(A much delayed account, thanks to much that happened and is still happening)
After spending three nice days in Harsil, amongst them a lazy day of snowfall, we decided to visit Gangotri, which till that time, I believed to be the source of river Ganga. It is 23 km north of Harsil, and is a popular pilgrimage. From May to October, the main temples in Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath (together known as the char-Dham of Uttaranchal) are opened to pilgrims. During these days, the towns see multitude of visitors, scrambling into the Ganges to get a dip into the holy river, or jostling to get a view of the temples.
Our interests in going to gangotri were mainly to see the glacier, which we realized on the way, can be reached only with a few km trek (usually two days) from Gangotri. That having dampened our spirits, we were a little disinterested in our stop at Bhaironghati – a small nondescript shiva temple. But then we stopped at a bridge (I am still trying to find the name of the place) , which was just 50 km from the Tibetan border, and the journey was interesting again. To be so close to that magical land was in itself exciting, the high cliffs and the streak of blue river flowing below made it even more wonderful. During the yatra season, there is heavy security at the place and it is strictly forbidden to click pictures, but for now, we were the rulers of the deserted land.
Some winding roads later, we reached Gangotri. As I said earlier, I have seen pictures of the place packed with pilgrims – so to meet no one except a couple of kids playing cricket at the beginning of the town was eerie. We walked through the deserted town, seeing only our shadows. Few steps ahead, a small shop was open to almost no business – the shopkeeper was happy to meet our needs of chocolates (cravings of city people). We walked to the river, which seemed so fresh and violent here, ready to take on the world. The temple was equally placid.
We decided to see a bit of the town amidst locked houses. During the non-yatra season, all establishments are shut down and people migrate down to Uttarkashi. They come back one week before the Yatra to clean/repair the places and make them ready for the torrent of visitors. We saw some repair work in a couple of ashrams, and even counting the labor there, we met just about a dozen people in the town.
In Gangotri are the sprightly Suryakund waterfalls. The local guy accompanying us told us a few stories about how the waterfalls were formed by the footprints of Bhima. As per the local legend, Gangotri was one of the places the Pandavas visited during their exile. At a distance of 1.5 km from the waterfall is Pandava Gufa – the cave where Pandavas established shelter. The walk to this cave was pretty with heavy bushes and trees, outlined by Himalyan peaks on one side. It was an easy and lovely walk, except that we had to cross a glacier on the way, and none of our shoes were ready to take the slip. We managed somehow , but the thought of returning through the same glacier constantly played on our minds while we walked to the cave. Especially since the day was coming to a close.
Before we had left for Gangotri, we had spent the morning enjoying the sunshine after the snow in Harsil. Everything was shining brightly, reflected in the melting snow. We walked down to the river, which seemed far less sedate than the previous day. The heavy rain had given it a new life. Touching the water sent shivers up to each part of the body, so cold was the water.
The next day, we went walking to yet another neighboring village – Mukhba. One of the things that Mukhba is famous for is the Ganges temple, where the idol of Ganga is placed for the 6 months when it is not in gangotri. The walk to Mukhba goes along the river. Somewhere close to the village, we climbed down to the river to spend sometime there. The view was especially pretty, something neither of us could get enough of. We walked near the river for a long distance, hoping to reach the bridge which crossed to the other side of Mukhba – only to realize that we had snooked ourselves in. The only way out was to either walk back the entire distance, or climb through walls and bushes. We chose the latter, and a few scratches later, were up on the bridge.
Somehow, we never reached the temple which we had set out towards – none of us is particularly religious, it was very sunny and the temple was at a steep climb. When two of the company gave up and decided to go down for food instead, we were easily swayed.
A sumptuous meal and a walk back later, we were in Harsil again. Not having enough of the river, we took another short walk to the other end of the hamlet and reached the riverside behind a temple. There is a flight of stairs, which leads straight to the river. At a short distance, three small rivers meet. The spot is magical. On the riverside are big round stones, perfect to enjoy the scene lying down or sitting up. On the other side of the river is the ever-encompassing Himalyan outline. Above is clear blue sky. More you cannot need here.