Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy journey along the Ganga from Rishikesh to Tapovan, in search of Himalayan stories, mystics and adventure.
‘Who was the son of Hanuman?’ Mauni Baba gesticulated with his hands. The Ukrainian scowled, the Russian shook his head, as all eyes turned to us. “Baba, wasn’t he a bachelor, sworn to brahmacharya (celibacy)?” we enquired politely. Mauni Baba gave us his warm benign smile and through dumb charades explained the mythological conundrum. How, on his aerial journey to Lanka, a bead of sweat fell from Hanuman’s body into the ocean and was swallowed by a makara (sea creature). The child thus born of it was called Makaradhwaja, who later became the gatekeeper of Ravana’s brother, Ahiravana. During the Lanka war, the powerful Makaradhwaja came face to face with the monkey god, who was baffled to meet his match. When he asked the young lad his identity, he replied that he was his son. Hanuman surely must have been more shocked than us.
It was a helluva story. More so, considering baba had used just gestures to communicate it. At 14,435 feet, our theatrics could have been mistaken for high altitude madness, but there were hardly any people, save a herd of Himalayan blue sheep, to make such assumptions. The majestic Shivling peak (21,750 ft) towered above us, its head covered in clouds, while the Amar Ganga stream flowed silently, as if washing its feet. Tapovan, the spiritual retreat of Lord Shiva, wore an air of meditative calm. Herds of bharal flocked to Mauni Baba’s Ashram. Apart from providing food, shelter and answers to mundane and philosophical questions of humans, the young swami also tended to the salt intake of the herbivores. On a vow of silence since eight years, he was one of the many extraordinary people we met on our Ganga odyssey.
Our tricky descent over mud slopes, rocky paths and glaciers brought us to Gaumukh, the glacial source of the Ganga. It was alarming to see that the path we had taken while climbing had shifted on our return. Deep below our feet, bits of the glacier fell into an unseen abyss with a chilling distant splash. We walked gingerly wondering when the icy path would give way. Global warming was not some phenomenon in the future; it was a reality unfolding right in front of our eyes. The source of India’s holiest river was a trickling expanse of mud, and it felt as if time was running out…
We breezed past the clutch of camps at Bhojbasa, the shady arbor of chir pine at Chirbasa and through Gangotri National Park. We had walked 21 km non-stop from Tapovan, and by evening, we returned to the mayhem of mainstream Gangotri. After thanking the river deity for a safe trip, we crossed the metal bridge to the quieter side and stayed at the Isha Vasyam Ashram. At dusk the oil lamps by the riverside seemed magical as the snowy peaks of Sudarshan and Bhagirathi shone in the fading light.
Next morning, a walking path led us to Gauri Kund, the spot where Lord Shiva took the tempestuous Ganga into his matted locks and saved the earth from the fury of her descent. Just opposite Surya Kund, we came to a kutiya (hut) decorated with driftwood and sacred stone arrangements. This was the ashram of Swami Sundaranandji, better known as Clicking Swami or Photo Baba, whose amazing stories kept us enthralled for hours…
Swamiji came here in 1948 from Nellore, and after meeting his guru Tapovan Maharaj, developed a fascination for nature. He took to photography in 1956 with a Rs 25 Agfa Click III camera and went about documenting the Himalayas with amazing detail. A veteran mountaineer who has scaled 25 peaks, Sundaranandji has trekked to Gaumukh 108 times much before there was a path, and walked from Gangotri to Badrinath a dozen times. During the China war, he showed the way through the mountains to the Indian Army. He survived a fall into a crevasse and lowered himself using a rope, risking his life to take photographs of Suralaya Glacier in Satopanth. He has a penchant for discovering the sacred symbol Om in nature, and has captured pictures in stone, leaves, flowers and sky.
With several awards to his credit and many exhibitions across the country, a lot of his eight quintal photographs and 4,000 slides had been purloined by visitors. An operation in 2002 ended his climbing career, but his lifetime’s work finally bore fruit through a coffee table book, Himalaya: Through the lens of a Sadhu, translated into German and Italian.
Poring over his glossy photos, Swamiji rued that the mountains are not the same anymore. It was unbelievable to see crystal blue waters at Surya Kund when Gangotri was bejewelled like heaven on earth. Swamiji scoffed at the herd of pilgrims who came with blinders on a char dham yatra, with little time to explore the natural beauty or the inclination to climb a hill. “Eshwar mandir ya masjid mein nahin, prakriti ke praangan mein yun hi bikhra pada hai,” he said, meaning ‘God does not reside in temples or mosques, he is scattered everywhere in the courtyard of nature.’
The bus from Gangotri dropped us to Dharali where the Ganga had broadened into a wide expanse. Lazing by the tents of the Char Dham Camp of Leisure Hotels, it was cathartic to gaze at the placid river murmuring past us. At the ancient Kalp Kedar Temple, Swami Narasimh Tirth told us that this was the mool sthan (original place) of the Ganga and that the glacier had actually shifted 21 km to Gangotri over centuries! It is common knowledge that the glacier recedes 5 metres every year, but this was a staggering statistic. The temple itself was believed to be 5,115 years old, built by the Pandavas. Adorning the façade was an intriguing face of Surya, the sun god, or Kalabhairava, Shiva’s fierce attendant.
Earlier, the temple overlooked the Ganga, but had since sunk. A famous photograph from 1802 showed us the shrines of Parvati and Ganesha, destroyed in the glacial shift of 1895, which also flattened an 18 km stretch from Jangla to Sukhi. From 1935-38, another glacial shift submerged the Kalp Kedar temple with only the shikhara visible. The temple was partially excavated in 1980, but 6 ft still remains underwater. The priest told us that every Shravan, the Ganga comes up to Lord Shiva and washes the panch-mukhi lingam as an oblation while in the dry season, the submerged temples magically reappear.
It is said that the Pandavas cursed Kalp Kedar to be washed away since Lord Shiva did not give them darshan when they had performed a penance to atone for the bloodbath at the Mahabharata war. The Pandavas took a holy dip to remove the sin of hatya (murder), so the river bears the name Hatyaharini. We continued on the Pandava trail to Mukhwa, the winter seat of the Ganga, where Bhima’s horse left its hoofmarks on a rock while going to Mansarovar. Locals believe that Bhima created the Bhim Ganga waterfall to quench the thirst of the Pandavas. Even today, cows and mules step into the same hoof prints while walking up the mountain. Our young guides Gokul and Samridh mimicked Arjun and Bhima shooting an arrow into the mountain. The trail beyond led to Danda Pokhri for views of Mount Sumeru. But we were content with the splendor of Chandraparvat, Srikanth, Himvan and Bandarpoonch. On our walk through the quaint village, the boys insisted we taste berries and shoots like chuli, shirol and saunf (fennel) that grew on the mountainside.
As we descended via Uttarkashi to Rishikesh, the rise in temperature was palpable. Relaxing at Neemrana’s Glasshouse on the Ganges, amidst the mango and litchi orchards of the Maharaja of Tehri, seemed like a perfect way to unwind. From our perch we spotted yellow and blue dinghies bob down the river and were tempted to embark on a white-water rafting adventure. At a placid stretch, the guide egged us to jump overboard. We needed no encouragement. The icy cold water of the Ganga was like balm to our trek-weary bodies. Sage Bhagirathi hadn’t just assured the salvation of his 60,000 ancestors, he had ensured it for generations to come.