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Gangaajal at Gaumukh

Prologue 

Journey… When does one begin a Journey? But before answering that one needs to understand what a journey is. For me, it is going from one place to another in entirety, physically or otherwise. And starting point could be anywhere and not necessarily when the physical journey starts. 

Himalaya…‘Himalaya’ began to acquire new meaning for me only after I began to consciously understand, perceive spirituality. Until then, till few years back – it was just a mountain. On the couple of previous occasions when I was in Himalayas, I had tried to ‘feel’ Himalaya but without any success. It remained just another mountain.  

After becoming aware of my spiritual dimension - an ardent desire – a burning passion had taken over to roam Himalaya but it lay buried somewhere deep for years. It would surface time and again but due to practical considerations it was pushed aside each time to the extent that it had become something vague. 

Ganga….With Ganga, it was to happen much later. None of my previous journeys to Ganga had made any difference to my perception of the divine river. Perhaps because it was not a journey - it was only physical transportation of the human body on all previous occasions. But somewhere along the way, a deep desire to traverse the entire course of the river was taking shape. Start at Gaumukh and end at Calcutta. Perhaps one day.

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Books…On one of my usual expeditions to a book exhibition, I picked up a book on Ganga and from the synopsis it looked like a travelogue across the Ganga. Started reading the book and it turned out to be about traveling across Char Dhams and panch Kedars on foot rather than about traveling along the river.  One thought strongly took hold during the entire reading process- I have to be there and do the entire Yatra on foot.  

Doubts…Can I? With no trekking experience- not used to the cold and so many many other issues, Can I, Will I ever? Well, it can remain an unfulfilled dream. So be it.  

This was in early 2006. 

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Journey begins?…Mid 2006, out of the blue, got a mail from L asking if I would be interested in joining them on a char dham yatra. I could not believe it, surprised that they asked me. Since last few years, we had very little contact in the normal sense of the term. Very few, occasional mails. No chat. No mail forwards. Maximum one hour meeting when they were in India. And yet was not really surprised.  

Asked them umpteen questions – seeking so many clarifications – if it had been anyone else in their shoes, they would have gladly killed me and washed off the sins in the Ganga dip later. J But not these two – their answers, clarifications, outlook, mindset- yes these are the people I would like to go to Himalaya and Ganga with. Till now, had always thought that I would be going to Himalaya alone – after all where will I find someone on the same plane on this planet. I would not be going alone after all.  

Some more doubts…Kept deliberating - will I get along with them; I do not know K at all and L may have changed much in the intervening years, what about her parents. Never met them really and then financial constraint, work front – will I get so many days leave, health, family matters at home, kept deliberating endlessly before succumbing! I suppose what made me completely trust them was seeing them in India. We had almost always met at temples and after seeing them there, it would be impossible not to trust them blindly. And another clinching issue- well what the hell- I am quite crazy and reckless anyway! 

Or does the Journey begin now?…The day I sent the mail that yes I would be joining them is a moment etched very very deep. And no, there were no doubts left that I would be going and completing the journey with them. Do not remember when and what I said in the mail but the exhilaration I felt after pressing the send button on the mailbox - when I think about it, I still want to jump up in sheer abundant joy. The journey had begun. Or had it begun when I bought the book? Or when the first stirrings to visit Himalaya had taken root? Or will it truly begin only on the day we start since till now it was all planning at the mental/spiritual level? When does a journey truly begin? Lifetimes are journeys too and one does not know when they begin when they end. Are all journeys mere reflections of that? One cannot really know where they begin? And end? Of course this is as per my definition of a journey.  

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GAUMUKH 

First few steps…Finally, we boarded the train in Mumbai. All the anxieties retuned. The state of mind and the train AC that I am so unused to even after innumerable trips – resulted in a severe cold by the time we got off at Delhi. The Delhi heat, chores to be completed in Delhi, rushing in the evening to Meerut to attend a function, leaving for Hardwar in the wee hours of the morning, a quick dip in the Ganga and another long trip to Bhaironghatti – cold obviously did not get better. 

But somehow, somewhere on reaching Bhaironghatti things fell into place. Was not aware of the nasal cold, if there was any, but very much aware of the biting cold by now. Somehow the place made one so comfortable and welcome. Dinner with the group also made one feel completely at ease. And without my realizing or being aware of it, the anxieties had vanished. And may be that’s why the nasal cold. K went to sleep early. L and I started packing/unpacking in the dark with lanterns for light. It’s so wonderful to be in such a remote place with just basic amenities. Was so elated and felt so wonderful to be here with the right people. Went to sleep with thoughts about next day’s trip surfacing time and again in the form of vague fears/apprehensions – but that did not disturb my sleep. Some places, people do that, I guess. 

On the way…In the morning, we left for Gangotri from where we were to start climbing for Gaumukh. On reaching Gangotri, we came to know after few inquiries that there were no mules for the rest of the day or not until 10 a.m. at least. But somehow in the entire process of trying to arrange for means to go to Gaumukh, we ended up attending the aarti at Gangotri. Only few people – morning sunlight – quiet except sound of aarti – chanting. Sheer bliss! Who cared if we got mules or not? Who cared if we went to Gaumukh or not? Wanted to touch Ganga but there was no time and thought I would do that when back from Gaumukh.  Somehow, we managed to find people and mules and started our climb. Why does one say ‘somehow’- was the entire thing not ordained by Him? To make us understand the value of what we were getting? We would not realize the import of having mules and people till much later. The very first few steps were a nightmare. Looked up at the horizon – the skyline, the tough terrain, took few steps.  Another look, now I see the mules, L and K already a few feet away. Some more steps.

Have not physically prepared for the climbs in the past few months unlike L and K. Gosh, if I cannot even climb this much without getting breathless..? Panic struck. The mule drivers told L that I should walk faster or mount mules else we will not be able to make it at all.  Putting aside all aspirations to climb all the way, mounted the mule. After all, wasn’t too sure myself if I could actually climb?  

After going a little further, we got off the mules to have tea or something. Do not remember why.  The mule driver suggested I start walking when the mules were being fed and they would catch me on the way few minutes later. This is perhaps the signal I was waiting for. By now there were no fears. No, nothing.

And with the assured feeling that the mules will catch up with me soon, started walking. The speed at which I was going was amazing for me. The ease was confusing. Waited couple of times for the others to catch up and than abandoned all such thoughts. Started walking. Normal speed. And yet was going too fast.  Have never felt so comfortable.  Of course, this is home. This is Himalaya- every step is reassured. Every stone is trusted. The air that I breathe has touched Himalaya. Every breath is breath of life. Was soaking it all, everything in.  

Waited at a couple of spots, for others to catch up. Saw them, waved and rushed. Gaumukh was calling. Sun glasses were pinching- took them off. No sun screen lotion had resulted in sun burnt face. Even after looking at my totally sun burnt hands did not understand/could not understand anything. Had no idea. Could not care less. Gaumukh was calling. I had no water. Nowhere could I pick it up. Wait for the others to pick up water from them? And what if I cannot continue after that? And have to mount a mule? No! Gaumukh was calling. 

Bhojbhasa too is Gaumukh…Reached Bhojbhasa. Here we come, Gaumukh. Cannot believe I am here. Took off shoes, and made myself comfortable in one of the dhabas. Did I have tea? No idea but I think I did. Was waiting for the others. Finally, they were there - sitting at a table in another dhaba. Rushed to them and animatedly talked about how we could still make it to Gaumukh the same day and could even try Tapovan. No response. Odd, this is not what I was expecting. Quite odd. L was resting her head on the table and K was looking a bit lost. Their odd behavior was soon explained- slowly lifting up her head, L explicitly informed me that things were not all right with them. Both were suffering from altitude sickness. K had sun burns too. Of course the seriousness had not yet sunk in. 

Went and hired a tent. We retired to the tent with the entire luggage. K immediately went off to sleep. L and I were sitting outside the tent. Talking, sipping tea made by Ramdas baba’s people. Was putting more and more woolens and within few hours had all the woolens that I was carrying and still feeling cold! Shifting chair to avoid the wind did not help much either.

The cold was getting worse but L was feeling better. Could see Ganga flowing, the mountains, each different from other. Wished to bring family here. To witness the sheer majesty and divinity of this place. May be someday I’ll come here and put up a tent and stay here for a few days - at the end of the season to avoid other travelers.  

It was getting dark and L asked Baba for all possible options to go back. We might have to use one of the options in case K’s health did not improve. Baba gave some answers and than started talking about God and faith and karma. I was listening without participating. L made some comments about karma to make a point to Baba. Wanted to tell her to ask the next question to herself and carry that thought process further and than then she would get a different answer. But something disturbing about Baba and the timing made me stop. (Although he was a very nice person, later we both agreed that he was probably drunk. My holding back in that conversation was probably due to that.) In spite of the sleeping bag, it was horribly cold. Drifted off to sleep finally, with some vague awareness of the cold, Himalayas, others…. 

Next morning, I realized how desperately I wanted to go to Gaumukh. As per our understanding with the guides, they would come in the morning and accompany me to Gaumukh.  They came. L coaxed and convinced me to go- not that I need much anyway. Left for Gaumukh with the intention to return fast – keep the trip as short as possible. The trip was so much easier. No dangers at all. Wondered why this stretch of four kilometers is considered the toughest of the total eighteen. This was a breeze, a cakewalk. As usual I wanted to get off the horse and rush. Did not. Finally, reached. Finally Gaumukh. Wanted to keep soaking it all in. The thirst of so many years – lifetimes - eons was not going to be satiated easily, quickly. 

And yet there was no exhilaration. Since this trip was planned, Gaumukh was the only important place for me. All others– well. Had thought that I would probably be overjoyed, cry, tears, melt at the first sight of Gaumukh.  Nothing of the sort happened. Yes, this was beautiful but only as much as the rest of the Himalaya and Ganga had been on the way. Yes, it is more beautiful, more sacred, more everything and yet the first sight and few moments after that were not earth shattering.   Was alone on the terrain. None of the other tourists I had met on the way had made it here yet. The guides were sitting behind on the rocks a little further away from the shore - chatting- observing me. Warned me not to go and touch the Gaumukh. Not that I had any intention – not this time. That will have to wait till the next time. Cannot take any risks today.  

Walked to the shore and touched the Ganga. Took the water in my hand. Overwhelmed. Put it on my head- no idea why. Did not immerse my feet – did not want to touch her with my feet. This is where it all began. This is where they all walked in another era – Bhagirath and all the gods and…  And I was called here. I was here. Blessed!   Does one think? Does one feel? Can one be in one’s senses? Using sense organs- faculties normally? Can one be aware?  

But had to think – had to move – be aware of the physical body and perform all the deeds that one had to. Thought of everyone – L & K – her parents- my family – friends – and touched the water on their behalf.  Would anyone of them understand what it meant to be there as part of a thought? Whether one was there physically ever in a lifetime or was carried as a thought- a wave? The thought vibration that would be left there for a long, long time and that they would be present – breathing – in Gaumukh as a thought- as a vibration as pure energy for years to come? Will their soul be touched- changed due to this thought?  Took a deep breath – gazed into her depths- the power of her currents – looked down at the bottom of river- Gaumukh, the ice- and at that moment for me she became Ganga from ‘river Ganges’.  

Till this moment all the reverence for Ganga was just intellectual. Now, it went into the very being. From now on, she would be living within me.  

Started on the way back. Not a soul except me and the guides during my time at Gaumukh. He knew why I had to be alone here and He had arranged it so. 

Met some people on the way back-had they made it a few minutes earlier we would have been at Gaumukh to gather. Halted on the way back at a dhaaba – had tea and moved on. From a few feet away, still riding the mule, could see K sitting outside the tent. Was thrilled, obviously, he was feeling much better than when I had left. This was undoubtedly the best sight after Gaumukh :)  Packed and left the place in a manner of speaking- somehow I related as much to Bhojbhasa as to Gaumukh. Being so close, so much an extension of the beings called Himalaya and Ganga, how could it be any less than Gaumukh?  

Now I realized why I have been relating so much to the place.  After all, Bhojbhasa is another Gaumukh. 

A fitting finale…Almost there, only a little further, that’s it and we’ll reach…reached Gangotri.. only a kilometer more perhaps. … now we could see the town silhouette in the dusk light… very close… and than we started hearing the sound of aarti. We, all three, walked fast, skipped a few steps, – and rushed to the temple. The only thought was to attend the aarti. All pain, worries were forgotten in a split second. Only frenzied thought was to attend in the aarti. Reached the temple…Aarti was going on. Just threw away my jacket and belt pack on the parapet and sat down there feeling lighter. Threw off the shoes – toes were paining like crazy. Was not aware of anything after that. Just the sound of aarti. It was dark. People were standing. L and K were sitting somewhere. This is so pure, so beautiful. Have I attended such an aarti before? Yes, so many. Better than this one. And, yet.  

I will have to come and spend more time in Gangotri. Have proper darshans and bathe in the hot water spring there. Made plans mentally to go to Tapovan and Nandanvan soon. As soon as possible. Talked to the guides as if my next visit was going to be real soon, as if it was absolutely confirmed. Well, it is. I will be there. No idea how soon but yes it will happen.  Standing in the parking lot just outside the town, made a phone call and spoke to people at home. Had not spoken for 2- 3 days now. All was not well on home front. Got in the car where others had been patiently waiting for me to finish my phone call and payments. All worries about home were immediately put aside, on its own without any effort to push them aside.  

Things happen. One learns to take it in one’s stride.  Finally left Gangotri.  

Who has come back?…Reached Bhaironghatti, had dinner and saw in the mirror how sun burnt my face was. As circumstances would have it, was not going to look at myself in the mirror for a long time after this. Who cared? After all this was not the person that had left this place one day before. Was there anyone left at all?  

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