A journey through undiluted India to the source of one of the world's mightiest rivers
It is said that a fresh start is a good thing, but this was ridiculous. The water below me wasn’t just fresh, it was ankle-achingly frigid.
The sadhu with the battered sports bag watched me undress with an air of polite, if slightly sceptical, interest. I was hopping, trying to get my shorts off over my walking boots, with a great wall of ice – the snout of the glacier – towering above. The river emerging from the ice was soupy brown with powdered rock; it was going to be every bit as cold as it looked.
Hindus believe that bathing at the source of the Ganges gives you the ultimate fresh start in life – it washes away all your sins. No other river in the world has as much religious, cultural and economic significance as Mother Ganges. Nearly one in ten people on the planet live within its drainage basin and to one person in five, it is the centre of their faith.
Even to a non-Hindu, the trek to the source of the Ganges is one of the great journeys of the world. There are the mountains, for a start. Not surprisingly, the mighty river has its source in the even mightier Himalaya. In the Indian state of Uttaranchal, near the Tibetan border, it springs fully formed from the glacier, a raging brown torrent, dotted with icebergs. Above and around, the mountains do everything expected of Himalayan peaks – they seem too high, rumble with avalanches and glitter at night.
But there’s a better reason for coming here than washing away one’s sins; there’s even a better reason than spending a week trekking in the Himalaya: there are the Indians themselves. Forget the bloke who hawks postcards at the Taj Mahal. Forget the ones who guide bus trips around Goa. Here, you can meet the Indian equivalent of Mrs Jones from no. 42 – the ordinary people who don’t work in tourism, don’t live anywhere on the tourist map, and who would never normally have any reason to talk to a traveller.
Unless, of course, they happen to find themselves strolling alongside one for a few hours on a pilgrimage route. Then, Indian Mrs Jones from no. 42 should have plenty of time for a good old chat. She’s on her holiday, puffing her way up to the source of the holiest thing in her religion; you’re wheezing along next to her. You both fancy a bit of a break. What could provide a better excuse than five minutes chewing the cud on a trailside boulder?
For most of them, Gangotri, the roadhead village that marks the start of the six-day trek, is as close as they come. Arriving in the busy little pilgrimage village, I decided to stretch my legs after the rough, thrilling, two-day drive from Delhi.
Its one street, long and narrow, was lined with shops selling all the religious accessories you could think of. There were pictures and statues of blue gods, crocodile gods and mountain temples, plastic bottles and metal gourds for collecting holy water, and, of course, posters of the river itself.
Where there weren’t shop-fronts, there were sadhus, men who have given up everything material to wander round India on the path to enlightenment – and Gangotri, it seemed: the place was sadhu central. There were scruffy sadhus with broken white plastic slippers, dirty blankets and old sports bags slung over their shoulders. There were tall, thin sadhus, magisterial in immaculately pleated orange robes, bushy white eyebrows and patrician beards. And there were young sadhus with black dreadlocks, salmon-pink shirts and intelligent faces. They all carried the only worldly possessions they are allowed – a staff, a satchel and their shiny lunchboxes.
As I watched them, a fat gentleman – looking distinctly un-sadhu-like – plonked himself beside me and smiled. He was on holiday from Delhi.
“Ah, you’re going to the very source!” he exclaimed, when he found out my plans. “That is very good. Are you going for a dip? You must have a dip in the waters there. I myself have done it in January. It immediately washes away all your sins.”
Then he leaned forward and grinned conspiratorially. “It leaves you free to start all over again.”
Heartened that I’d finally heard a really good reason to submerge myself in icy water, I found the walking easy the next morning. The trail had seen the passage of many thousands of feet. Donkeys continually passed with unhappy-looking Indians clinging to their backs as they headed upstream. They looked terrified riding the mountain path and barely spared me a nod. But those on foot had more time to chat.
He sat on his battered red and green sports bag and pulled out a chillum pipe, puffing away as he told me his tale in broken English. He was from Calcutta and had been walking around India for 26 years. This year he was touring the mountain pilgrimage centres. I asked him about the marijuana he was smoking and he explained that devout followers of Lord Shiva smoke dope as an offering to their lord, to help them in their holy meditation.
As I got up to leave, he unashamedly asked if I had any food. It was clearly an attack of the munchies so, thinking of his digestion, I gave him a bar of Fruit’n’Fibre.
That evening, though, I heard a very different view of sadhus. I was chatting to a man camped near me, a retired major from the Indian army. When I told him about my conversation with the sadhu, he scoffed: “This place seems to attract these frauds. These bogus sadhus just learn a few mantras and put the clothes on to shirk their responsibilities. They often leave wives and children behind. I’ve seen policemen taken up there by angry wives to bring their husbands home. It’s a bloody disgrace.”
Over the next four days I kept my eyes peeled in the hope that I’d see a policeman being frog-marched up the valley by an angry housewife, but I never did. I did, however, meet all sorts of other people along the trail – an atheist political lecturer from Calcutta University (“I’m just here for the trekking. It’s so beautiful”), a gaggle of schoolgirls on summer camp (“Sir, please stand here for a photo”) and innumerable others. Not all of them stopped for a chat, but plenty did and the insights I gained into their lives were priceless.
The biggest surprise was the holiday atmosphere of the pilgrimage. Clearly, this is what India’s exploding middle class does with its time off. As well as fulfilling their religious duties, they mean to see a bit of the country and enjoy themselves.
Every couple of hours along the track there was a cluster of tea-stalls with multi-coloured parasols that would have looked more at home in Blackpool. With the huge snowy peaks all around, the broad valley below and the donkeys plying their way up and down the paths, there was a strangely Wild West, frontier feel to the place. It was a wind-scoured, widescreen world, endlessly watchable with a cup of hot, sweet tea in your hand.
As I trekked higher, the people became gradually fewer, but the mountains more impressive. Just as the Alps have the Matterhorn and the Everest massif has Ama Dablam, so the Garhwal Himalaya (the name of this area) has its own peak of special beauty. Aptly, it is called Shivling – Shiva’s lingam (penis). In Hinduism, Shiva is the god associated with reproduction, and the story goes that when the goddess Ganga came down to earth, she was so powerful she might have washed all the country away had Shiva not received and quelled her in the matted locks of his hair. Looking at the mountain standing sentinel above the glacier, I could see how it got its name. The way it soared up to the sky was very, er… thrusting.
Which was the exact opposite of how I felt, staring down at the icy water that was the very source of the River Ganges.
...And was back out in a flash. The cold was like an ice-cream headache throughout my whole body. It took a long couple of minutes to dissipate.
I caught my breath. I’d done it – I’d followed one of the world’s mightiest rivers through the highest mountain range and cleansed myself at its source.
I felt good. More importantly, I’d managed to get a first-hand taste of the real India, undiluted by tour guides and hawkers. As fresh starts go, it was one of the best.
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