A trek to Gangotri, the mythical source of the River Ganges is more than just a hiking adventure in one of the most spectacular panoramas in the Indian Himalayas. It is an authentic and fascinating journey of the spirituality of India and its holy river.
My trip began in the holy city of Rishikesh and ended in the Gangotri glacier, considered one of the ‘true’origins of the Ganga, as the river is called by Hindus.
As a companion I chose the book “Sacred Water” (2001), written by Stephen Alter who was so brave and stubborn that he undertook the Char Dham Yatra, a pilgrimage to the four sources, completely on foot like the pilgrims in ancient times. The book has plenty of travel tips and exciting stories about myths and legends of the mountains and the valley of Uttaranchal.
Gaumukh glacier, the ‘mouth of the cow’
The trail follows the last 18 kilometers of the Bhagirati, the name of the Ganges here according to the mythology, and crosses the Gangotri National Park, an area of 1,553 square kilometers superbly decorated with coniferous forest, meadows and glaciers.
The sacred river of Ganges, worshiped by more than a billion people, flows from a glacier called Gaumukh. Translated to ‘mouth of a cow’, it is situated at an altitude of 3,890 meters at the foot of a perennial glacier known as Shivling (phallus of Shiva), which runs along the international border with China. The majesty of the landscape and the richness of its nature are extraordinary. I think it is one of the best hikes I have ever done in the Himalayas. The majestic view of the green forests, the snow clad mountains and the shining river stream below are simply amazing.
I started the trek at dawn from the small but crowded village of Gangotri. The day before, I received a permit from the Forest Department valid for two days for Rs. 600 (for foreigners, Rs. 150 for Indians). Each additional day costs Rs. 250 (or Rs. 50).
The trail begins behind a temple and after a kilometer it reaches a forest checkpoint. The pilgrims are asked to write down the number of plastic bags, bottles and other packaged food they are carrying. On their return they must show that they have brought these back with them. In the case you don’t have it anymore you have to pay a fine. It is an efficient solution to the problem of littering.
A 20 km trek across coniferous forests, meadows and streams
The distance to the glacier is around 20 kilometers and it is a gradual steady climb. It crosses many pine forests and small streams descending from the glaciers. At the half point when the altitude approaches the 4000 meters mark, the lack of oxygen begins to press on the lungs and on the temples. The search for the source of Ganga assumes a spiritual connotation.
First I reached Chirbasa (9km) and then the camp of Bhojbasa (14 km) where I spent the night in a dharamshala (hostel) of an old sadhu called Lal Baba. He is a sort of protector of the site and for many years he was the only one living here. Nowadays there are other rest houses that are a bit more comfortable, but always very basic.
From here the trek continues to Gaumukh, but it becomes really challenging. After a couple of kilometers the trail stops in front of a makeshift temple with many sadhus sitting around. The river here is about 10 meters wide and almost roars. A sign warns: ‘No entry’.
The Gaumukh glacier, an amphitheater of sand and brown ice, is visible at the end of the valley. Due to global warming, the glacier has been retreating every year and it is gradually drying up.
The mystery of the sources
I walked on the huge dry rock-covered area following the course of the river because there was no visible path. But instead of becoming smaller, the stream was full of milky water mixed with falling ice with a gloomy sound. The ‘mouth of the cow’ was there but it was difficult to see the exact point where the water flowed out. At one point I heard a deep rumble like an earthquake and after a few seconds in front of me a wall of stones and snow fell down. It scared me and so I decided to turn back. For the first time after many days, I went downstream.s
The origins of the Ganges will remain a mystery for me. But only now can I fully understand the words of Stephen Alter: ”For the pilgrim who travels to the headwaters of the Ganga, the journey upstream mirrors his search for God and the ambiguities of the source suggest the ultimate enigmas of the soul’’.
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