himalayan foothills.
We take the road to the north-east. The road goes up the valley of the Ganges. Where this valley is wide, the road is easy with beautiful forest landscapes, and some gorges where the road is narrower and more difficult. Fortunately, there is not a lot of traffic. The altitude increases very gradually.
We reach Devprayag. Arriving from the south, we see Alaknanda descending from the Nanda Devi on the right and the Bhagirathi river on the left.
Day 3 - Gangotri
From Devprayag, we enjoyed an extraordinary trek. The path continued to rise to swing between 2000 and 2500 meters altitude, sometimes turning into a one-meter-wide line that overlooked dizzying combes. After weeks of intense heat, the freshness associated with this beginning of altitude was nice. I remember sublime views where the surrounding summits gave me the impression of an empire.
At each climb, I hoped to see in the distance a landmark that could help me and I was often disappointed. After the city of Old Tehri, I began a journey that seemed endless. I passed from hill to hill, between 1000 and 1500 meters and although beautiful, the landscapes appear repetitive given the distance to go. There were innumerable turns and bypasses of ravines.
Sometimes, while the village where I was going was 500 meters on the other side of the gorge, it was necessary to go 5 km to follow the course of hillsides. The silence was total and I could enjoy without harm the harmonious sounds of the water, the song of the birds and the rustle of the wind caressing the leaves of the trees.
I met pilgrims walking with a trident in hand and I saw from time to time small lakes punctuating the course of a river with green and still waters. The city of Uttarkashi is an important religious center with many ashrams and temples. The envy of arriving made me exceed my record of kilometers traveled along the Ganges and I walked 45 km that day.
We see many wedding processions on the way. Precisely, at the edge of the road, near the village of Singhani, the party is in full swing. We stop and we are invited. The newlyweds, richly dressed, sit on chairs. We arrive at a pivotal moment.
The bride is soon carried in a palanquin whose curtains are immediately closed. The groom is young and nice who is carried on another palanquin. At the entrance of the house, the wedding band redoubles energy to accompany the parade that begins. The party will continue, then there will be, of course, the wedding night.
Like the spectacle of the sea or the fire, the vision of the peaks bring a feeling of completeness and these summits can be looked at tirelessly. The mountain invites us to constantly look up while emphasizing the fragility of our existence.
This balance offers us the feeling of being close to the truth of the human condition. In these almost uninhabited lands, while the road had regained the taste of the almost straight line, I really felt like I was going to the end of the world.
I met a hermit in a cave and curiously, he asked me the only questions that I was able to understand. He thought it only took two months to get from Calcutta on foot.
The arrival at Gangotri was very surprising. Everything was closed and there was no one there. I had to go around the village twice to find people. In fact, during the middle of the year, the village lives completely apart and only ten people live there in full meditation.
There is no electricity, no water pumps and these men, since there are no women, drink the water of the Ganges. I was invited to dinner but there was not much room for me to sleep and I preferred to spend the night under the stars.
It was a bit cold at 3100 meters but the purity of the sky allowed to see an impressive starry sky made up of stars much more numerous and much brighter than the one we usually look at.
Day 4 - Guptakashi
It was 6.30 am. I wanted to see the place or start the path that leads to the source of Gaumukh and arrived near the house of the guards. It was while climbing the slope that I saw the barbed fence which closed the zone. I took my backpack by hand. I pushed aside the barbed wire. I went through it and I made the next two hundred meters running curved and my backpack in my hand to make me as small as possible.
I was visible from below, as far as I looked in my direction, and I was expecting to hear a call or a whistle. Luckily, I reached the row of pines without being noticed. I put my bag on my back and I began to tell myself that I was helped by the goddess Ganga who favored me in my quest after my very long pilgrimage.
I had to cross an ice cap and after one kilometer, I realized that I had been very naive. A door and walls closed the entrance to Gangotri Park and guards looked at me with surprise. I went back down to the city and, arriving near the temple, I handed my walking stick to the people who were there, that is to say, two guards and two sadhus. The stick with me was from Ganga Sagar.
Being unable to stay in a place without lodging or food, I took the way to Uttarkashi in sumptuous landscapes. The quiet village of Gangnani is halfway between Uttarkashi and Gangotri and enjoys a certain popularity for its sulfurous hot springs, which apparently originated from a powerful local rishi. Above the basin, there is a small temple dedicated to Shiva, where a sadhu lives. All are quite nice and friendly and the atmosphere is familiar.
Above Gangnani, there is a beautiful traditional village of Uttarakhand with stone houses. People are very happy and 9 out of 10 people who meet ask the same question with a big smile on their lips: Charas? Apparently, it is the specialty of the place and turning a bit between the little paths around the village did not take long to understand why. Here grows a lot of Marijuana! However, we preferred to drink an excellent ginger tea from an old village peasant woman and buy potatoes, which we then cooked in the restaurant near the hotel.
After a quick lunch near the small town of Srinagar, 34 km further, we can see Rudraprayag, in the bottom of the valley. We turn to the left and go up the Mandakini River valley north for 40 km by the NH 107. The road is narrow but good overall. We arrive around 5:30 pm at the Guptakashi village (1,250 m) where we easily find a simple cottage for the night. The rooms have all been beaded in a rather strange way, perhaps in a clumsy attempt to create a chalet environment.
Day 5 - Kedarnath
We leave Guptakashi at the first light of dawn at 4:55. The road is deserted, which makes it easy, but it is narrow with some delicate passages caused by falling stones of the night. At 6 am, 29 km further, we reach the village of Sonprayag. We get our first surprise.
The road to the Kedarnath shrine is cut for cars 4 km earlier than expected. It is even forbidden to pedestrians this morning because a landslide must have occurred this night. Hundreds or even thousands of pilgrims wait like me in vain.
Like many pilgrims, we pass these hours of waiting by driving 12 km to the west, through a very broken but beautiful road, to the village which houses the Shri Triyuginarayan temple. This small sanctuary dedicated to Vishnu is the supposed place of the marriage of Shiva and Parvati.
Beginning with high wooded hills, against a backdrop of snow-covered peaks, the 14-kilometer trek offers sumptuous landscapes. We follow the course of the Mandakini which flows among large boulders polished and veined. Gradually the peaks come closer and the snow appears. The path becomes a log of big stones. Pilgrims make the ascent on horseback or mule. Housed in a wicker hood, elderly people are carried on the back of a man.
The last kilometers of the trek is difficult. The path zigzags on the side of a wall rising almost vertically. We then open on a plateau swept by the winds. It is a large brown steppe strewn with snow. On the rocks are cairns. All around, the peaks form a natural circus composed of black and white peaks often veiled with a lace mist. It is a wild and remote world, not adapted to the man. A world apart, of uncompromising austerity, reigns of heights and bitterness. Everything is raw and powerful, imperious and inflexible.
In the distance appears the temple of Kedarnath. As fierce and simple as the landscape that surrounds it. It looks like a block of granite. The shikhara in sugar loaf is only stone. Everything seems set to challenge the mountain. It is a shrine dedicated to Shiva.
Outside the temple, sadhus, wrapped in blankets, chanted the OM. The bull Nandi protects the entrance to the temple. Inside are the statues of the five Pandava brothers, the protagonists of the Mahabharata. The best known of them, Arjuna, the hero of the Bhagavad Gita, stands proudly near Krishna, his instructor, and Draupadi, the wife of the five brothers.
Inside the garbha griha, a strange conical stone two meters wide and one meter high seems to rise from the depths of the earth. It symbolizes Kedarnath Mountain and Sadashiva, the three-headed Shiva. The black walls of the temple are wet. The soil is cold. Polished by the years, heads of gods and animals seem both to spring from the stone and to sink into it. Wicks soaked in ghee burn in the alcoves. The heavy cast iron doors seem like those of the limbo. The atmosphere is dark, strange, timeless.
The air of the garbhagriha is full of steam. The faithful pour on the stone, in the form of a mountain peak, water from the hot Ganges. The coldness of the rock transforms water into gas. In this nocturnal atmosphere, through this thick mist, we listen to the sound of conches, bells and mantras seeming produced by the gods themselves.
Not being able to go this time, driven by the beauty of the landscapes and stimulated by the physical form that the mountain provides, I refit, before the sun setting, the 14 kilometers to reach Gaurikund. On May 1, the day before the opening of the Gangotri Temple on Akshaya Tritiya, the goddess Ganga is taken from the Mukhwa Temple, where she resides during the winter, to her Gangotri Temple.
Mukhwa is a small traditional village set on a hillside. One of those where one goes only on foot since no road leads there. The houses are made of wood. The inhabitants live without electricity, heating themselves with coal. The white temple with red borders, placed on a height, melts harmoniously in this landscape of snow-covered peaks.
On the day of the great departure, the Goddess of the Ganges came out with great pomp from the sanctuary. What strikes first is the great variety of colors: saris, turbans, scarves, pennants, draperies and flags form a joyful kaleidoscope.
The bright colors are sublimated by the sun. The goddess is transported on the Naag Devta, a stretcher with silver palms, wearing a cubic case, surmounted by a small dome and draped with multicolored fabrics. The exit of the temple is festive: songs, drums, bells and conches make the atmosphere happy.
Then begins the procession in the mountain. In single file, on small dirt roads, through rows of pines, the crowd follows the procession. Every three kilometers, the procession stops in a temple to sanctify it by the presence of the goddess. A musical section of the Indian army, the Garhwal Rifles, accompany the procession.
Dressed in Scottish, they play bagpipes. The Brahmans take turns to wear the Naag Devta. It feels like walking in the sky as the surrounding peaks are close. The conch song seems to invite the gods. By participating in this ancestral rite, solemn and little known, I had the impression of living a unique experience.
In the evening we made a stop in the hamlet of Bhaironghati. The night spent in the temple, a few meters from the Garbhagriha was as short as it was unforgettable. After the evening prayer, I fell asleep beside three priests, listening to the songs of the women who watched the goddess. These tunes were beautiful, serene and playful.
Rarely did I feel such emotion than when I returned to the village of Gangotri. The Garhwal Rifles opened the march to the sounds of bagpipes. Garlands of carnations hung under the porches. The inhabitants held flowers, candles and sticks of incense in their hands. What a contrast with my arrival last year! The ghost village had turned into a festival of festivities, colors and music.
The trek of Gaumukh was for me the most moving and the most symbolic. It will also remain the most outstanding because it was dangerous.
Day 6 - Gaumukh Glacier
In the early morning, the landscape is magical. The sun tears clouds and mist, and snow-capped peaks sparkle. I found a very good guide. His presence was essential to obtain the permit to access Gangotri Park. This magnificent path climbs from 3000 to 4200 meters of altitude. It starts furrowing on beautifully wooded hillsides overlooking the Bhagirathi.
In the distance appear, as if springing from a tunnel, peaks whose snowy walls are rendered almost translucent by the power of the light rays. It was necessary to pass snowfields, scythes, furrows as narrow as the foot, rivers, trees fallen on the road, rocks to climb. It was also necessary, using a rope fixed at both ends, to descend a wall falling perpendicularly.
The last kilometers were particularly difficult. It was necessary to cross passages where the cliffs had collapsed. There remained on these slopes near the vertical, only sand and pebbles plunging into the void. They were extremely slippery.
A fall would have implied a rapid descent of three hundred meters with the possibility of shattering on a rock. And then, if we were still in condition, how to go back? There were three difficult passages. I learned to control my fear. It was the essential element! Of course, it was not mountaineering, but to my measure, it was a good learning, a beautiful lesson of life.
We stop to eat rice, dal, chapati, potato fritters and others. Finally, we arrived at Bhojbasa, this great stony circular plain, approaching 4000 meters, where the camp was. All around the peaks formed a great natural circus. It was sumptuous! Over the hours, the light caressed by different colors these summits. After a night spent in the common room of the ashram, we began at the dawn the last 4 kilometers to the Gaumukh Glacier. This time the road was easy.
In front of us stood, at nearly 7,000 meters, the three Bhagirathi peaks. To our right, like an arrowhead, rose to 6500 meters the mythical Mount Shivling. It represents the trident of Shiva. This time I gazed at the Gaumukh Glacier. This large wall of ice where the first drops of the Bhagirathi, which will become the Ganges, ooze. The place is magic! From this trickle of water is born one of the most beautiful rivers in the world.
This water makes fertile one of the most populous valleys of the globe. I saw my entire journey from the Bay of Bengal, 2600 kilometers away. I thought of all these cities and activities generated by the river. Looking at this stream, I remembered the immense course of several miles that had fascinated me so much in Bihar.
One last time, I admired the Gaumukh Glacier. I had spent more than a year with the Ganges. This time it was over! The waves had turned into ice and I was swept away by another current.
Day 7 - Yamunotri
I got woken at 6:30 this morning by the pilgrim buses and the muleteers who were waiting for them. The sun shines when I wake up. I take the opportunity to observe what is happening. I resume my visit of the small town. Apart from a military camp on Yamunotri Road, few people reside in Janki Chatti. Janki Chatti is the end of the road that goes up the Yamuna Valley towards Yamunotri, the source of the Yamuna.
Nearly all the mule drivers and employees live in Kharsali, a picturesque village set on a cliff top that overlooks the Janki Chatti car park. Unlike Janki Chatti, Kharsali is worth a visit, especially a village center where temples and old traditional farms are located.
I chose to take a mule. It must still be said that there is a good difference in altitude. Most of the route is slightly uphill, but there are two or three fairly steep slopes before arriving at the Yamunotri Temple. The path, sometimes bordered by chai shops and sadhus dens that bless the pilgrims, offers a superb view of the Yamuna Gorge which flows below.
After two hours of walking, the Yamunotri temple is unveiled, rising to the side of a sheer cliff, between the latter and the sacred river. Restaurants, as well as stalls of souvenirs and religious material, line the path on the last meters before arriving at the temple. Guesthouses and huts for pilgrims overlook the site.
The temple itself has nothing transcendent, except a large pool of natural hot water where pilgrims bathe. The descent is easily done on foot and I was back to Janki Chatti by noon, when the sky was covered and the first drops of rain crashed on the road.
Day 8 - Govind Ghat
We take the road downstream in the middle of the day until we fork on the left on a small road passing through Ukhimath and Chopta avoiding a long detour to the south. This narrow road presents no serious difficulty. The cliff-side crossings could be dangerous but the road is almost deserted. Its surface is new, except for a portion of 15 km after the pass that is crossed at 2670 m. The whole area near the pass is in a beautiful protected altitude forest.
In Chamoli, we join the road in poor condition and much more rush until the small town of Joshimath. There are some difficult passages due to landslides, but nothing really fearsome. The 21 km between Joshimath and Govindghat are the most spectacular with the road at the bottom of a deep gorge of the Alaknanda River. The road becomes more impressive with several passages carried in the river. The show is majestic.
The village of Govind Ghat (1,892 m) specializes in welcoming pilgrims to the surrounding shrines. It is therefore easy to stay but telephone connections are limited and internet connections do not exist. The rain stops at the end of the afternoon but it is cool tonight in the absence of any heating.
We go to Pandukeshwar on one of the old roads to Tibet, a famous place to host one of the seven temples of Vishnu. The place is really lovely and as often in these parts surrounded by an atmosphere of extreme peace and serenity. The temples are in stone, on the banks of the Alaknanda and have a curious architecture influenced by the Buddhist stupas.
We can hear the water in the distance. Everything is perfect, the Nandi bull is covered with rose petals. There is the scent of the incense sticks. There are the tulsi garlands and the copper pots hung with sacred water. In the whole village, I have not seen a paper on the ground. The priest, intent on reading the mantra inside the Yog Badri, does not even look at me and I do not bother him.
After a while, he goes out and prepares a fire in front of the temple. While reciting mantras, he throws ghee, rice, and other spices into the flames. He goes on for a while completely absorbed in the ritual. Nobody comes. I watch it alone a few meters without being noticed. I do not know which rite he was following, but I like to think that it was tied to the summer solstice, sure to be known to the ancient Indian astrologers.
Day 9 - Hemkund Sahib
The good weather came back this morning after days of rain. We leave Govind Ghat shortly before 8 am accompanied by a porter. After crossing the Alaknanda River, the road rises to the northeast following the course of a tributary, the Lakshman Ganga. The road does not pose any difficulty. The track is crossable. It is then extended by a broad cemented and graveled path that is gently sloping.
We walk in a beautiful protected forest of conifers. At the same time, a valley on the right shows a mountain covered with a glacier. This is the first and only time of the trip we see it, the clouds having masked the summits the rest of the time. Besides its beauty, the forest provides almost everywhere a welcome shade.
We have lunch in a dhaba with simple rice, dal and potato curry. Tourists share the path with many Sikh pilgrims. Some, ascetic, are very beautiful with their turbans. The others are ventripotent and sweat in large drops before an effort to which they are not accustomed or are insecure on their horses. There are also those who are mounted on the backs of men and the privileged few who fly over us by helicopter.
Ghangaria is a seasonal village entirely designed to welcome tourists and pilgrims. A gurdwara and many small hotels offer the visitor a basic comfort and simple meals. The heliport, which can accommodate three at a time, also serves as a cricket ground. Aside from a well-deserved rest, distractions are limited in the afternoon when the rain and the cold settle. Neither mobile phones nor the internet is working. It is a site for a short (or long) detox.
We leave Ghangaria by the pilgrims' path which wind up on a general direction at 140 degree parallel to the Bhyundar Ganga stream. The climb is very easy with a gentle slope on a steep wall. The beauty and diversity of the flowers is remarkable, including some species that I will not see again in the afternoon.
We reach 4,050 m above sea level. To our surprise, we have already arrived at the Sikh sanctuary of Hemkund Sahib that the signs and travel guides show 400m higher. This abridged climb is almost a disappointment. The site is pretty at the edge of a small mountain lake but the revered Sikh sanctuary is modern.
A tiny temple rubs shoulders with it. Some pilgrims plunge into the cold water of the lake. We spend an hour before going down quietly for two hours admiring the flowers. We devote the late afternoon and evening to the famous valley of flowers.
Day 10 - Badrinath
We take the NH 58 road. The luck is with us since the road, closed in the last few days, has just reopened. But it is a bad road with a degraded pavement. Many sections were washed away by falling rocks and landslides some of which are difficult to cross. I regret not having a 4x4. Traffic is also quite heavy because many pilgrims head to the Badrinath shrine.
The road to Badrinath is particularly hilly. The rocky faces plunge suddenly into space as if caught in a gravity. Cars run on mountainsides on tracks too narrow to allow vehicles to cross each other. They seem suspended in the air. From time to time, gaping holes indicate that bits of the road have sunk into the precipice.
This trip gives the impression of going to the ends of the world. Arriving at 3000 meters altitude, the slope of the road increases and the mud makes progress difficult. It takes us 1 hour 30 minutes to reach the village of Badrinath. We arrive then in a sumptuous landscape dominated by the Nilkantha peak, as pointed as a triangle.
The famous temple dedicated to Vishnu is colorful. This temple has a vaguely Tibetan air which is perhaps not fortuitous. I am told that its architecture, modified several times, was on that of a Tibetan monastery quite close to here.
The bright colors of the temple and the roof covered with gold leaves offer a joyful patchwork that stands out and contrasts with the sobriety of the alpine landscape. Garlands of yellow carnations and saffron hang on the pediment. A flame burns in the garbhagriha. In the rest of the temple, the darshan mandap, place of vision and prayer, are Kubera, and also the sage Narada.
In the outer enclosure of the temple, the sabha mandap, are idols of Lakshmi, and Garuda. At the back of the temple of sadhus prostrate themselves in front of the swastika. Outside the temple is a purification pool whose water comes from hot springs. While walking in the surroundings we discover a cave where, according to the legend, the poet Vyasa composed the Mahabharata.
We take the NH 58 road for 4 km, until its end. We reach Mana, known as the last Indian village. It is also a summer village. When the snow arrives, the population settles well downstream, near Chamoli. The alleys, accessible only to pedestrians, are not lacking in charm.
The civil road stops there. A track winds northwards, but it is a prohibited military zone that continues to the border crossing of Mana about fifty kilometers. At the exit of the village, the river literally comes out of a gulf while rumbling, it is the rock of Bhima which attracts many tourists.
A very well-traced trail runs north-west at 300 degrees that passes near a small temple, Vyas Gufa and follows the valley by the Saraswati river. As time passes the fog wins, but nothing would prevent to continue at least a little. The bottom of the valley is visibly barred by a massive rock wall to the northwest. It is barely visible as the monsoon clouds, stopped by the peaks, are thick.
Mana being the end of the civil road, we have only to start the descent to the south, with a wise slowness, on the NH 58 road. We get back to Govind Ghat around 6:15 pm.
Day 11 - Delhi
We reached the city of Haridwar, the last of the holy cities of my pilgrimage along the Ganges, and the next stage of my hike will be the ascension to its source. It passes through Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal. The most sacred place in Haridwar is the Har-ki-Pauri ghat.
And if the pilgrims sacrifice to the tradition that the one who bathes in the Ganga is purified of his sins, so many deposit flowering offering baskets on the surface of the water. While families or friends swim in the Ganges, children (or buddies) on the riverbank immortalize this unforgettable moment with digital cameras or mobile phones. Here too, selfies are all the rage!
The temple of Mansa Devi overhangs the city. If there was a need for proof that the city is holy, here alcohol and non-vegetarian food is totally forbidden.
But in Haridwar, it's over. It's the plain again. The return is quite brutal as if to expiate the days spent in the land of the gods. Suddenly, there is heavy heat, dust, dirty cities in this part of Uttar Pradesh. There is chaotic traffic and, between Rudrapur and Rampur. The main road after Rampur is much better but a dense and anarchic traffic makes it perilous. As the night gets deeper, we find a roadside restaurant to eat just before Gajraula. It is without charm but there is no other.
This last and short stage is going smoothly despite a chaotic traffic approaching Delhi, especially in Ghaziabad. We get back at the starting point having traveled a total of 1800 km. This trip went perfectly despite the risks of the monsoon.