The Ganges (Ganga in Hindi) is one of the most sacred rivers in India. People come from all over the country to give offerings and to wash away their sins. There 4 main sites considered the most holy; the source of it at the Gaumukh Glacier and the cities of Rishikesh, Haridwar and Varanasi. We visited all 4 of these important sites.
Hindus believe in reincarnation and that their actions in this life result in their position in their next life. The legend of the Ganges River is that the Goddess Ganga lived in heaven and was sent to earth to liberate souls from this continuous cycle of reincarnation. Ganga was insulted by this order and she went to earth kicking and screaming, saying that instead of saving souls, she’d wipe away the earth. As she landed on earth she fell on the hair of Shiva, a Hindu God. His hair not only cushioned her fall but also changed her attitude. Ganga then pledged to purify all souls who came in contact with her resulting in the mass number of Hindus that go on pilgrimages to touch the Ganges.
The Bhagirathi River is considered the source of the Ganges and its ultimate source is where it emerges from the Gaumukh Glacier. Many pilgrims believe that visiting Gaumukh Glacier is an important part of their pilgrimage. Gaumukh is in a very beautiful part of the Garhwal mountain range so we decided to do the ‘Source of the Ganges’ trek including Tapovan meadow above. The trek begins in the small town of Gangotri. This town is very important in Hindu mythology as it is believed to be the spot where Ganga fell into Shiva’s hair. The village’s one street is filled with tourist shops and hotels for the large amount of pilgrims that arrive daily. From the end of the street we saw the gorgeous peaks of Gangotri 1 giving us a good preview of what we’d see over the next 4 days.
The trek is an easy walk as it follows the Bhagirathi River, passing steep rock cliffs with waterfalls and glimpses of the high Himalayas above. We trekked at the end of October and autumn had already arrived. The gold and red leaves of the birch and poplar trees made the valley spectacular.
In the summer there are thousands of pilgrim trekkers each day, but with the cooler fall weather, the trail was much less busy. The ones we did see were struggling as they are not used to hiking and for many this is the first hike they’ve ever done. A few even rode on horseback. But they continued, determined to see the glacier. In the summer there are many dhabas for the pilgrims to stop for a rest and a cup of chai, but in the autumn we saw only one open. The first night was cold at about -5°C but the second and third night felt like a Canadian winter. The temperature went down to between -10 and -15°C. We really felt sorry for the pilgrims who came straight from Delhi or further south where the overnight low would be in the 20s.
The view from our first campsite was amazing. We could see the 3 peaks of the impressive Bhagirathi 1, 2, 3 standing proudly at the end of the valley. It made for a stunning view.
As we climbed higher up the valley the next day, Bhagirathi’s appearance changed as the sun moved across its face throughout the day. The high peak of Meru North and other peaks in the range also started to become visible over the rocky ridge to our side.
On the final part of the ascent to the glacier we finally saw the magnificent peak of Mt Shivling towering above. The mountain’s name has an interesting story. The god Shiva is one of the 3 primary Hindu Gods. He is the destroyer and the transformer. Shivling stands for Shiva’s lingam, or phallus. The easy hiking trail ends at a shrine of lingams. This is as far as most pilgrim trekkers go as the trail from here is over large boulders and uneven terrain.
We continued trekking and after 10 minutes we arrived at the toe of the Gaumukh Glacier and the start of the Ganges River. Above we could see the two mountains of Shivling and Bhagirathi. Our main objective though was to reach the meadow of Tapovan which is above the glacier. Our guide tried to make us cross the river over ice and snow covered rocks. He said the trail was on the other side up a steep, loose gully with a lot of rock fall. We didn’t believe him and think he was trying to get us to turn around. Instead we followed the well-marked rugged trail across the glacier which went over large boulders, glacier ice and small crevasses.
The final stage was to hike up to the top of the ridge. It was a steep 300m climb but when were reached the top, the view was breathtaking. Tapovan meadow has an unbelievable 360° view of the most gorgeous granite spires towering above.
We walked across the meadow in awe of the vista and stopped at a Sadhu’s hut for chai. He is very well respected, so locals call him ‘Baba’. He lives in the stone hut all year and said in the winter it can drop to -30°C. with snow up to his knees. He was quite prepared for the upcoming winter with solar panels, a kerosene stove and plenty of food supplies. We had chai, spoke with Baba about the area and enjoyed the incredible view.
The trail down was very steep, and it took almost as long to get down to the glacier as it did going up. We walked all the way back to the jeeps that were waiting in Gangotri enjoying the views from the valley once more. Interested in doing this trek? Click here for trek details.
Further down the Ganges in the city of Rishikesh, pilgrims come in droves to bathe in the Ganges. They believe it will help to achieve moksha – a liberation from the cycle of life, death and rebirth so they will remain in heaven and not be reincarnated. There are many spots along the river called ghats which are steps that lead to the water so that bathers can easily step in to the river. Most of the ghats are between the colourful suspension bridges Lakshman and Ram Jhula. At one of the ghats is a large statue of Shiva with Ganga in his hair and another of monkey god Hanuman with an open chest.
An important ceremony, Ganga Aarti, is held every night in Rishikesh. It is a devotional ritual where fire and flowers are offered to the goddess Ganga. Pundits, Hindu priests, light fires, recite prayers and sing hymns in front of a crowd of hundreds. Sacred fires are lit in brass lamps and carried through the crowds. People ‘wash’ themselves with the smoke from these lamps. While this is going on people put diyas in the Ganges. These are small baskets with flowers and a butter candle which is blessed either for themselves or in the name of a deceased loved one. These offerings are said to help achieve moksha. We set a diya in the water in the name of Richard’s mom and dad and Maggie’s dad and nephew. Who knows…
Rishikesh seems to bring out many different types of eccentric characters. We saw everything from ear cleaners to real and fake sadhus to hippies and religious pilgrims. Sadhus are holy men who have given up all earthy possessions to commit to a life spiritual discipline to achieve moksha. Some are authentic like the Baba we met in Tapovan, but many are homeless people who dress up with makeup and wild dreadlocks. They charge a fee for tourists to take their pictures.
Rishikesh is also famous for ashrams, yoga and meditation. Most in Rishikesh cater to western tourists. There are hoards of tourists trying to ‘find themselves’ in Rishikesh. They dress in loose fitting Turkish-style pants and hippie tops with dreadlocks and a carefree attitude. But because of the large number of western tourists, Rishikesh has great coffee shops and restaurants that we were happy to frequent. We also saw more of the gentle Grey Langur monkeys hanging around the river.
In the 60s the Beatles famously spent a month in an ashram in Rishikesh. It is said that they wrote many songs here including most of the ‘White Album’. The ashram is now in ruin but is open to the public. There are man-made meditation caves, a lecture hall, a kitchen, general residence, the yogi-master’s house and the Beatles’ residence. It was quite disappointing to see it in such poor condition.
After our time in Rishikesh we were curious to see what the next two holy cities of Haridwar and Varanasi would have to offer.
Coming up next: The Ganges:Part 2, Ganga Aartis and Devali
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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