High up in the Greater Himalayas, at a height of 10,200 ft is the temple of the river goddess Ganga. This temple marks the source of the sacred river, which originates nearby at Gaumukh, the snout of Gangotri glacier. For a river which is known to have many mysterious powers, a journey to its source is an experience of a lifetime.
According to legends, it is here that millennia ago King Bhagirath did penance to please Ganga and bring the celestial river down from the heavens to earth, so that her waters could grant nirvana to his ancestors who were burnt to ashes due to a curse. It is also here that Shiva caught her descent in his locks to break her mighty fall which would have otherwise swept away the earth. Since time immemorial, saints and spiritual seekers have lived by Ganga’s banks and important pilgrimage centres have come up at these places where her waters have flowed and blessed the land.
The journey from Rishikesh to Gangotri takes about 11 hours, and the best option for most travellers is to take a night halt at Harsil. The route to Harsil takes you through misty mountains, pine forests and apple orchards. The whole journey is like a misty dream. You do not know if it is real till you reach your destination – the Nelangana Resorts located next to Ganga, surrounded by pristine mountains. At the nature resort you can walk down from your wooden cottage to the roaring Ganga – there is no manmade object, just nature in its rugged beauty and the river in her purest form, till it descends to civilisation.
In the winter months when Gangotri gets snowbound, a small idol of the river goddess is brought down and kept at Mukhba village, near Harsil. It is also an important Army area on account of its proximity to the China border, and a base for Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the Garhwal Scouts. Not surprisingly, Army vehicles are a common sight enroute to Gangotri.
The driving time from Harsil to Gangotri is about one and a half hours, covering approximately 23 km. On the way, most people take a stop at densely forested Bhairon Ghati (valley), where at a height of 2850 mt is the ancient temple of Bhairon. There are also a few tea shops near the temple, which are popular halts for travellers going to or returning from Gangotri.
At Gangotri, vehicles are stopped much before the temple precincts. Those who have problem taking the 15 minutes of walk to the temple can take a wheelchair. For as little as INR 300 (USD 4) these wheelchair bearers will take you to the temple and bring you back to your car.
There are many shops here selling special bottles for taking Ganga water home. Like most Hindus, I have always kept Ganga water at home, for purification and other sacred rituals. So I thanked God for giving me the opportunity to come to the source of the river and take her waters back to Mumbai, almost 2000 kms away. Due to its unique qualities, the water of Ganga does not decay and remains free from slime and sedimentation even after years.
The main temple of Ganga is a simple but beautiful structure, reflecting the essence of purity, which the river symbolises. The idol of the river goddess is the main deity worshipped in the inner sanctum, along with the idols of other river goddesses (Yamuna, Saraswati), Annapurna and Mahalakshmi – all various aspects of the divine feminine. The temple complex also has many smaller temples dedicated to Shiva, Ganesha and his two wives, Hanuman, the temple of eternal fire and Bhagirathi Shilla (the stone where the great king had performed his penance).
Along with my fellow travellers, we performed a puja sitting on the rocks at the banks of Ganga, which was flowing with all intensity at its source. It was a surreal experience to hear the chants of the priest almost synchronise with the sound of her roaring waters. The family members and ancestors of every pilgrim (including mine) were remembered, and blessings of the sacred river were sought for all.
All my life I have been sceptical when I heard people say that the sacred waters of Ganga washes away bad karmas of many lifetimes. But that morning, sitting next to the river, feeling her powerful energy, I could experience the essence of divinity, which words cannot express. It might take another level of spiritual maturity for ordinary people like me to understand, but for thousands of years the sages and enlightened beings have always understood this, and have built spiritual hermitages along her banks.
At Gangotri, the headstream of Ganga is called Bhagirathi, and she flows down the mountains merging with the second headstream, Alaknanda at Devprayag, to finally emerge as Ganga – the most sacred river of India. The lifeline of millions of people, Ganga flows for more than 2,510 kms through mountains, valleys and the plains of north India to finally merge with the sea at the Bay of Bengal.
You might also like to read a short mystical story I had written connected with the sacred river, called A Ganga River Tale.
How to reach: Dehradun’s Jolly Grant is the nearest airport and Rishikesh the nearest railhead. Taxis and buses are available easily from both these places to Gangotri.
Accommodation: There are limited good accommodation options at Harsil. I recommend Nelangana Resorts, a nature resort at an astoundingly beautiful location overlooking the river.
Best time to visit: May to mid October. The temple is inaccessible during the winter months.
He was sitting near the rocky outcrop watching the flock of sheep around him. If only his flock could understand he loved them so much that his heart shown with a golden light that was brighter than a thousand suns.
The glow radiated it’s brilliant energy across the arid landscape and the white houses at a distance. He could see much further than what his eyes showed him across the horizon. Beyond time and space, he could feel the rhythm of every heart. Tears flowed from his eyes as he felt the surge of one great love in countless hearts, one soul in many bodies.
He cried and laughed in this state of bliss.
The solitude was not for long. As the seven men and three women found the Master, they thought he was only watching them approach. They did not know that he could see countless more – those who believed in his word and those who didn’t, even those who were ignorant that he once walked the earth.
Soon he got up to start his journey, but his feet left no footprint on the sand, nor did his body cast a shadow.
His journey continues across worlds and dimensions, through time and space.
They call him by many names, but his true essence is only love.
The spectacular chariot raced through the path scattered with metal cores and blocks. In the realm of the Blue Shadows within the inner recesses of the earth, sunlight never reached, and the world looked very different from what it appeared above the earth.
The shadow beings who lived here were the hoarders of the earth, living deep down in its trenches. The beings of Blue Shadows knew about the lifeforms that lived above, including humans, but never sought to connect with them. The only thing that reached the surface from their realm, was the wealth of their world, the minerals they so ferociously guarded and hoarded. They never wanted to share, but knew that the supreme power that created the universe allowed the humans to take what was rightfully only theirs. It was the immutable law.
Greed, guilt, grief were the only overwhelming emotions they felt, that was turning their heart into the same dark shadows that covered their world.
“There is still hope,” whispered the princess as she raced her chariot, in search of ‘The Hermit’.
In the dark world of Blue Shadows, they had seen a streak of light flitting across the firmament. The princess had been searching for it since then, to find out in which deep dark cave or crevice, the hermit had chosen to appear.
As the princess raced the chariot in the direction of a cave where they had located the light, she fervently hoped it wouldn’t disappear again.
After reaching the small cave as she stepped inside, she could see the flickering light, but could not find the hermit whose powers had brought her so much hope. Thousands of kilometres above in a Himalayan cave, the hermit in his deep meditation had discovered the world of Blue Shadows and the beings who lived there. His heart could feel their pain and wished he could do something for them. Every thought is a strong energy. His great empathy and kindness created this light in the world of Blue Shadows.
The princess could almost feel what the hermit felt, his one thought of kindness, stirred her heart, and before she knew her dark shadow now shone with a little shimmering light. She was transforming….
She was aware she had to protect and nurture this light, and make it shine in the hearts of the denizens in her world. A tough task that might take eons, but was possible.
The hermit smiled. He had started his journey a long time ago, to deal with the shadows of his own heart, he had never thought that the light of his path would ignite so many hearts, in the seen and unseen worlds.
Since time immemorial, Uttarkashi in the higher Himalayas, has been known as the home of celestial beings. This is what has drawn sages and spiritual aspirants who have continued to live here in the many Ashrams (spiritual hermitages) down the ages. Located on the banks of Bhagirathi river, a tributary of Ganga, Uttarkashi is considered an abode of Shiva, like the city of Varanasi (Kashi) in the Gangetic plains. And just like Varanasi, the Kashi Vishwanath temple here is the main attraction for visitors.
An interesting feature of the massive Shivlinga being worshipped here is that it leans towards one side. Recounting the genesis of the temple, the priest here said that the stone Shivlinga was not sculpted by man, it had emerged from the ground on its own. I had visited Varanasi earlier this year and had gone to Kashi Vishwanath temple there. The striking difference between both places was very apparent.
The complex also houses the famous Shakti Temple. A few months ago I had seen in a television serial, a revered saint Baba Loknath’s journey to Uttarkashi more than 200 years ago, which showed a gigantic trident that many people were trying to move but were unable to do so. I was truly intrigued, did such a trident really exist, even today ?
Never in my wildest imagination I would have thought that just about four months after that I would stand almost transfixed before the same massive trident, called Shakti Stambh in the Shakti Temple. For my readers outside India, I would like to clarify that the word Shakti means “power”, and is another name of Goddess Durga (the Mother Goddess).
Goddess Durga, the warrior goddess, and the supreme primordial feminine energy, is worshipped here as the trident. It is believed that after defeating the demon Mahishasur, in the epic battle between demons and gods, she threw her trident at this very spot.
There are of course many diverse and fascinating stories about the origin of the metallic trident, which is almost 20 feet high. Some believe the metallic composition of the trident is not of this earth, while others claim that it is more than 1500 years old. The mystery of its origin is yet to be solved. It is said that you will not be able to move the massive trident after applying all your strength, however if you touch it with a finger it will start vibrating.
As soon as I stepped inside the Shakti Temple, I could feel a very strong energy. Being an empath, I have always been highly sensitive to energy, but was a bit surprised that how overpowering it was. The temple was almost empty, apart from two people from the Praxis Holidays tour group. My fellow travellers were meditating.
I stood there staring at the trident wrapped in red and gold cloth, which is generally offered to Goddess Durga. Suddenly, I could hear a voice say loud and clear “Sit”. It was authoritative and distinctive. Was it a communication or did it come from somewhere inside me, honestly I do not know. And I heard it again, “Sit”.
I sat down on the floor and the moment I closed my eyes, I got into a deep state of meditation. I have been meditating almost everyday since more than 20 years, but such deep meditation, almost instantly, has been rare.
After I opened my eyes I could not see anyone from my group, so I thought maybe it was time for me to go, even though I didn’t want to leave the temple. When I went outside, our tour manager Rupesh told me that there was still some time for our departure. Happily I entered the Shakti Temple again and sat down, to meditate and soak in the environment.
After some time as I was about to step out of the sanctum santorum, an old woman came to me and stretched out her hand. She had come from inside the temple though I had not noticed her earlier. I was a bit taken aback, the woman did not look like a beggar to me. Standing on a holy ground, right before the trident, I could not say no, I quietly took out a Rs 20 note from my purse and gave it to her. Silently, she took the money and gave me a berry. I was a bit hesitant to accept it, but again could not refuse.
I washed the berry at the water tap outside and had it like a prasad. It was an unusual exchange of which I think about often, even after a month of returning back to my busy Mumbai life. I believe, there is a message in it for me to understand about giving and receiving – I have always thought that I give a lot more than I receive, this incident has somehow made me realise that there is always receiving, even though I am not aware of it. The exchange happens simultaneously.
Every time I think about the Shakti Temple and my experience there, I am filled with a wonderful feeling of joy and excitement, as if I was connecting with a secret and sacred space within the inner recesses of my being. I know now why for thousands of years spiritual aspirants have travelled thousands of kilometres to come here – for the next big step in their journey within.
How to reach: Uttarkashi is at a distance of 160 kms from Dehradun’s Jolly Grant airport. A cab is the best option, there are also buses plying regularly.
Accommodation: There are many budget hotels in Uttarkashi, mostly on the Gangotri road.
Best time to visit: Whole year round, except for the monsoon months (July – August).
Originating from Yamunotri Glacier at a height of 20,955 ft, the temple of river Yamuna is at the foot of the inaccessible Kalind Mountain in the Garhwal Himalayas. It is the belief in the river goddess and her powers that has drawn people here down the ages through treacherous mountain paths to her shrine at a height of 10,797 ft. The journey to Yamunotri temple, the first stop of the pilgrim trail Chota Char Dham Yatra in Uttarakhand, India, is tough but the natural beauty of the environs is so captivating that it makes every traveller forget the challenges.
According to popular lore, river Yamuna is the twin sister of Yama, the God of Death, and it is believed that bathing in her sacred waters will free one from the sufferings of death. Both are children of the Sun God, Surya. Significantly, the river goddess is also one of the consorts of Krishna, and the devotees of the Blue God know her by another name, Kalindi. A river that has inspired many immortal tales of love, it is believed that she carries the colour of Krishna in her dark waters.
My journey from Haridwar to Barkot, which is the stop for most pilgrims heading towards Yamunotri, almost took the whole day, via Mussoorie. It was almost evening when we reached the Nivarana Yamunotri Cottages at Barkot, which is one of the best accommodation options in the area, and offers both cottages and camps, which are basic but comfortable.
Located next to the river, I could hear the roaring sound of the mighty Yamuna, even though I could not see the waters in the dark. The next morning, at almost 5 am, we started off for Janki Chatti, the last point where cars are allowed. It is advisable to start the climb to Yamunotri early and come down by mid afternoon, as the weather in the mountains starts changing after 3 pm, and rains are common.
From Janki Chatti, pilgrims can either take a palki (carried by four bearers) or a pony. But for those who are confident of walking the steep climb, the best option is to trek. The distance from here to the temple is just a little over five kilometres, but it takes almost three hours. Enroute, the scenic vista of the river roaring down the mountain will keep you enthralled. As you soak in the beauty of the surroundings, you can see the countless streams and rivulets joining Yamuna.
For a river goddess who is regarded as the daughter of the Sun God, it is not surprising to see so many thermal springs in the temple precincts, where the pilgrims take bath. Then there are those who put rice in cloth bags and dip it in the sacred hot spring called Surya (Sun) Kund, the rice and potatoes get cooked in the water and is taken by them to share as sacred prasad, with their family and friends. A rock pillar called Divya Shila is another key attraction.
After performing pooja, we entered the small temple to see the beautiful dark visage of the river goddess. I had never seen an idol of Goddess Yamuna before and was mesmerized by its beauty. Known as the river which inspires love and beauty, the dark idol is a perfect manifestation of Goddess Yamuna. Photography is not allowed inside the temple.
Covered by snow during the winter months, the temple is almost inaccessible and closed for six months. This is when a small silver idol of the river goddess is taken down to Kharsil, her winter seat. The idol is kept in the famous Shani Dev Temple in Kharsil. According to Hindu mythology, Shani Dev (represented by planet Saturn in the solar system), regarded as the God of Justice and Karma, is a brother of Yamuna.
For me, another highlight of the journey was conversations with the locals, the hardy mountain people who find work only for six months in a year, helping pilgrims reach the Yamunotri temple. Their life is intertwined with the temple, and most of them do not seek any other way of sustenance.
How to reach: Dehradun’s Jolly Grant is the nearest airport. You can stay for a night in Haridwar before heading to Barkot.
Accommodation: There are several accommodation options at Barkot. One of the best is Camp Nivarana Yamunotri Cottages.
When to go: The temple opens every year from the last week of April or the first week of May. It closes in mid-October.
The corridor is one of the longest in the palace, and it would always take me a little more time to reach the second last door. As I made my way to it, I passed a doctor and two nurses. The doctor looked sombre and one of the nurses was crying. I entered the room, and there she was, lying on the bed. This was the prettiest room in the palace, but now almost replicated that in a hospital, with all the medical equipment.
It pained me to see my youngest grandchild, who was just eight-year-old, suffer so much. Chidiya (little bird) as all close family members lovingly called her at home, was losing her battle with death. Born with a congenital heart disease, every birthday she celebrated was a miracle. Two major surgeries had just given her a few more years, but there was no more hope.
I could see my son standing by the window – the scion of an erstwhile royal family, he was now a well established politician and new age entrepreneur, but no amount of money and influence could save his daughter. His beautiful wife was sitting by the bedside holding Chidiya’s hand, looking intently at the little face, expecting the girl to open her eyes and speak to her. But that would never happen, I know it. Silently I step out of the room.
As I make my way towards the grand staircase, my eyes fall on the imposing painting of Rajmata (Queen Mother) Ahalya, that dominated all the other paintings of our illustrious royal ancestors. Sometimes I forget that the woman in the green and gold sari, whose indomitable spirit has been captured so well on the canvas, is me.
I go out and wait at the farthest end of the expansive garden, bordering the forest. I know that any moment now she would step in through the golden sphere that shimmered ahead. I didn’t have to wait for long, there she was, so joyful and happy, coming towards me … my favourite grandchild.
The life she lost will continue here, among those who love her – her ancestors of several generations, including me, her grandmother, who passed away 15 years before she was born but always guided, protected and watched out for her.
Chidiya will never feel the absence of her parents and two elder brothers, the great love of a much larger family will be her home.
They see him playing his flute perched on a rainbow
Sometimes he hides behind a cloud to tease them
In a game of eternal hide and seek
The animals perceive him, and so do the birds, bees and elementals
The grass sways in ecstasy feeling the touch of his feet
You can never separate the creator from his creation
From each speck of dust to every star
Is a celebration of his existence
And for every heart that loves him –
The blooming of a flower is the birth of Krishna
Every raindrop is his tear of love
The flow of the wind his embrace
The earth constantly renews itself in his glory
Every day is Janmashtami festival
In celebration of the Blue God’s birth
It seemed like an endless walk to her through the grey landscape. She was carrying a heavy burden, and not just the large rucksack she was dragging through the snow, too tired to carry on her back. But the load that weighed down her heart was much heavier.
She was on her way to Itama – the temple of the all powerful tribal Ice Goddess. It was a stark frozen sheet that jutted out from an ice shelf. In the barren cold desert of perpetual snow, the structure of the Ice Temple regenerated itself constantly. The temple had no entrance or exit, and according to legends, only the one chosen by the goddess could enter Itama – in mind and spirit.
They also believed that circumambulating the abode of the sacred goddess 33 times, absolved a person of all heinous sins. So Hena set about on this tough journey. She hoped that the physical pain and stress on her endurance level might well reduce the pain of her guilt. This was her penance for almost breaking the home of her own sister.
In her tribe, she was considered a Halion – the word describing an adulteress who preyed on other women’s husbands, but no one did that to their own sister, like her. Hena was not sure whether the goddess would forgive her or not, but she knew she would probably never be able to forgive herself.
It was a moonless night, yet somehow the spire of the Ice Temple seemed to shimmer in blue. It was so cold that the tears from her eyes were freezing on her cheeks. She could not even cry.
Hena had just about gone around the temple three times, when she started feeling that she could not breathe. Before she passed out, it seemed to her that flickering silvery lights were shining above her.
A few hours later when they found Hena, they saw a white bear hovering around her. They knew that it was something very unusual because it seemed it was guarding the woman. The white bear was a carrier of the goddess. They believed that the goddess came out of the Ice Temple astride on her ferocious white bear and flitted across her domain, giving justice to men and animals.
It was almost three days before Hena gained consciousness at the hospital. And when she did, she kept talking about the silvery lights and the Ice Temple. When her family came to meet her, they were shocked. Her jet black hair had turned white at places and it seemed that in just a few days she had aged by almost 15 years.
She said that she was led by the dots of silvery lights into a blue tunnel, which was lit by white light streaming from the other end. Was it a Near Death Experience?
The elders in her tribe were astounded, as they started believing that she had been led inside the Ice Temple by the goddess herself. In five generations this had never happened. It defied all their belief in the right and the wrong. In the eyes of the supreme Ice Goddess, it seemed the saint and the sinner, were the same.
Hena the cursed adulteress, was The Chosen One.
She stood on the little balcony, taking a deep breath. The moon was shining with a blue hue, in a clear summer night sky. There was something magical about tonight, but what was it? Ekanya wondered. Before moving to Mumbai, she had stood at this very spot every night, during her growing up years at her maternal home in Bhopal, but had never felt this way. Then she realised – it was the smell of jasmine. Somebody had planted a tree here while she was away, and the fragrance of the flowers was almost intoxicating.
She had come to her hometown to break the news to her parents that she was leaving her husband. It was not an easy decision at the age of 38, but she no longer wanted to be stuck in what she thought was a loveless marriage. Ekanya could herself never understand why she could never love Nikhil, a good husband, and a caring father to their 8-year-old son. She knew she was being selfish, but all her life she had searched for a love, a fulfilling relationship, she has never been able to find. It was as if a part of her was missing, which she needed to discover.
A new job offer from a Hong Kong based financial company, seemed like a perfect opportunity. Ekanya has been constantly trying to assure herself that she was doing the right thing. She was sending her son to a prestigious boarding school, and the distance will make things less complicated between her and Nikhil.
Later, as she lay down on the bed, tears trickled down her eyes. The moon, the balmy breeze, the fragrance of jasmine, all seemed to overwhelm her anxious mind ….
The smell of jasmine is stronger at this end of the blue verandah. As she approaches him, he looks up from the book he is reading while waiting for her. There is a bandage on the right side of his forehead. She knows he was injured in an attack by the police on a group of young freedom fighters in the bazaar. A common occurrence in early 20th century Bengal, in British ruled India. She also knows that the only love that surpasses what he feels for her, is his love for the motherland, and his mission to free his country.
She can almost read his thoughts – their love is doomed, but even death cannot keep them apart. The intensity of his feelings has always terrified and excited her, and she can feel her heart being drawn into a vortex.
Next, she is running around the blue verandah with the book she has snatched from his hand. He is trying to catch her. There are creepers on the walls, and as she places her hand on a branch to steady herself, she pricks her ring finger. He takes her hand and puts the finger in his mouth, sucking the drop of blood and easing the pain. As she looks into his dark eyes, she knows she can never love another man ….
Ekanya sits up on the bed. What a dream – it almost seemed real, the old heritage building, the blue verandah, the creepers on the walls, the intoxicating smell of jasmine.
She goes to the balcony. The air had become cooler, but she could not see the moon now. The smell of jasmine seemed stronger … the only thing which was common from the world of her extraordinary dream.
Or was it something more. As she sat on her bed, she realised her hand was paining. She switched on the bedside lamp, and saw that her ring finger had turned pink and was throbbing. Then she noticed her wedding ring.
She kept awake the whole night. Next morning she told her parents she had to return to Mumbai for some urgent work. She never mentioned about Nikhil. But she did know that she was not leaving him, and had to make some major amends.
Ekanya herself could not understand how the dream that drew her into a magical world of love, changed her. Who was the man? Was he her lover from another lifetime? Or her subconscious mind?
Somehow she felt the dream had made her break a pact with the past, and she was free now – to live and love.
It was the blast at a football stadium in Istanbul that turned Shams’ life upside down. Severely wounded in the attack, the 32-year-old well known fashion designer from one of the city’s illustrious families, took to the wheelchair after 40 days in the hospital. It was then that her fiancé, the scion of a leading industrial group, decided to part ways. Shams, who had always taken great pride in being a bold and beautiful young icon of Istanbul’s high society, became a social recluse.
For almost two years, she would never go out of the family bungalow, her bitterness further vitiating the atmosphere of the large joint family, which already had complexities of its own. Then, one day, she realised she did not want to stay with them, and requested her father to send her to Amasya, a beautiful little town in Northern Turkey, where they had their ancestral home.
He sent her to Amasya, thinking that her traumatised heart would find some peace in the sprawling heritage mansion, with its vast orchards and salubrious environs. Shams was alone here, with only her caretaker and the cook.
Unable to sleep at night, she would aimlessly move from room to room. One night, she had almost dozed off in front of the fireplace in the main hall, when she noticed some movements in the large mirror above it. She could see some swirling strands of light going round and round in circles. Did her sleep induced mind imagine it? Shams wondered.
The next night also she waited. And yes, it was there again. This time she could make out faint forms, who seemed like the whirling dervishes. Shams knew that the black and white floored hall has been witness to many spectacular happenings in the past. One of her forefathers was a revered Sufi mystic. She wondered if the dervishes had danced here during those times.
From that day onwards, her mind was gripped with finding answers to her questions. The days she would spend trying to locate information about her mystic ancestor and the whirling dervishes in the mansion’s old library. And at night she would sit in front of the fireplace, looking at the mirror, hoping to see some remnant of the sacred dance.
It is said that the walls and the environment absorb the energy imprint of whatever happens in its confines. While it might seem like a supernatural happening, but it is actually a natural phenomenon.
Sometimes Shams would cry, her heart filled with a strange ecstasy, watching the sacred dance. Then one night, she could hold herself back no longer, she forced herself out of her wheelchair and wobbled around, joining the forms in the mirror. Her steps could not match that of the dancing dervishes, but her spirit whirled with them. She would often fall, somehow pick herself up, and start again.
This continued for several months. Shams herself did not realise when she had no need for a wheelchair any longer. She could limp around the house with a walker. Her heart now needed no crutch though – it constantly soared in the sky, like a bird of freedom.