An Indian Odyssey: Gangotri – Gaumukh

An Indian Odyssey

Gangotri – Gaumukh, May 14 – 15

I left Gangotri behind and with it 99 % of the pilgrims. Only the hardcore devotees ventured beyond, mostly to Gaumukh Glacier (the Cow’s Mouth – where Ganga emerges from the Glacier), but a tiny few up to Tapovan. Among these hardy souls were dozens of citizen pilgrims and saddhus (holy men), some who had walked the full 250kms from the foothills, barefoot, with simply a water jug and maybe a blanket or rug. Although I didn’t see one, I read that some will make the entire journey through a continuous succession of prostations, laying flat out time after time, until they reach their goal. These one percenters were seeking a serious spiritual bonus, for, Depending on who you speak to, it is said that a dip in Ganga Ma at Gaumukh will save you from any future rebirth. Pity I’m not a believer as I took a dip at Gaumukh and all I got was an immediate splitting headache and near disappearance of private bits!


There’s a lot of this ‘depending on who you speak to’ going on when you ask questions about the Ganges or it’s spiritual connections. Even when it comes to the relatively simple question of “where is the source of Ganga?" To that question one receives several different answers: 4 – 7 spiritual sources; one map answer (Devprayag); and one geographic source. That’s why for my answer to where is the true geographic source of Ganga Ma, I relied on a BBC documentary team which said Tapovan is my answer.

Tapovan is an alpine meadow up at 4500 metres, 600 odd metres above Gaumukh, and surround by immense Himalayan peaks including Mt Shivling, the lingam (phallus) of Shiva, the destroyer of the ego and ultimately of the universe.

Meanwhile, getting back on track, the trail levelled out into a relatively gentle, if rocky, incline. It would continue in this fashion for the next 19 km at which point it would reach Gaumukh. From there it was a far different story, and at a significantly higher elevation. My lungs would be put to the test once again in this thin mountain air.

I was told that this is a chamelon – he ain’t doing a very good job!


I’ve done a lot of hiking over the years but there’s one aspect that still greatly freaks me out: the crossing of rivers via rickety logs. There were several of these. I approach them with wariness, steady myself, step up and set off. But I never know whether to go quickly and confidently or slowly and surely. With a backpack full of camera gear and an icy stream below it’s never an appealing prospect to slip. I always seem to picture this ‘slip and dip’ in my mind as I’m crossing – surely not good sports psychology. I inevitably end up taking the mini-step approach, being over cautious and then, when about 2/3rds of the way across involuntarily making a very ungraceful dash for the far side, arms flailing, mind racing, and heart pounding. Safe again.

But there was one enjoyable benefit to the river crossings. I was finally able to drink fresh water directly from the streams. It’s not Ganga water yet but it’s a sweet change to bottled water and my contribution to non-biodegradable plastics going to landfill.

Rockslides are very common especially during the monsoon season.

The 3 Bhagirathi peaks in the distance at the head of valley – the fading sunlight, out of view to me, rakes across the top of the cloud cover above and behind me and spectacularly illuminates their pointed peaks while all else remains in shadow.

After 7 hours, 14 kms, innumerable landslides and about 6 nerve-fraying log crossings, I arrive at Bhojbasa. Bhojbasa feels like something out of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie with an almost moonlike atmosphere. Set in a crater-like depression in the valley, it is relatively barren yet massive mountains tower all around. In the distance at the head of the valley, past Gaumukh and up the glacier, stood the the three snow-covered Bhagirathi peaks: some sort of sentinel or god; commanding and sublime. And a planetarium of stars circled above while the full moon arced across the heavens.

Ganga glowing under a full moon while I froze waiting for the shoot – I wore 2 pairs thermal leggings, 4 thermal tops, 1 woolen top, 1 army jacket, 1 japara, 2 pairs gloves, 2 beanies, 2 socks. It was a tad cold.

A sign near Gaumukh.

Yes, that’s a human sitting in the contraption on this porter’s back – Jesu, better him than me!

This man shared his damper-like bread with me as we rested together.

His high tech footwear successfully took him to his goal. God, we westerners are soft!

And this man on the left, pulling the funny face for no known reason, was the Baba from the ashram where I had stayed at Bhojbasa the previous evening.

During my ‘rest day’ at Bhojbasa I headed for my ‘fall-back’ goal: Gaumukh. All the while from Gangotri I had been making enquiries as to the difficulty of the hike from Gaumukh up to Tapovan. While it was only a short distance, about 5 kms, it was the terrain, incline and particularly the elevation that concerned me most (especially given my inauspicious start from Gangotri!) It involved ascending the steep and landslide-prone ridge at the edge of the glacial face, boulder-hopping a couple of kilometres across the unstable glacial roof and then slipping and scrambling one’s way up beside and across a steep scree-filled one kilometre waterfall (a near vertical Ganga) atop which lay the peaceful and flat alpine meadow, Tapovan.

So my ‘rest day’ was one of acclimatisation and the short trip to Gaumukh to witness yet another spirtual source. The first four kilometres were similar to the previous day – rocky ground with a slight incline. I saw several mountain goats perform extraordinary feats of dexterity. Startled by me as I rounded a corner, one by one they calmly and easily negotiated a 5 metre high rock wall from top to bottom with a near vertical 80 degree slope. It was incredible to watch. The rock wall was relatively smooth yet they took each step as smoothly and surely, without hesitation, as if they were walking on flat ground.

Not so me. As I stepped down a small incline my right foot went from under me and I glided towards the cliff’s edge on my back. It all happened so quickly I had no time to freak out but I picked myself up very carefully as, just inches away, the cliff plummeted 250 metres down into the river. I walked on slowly, my mind now quickly filling with my imaginary fall from the heavens into the arms of Ganga Ma. I saw myself making a great splash, a fantastic schoolboy bomb, as I came down backpack first into the thrashing waters. Suddenly I was swallowed by Ganga and my world became a frothy creamy-brown. An eternity elapsed in my mind (while only 3 seconds in real time) before my lips broke the surface like a feeding fish and I sucked in precious O2. And then I was gone again for another eternity. This went on for some time while I struggled to free my arms from a lead-weight backpack which was looking for a home on Ganga’s stony floor. I had other places I preferred to stay for the night but I took some time to convince backpack to let me be. Eventually, backpack-free, I rose to the surface and, after bouncing from rock to rock like in a pinball machine, I left the game behind and entered a calm stretch where I was able to angle for the far riverbank and scramble out, alive but stranded. All this occurred in the space of about ten metres as I walked along – my own Boys’ Own Adventure in my mind!

Back in reality, About 1.5 km from the glacial face a sign painted on a rock denoted where the face had been in 1966. The last km was relatively hard going. Stones turned into rocks and rocks into boulders, part of a lateral moraine. And an official Forest Department sign declared that entry beyond the 500 m exclusion zone was strictly prohibited.

I love this guy’s pose. He’s one of the many pilgrims who asked for a portrait session!

Just my luck, 500 m prior to the face, a Forest Department officer enforced the declaration. No-one had told me of this and I was bitterly frustrated and disappointed that even my ‘fall back’ destination may be thwarted. Just as I arrived, the officer jumped up and ran swiftly in the direction of the face. It was impressive to see how quickly he covered the rocky ground. He had allowed a pilgrim to go closer as long as he stopped when the officer called out. The pilgrim had stopped, but only for a minute or two, and then made a daring dash for the face. By this time the officer had a lot of ground to cover and would probably not do so until the pilgrim was devotionaly ensconced beneath the face, staring right down the mouth of the cow. I wanted to be that pilgrim.

I took my chance, making the most of this opportunity, and dashing, not so gracefully as the officer, along Ganga’s rocky shoreline towards my goal. I figured by the time the officer caught and began to return the offender I would be at least half way there, and from there it was unknown – I would hide or feign innocence and claim my birthright to knowingly risk my life as I saw fit. The returning officer, already pissed, was not impressed to see me and waved me back. Time to play the innocence card. But surprisingly the offender piped up, enthusiastically expounding on the dangers of such a visitation and declaring that I could not proceed. But hold on, hadn’t he just done exactly that. “Yes, but I was caught and now I am to be punished accordingly.” I wasn’t sure what this punishment would entail and wasn’t really interested. I explained that my sole purpose for traveling thousands of kilometres from Australia at great time and monetary expense was to visit and experience this site, not from some bureaucratically ordained safe-distance but from the distance that was necessary for my fulfilment. I explained that I was aware of the inherent dangers of approaching a glacial face, that I would take precautions and that in the unfortunate event that I may die, so be it, I die. Again the offender enthusiastically piped in, agreeing wholeheartedly with my sentiment. It was rather amusing and, although I knew my current attempt would probably be thwarted, I also knew that to ascend to Tapovan one had to enter the 500 metre exclusion zone, so, if not today, I could return the following day via a slightly different path. The officer won today’s battle and my close-encounter with nature on a grand, intimate, frightening and mesmerising scale would have to wait.

The face of Gaumukh Glacier, about 300 metres tall. Notice the forest officer escorting the pilgrim back (about a third of the way up the pic on the left) – and they are a couple of hundred metres from the face, so you can imagine the relative size.

Here it is, the actual Gaumukh (Cow’s Mouth). You can see Ganga spewing forth at the base of the face. And notice the scars of landslides at my feet.

So instead of visiting the glacier’s face at ground level I ventured up the glacial ridge-line which would enable me to get closer to the face but from a higher perspective, out of the way of massive rock and ice falls. I was standing atop the slender and curvy ridge-line – curvy because this is where landslides had taken several bites out of it. It was beautiful to look over the edge, but nerve-wracking. Wide, long gashes in the rock and ice scarred the slope. Looking left to right I could see cornices (like in the snowfields where you see a slope’s edge severely undercut) and suddenly realised that I may be standing on one and about to take an unwanted slippery dip at an unannounced time. Landslides and rock falls are much more common under the afternoon sun, as the ice begins to thaw and shift. It was well into the afternoon. And the thought that a landlside might well be precipitated by the smallest grain of rock shifting its weight added to my excited terror. I stepped back for a moment to gather my breath and thoughts. But like a curious child I kept returning to the edge, surveying the scene, and riding the high wave of potential danger.

The towering glacial face was a dirty bluish-white with striations of ingrained dirt and thick slivers just waiting to crash down onto the river below, one layer at a time as the glacier ground forward millimetre by millimetre over the days and months and years. Rocks big and small, freed from their hold of how many years I don’t know, crashed down violently into the river below. And all this while there was just me, the glacier, the river and the mountains, sitting together under a sky building with the regular afternoon clouds.























Pic shrunk due to public health concerns. Sorry folks, couldn’t resist a nature swim at The Cow’s Mouth…and partially sharing it with you! 🙂 

Walking back alone to Bhojbasa, I was aware I had experienced something extraordinarily special during the previous hours.  Everything came to life for me. The multitude of rocks, each with a different pattern and hue, glowed. The temple flag danced for me. And the river sung its usual song with new tenderness.

Near day’s end, as the clouds closed in as they often did, a lone saddhu continued on towards the glacier, placing faith before common sense. While a non-believer myself, I was developing a real respect for the power of faith, however misplaced I felt it may be. The pilgrims have such a strong faith and belief in the spiritual benefit of visiting these sacred sites that they achieve feats far greater than your average human, despite being entirely inappropriately attired according to western and contemporary hiking standards.

That evening I had still not made up my mind whether I would attempt to ascend to Tapovan. The heart was willing but the mind was weak. I was most concerned about my ability to breath under the strain of vertical ascent. Secondly, Given their famous reputation for carrying packs twice their body weight and their near mountain-goat abilities to scale rocks, I was a little worried that my guide would disappear ahead at an alarming rate. And finally I was a little concerned about the weather which had closed in heavily that afternoon. But I was assured all would be clear in the morning. And so that night, after chanting followed by a dinner of rice and dhal, eaten while sitting barefoot in an open-air courtyard in 5 degree temperature, I made the mental call and organised a guide for the trek.

2 thoughts on “An Indian Odyssey: Gangotri – Gaumukh

    1. Hunter G Post author

      …hey Doctor,

      and there’s more to come. check back in a few days and I should be up to date.

      you still coming to melb? I should be back by mid July if I can sort out the Singapore-Melb leg of my flight.



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