• Adventure
  • 11 November, 2019

Pilgrimage to the Source of the Ganga

Pilgrimage to the Source of the Ganga
Photo by Trixie Pacis

The sacred Ganga flows through India and is worshipped as its lifeblood. Indeed, the river is a source of life. The Ganga also brings life full circle through the cremation ceremonies that light its banks.

Mythology explains that Lord Shiva created the Ganga from a lock of hair in a mountain town called Gangotri. Geological evidence shows that the Ganga actually starts at Gaumukh Glacier, 18 kilometres upstream. Many people trek from Gangotri to Gaumukh, both those on pilgrimage to the source of the Ganga to hikers seeking adventure in India’s Garhwal Himalaya. 

Backpackers and pilgrims alike brave the narrow, twisting roads to reach this gateway to the Himalaya. It is a roughly 16-hour bus or Jeep journey from Delhi. Gangotri lies at an elevation of 3,100 metres, and is most easily reached via bus and/or shared Jeep through the towns of Rishikesh and Uttarkashi, where permits for Gaumukh can be obtained. Gangotri is a scattering of low pastel buildings beneath a backdrop of pines and peaks. Its cobbled streets are lined with shops and guesthouses.

Gangotri. Photo by Trixie Pacis

Descending from the bus, the scent of pine mingles with incense and from roasting on open fires. The heart of town lies where the market, river, and temple intersect. The temple was built in the 19th century by Nepali general Amor Singh Thapa. It is a hive of activity, full of tourists and Hindu devotees plunging into the icy river for a ritual bath. Those embarking on the pilgrimage trek must first weave through a tangle of ascetics, tourists, and pilgrims, which only accentuates the resounding silence of the trail further on.

Day 1: Gangotri to Bhojbasa

The moderate trail to Gaumukh is 18 kilometres each way. The path climbs from Gangotri to a final elevation of 4,023 metres. It begins at a checkpoint where officials review your permit and count the number of plastic items you have with you and make you pay a deposit (which is refunded once you return with the same number of items) before you may enter Gangotri National Park.

The marked trail follows the river and climbs gradually from there. It is generally wide and smoothed out by caravans of pilgrims, porters, and luggage-bearing donkeys. There are some steep sections, some bridges crossing streams, and areas where one should be cautious of rockfall.

The hike takes a straightforward route along one winding valley, but stunning new peaks and views materialize along the way. The topography also changes, with patches of forest sprouting up in places such as Chirbasa (3,580 metres). This point is located around 9 kilometres from Gangotri, and is equipped with a tea stand that serves noodles. Flat tent sites make it a good place to refuel or spend the night.

After Chirbasa, the trail turns into a desolate rockscape of towering peaks and jagged boulders. Snow-capped peaks appear on the horizon. We were overtaken by a pilgrim walking the trail barefoot, his orange robes flashing against the backdrop. 

One last push along the 5-kilometre stretch between Chirbasa and Bhojbasa (3,775 metres) led us atop a ridge overlooking Bhojbasa. The settlement was dotted with temples, ashrams, and lodgings offering dorm-style accommodation. We carried our own tent and supplies in order to spend our two nights at a riverside campsite, with the mighty Bhagirathi thundering along the valley and the massive twin peaks of Parbat I and II looming beyond.

Photo by Trixie Pacis

Day 2: Exploring Gaumukh

As the sun warmed our tent and coaxed us out, we stepped out into the most striking scenery—magnificent peaks and the rushing Bhagirathi. In addition to unbeatable views, the campsite offered the convenience of fresh glacial water (we used a filter to sift out sediment). After cooking breakfast by the river, we embarked on a day trip to Gaumukh.

The trail picks up behind the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam building and is well-marked by trail markers, prayer flags, cairns, and the footprints of other trekkers. The path has some steep segments and requires some scrambling. Shortly after leaving Bhojbasa, Mount Shivling comes into view. It is a handsome peak that rises up from Tapovan meadow across the river.

The three-hour trail leads right to the sources of the Ganga (4,023 metres). It was named Gaumukh, meaning cow’s mouth, for its snout-like shape. Gaumukh is mentioned in the ancient Puranas, Sanskrit texts. It is said that a shepherd boy first discovered and named the glacier, and pilgrims have been coming ever since.

Gaumukh feels like a remote mountain paradise, but like the rest of the world, it too is a victim of climate change. The glacier retreats at a rate of 15 metres per year, according to the Journal of the Geological Society of India. To trek so far from society but see how humanity’s footprint extends was a stark reminder that we must fight preserve our planet and all its wild places.

Whether or not you pack your own food, don’t miss dinner at one of Bhojbasa’s ashrams. As the sun sinks, devotees lay down burlap sacks and stainless steel plates and invite all to enjoy generous portions of rice and dal under a changing sky. 

Shivling Peak. Photo by Trixie Pacis

Day 3: The Return Journey

With more time and the requisite permits, we would have trekked beyond the glacier to Tapovan meadow and the many vast peaks encircling it. Tapovan offers a base-to-summit view of Mount Shivling (6,543 metres) and access to other Himalayan peaks such as Meru (6,660 metres), also known as the Shark’s Fin.

But as we retraced our steps, the valley offered brand new views. The gently winding path led us through Chirbasa in walking states of meditation, striving for satsang (being in company of the truth). It wasn’t long before we were crossing the main square. Our trekking poles suddenly felt out of place as Gangotri Temple sparkled white against a backdrop of pines. Waves of vibrant saris flowed to and fro, echoing the ceaseless rhythm of a sacred river.

We crossed Gangotri’s modest iron bridge, past two smiling girls carrying tiffin boxes. Below, garments that had escaped bathing pilgrims sailed over rapids and clung to rocks. The path continued straight to Ganga Niketan Guesthouse, where the Rawat brothers’ familiar faces and steaming bowls of more delicious dal greeted us warmly. When it feels bittersweet to emerge from the mountains, a hearty dose of Indian hospitality can offer relief.

Before bidding Gangotri farewell, we paid a visit to the Bhagirath Shila. The stone supposedly marks the place Goddess Ganga made her first worldly appearance. Birds chirped and temple bells chimed. As we stood by the river and watched it swirl by, we offered up thanks to mother nature for carving out such a splendid and spiritual corner of the world.

Tips

  • Permits for Gaumukh are mandatory and can be obtained online or in person from the District Forest Office in Uttarkashi or Gangotri. Permits are issued on a first-come-first-serve basis until the daily limit is reached.
  • Best time to go: May to June, August to October
  • Accommodation: Dorm-style lodgings and food can be found in Bhojbasa. You may camp by the river at Bhojbasa or in Tapovan meadow with the requisite permit.
  • Bring cash in small denominations for the checkpoint, lodging, and meals.
  • There are clean water sources feeding into the Bhagirathi River before reaching Gaumukh. They are perfect for refilling re-usable water bottles. 
  • Be aware of weather conditions, as the trail is in a landslide zone and the river can rise.
  • Prepare for high elevations and altitude sickness. It is recommended to acclimatize in Gangotri prior to embarking on the trek.
  • Gear and food provisions can be purchased at the market and the outdoor store in the centre of Gangotri, but the selection is limited.
  • As a pilgrimage town, accommodation in Gangotri can book up during holidays and peak season.

Article and photos by Trixie Pacis

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