– a trip to the source of the mighty Ganges River in India.
The following story appeared in Edition #430 of ‘The Big Issue‘ magazine in 2013. All images and text Copyright Charlie Sublet and available for purchase.
Take Me To The River
ONE THING WAS certain. I definitely wasn’t coming to India as a ‘seeker’ looking for answers to some existential angst. I had done enough of that already. Instead, I came to seek the geographic source of the famous Ganges, or Ganga Ma, one of the holiest rivers in the world.
It had been 10 years since I was last in India. Stepping out of Delhi’s international airport, it all came flooding back: an onslaught of thick kerosene fumes mixed with dust, heat, noise and humanity. Exhausted workers slept on the highway’s narrow verge, stripped bare to their grimy skin except for tattered shorts.
From Delhi I headed for Gangotri, a town at the edge of the Himalayas. First, a train took me 250km northeast to the Ganges town of Haridwar; from there it was a 13-hour trip on an overcrowded bus. An hour into the journey, we passed through Rishikesh – yoga capital of the world and spiritual supermarket for the Western ‘seeker’ (where The Beatles came to meditate in 1968) – and then on to Gangotri, along a road only accessible for six months each year due to winter snow.
There were thousands of pilgrims at Gangotri, but that was nothing compared to numbers at the cities downstream. The prospect of an arduous 13-hour trip along narrow, winding, landslide-scarred rocky mountain roads had discouraged less hardy pilgrims. Yet each day dozens of buses, taxis and private cars arrived in the early morning, disgorging their devotional occupants at the end of Gangotri’s one and only street. For 99% of these pilgrims their goal was at the other end of this street: the Gangotri temple, one of the spiritual sources of the Ganges.
Like many religious tales, the legend of the Ganges is rife with violence, tragedy, intrigue, gargantuan figures and, of course, a moral. A potted version goes something like this: thousands of years ago in the Satya Yuga, or golden age, King Sagar ruled ancient Ayodhya (a city that still exists in modern-day Uttar Pradesh). When King Sagar’s favourite horse was stolen, he sent his 60,000 (yes, 60,000) sons to track it down. They roamed far and wide, and were eventually tipped off that it was in the cave inhabited by a sage called Kapila. So all 60,000 of them arrived unannounced, squeezed into the cave and confronted the priest. Kapila was a mighty figure and, being somewhat put out that his meditation had been disturbed, gave them one nasty, fuel-injected glare that reduced them to ashes.
King Sagar, upset at losing his 60,000 sons, forgot about his beloved horse and turned his attention to cleansing and freeing the souls of his boys. He was reliably informed by Kapila that the only way to do this would be to bring the heavenly river, Goddess Ganga Ma, to Earth. But he was also told that the force of the river’s arrival would destroy the planet, so an accomplice would need to be employed to soften her arrival. This was done, and the Ganges headed south from the heavens. In the Ganges’ ensuing journey, various delays were encountered. These are too numerous to outline here except to say that, on one occasion, a cow was involved, swallowing the river and stopping its release. And so, time and time again, the king had to keep trying to get the Ganges to Earth to free the souls of his flambéed sons.
Eventually a direct hit was achieved and the willing accomplice, the God Shiva, with his bountiful locks dreaded up to the roots, received the full force of the Ganges on his head. Shiva’s prodigious supply of hair split the single torrent of the Ganges into numerous tributaries before it finally touched down.
This legend is why so many pilgrims were flocking to Gangotri in buses, taxis and private cars. From the drop-off point it was a few hundred metres down the souvenir-laden street to the famous temple and nearby ghat (a set of steps to the river). But even this short distance was too much for some: they were carried in cane baskets on the backs of porters or in a palanquin (a covered seat) carried by four porters. On their way they might pick up some fruit’n’nut offerings for the gods or a high-end plastic container with screw-top lid in which to collect holy Ganges water – for sprinkling around the home and on relatives.
I wasn’t after a spiritual source. My quest was to visit the geographic source of the river, up in the Himalayas at an altitude of 4500m in an alpine meadow called Tapovan. Gangotri was at 3200m elevation and I had been told that one should not ascend more than 300m per day at high altitude to avoid altitude sickness. Some acclimatisation was required. So, perhaps, it was lucky that I had a serious bout of diarrhoea and needed three days of recovery, rehydration and acclimatisation in Gangotri.
On the fourth day I rose, a little slower than some other well-known prophet, pulled on my hiking boots and pack, pushed aside my infirmary door and ventured forth to achieve my goal. I was feeling good. Strong again, full of solids and ready for the 14km hike to Bhojbasa, a staging post for Tapovan. I strode confidently and briskly down the main street of Gangotri, feeling the pack comfortably formed around my back, leaving pilgrim after pilgrim in my wake. I bought the same devotional fruit’n’nut offerings (for me; not the gods) but didn’t invest in the screw-top container. Instead, I had an empty Yalumba Shiraz Chateau de Cask bladder.
Through the temple grounds I floated, past that easily attained spiritual source, out the back gate and up, up, up, up, up. There was no stopping this ‘up’ phase. But after only 150m I was left doubled over and emitting a strange wheezing sound. My lungs were paralysed and I was in trouble. The pathetic yet hilarious nature of my early demise gripped me, along with the vice on my chest. Perhaps it was karmic intervention for my lack of interest in the spiritual source and my self-assured arrogance as I strode through the temple grounds. I clung to the rock wall for support and waited, keeping panic at bay until I slowly recovered.
‘One foot in front of the other’: this had been my motto when I assessed the potential difficulties of this trip prior to committing. So, after some time, I threw one foot in front of the other, then the other, then the other, and continued to do so…at a much more sensible pace. It worked. Eventually, I reached the crest where the trail finally levelled out. Things felt possible again.
And so I left Gangotri behind, and with it the crowds. Only hardcore devotees ventured beyond to Gaumukh Glacier, another spiritual source. The trail levelled out into a relatively gentle, if rocky, incline. It would continue in this fashion for the next 19km, at which point it reached Gaumukh: ‘the Cow’s Mouth’ – the cow from the mythical story of the Ganges’ genesis.
The jagged Himalayan peaks, which I had first seen from more than 100km away as I jostled uphill in the bus, were now my close companions. Handsomely decorated donkeys loaded with supplies and the odd pilgrim occasionally passed, always walking straight at me until the last second. The trail was narrow and there were numerous steep cliffs, the river below varying between angry whitewash smashing against gargantuan boulders and placid streams meandering through rocky shoals.
And always there was the sound of the river. It was a powerful sensation to watch and hear these billions of gallons of water flow past on their 2525km journey, and to know the effect they would have on hundreds of millions of people. The river, even now in its first stages, was already rich with sediment washed from the surrounding glacial moraines. The sediment would be dumped across the plains below, the rice bowl of India, in which millions reside. Without the river and the monsoon, there would be none of it.
After seven hours, 14km and six nerve-fraying log-bridge crossings, I arrived at Bhojbasa, which resembled an outpost in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie. A few buildings lay plonked around a small area, and massive mountains towered all around, bearing the scars of regular landslides. In the distance, at the head of the valley, stood the three peaks of Bhagirathi, like imperious gods watching over their realm below. For two nights running, just before sunset, the sun’s rays travelled above the cloud cover and, while all else was in shadow, struck the three peaks, making them glow like precious stones, their aura radiating down the valley.
At sunset on the first night I ventured back up the nearby hill armed with camera gear and more clothing than I’d ever worn before: two pairs of hiking socks, two pairs of thermal leggings, four thermal tops, one woollen jumper, one heavy duty cotton army jacket, a japara, a turtleneck, two beanies and two pairs of gloves. This was needed when standing idle, waiting for time-lapse photographs to be completed. I wanted to capture this scene under a rising near-full moon. Repetitious and meditative pre-dinner prayer chants rolled up the hillside from the ashram below, a planetarium of stars circled above and the Ganges glowed through it all.
In stark and embarrassing contrast to my high-tech hiking gear was the pilgrims’ attire. They were prepared to wear to a glacier and beyond what we Westerners would possibly only wear close to home. It was hard, almost impossible, not to be affected by the spiritual tourism that surrounded me. While a non-believer myself, I was developing a real respect for the power of faith, however misplaced I felt it to be. The pilgrims have such a strong belief in the spiritual points scored by visiting these sacred sites that they will achieve feats far greater than your average secular human, despite being (from an alpine safety point of view) dressed entirely inappropriately.
While the average everyday-kinda-pilgrim was an average everyday-kinda-citizen in day-to-day life, India’s sadhus (holy men) were a different breed altogether. Having abandoned their families, worldly possessions and pursuits, most of them were accustomed to hard, ascetic living. I witnessed several of them walking the track barefoot, even up across the glacier, their feet hardened yet their faces soft with a peaceful, almost bewildered, expression. Many walked barefoot from the foothills with only a water jug and maybe a blanket. Others made the entire journey through a continuous succession of prostrations, lying flat time after time, until they reached their goal.
Given my inauspicious start from Gangotri, I took a rest day at Bhojbasa in order to acclimatise and increase my chances of making it to Tapovan. While it was only 11km from Bhojbasa to Tapovan, the total elevation gain was more than 650m, more than twice that recommended per day at high altitude. It involved ascending a steep, landslide-prone ridge, boulder hopping a couple of kilometres across the unstable glacial roof and then scrambling up a steep, scree-filled escarpment alongside a waterfall. Atop all this lay the peaceful and flat alpine meadow, Tapovan.
Along the trail, rocks coloured a rich, burned orange littered the ground. The last kilometre was hard going: stones turned into rocks, then rocks turned into boulders. A small makeshift temple to Shiva the Destroyer stood trackside with a sign at the entrance: ‘Please put off shoes here’. And an official Forest Department sign declared that entry beyond the 500m exclusion zone was strictly prohibited.
Just my luck: a Forest Department officer was actually there, in the middle of nowhere, to enforce the order. I was bitterly frustrated and disappointed. But then, just as I arrived, the officer jumped up and ran towards the glacier in pursuit of a runaway pilgrim who had made a daring dash so he could devotionally ensconce himself before the Cow’s Mouth amid a hailstorm of tumbling rocks.
I wanted to be that pilgrim.
I took my chance and dashed forward along the Ganges’ rocky shoreline towards my goal, hoping to elude the officer. Should I be spotted, I simply planned to feign innocence and claim my birthright to risk my life as I saw fit.
I was spotted. The returning officer, with pilgrim in tow, was not impressed. Surprisingly, the other offender also piped up, enthusiastically expounding on the dangers of such a visitation and declaring that I could not proceed. Hold on, hadn’t he just done exactly that? “Yes, but I was apprehended and am to be punished accordingly.”
I then explained that my sole purpose for travelling thousands of kilometres at great 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 died, so be it – I died. Once again, the offending pilgrim enthusiastically chipped in – this time agreeing wholeheartedly with my sentiments. It was rather amusing (as well as confusing), and although I knew my attempt had been thwarted, I also knew that I would return the following day via a slightly different path.
So, for the time being, I ventured up the glacial ridgeline enabling me to get closer to the face from a higher perspective, out of the way of massive rock and ice falls. But not necessarily out of the way of sudden landslides, the scars of which could be seen all around. It was beautiful and exhilarating, though also frightening, to look over the edge from the slender ridgeline. Long, wide gashes in the rock and ice scarred the slope. Looking left to right I could see where the ridge was severely undercut, and suddenly realised I might be standing on one such spot. Landslides are much more common in the afternoon sun as the ice begins to thaw and shift. And it was now well into the afternoon. I stepped back for a moment to gather my breath and thoughts. But then, like a curious child, I kept returning to the edge, surveying the scene and riding the high wave of danger.
At the base of the glacier, the Ganges burst forth from the Cow’s Mouth, finally (as the legend goes) making her first earthly appearance. For the next 20 minutes I sat back on a big rock that appeared to have no plans to travel and watched, munching on my devotional rations of cashews, dates and almonds.
The towering glacial face was a dirty bluish-white with striations of dirt and thick slivers of ice. These would crash down to the river below, one layer at a time as the glacier ground forward millimetre by millimetre. Rocks big and small tumbled down the surrounding slopes. It was just me, the glacier, the river and the mountains sitting together under a sky building with afternoon clouds.
Finally satisfied with my adventure, I headed down to the river and came across a soft sandy bend. An idea suddenly crossed my mind: I would take a plunge in the holy river, only 100m from the Cow’s Mouth…in my birthday suit. I knew if I began to analyse this decision my resolve would dissolve, leaving me paralysed and disappointed. Better to be paralysed by nature’s freezing temperature than by my habitual indecision. So I glanced around for onlookers (not knowing if it was highly disrespectful to bathe nude), stripped off and stepped forth. The river wrapped itself around my ankles like an icy vice but I continued before my mind or the vice could take hold. The river, being only knee deep, didn’t offer a swan-diving option so I simply dropped, prostrated myself and was fully submerged by the Ganges. And then, as quickly as it started, it ended – I was up on my feet and back on the sand, now with a splitting ‘frozen brain’ headache that threatened to snap off my frontal lobes like great chunks of glacial ice.
Surely I was due for some massive spiritual bonuses for bathing so close to the Cow’s Mouth (notwithstanding possible penalties for nudity). One pilgrim had assured me that by doing so I would be freed from future rebirths and would gain a place in nirvana. But, days later, another informed me that one had to plunge under the water 11 times to successfully reap that reward. Either way, it would have been wasted on me.
Walking back to Bhojbasa, however, I was aware I had experienced something extraordinarily special. And everything came to life for me: the multitude of rocks, each with a different pattern and hue, glowed; the temple flag danced for me; the Ganges sang her usual song with new meaning; and despite the late hour a solitary sadhu headed for the glacier, wrapped in glowing orange cloth.
That evening at the ashram, after chanting followed by a dinner of rice and dhal (eaten while sitting barefoot in an open-air concrete courtyard in near-freezing conditions), I made the decision to employ a guide for my assault on Tapovan.
We set off at seven the next morning under a perfectly clear, still sky. To my relief, my guide, Hikmasin, kept a surprisingly moderate pace and I stayed on his heels with ease. But these first few kilometres were easy. The real test was to come.
Leaving the lower altitude pines behind us, we now passed through low scrub and occasional outcrops of enchanting birch trees. But very shortly they, too, would be gone – replaced by a dirt, rock, boulder and ice masala. The way was narrow and treacherous. I stuck close to Hikmasin, tracing his footsteps as closely as possible, hoping we had the same size feet. I tried not to think about our precarious position as I watched numerous rocks dislodge and tumble to the valley floor. Patches underfoot that looked like earth were, in fact, solid ice with just a thin coating of grit.
As we reached the top of the glacier, 350m above the river, we were presented with a new landscape. The view upstream resembled a dirty, stormy, frozen sea as wave upon wave of churned ice and rock crested and fell without pattern or rhythm. Just a mass of churning matter slowly tearing, grinding and carrying earth dozens of kilometres then dumping it at the glacier’s end like an offering.
The glacier stretched back to the wonderful Bhagirathi peaks, then curved around the base into the distance. Our next couple of kilometres, across the roof of the glacier, was draining. Step after step involved assessment and selection of a safe foothold. We moved forward slowly, down and up through valleys between glacial waves. Cairns were placed intermittently, but in a frozen sea of rocks and ice they were like apparitions, appearing for brief moments before dissolving. Progress was slow.
Nevertheless, the trek up was going very well. It was mid-morning and, instead of just getting out of bed, I was standing in the middle of a glacier on a sunny, calm day. My breathing was good, my guide was good and my footing was good. And the location was breathtaking. Here I was, halfway across the world, atop perhaps the world’s holiest river. Any doubts about my abilities had fallen clean off, replaced by a rare and wondrous clarity accompanied by a real sense of achievement. We are bred in such fear-obsessed societies in the West, but the various ill-prepared pilgrims had shown me what ordinary people are capable of. One foot in front of the other and some mental support (from religious or secular sources) were the main ingredients for success.
But the toughest physical challenge still lay ahead – an ascent up a steep, scree-covered escarpment. The track began to the left of a Ganges-fed waterfall, zigzagging up through unstable rocks. It was physically tough and demanded good concentration to avoid a potentially disastrous slip. We moved very slowly.
About halfway up, the track switched back across the waterfall, which was sending a refreshing mist skyward. I took the opportunity to rest and fill my water bottle. The significance of this moment was not lost on me: it would be my first direct consumption of the Ganges. I held the bottle up to the light, watching the sediment particles settle, then tilted the bottle towards my lips and poured from inches above, in the Indian style. It was cold, sharp and hugely refreshing.
Directly above the waterfall, Mt Shivling thrust its head and upper torso into the sky. The water tumbling beside me was once ice and snow clinging to Shivling’s flanks.
As I ascended to the crest, Tapovan laid itself out before me: a flat, light brown, grassy meadow. Hikmasin was stretched out on the grass. He lit a cigarette (his third for the climb) and offered it to me. Ahead, Tapovan ran several more kilometres along the base of Mt Shivling. It was somewhere up there that the Ganges truly began.
Ciggy break over, we turned to walk across the meadow, following the winding stream that was the mighty Ganges. She was now only about three metres wide – a peaceful babbling mountain brook. I had heard there was a ‘baba’ up here with whom one could stay. We soon spotted his orange and red flags fluttering in the distance. We crossed the stream via some makeshift corrugated-iron bridges and headed up a small ridge via a track that zigzagged through the lichen-covered rocks. Fifty more metres and we were at a doorstep.
The door was open and a young man stood in the doorway. He was wearing a blue tracksuit and bulky headphones. Hikmasin embraced him and spoke in familiar tones like an old friend. The young man responded in mime. This, it seemed, was the speechless holy man, Baba Ji. The only clue to his status as a holy man were his mass of beautiful dreads and his supremely calm countenance. To my great surprise, I was told that Baba Ji was only 24 and had been living up on Tapovan year-round for four years, during which time he had taken a vow of silence.
A young French girl was here, too, also not speaking. It certainly was very peaceful. Baba Ji spread out blankets on the dirt terrace, brought out some chai and we all lazed about under the clear blue sky. The meadow lay below us and Shivling towered above. Hikmasin offered the occasional few words, as did I, and Baba Ji would respond in mime. And the French girl? She simply rotated her prostrate body every few minutes and remained silent. This activity was to be a significant part of my experience for the next four days at the top end of the world. Not much happened out here, but everything happened. There was nothing much to do, but everything to do.
Two Frenchmen and a Swiss-German were Baba Ji’s other guests that night. The Frenchmen were earnest ‘seekers’, keen to display their spiritual prowess to those who would, or wouldn’t, listen. From the moment I saw them striding in from the meadow wearing religious garb, I knew I was in for some serious earnestness. My heart sank and I metaphorically retreated into my own inner sanctum. I was here for geographic reasons, not religious ones.
Around 6pm we were invited, through mime, to enter Baba Ji’s abode for the evening meal. We sat in relative silence, crossed-legged, around the walls of the stone hut, while Baba Ji moved about silently. After a short time he pulled back a curtain beside a pot-belly stove to reveal a shrine to Shiva the Destroyer. He then began a mealtime ritual: producing a conch shell, he turned and walked to the front door and gave three prolonged bursts to the world. Returning to the shrine, he picked up a ceremonial candle and, while continuously ringing a small bell, circled the candle several times around the shrine, the kitchen, the front door and then us, inviting us to wash the flame over our heads with our palms. He then invited the French folk to sing before the meal.
Expecting perhaps a three- to four-minute devotional song of thanks, I waited, and waited, and waited, while their incomprehensible lyrics rang out. Not being the world’s most flexible human, after 15 minutes I began to struggle with my cross-legged pose. I rocked and rolled a little to check for circulation in my legs. After 30 more minutes I had passed through the mental and physical pain barriers and was numb – or maybe I was enlightened, it wasn’t clear. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the atonal singing ceased and we ate.
I slept soundly that night, tucked up in a large doona in a stone hut adjacent to Baba Ji’s room. I’m not sure if it was the hike, the food or the singing that had exhausted me.
The French folk departed the next day and were replaced by a young Buddhist who didn’t know where he was from – it was either Israel or the USA. Either way, he took up the earnest approach with gusto but followed a more meditative line, which was more appealing to my ears.
But the most impressive arrival was a tiny Japanese girl, Michiko, who, with only a daypack and wearing a pair of gripless Crocs, had scaled the glacial heights to Tapovan without a guide. She explained that it was a “sort of Japanese tradition” to go journeying by oneself with minimal gear. She reminded me of some of the Japanese who come to Australia and venture across desert tracks from one side of the country to the other on a motorbike…and die.
Michiko intended to return to Gangotri the following day, in Crocs. Out of genuine concern I told her that, because of a snowstorm, she would be very likely to be dead on arrival due to her slippery footwear. Fortunately, she heeded the warning and stayed another day. I liked her company. She was strong-willed and adventurous, yet soft and unassuming. Like me, she simply preferred walking in the mountains to a city existence.
The next day at Tapovan was much like my first: sitting, watching, listening, eating and resting. It was easy to do that up here. On the following day, I made my final assault on the Ganges. From the hut, I headed onto the sprawling meadow and slowly followed the Ganges upstream. The water flowed calmly, twisting this way and that through short stubby clumps of brown grass. A few tiny purple wildflowers had erupted across the meadow, butterflies flitted erratically as if drunk on the mountain air, and a fat and hairy bumblebee hovered around me for some time.
I walked a short distance before sensing movement up on the ridge to my left. A mountain goat was grazing – its location only given away by its head movement. Then, suddenly, given away by their moving mate, one, two, four, seven, nine others became apparent, their forms popping magically onto my vision like a 3D Magic Eye puzzle. Another goat stood proudly atop the ridge with the flank of the dramatic Bhagarathi peaks as a backdrop. I walked on.
Once at the head of the meadow, I continued upstream through a shallow and increasingly rocky valley. Here, the Ganges had decreased in width from three metres to 30cm. About two-thirds of the way up the valley this famous, holy and monumental river was now narrow enough to step across. At this point, three branches of the river came together. I followed one to a dead-end, where it stopped abruptly in an in earthly cul-de-sac. Looking down, I could see her pulsing up rhythmically. The second branch continued up, then disappeared under a huge boulder. I followed its general line a short way and could hear her echoing call as she travelled underground. And then nothing. I could hear her no more. I looked up along her likely trajectory, which headed to a shallow snow-covered depression.
Returning to the junction I followed the third and most significant stream. It continued up to a shallow depression at the head of the valley. A small handful of rivulets ran into it, all coming from patches of snow on Shivling’s lower flank. I boulder-hopped a few hundred metres up the flank to a large flat-topped boulder and climbed aboard. Directly below me was the source of the mighty Ganges.
I took in the scene around me, slowly rotating atop the boulder. It was a great and humbling privilege to be standing here, so completely insignificant, surrounded by magnificent, awe-inspiring Himalayan peaks and with a holy river at my feet. It was sublime insignificance. There was nothing happening. Just a stream beginning a journey.
Yet everything was happening: mountains were rising, rocks were being crushed, billions were being fed, battles were being fought and religions preached. It was the end of my road, but the Ganges’s journey started here.
NB. For a more comprehensive selection of images from the complete Indian odyssey (beginning in Old Delhi), start here. Or for more from the top of the world and the upper Ganges depicted in this story, start here.
All images and text Copyright Charlie Sublet and available for purchase.