Above Gosaikunda: Highland of Sacred Alpine Lakes
The crystal clear still water of Gosaikunda Lake in Langtang National Park is a well known destination in Rasuwa District for trekkers and pilgrims alike. Gosaikunda, “Holy Lake of the Lord of Senses.” A ‘kunda’ is not any kind of lake, but actually refers to the holy dipping tank at a Hindu temple used for ritual cleansing before performing puja, manmade or natural. Many refer to Gosaikunda as “Frozen Lake” due to its freezing over in the middle of winter, though the extent of freezing is lesser each year due to climate change. The holy lake is situated in Rasuwa District, which means “Sheep Grazing Land” in the local Tamang language, apt as many shepherds take advantage of the high pastures, not only for sheep and goats but horses and yaks as well.
According to Hindu tradition there are 108 lakes in the Gosaikunda area, owing to the astrological significance of 108 as the multiplication of the planets (9) and Zodiac houses (12), of which Gosaikunda is the primary holy site. Of this multitude of alpine lakes, Bhairab Kunda, Surya Kunda, Chandra Kunda, Saraswati Kunda, and others are within one to two hours walk of Gosaikunda. Inner peace is assured for those who rest awhile at any of these serene clear ponds that reflect the sky above and the mind within. One reason Gosaikunda is considered holy for devotees of Lord Shiva is that the lake itself resembles an enormous yoni-lingam, the symbolic representation of creative feminine shakti energy in union with the active masculine shiv energy, a small rock island in the center.
Trekkers should properly acclimatize before reaching the high alpine lake, as it is perched at 4380 meters elevation. The area around Gosaikunda has been designated as an internationally important wetland according to the UNESCO Ramsar Convention, with various species of migratory birds dependent upon the waters in the catchment area, including the Brahmani Duck, Brown Dipper, White-capped Water Redstart, common teal and others. Gosaikunda is fed by a triple-tapped spring, aptly called Trishul Dhara (Trident Spout), the ultimate source of the Trishuli River system.
Walking to Gosaikunda
The trek up to the Gosaikunda watershed, while arduous, is stunningly beautiful, stirring the soul in the quiet way that only nature can. The area may be accessed by climbing up from Dhunche or Shabru Besi in the west or crossing the Lauribina Pass in the east. Either route may be connected with the other in order to make the trek into a loop, taking ten to twelve days: five to six days up, an extra day at Gosaikunda, and another four or five days down.
The eastern route to Gosaikunda has two approaches. The first is to start from the Kathmandu Valley via the Shivapuri National Park entrance at Sundarijal or Budhanilkantha, over the northern ridge of the Kathmandu Valley, to Kutumsang, up the Phedi Valley to Gopte, and finally over the Lauribina Pass, where one is rewarded by meeting the pristine Surya Kunda and Ganesh Kunda lakes. The other way to Gopte and Lauribina Pass begins at the bottom of the Helambu Valley via the bus stop at Timbu, a five-hour drive northeast from Kathmandu. The trail passes massive construction for the Melamchi Water Project bringing drinking water to Kathmandu, gradually ascends to Melamchigaon, winds up an enchanting forest to Thadepati (3640m), on to Gopte and the Lauribina Pass, which at 4610 meters elevation marks the entrance to the Gosaikunda wetland area and is the highest point on the trek for most visitors.
The climb from the west takes begins in either Thunche or Shabru Besi, via an 8 to 10 hour drive from Kathmandu through Trishuli Bazaar in Nuwakot District. By accepting a challenging shortcut uphill, it is possible to climb directly from Dhunche to Sing Gompa (3254m). Shing Gompa or “wooden monastery” refers to the original temple built over one hundred years ago, but completely destroyed by fire. It is worth it to take an extra day and ascend first to Thulo Shabru from Shubru Besi to acclimatize and enjoy a trail that winds through lush forests of ningala (small bamboo), red laligurans (rhododendron) trees with smooth bright pink bark, deodar cedars – the trees of the gods (deo means divine, dara means wood), and dhoop (juniper) tree, named due to its pungent smoke used as cleansing incense, varieties of pungent herbs such as titepati (mugwort), and orchids perched wherever life offers a niche.
The forested area before reaching Sing Gompa from the west is known as Chandan Bari, or Sandalwood Gardens, though the sandalwood trees were harvested long before. Local cheese is available at the dairy in Sing Gompa, as in Kyanjin Gompa further north in Langtang Valley. The trail then ascends to Lauri Binayak (3920m), with unforgettable panoramic Himalayan views from the Annapurna massif in the west to Langtang and Dorje Lhakpa in the west, and finally passes by Saraswati Kunda on the way up to Gosaikunda.
The Legend of Gosaikunda’s Origin
Many eons ago, when the gods were performing Samudra Manthan to extract amrita nectar from the ocean, the entire universe became threatened by the highly poisonous byproduct, which threatened the existence of the gods themselves. They requested Lord Shiva, the god of power and destruction, for assistance. He swallowed and held the burning poison in his throat, which stained it blue, thus earning him the name Nilkantha, the Blue Throated One. However, Shiva became desperate for perfectly pure cold water to sooth his burning throat, so he stabbed his trident into the Himalayas. This act created the Trishul spring and three large basins, which filled with water and became Bhairab Kunda, Saraswati Kunda, and Gosaikunda, by which he cooled his throat and nullified the poison’s affects, saving the universe from annihilation by the poisonous substance.
Pilgrimage to the Sacred Lake
Each year during Janai (“Sacred Thread”) Purnima, the full moon of the lunar month of Shravan (July/August), thousands of Hindu pilgrims trek to the lake each year, some walking from Nuwakot or even Sundarijal for days practically without rest. They come to make offerings with aspirations to behold the image of Lord Shiva in the lake, to atone for misdeeds, meditate, and pray for the protection of the pure lake waters to cool the burning heat of their worldly burdens and cleanse them of the poison of negative deeds. Janai Purnima corresponds with the Newar holy month of Gunla, and the Raksha Bandhan festival when the devout wear blessed bracelets for protection, and important time for renewal and cleansing. On this day, Brahmin and Chettri men who wear sacred thread take a ritual bath and replace the thread with a fresh one.
Many pilgrims return home carrying jal (blessed water) from its source. Pilgrims also visit on the Ganga Dashahara, the 10th day of the lunar month Jyestha (May/June), which commemorates the Ganges River Goddess’ descent to the earth, as holy lakes and rivers are worshipped on this occasion.
The lake is not only held as sacred by Hindus, Buddhist, but by the local dhami-jakri (healer-shaman) community, which holds a large gathering each Janai Purnima, when various offerings are made to local spirits. The festival is important to the local communities for maintaining the well-being of the relationship between the human and spiritual worlds of the environment, natural deities, and ancestors who are believed to reside at the Trishul dhara.
Climbing Surya Peak
At 5145 meters, Surya Peak is a vigorous day trip ascent from Gosaikunda and offers breathtaking close-up mountain views, on top of the real sense of climbing a Himalayan peak. Our group of fifteen (three Nepali guides with twelve international trekkers) got an ill-advised late start from Gosaikunda around 8am, so by the time we reached the summit clouds had risen to obscure the view of the far off mountain ranges to the east and west. However, we were still rewarded with incredible close ups of imposing Langtang Ri (7205m) and Langtang Lirung (7234m) towering over us in the north.
Though Surya Peak does not require technical climbing skills, one should go with a guide to show the way, as it is not easy to follow the rock cairns amongst granite rock falls on the scramble up the boulder field. Loose sliding rocks require a slow careful ascent and add to a sense of danger to the adventure. A light snow greeted us as we returned to our campsite in Gosaikunda around 3pm, which felt like the gods were showering blessed white confetti down upon us to congratulate our success.
Whether or not one climbs Surya Peak, or is rewarded with light snow or blue skies, the blessings of sacred Gosaikunda are felt by all who visit – tourist and pilgrim alike.
This article and photos originally appeared in Issue 6 of Inside Himalayas magazine.