Rishikesh, the city on the Ganges in the foothills of the Himalayas, is considered the starting point for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year, who as devout Hindus start their journey from here to the holy sites in the Garhwal Himal. The low sea level of 365 m causes that especially in the months of May / June temperatures above 40° Celsius are to be expected. A hard blow, if you arrive directly from the mountains like I did, overdressed with the heavy, weatherproof trekking clothing.
Nevertheless, this place was a welcome change from the lonely days in the mountains. Life is concentrated on both sides of the holy river Ganges in countless temples, ashrams (yoga/meditation centres) and shopping streets where devotional objects, tourist kitsch and gastronomic variety form a colourful mixture for all those who simply stroll around or rise from the cool waters of the Ganges. Pilgrims and holy men, domestic and foreign tourists, street vendors and beggars swarm around in masses, causing a colourful hullabaloo and, with weak nerves due to the overstimulation, sometimes claustrophobia.
The (Chota) Char Dam is a must for every devout Hindu – it means that at least once in your life you should visit four holy places in the Garwhal Himalayas. Comparable to the Christians who should make a pilgrimage to Rome at least once or the Muslims to Mecca. My Char Dam from Badrinath over the Kalindi Khal – a 5.900m high pass – to Gangotri was unfortunately cancelled due to lack of permission. So I had to travel directly to Gangotri to walk up to the source of the Ganges.
Gangotri, the source of the Ganges and seat of the god Ganga is a small village in the mountains, from where you can reach Gaumukh, the source of the Ganges, in a 20km long walk.
Tens of thousands of pilgrims who walk this path every year have formed a pilgrim highway through nature that is easy to walk on. Most Indians need 2 or 3 days for the route, if you can travel without luggage like I did, you can easily do it in one day – up in the morning and down again in the afternoon.
Scenically, this valley along the Ganges is lined with snow-covered
Bergen, a feast for the eyes. But you can tell from the people who move up and down here that it is not the experience of nature or sporting activities that are in the foreground but spirituality. Many of the pilgrims have walked thousands of kilometres on foot in their orange wrapped robes to this place, in order to scoop holy water from the source of the Ganges in a tin vessel and carry it back thousands of kilometres to their home temples. An ascetic journey – without money, food and shelter they are dependent on donations every day without begging. Masses of these haggard creatures stream through the country, are regarded by society as honourable men and are supported accordingly.
In Gaumukh – the “mouth of the cow” – the actual source of the Ganges, the water shoots down the valley as a torrential river under the edge of a 28 km long glacier. A holy place where it is the goal of Hindu believers to bathe in the ice-cold floods. Even as a person free of religion, one can feel the tension in this place, transmitted by the prayers, rites and celebrations of those who have reached their destination. But as a confessing wimp, nothing in the world makes me want to step into the icy water.
Returning to Gangotri, I will continue to Manali, from where I will march in a tour of several weeks over the Spiti-Valley to Leh and from there over Zanskar to the west.
So long, Henry