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.