Gangotri - Birthplace of the Spiritual Ganga
The Himalayas are a treasure trove of spirituality. Millions of seekers reside in its all-embracing ranges along with hundreds of shrines and spots of special significance. Among the Hindus, the two deities which command maximum devotion in terms of devotee numbers are Shiva and Vishnu. The Himalayas house a major Shiva shrine at Kedarnath and a major Vishnu Shrine at Badrinath. They form a part of what is known as the Char Dham (the four pilgrimage centers) in this Daivabhoomi or Divine Land. The other two are Gangotri and Yamunotri - the birthplaces of the river Ganga (Ganges) and Yamuna respectively.
The Story of Gangotri
Legends add special value and significance to any place. According to the story, the mythological King Sagar slayed all the demons on earth and then decided to stage the Aswamedha Yagna ( Literally translates into ‘horse sacrifice’. As part of the ritual, a decorated horse would be let loose accompanied by an army. Whichever land the horse moved into was to be surrendered to the army. If any kingdom/king chose to resist, there would be a war. This was the way the ancient kings conquered lands to unify kingdoms into powerful entities.)
The king Sagar supposedly had 60,000 sons born of Queen Sumati and one son, Asamanjas, born of Queen Kesani who accompanied the horse. Lord Indra, in the heavens, fearing the loss of his supremacy as the divine king, stole the horse and tied it in the hermitage of the great sage Kapila who was in meditation. The army of the 60,000 sons stormed the hermitage of Kapila and were about to attack him when the sage opened his eyes and reduced all the 60,000 sons of King Sagar (except Asamanjas) to ashes through his yogic powers.
It was said that the souls of the 60,000 sons would rest in peace only when they were washed by the Ganga. Ganga, at that time, is believed to have flowed in the heavens and not on earth. Thus it was that successive rulers, Asamanjas, Anshuman and Dilipa made attempts one after another to get the Ganga down to the earth from the heavens. They were unsuccessful and that ‘burden’ now passed on to their successor, Bhagiratha.
Bhagiratha engaged in intense meditation and succeeded in propitiating Mother Ganga to flow on earth but she is believed to have told him,
“I shall gladly flow on the earth over your dead ancestors. But when I flow down from the heavens, the earth will not be able to withstand my mighty force. If you find a solution to this problem, I shall gladly follow you to the earth.”
At this, Bhagiratha approached Kailasa, the abode of Lord Shiva, and prayed to him for help. Lord Shiva agreed to help. He took the impact of the celestial Ganga on His head and trapped her in His matted locks. It was as a tiny stream that He let her flow out of His matted locks. At that time, Ganga landed at Gangotri. The term Gangotri is composed of two words - Ganga and Utari ( meaning ‘the place where Ganga descended’).
Going to Gangotri
All the four pilgrimage spots which form part of the Char Dham are connected, peak to peak. But unless you are a bird or a Yogi, you will have to travel the long road, via base camps. The base camp for going to Gangotri is Uttarkashi. However, we stayed about 30km away, at a place called Barsoo. The accommodation gets a lot cheaper as you move away from Uttarkashi. Wherever you may stay, a lot of warm woolen clothing is a must. For those that are unaccustomed to such temperatures ( 3-7 degrees Centigrade), exposing any skin would seem painful (except in the afternoons).
The roads are good but winding and along the steep slopes of the mountains. This effectively reduces the average speed of travel to 18 km/h if you are in a bus or 35 km/h if you are in a car. But you will not mind the slow pace of travel for there are breathtaking sights along the way. The road follows the path of the Bhagirathi river - the name by which Ganga is known when she originates. Actually speaking, Ganga becomes the Ganga/Ganges after Deva Prayag where the Bhagirathi meets Alakananda (from Badrinath).
It is customary to bathe in the Ganganani Kund, a hot water spring, on the way to Gangotri. This spring is considered as very purifying in its nature and the bubbling hot water at about 60-70 degrees Centigrade is very alluring. The spring has been diverted into large bathing tanks after which the water continues on its way. There are separate bathing tanks for the ladies and gents. As we stripped and got into the Ganganani Kund, we could feel a lot of energy, enthusiasm and life returning into our cold bodies. Just as the cold gets to your bones, the heat from this spring also gets to your bones. I mean, even when I came out after the bath to dry myself, I did not feel cold. In fact, I shed my jacket and gloves after this bath!
Traveling from Barsoo, this hot-water spring lies exactly midway to Gangotri. The journey to Gangotri took about 4 hours. It is very important that you make this journey at a very leisurely pace so that you enjoy nature at her best. We sighted some beautiful birds and every time this happened, I frantically would call out to the driver to stop. Sometimes he would and at other times he would not, saying,
“There is very little time sir... we have to proceed.”
One advice - If you are keen on photography, better hire a car to do your travels. But do not tick off your driver too much - you need him to be happy and calm while driving on such roads!
One sight however made even our driver stop the bus in its tracks.
Mountain Goats! And plenty of them.
These nimble and extra-sure-footed animals were scaling a nearly 90 degree vertical peak. Footholds, the size of dimes and pennies seemed sufficient for them to climb up. I jumped out of th bus and photographed them in amazement as they surely and swiftly climbed to about 100 meters above us. Their poise and self-confidence was simply remarkable.
The road leading up to the temple of Goddess Ganga is itself transformed into a parking lot and depending on how early you are, you get to park close to th temple. We were parked a good kilometer away from the shrine. But again, the walk is beautiful and nobody will complain. Though located high up in the mountains, once the sun is shining and there are no clouds, the day gets quite warm.
Almost everyone who comes to this shrine fills up a container with the pristine Ganga water. Trust me, you can simply drink directly from the river - unless you are allergic to cold! The water will be at nearly zero degrees and it is arising from freshly-melted snow. After a sanctifying dip, pilgrims wend their way to the temple of Mother Ganga. It is a normal looking temple but the crowds thronging prove that it is far from ‘normal’! Directly opposite to the main door of the temple is the depiction of the heroic efforts of Bhagiratha to please Ganga and Lord Shiva.
An interesting experience
I am convinced that all the altars and shrines in the world reflect back to you a thousand fold what you hold in your heart towards them. If you feel that they are ordinary, that is how they will appear. If you feel there is something special and give them importance, the same importance will also be given to you.
When we entered the sanctum of the temple, full of love and reverence, the priest simply called my wife. He handed to her a small, silver-plated triple-umbrella. When she said that it did not belong to her, he replied,
“This is an offering to Mother Ganga. It is hers. I feel she would want you to have it.”
That felt so amazing and special - just like the experience with the priest at Vyas cave in Badrinath.
About 300 meters away from the temple is also the starting of a 14 kilometer trek to the Go-Mukh cave, the actual spot where Ganga springs forth. It is not advisable to do this trek unless you have at least 5-6 hours in hand and are in a state of perfect physical and mental health. But when Bhagiratha, with his efforts, could get the Ganga down from the heavens, can one not climb 14 kilometers to see its origin?
Gangotri inspires me for it shows the magic and miracle that human effort can achieve. And the reason why human effort can achieve miracles is because, as my Lord and master Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba says,
“Every being is Divine. Every being is God.”
Gangotri inspires me to seek my higher Self. It prods me to find that pure spring of the eternal Ganga within me. It thrills me into a state of truth, auspiciousness and beauty - Satyam, Shivam and Sundaram.
If you enojoyed this trip, you will also enjoy the following:
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© 2012 Aravind Balasubramanya