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A visit to Gangotri, Harsil

This year (9th April to 18th April, 2009) too, we, myself and my friend, Kameshwar Rao, took a few days leave from the family responsibility and headed for the Himalayas. Last year we had been to Shyamlatal and Mayavati both are Ramakrishna Mission Centre in Champawat district of Uttarakhand. At that time we could do about 50 km. of trekking through scenic mountain beauty. This time we wanted to explore a few little known places like Harsil, Dharali and well known place like Gangotri. Another place got added to our itinerary, is Jhala, by compulsion. Fortunately Jhala turned out to be equally a beautiful place like Harsil. Possibly not many people stay here to enjoy the beauty of this place due to lack of good hotels there.

We started from New Delhi station on 9th April, 2009 and reached Haridwar around 8.10 p.m. We had to wait for quite a while for a bus going to Rishikesh. By the time we reached Rishikesh Bus stand it was about 9.30 p.m. As it was quite late, we thought of having a dinner in a restaurant. We knew that Sivananda Ashram (Divine life society) where we were scheduled to stay, dinner is served at 7 p.m. so it was better to finish our dinner outside. By the time we reached Sivananda Ashram it was 10.30 p.m. Fortunately the Reception was open and we were allotted a beautiful room on the second floor – Ishwar Bhavan I. Our program was to stay next day also at Rishikesh and trek to Neelkanth, if possible. It was a moonlit night and the air was cool and we sat in the balcony for a while before going to bed. We put an alarm on the mobile at 6.30 a.m., not because we are early riser but because we did not want to miss our breakfast at 7 a.m.

The alarm bell meticulously did its duty (10th April, 2009). We got ready for the breakfast to begin our day with. We were at the dinning hall on time and shared Pangal with others with steaming hot full glass of tea. Here at the Ashram we met Kamesh’s cousin who is a longstanding devotee of Swami Sivananda, the founder of this Ashram. I understood from my friend that her cousin’s father lived with Sivanandaji Maharaj for quite some time. After breakfast, we went back to our room through the backdoor of the Ashram taking a nature walk. Those who have been to Rishikesh they will appreciate its location – the Ganges flowing by and the thick forest abound on both sides of the hill. Rishikesh is the gateway to Kedar-Badri and Jamunotri-Gangotri and in May, June, July and August, this place becomes heavily crowded by the religious seekers. Its climate is pleasant throughout the year.

After finishing our bath, we went to visit Swami Sivananda’s exhibition where articles used by him were on display. A Swami ji showed us with great enthusiasm around and made us sit down with him while he was talking to two lady devotees. Swami ji distributed ‘Hajmola’ liberally to everyone. As we tried to sneak out he pushed us with his elbow signaling that we should listen to him. When these two ladies left, he told us the story of Subhadra’s kidnapping by Arjun. He went on hammering the word, ‘Bahin Chor’ till we discovered how ‘Bahin Chor’ became what we all know. I do respect Swami jis but such Swami ji bring discredit to the whole brotherhood.

For lunch we sat in the second batch at 11.30 a.m. and had a very sumptuous food. Now that we were free we wanted to follow the trekking path to Neelkantha but not before having a little rest. We took the boat to cross over the Ganges. I always enjoy taking the boat ride across the Ganges. It is always a delightful experience. Our trekking got delayed due to my friends unusual smoking habit. He has always to prepare the ingredients before it is ready for a puff. Finally we were on the road leading to Neelkanth. We met a number of young people who were coming back from Neelkanth. Although their successful visit did inspire us to go ahead but we were out of steam when we were told there were 8 more km. to trek. The time was about 3 p.m. so it was not sufficient to visit Neelkantha and come back. Moreover there were hundreds of monkeys we found on the way to Keelkantha where the narrow winding path starts. We thought of sitting down a little inside the jungle area and read some passages from Ramana Maharshi’s book. The surrounding was quiet and we could read out two questions and answers followed by our discussion.

As it was getting dark we walked back to the Vanaprastha Ashram to have dinner at their Gujrati Restaurant. Having finished our dinner, we sat for some time on the bank of the Ganges. I always enjoy being on the bank of the Ganges specially early morning or in the evening. I find to be in close proximity of the flowing river is itself a process of meditation- quiet and natural.

We had to withdraw for the day and went back to Sivananda Ashram as we were scheduled to leave early next morning for Harsil. We were told our bus for Uttar Kashi would be available from ‘Tehri Bus Stand’. We also gave a token donation to the Ashram.

Next day (11th April, 2009) we got up around 4.30 a.m. and were ready with our rucksacks and left Shivananda Ashram at 5.30 a.m. On the road we could get an auto for the Tehri Bus stop. The 6 O’clock bus we aimed at was full so we had to opt for the next one at 6.30 a.m. By the time we reached Uttar Kashi, it was 1.30 p.m. Of course, we finished our lunch on the way. At Uttarkashi we enquired for the bus going to Harsil, but to our surprise we found no bus was going to that place. However, there was a bus going nearer to Harsil about 25 km. short of. The bus was about to leave so we had no option but to board this bus. This proved later an inconvenient decision but may be a practical one at that time. The road was in bad shape. To add to our discomfort, the bus was stopped for more an hour near a dam under construction. As a number of boulders were broken uphill that were rolled down on the road. Thus we lost precious one hour which compounded our trouble. This bus left us in a remote place from where we could get nothing for further travel. We were stuck and it was getting dark and the cold breeze became colder. A person who was also to travel to Jhala assured us that at 8.30 p.m. a bus employed for taking the Hydro-electric project workers to Jhala would definitely come. We had to wait and my friend took the advantage and smoked to his heart’s content but I was in a bad mood. Suddenly all our enthusiasm and cheerfulness vanished as if we forgot to laugh. However there was an old lady waiting for a bus who was also going to Jhala to join in the Ram Katha. I wondered how with so much trouble this old lady took such an uncertain journey to a place she never been earlier. Her devotion to Ram is a unique characteristics of poor Indians who believe Ram to be a Lord Himself.

Finally the bus came at 8.30 p.m. and we all could board it and were seated. Around 9.15 p.m. the bus left us at Jhala and we found a small hotel. We could only get Maggie noodles for the night and a room to stay. The rooms were unclean and I was really not happy with it. As there was no other option we had to check in. The night (April 11, 2009) was very cold. The moment I touched my pillow I was lost to sleep. But my friend had a weird experience – every time he was trying to sleep, someone was waking him up thus sleep eluded him the whole night. It could be working of unseen spirit but I am not sure.

In the morning (April 12, 2009) when I got up and went out I found the location was breath-taking. This place Jhala is surrounded by snowy mountains and the Ganges in a winding way flows by. The breeze was so cold that I had to immediately put on two sweaters and a muffler to keep the cold at bay. We went out to see the beauty of the place even without a morning cup of tea. We had to cross a bridge for going down into the river bed. The Ganges with so much fury flowed down the bridge as if it will break the bridge into pieces. Even standing on this bridge needed some courage as there were many holes through which one could see the water gushing through the narrow channel. It was really marvelous in the early morning. We took a number of snaps and enjoyed the surrounding beauty. Like early birds we had all the beauty for ourselves. About 8.30 a.m. we went back to the hotel and had some breakfast and tea and left for Harsil on foot. The road leading to Harsil is one of the most picturesque route I ever walked on. On one side you see the Ganges flowing by in a serpentine way within the broad riverbed and the towering mountains with snow peaks standing like eternal sentry and on the other side high mountains whose peaks one cannot see. Now and then we came across a number of waterfalls. We were in the lap of nature and enjoying every bit of it. After trekking about 3 km., we got a shared jeep that took us to Harsil within 20 minutes.

Harsil is at a height of 2000 meter on the way to Gangotri This is a clean and beautiful place surrounded by icy mountain range, a perfect place where one can stay at least for two days. The nearest village is Dharali from where one can trek uphill to Sat Tal about 5 k.m. trekking through village and forest area. At the end of the trek you can reach the ice line where you can play with ice.

We had a booking with GMVN guest house the previous night but we could not make it and our booking fee was lost. Hence we thought of exploring other cheaper hotels. We found a very small hotel by name, ‘Skylark’ very neat and clean and next to the Ganges flowing. As the number of tourists at that time was very negligible, we got the best room. After bath and breakfast, we went out to explore nearby areas. Hardly had we walked about 15 minutes, it started raining and the nearby mountains got covered with clouds. We felt it safe to return to our hotel room and relax. My friend uses all such occasions to have a puff and talk philosophy. The rain however continued till evening making us immobile for an outside adventure. Those who have experienced rains in the mountains will understand how risky and potentially dangerous to go out trekking at that time. Only in the evening when the sun was out for a while and the day was about to close, we could go out along with another group who stayed in our guest house. We went to visit the GMVN guest house and the view from there was really good. The broad riverbed flanked by tall trees on both sides and the Ganges flowing quietly as if directly descending from the icy ranges, is a spectacle to see. Now and then the sun was playing hide and seek with the clouds and the mountain tops were covered with ice. The chilly wind was making us shiver but we kept our warmth to use the last bit of the day time.

Before dinner we decided that we must go to Sat Tal next day come what may – sunshine or rain. However the night sky was relatively clear giving an indication to a sunny day next. We also enquired as to how we could reach Gangogtri. We were concerned as no regular bus or jeep services were in place due to the closure of the Gangotri Temple. The temple was due to open on 28th April, 2009. We were told there could be some vehicles going to Gangotri with goods and if we could get some lift we could reach Gangotri. On the face of it, it looked uncertain. Nonetheless, we left this issue to be solved as and when we faced it.

Next day, the 13th April morning was sunny and got ready for the trek. After heavy morning breakfast, we went to the highway to look for any vehicle going towards Dharali, our next destination. Even after waiting for more than half an hour we could not see any vehicle going upstream. I suggested my friend that we should walk and enjoy the natural surroundings instead of getting stuck in one place. My friend did not think it a wise decision at all. His argument was why to exhaust unnecessarily when in any event we need a vehicle to reach Dharali. My argument was that coming to the hills is to enjoy the nature and if we could do it on the way why not do it? I do not know whether he was convinced by this argument but he started walking with me. Very soon we came across a beautiful rivulet coming down from the icy peaks making a gargling sound and flowing between bolders and fern type trees. It was so beautiful that we stopped there to savour the beauty of the place and freeze it in our memory. As we continued our walk towards Dharali we came across another water fall on the other side of the road. The fall was making a huge roaring sound. We could watch it from afar but none the less it was mesmerizing. Then there comes a tempo going to Dharali and then to Gangotri. For a while, we thought of going to Gangotri. However it was not practical to go there without our clothes. So we had to, for the time being, be satisfied with Dharali.

At Dharali we had a cup of tea and local people advised us about the road leading to Sat Tal. The trekking was quite hard. After trekking through the village we entered the thick vegetation of Pine Deodar and rhododendron trees. The trekking was very pleasant and we came across patches of ice here and there. The first Tal came after trekking about one hour continuously. On the way a cowherd boy cautioned us not to venture into the lake because the lake is very deep and has octopus type vegetation that would catch a person in a deadly grip and coming out of it would be quite impossible. That piece of advice was worth taken. When we finally reached the lake it looked like a few thousand years old. The time was about 12.15 p.m. and the sun’s rays were falling into it revealing to certain extent the weeds and plants that were stretching its antenna. We could not see any input of water from other sources but a small stream emerged from this lake and continuously flowing downstream. This proves there is an underneath link of source that keeps on replenishing the outflow of water. We kept on trekking up but could not find any more lake except a lake like area full of marsh and another stream oozing out from this apparent lake. We could see a small temple a little away and some movement of person. We went there and found only a lady ‘Avadhut’ who gave us as Prasad a piece of coconut each. She told us that there were two more lakes little ahead. Although we were tired, still we trekked and found them finally. The water level was very low and muddy. I think visiting these lakes would be ideal after the rainy season like in October. The view of the surrounding hills was wonderful. The icy peaks with long deodar trees covering the mountain slopes with snow looked breathtakingly beautiful . We stayed there for a while before embarking on the return journey.

On the way back we saw two young friends were coming up looking for the Lakes. We told them that it would take about 3 to 4 hours to visit those Tals and be back to Dharali. The time was about 3.30 p.m. It was good to see young chaps had passions to explore difficult natural locations. We were back to Dharali at 4.00 p.m. and were very hungry. A hotel provided us with lunch but the quality was very poor, specially the rice was full of broken stones that challenged our strong teeth. We returned to Harsil hotel around 4.25 p.m. and had a good rest before tea at 6.00 p.m. The weather here was perfect and we found a Bengalee group newly arrived and I had a good chat with them.

For next day (14th April, 2009) we were determined to take a chance to go to Gangotri. We were bit demoralized hearing that we needed some kind permission from the Forest department even to enter Gangotri, Gomukh was a far cry. We kept our rucksack packed and ready for next day as we were to leave Harsil.

The morning was perfect with sun shine and clear sky. After heavy breakfast we settled our accounts with the hotel man and bade him good bye. We waited on the highway to catch any vehicle that might pass by. We waited for about half an hour but with no luck. Again I suggested that we should go forward and wait at the rivulet that we saw yesterday. There too we had to wait. However waiting by the rivulet was a refreshing one although a nagging thought of how to reach Gangotri kept on ticking. Suddenly we saw a jeep coming and we stopped it and were delighted to know that it was going to Gangotri only. What a surprise! The route to Gangotri was quite a steep winding way about 25 k.m. from Harsil. More we started ascending the more deeper the Ganges could be seen. At last we arrived at the gate of Gangotri but we saw the whole road was dug up and it was so cold that one needs full warm cover to be comfortable. I paid the jeep driver Rs. 100/- for our journey @Rs. 50/- each but my friend was annoyed with me as I did not ask the driver what was the fare per person. I just paid him Rs. 100/- It was given on the assumption that other passengers were also paying Rs. 50/- each. Moreover, I was excited to have made it to Gangotri, so I was least bothered about money being paid more.

The most interesting thing that struck us there is that all the shops, guest houses, temples were closed, locked and sealed except three or four. First we headed towards the Gangotri temple and found some people were painting the domes and a Priest was supervising it. As we expressed our desire to him he directed us to ‘Ishavashya Temple’ across the ganges where we could be put up for the night and our food requirement would be looked after. We crossed the Ganges over a broken breeze and met a supervisor at the Ishavashya Temple. He permitted us for a night’s stay and a big room with four beds was given to us. After refreshing ourselves, we took a walk along the Ganges and went quite a bit. It drizzled a while and when we were coming back we saw a small Ashram and one young man was living there. We went to meet him he turned out to be Swami Ananda Tirtha who has been living there for the last 3 years even in severe winter when the whole of Gangotri area gets under snow. We were told that he was pursuing his spiritual quest living a secluded life. He invited us in for a cup of Coffee. This was really a good ‘Satsang’ with a Swami and we discussed about Swami Ramtirtha, Swami Sivananda, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Sri Aurobindo and their spiritual enlightenment. I promised to send him a copy of Sri Aurobindo’s, ‘Letters on Yoga’ which I am yet to fulfill. The inner chamber of his Ashram is a cave and very cosy and comfortable. He informed us that he keeps every provision for his living that last at least for 6 months given the unpredictable weather pattern in the Himalayas and the road conditions. He gave us two important piece of information, firstly, a lady by name Lalitamayee was living next to the small police post, who once worked at Vivekananda Kendra, Kanyakumari and whom my friend was looking for since our planning to come to Gangotri. Secondly, when we go back to Uttar Kashi we could stay at the Sivananda Ashram there at Ujeli.

It was already dark and we had to take leave of him promising to meet him as and when destiny so desires. We hurried to our ‘Ishavasya Ashram’ but just before entering our place we saw a ‘Radha-Krishna’ temple where evening Aarati was taking place. We both went in and enjoyed the evening ‘Aarti’ I feel always attached to Radha and Krishna and temples dedicated to them is close to my heart. We also got some Prasad and enquired whether we could stay there for the next night, if necessary. The in charge Swami invited us to have dinner with them and also we were welcome to stay if we so desired. We thanked him for their invitation for dinner and told him we would be happy to honor his invitation some other time..

When we reached, the Ishavashya Ashram, here too evening Aarati was going on and we joined in. After Aarti we were called for dinner. We were so hungry and ate to our heart’s content to compensate for our missing lunch. The in-charge Swami looked after our needs well with respect. We were also given a lantern for lighting our room. I forgot to tell our readers that during the period Gangotri Temple is closed for 6 months all electrical connections, water supply and other facilities are suspended. So any temple that is open during this intervening period had to arrange for everything on their own. Night was so cold that we could not stay out for long but we did not go to bed before looking at the starry night.

In the morning (15th April, 2009) after breakfast we went to meet, ‘Lalita Mayee’ and we had a long chat with her and heard of her experience of staying at Tapovan, near Gomukh for three years. It was most interesting to hear that being a lady and living alone in such isolated places how providence provided her with necessities and we city people are so concerned about our security! When we visited her she was living in a ‘Hanuman’ temple but would not accept any donation from us. On the other hand, she offered us a cup of tea and some sweet preparation to carry home. We took leave of her wishing success in her spiritual endeavor.

We went back to ‘Ishavasya’ Ashram but not before paying a visit to the Krishna temple. The Swami of the Radha Krishna temple again invited us to stay in their Ashram. It was very nice of him to have offered us accommodation but we were scheduled to reach Uttar Kashi that evening. We told the Swami in case we changed our program then we would accept his invitation. I also collected a picture of Radha Krishna of the temple from the Swami.

After a while we went to our room and packed our rucksacks for the next journey. In the meantime the lunch was ready and we did full justice to the food offered to us so gracefully by the Ashram staff. Before leaving we donated a small sum as a token of our offering to the Ashram. We took leave of Gangotri with a thought that next time we must trek to ‘Gomukh’ . We waited for quite a while for any vehicle going to Uttar Kashi. Finally, we found one vehicle around 3 p.m. and we arrived in Uttar Kashi at 8 p.m. We found out the Sivananda Ashram and were provided with accommodation and food for two nights. Our stay at Sivananda Ashram was very comfortable. The room was quite big with four beds and most interestingly some provision for morning tea with cooking gas.

Next day morning (16th April, 2009) we planned to visit ‘Nachiketatal’ about 28 k.m. from Uttar Kashi. There was one Swami ji from Kerala, quite a talkative one was staying in the Ashram then. He would hardly miss any opportunity to talk on any subject on the earth to his pupil. We were two of them. He also called two more aspirants who wanted to go to ‘Nachiketatal’ and tied them with us, a Swami and a Brahmachari. He also advised us on how to go and what to eat and what to carry. My friend was little upset not that we did not like these swamis but the problem was that he would not be able to smoke when they were with us. However, that flimsy fear vanished as we started trekking the mountain path through the jungle and he found ample opportunities to smoke.

Nachiketa is a character we find in Katha Upanishad, wherein his father offered him to the king of Death. The story goes that Nachiketa waited for 3 days and 3 nights to meet the King of Death. He fasted all these three days. To win him over, the King of death offered him three boons: the first boon Nachiketa had asked for was that his father should not be angry with him on his return; the second one was to visit the hell and heaven; and lastly he should be given the knowledge of the Soul. The king of death bestowed him with the first two boons but for the third one Nachiketa had persevere for the realization of the soul through austerity. We saw that Lake on the bank of which Nachiketa did his austerities. It is of medium size but has fallen to poor maintenance. We met a Sadhu, Sitaram baba, who lives by the lake and has been there for the last 30 years. There is also a temple dedicated to Nachiketa. Some local priest of the temple comes to serve him and worships the idol at the temple. The location is good, quiet and surrounded by thick vegetation, a place ideal for practicing (Tapas) austerity. To reach the place one has to get down at Chowrangee khal and trek about 5 k.m. through forest area. This place is higher than Uttar Kashi about 2200 meters above sea level and is quite cold. We were there about 2 hours talking with the Sadhu and going round the place. By the time we came down to the bus stand it was about to 5 p.m. We were told that there wasa bus at 5 p.m. for Uttar Kashi. We had to wait till 6.30 p.m. and we were really scared with the gloomy prospect of being held up for the cold night. Finally the bus appeared and we could also get our seats. While the bus was going down we could see the lighting of the Uttar Kashi town and it looked like a Diwali night. We reached Uttar Kashi around 9 p.m. and had the dinner outside itself and went back to Ashram. To our surprise, we found the main gate was closed. We tried to find alternative ways to get into the Ashram compound but were unsuccessful. Then someone opened the gate but we owed them an explanation for being late. Before going to bed we sat on the 2nd floor corridor and discussed about next day’s program, April 17, 2009. Next day we had our train booking from Haridwar to Delhi. My friend, in the meantime, pointed out many loopholes into our program but he never objected to any of the scheduling.

Next morning we decided to leave Uttar Kashi after lunch, so we had some time in hand. We utilized the time to wash our clothes and dry them. After breakfast that Swami ji told us that he was also leaving for Haridwar around 10 O’clock and he had not much time to talk. Still he called us and gave a big sermon on spiritual life and he also revealed that he was a householder and took to the life of renunciation only a few years back. Swami ji left Uttar Kashi after a while. We decided to have the lunch at the Ashram and then leave for Haridwar.

The Sivananda Ashram at Uttar Kashi is located at a height of 1352 meters and has a beautiful view of the mountains. There are a number of students studying spiritual scriptures who came to join there from nearby villages. Life is quite smooth in an Ashram pursuing a disciplined way of living. As the bell rang for midday meal, we had to be ready for it. The sun was quite hot here unlike we experienced at Harsil and Gangotri. Once again we had a good midday meal and my friend wanted to rest a while before taking on 6 hours bus journey to Haridwar. I reluctantly agreed understanding his age factor and a regular practice of rest after lunch. Before leaving the Ashram we gave a little donation and offered our respect to Swami ji and the Siva Linga in the temple. From the road we got a local bus that dropped us at the bus stand. On enquiry we found a deluxe bus starting at 2 p.m. reaching Rishikesh around 8-00 p.m. I almost forgot two important incidents, the first one was my friend’s looking for walking sticks and the second one is to visit Vishwanath Temple at Uttar Kashi. He not only bought a stick but 3 of them. He also bought certain rings that are believed to be helpful in warding off evil influence of stars. At the temple also a priest caught hold of him and got him do some puja for which he was charged Rs. 101/- I just gave him company in such situation.

The bus travel from Uttar Kashi to Haridwar was not all enjoyable because of the heat and the mostly barren hills. I thought of having the dinner at Sivananda Ashram, Rishikesh in case our bus could reach Rishikesh around 7 p.m. But it was not to be, we reached Rishikesh around 8.00 and we had to catch another bus going to Haridwar. Another important task my friend had was to collect the water of the Ganges in a plastic container. We took a ricksaw at Haridwar to the Ganga Ghat and bought a container and filled it with water. On way back to station we had a nice dinner in a ‘Dhaba’ Our train was scheduled to arrive at the station around 10.30 p.m. My friend did not want to go to the station immediately. As outside was dusty and humid I went to the Station platform and sat under a fan. Looking at the passengers crowding the platform, the Indian panorama kept on changing and my time just flew by. About 10.30 p.m. my friend appeared when the train already steamed into the platform and we took our berth and headed for Delhi.