Char Dham : A Spiritual Adventure

Pardon me, I should have written this long before. Many had asked for a travelogue, but…. well, as always, I go back to the same old excuse.. Time! This time, its not that, I did not have time to pen this out, or I took lot of time to picture it out in my mind, its that, time was playing a vicious game with me…. More on that later, another day, another time, another blog…

The log book was an idea of mine. Well, this entry was supposed to be a live from the ground, eye witness’ account. Thanks to the internet connections, it never happened. The log book; which turned out to be more than a log book, comes to my help here; now, when I write this out.

The trip was an idea of Amma. She had been planning a trip to the Himalayas for long. It was Nepal first, Kashmir then, and many many places, followed. As usual, all plans remained just as “plans”. This time, Amma had planned with Usha aunty, and went a step further and actually booked a tour package, well, a pilgrimage to what is called the Char Dham (4 holy places).

Everything was charted and set, well before I left Tanzania. The tour operators, Usha Breco Limited, had given a detailed itinerary; meal plan included!

We started from Pattambi, on the 15th of May 2010, by car to Coimbatore. Had breakfast at Usha Auntys’ and left for the airport. Flew to Delhi, and checked in at Hotel Indraprastha. I had my first glimpse of the National Capital; the famous India Gate, and couple other buildings, the pictures of which I had seen, many a time. The day was kind of uneventful, and the whole excitement of being at the National Capital was sort of dwindled, the tiring long journey, and the soaring heat; the culprits.

We had a walk through the Karol Bagh, in the evening. Again, what stood out was the busy people, walking on a dusty street. The streets were so busy, that, I felt, Bangalore even at a peak time would be a silent place by these standards. The whole street is sort of a great big picture, ever moving, ever changing, the colours made brighter by the lights, the vendors calling out, at the top of their voices, people busy walking back to their homes, tired from their day’s work, buyers busy evaluating their options.. well, the list goes on.. Ayshu got her hand mehandied, we all had loads of pani puri & golgappa.. and then finally back to the hotel, tomorrow is the Day.

One thing that I intended to carry out, through out the trip, was something, that a friend of mine introduced me to, not very long before. This is what he called, ‘street photography’. I found this pretty interesting. The idea is to take photos, of people in real life surroundings, without them realising that, they are being clicked. The camera need to be sort of hidden from the subject, and you can experiment with all sorts of angles.

16th May 2010 – Day Two – The pilgrimage begins

We had an early breakfast, and let ourselves to the tour operators. Our vehicle for the next 15 days, a Tempo Traveller; our driver Mr. Bhupal and his assistant, were all ready at the hotel by 8:00 am. We had an ‘early start’, to evade the notorious Delhi traffic. By around 10:00 am we left the city limits and were on the highway to Rishikesh. En route, we passed the famous Akshardham temple, the city of Meerut, had a glimpse of IIT- Roorkee and the holy city of Haridwar.

We had couple of stops en-route, had snacks at a nice place on Meerut bye-pass, had lunch at The Urmi Haridwar, where we will stay on our way back 12 days later. We reached The Nataraj, our hotel at Rishikesh by around 3:30 pm. We were left free for the day, and decided to have our own exploration of this holy town. Our driver, Bhupal, had to go to the Road Transport Office, and get a mountain licence and fitness certificate for the vehicle.

The preferred means of transport at this part of the world, is an elder cousin of our sweet Autorikshaw, called the Vikram; nice name. This is sort of a 10-11 seater autorikshaw, when filled to its full capacity, can take a bus load of people to any terrain. Later we found out that, vikram has an elder sibling, which the local people call the ‘bus’, which is something like an Omni van on three wheels!

We were advised by the hotel people, to take one of these wonderful machines, and take a tour of the city. They call Rishikesh, the temple city, this is the place where, the holy Ganges, enters the plains. Every corner of the city has a temple, and every temple has its own story to tell. I would call this an ashram city; if temples are numerous here, ashrams are aplenty.

We left to this place called the Laxman Jhoola (A suspension bridge, across the Ganges, believed to be made at a place where Laxman crossed it, to meet Ram, who was meditating on the shores of the river). Many temples and ashrams could be sighted on either banks of the Ganges. The streets were filled with sadhus, and pilgrims. We had absolutely no clue on what to do next. The place was crowded, and like any crowded holy city in India, it was dirty. We were walking the streets, when we spotted some people boating on the Ganges. We decided to do the same, and started searching for a boat.

We had our boat ride, went up stream to a ‘beach on the banks of the river’. Had many photos taken, and then went back to The Natraj.

17th May 2010 – Day Three – The first glimpse of the mighty Himalayas

This time it was an official guided tour of the city. Back to were we started the day before; Laxman Jhoola – the difference – we had a guide now, and we saw many more temples. The Ganga Matha temple, which portrays Goddess Ganga as Makar-Vahini Ganga (Ganga seated on a mythic half crocodile half fish chimera) and the ISKCON temple are the prominent ones. Then there is the Ardhanarishwar Temple, with a huge Shiv-ling, sculptured out of a single stone. We were also taken to the Utharanchal state Government’s handicraft store, where we had an hour long lecture on rudraksh, spadikh & navartna mala.

After crossing the Laxman jhoola, we took a jeep to Ram Jhoola. This is an even longer suspension bridge across the Ganges. The bridge takes you to the Triveni Ghat, which is considered as a holy place, for the holy ganga snan. Again a number of ashrams, the names of which I keep forgetting lined either side of the Ganges. The prominent ones were the Purnanand Ashram, Kali Kamli Baba Ashram, Swarg Ashram… and many more. We also visited a German Cafe on the banks of the Ganges, which served great croissants and cakes. We had boat ride across the Ganges, at Triveni Ghat, and then headed back to The Natraj for lunch.

It is here that we came across a very interesting piece of innovation. This very important discovery, well can’t call it Time machine, but it sure is something very close to that, can be used to see one’s past, present and future. All you had to do was to adjust the clock to the specific time, and then look at the dials. But the sad part is that only the owner of the machine can actually read the display, as you also need a kind of intuition, which he has got as a birth gift! This time man, was calling out aloud, the wonders that he can do with this machine, and was claiming that, its only on the banks of this holy river, such a feat is possible. We left this wonderful machine and carried on to our hotel.

We had an early lunch, and left to Barkot by 12:00 noon.

This was one of the longest journeys of the trip. We were now in the lap of the Great Himalayas. We passed through the beautiful cities of Dehradun and Mussoorie. Lush green forests, the soothing cold outside, the winding roads everything with Mussoorie, was a welcome, for someone who has been in the soaring temperatures of Delhi the day before. We had a stop at Mussoorie, walked on the streets along Mall Road, visited a cafe, nice name it had ‘Whispering Heights’, and the bakery attached was called ‘Whispers’. Had great coffee, its always fun to have a mug of steamy coffee and sit in the cold. But, we had to leave this heaven of a place and carry on with the journey. Mussoorrie also gave us a taste of another great thing, which then on became our constant companion, through out the journey. The one that Mussoorie gave us was like a trailer, to a big budget movie. Well, am talking of the traffic blocks, or the ‘JAMS’ in the local language. This became the most widely used single word from now on.

On came another attraction, the Kempty Falls. This is some 10-15 minutes drive from Mussoorie. Now, the driver was getting sort of irritated, too many stops and long they were too…. and add to that, the jams , we were running pretty late. But this never stopped us from getting down here, and even attempting a climb up, to the pool; the source of the water fall. We even had a fancy dress photo session, and to make the driver more irritated, planned a cable car trip, to the bottom of the falls; which the hoarding claimed to be the most fascinating view of the water falls. But this last feat, was so time consuming, that we had to say no, and continue with our journey.

Off, we left Kempty, with our constant companion from now on, Mr. Jam, on NH 123. We were now in the Yamuna Valley, and was following the meandering Yamuna, up stream. The roads, the mountains, and the vehicle, everything started changing their colours now. The roads became good to bad, bad to worse, and worse to no roads. The Himalayas lost the lush green colour, that was beautiful at Mussoorie, became barren, and dirty brown became the colour. The vehicle started moaning and wailing, under the stress from the roads and the jam. The Himalayas which we had in our mind, the snow clad peaks, and the pine forests never turned up, instead, we had a huge mountain range, made of soft rocks, barren, un-impressive and not so mighty. We started talking of the Western Ghats, the more familiar, our own mountain range, as being more beautiful and majestic.

The bad roads, or the no roads for that matter, became worse. Landslides became a common sight. Every corner (and there were too many), had couple of caterpillars, working hard to maintain the road (they said to make the it more drivable). And to make the matters even worse, it was getting dark. We should have listened to our driver!

The road (don’t know if you can call it that) became more and more un-drivable, and the jam even more stressing. The approaching night was not making anything better, and Barkot never came. More time on the ‘no road’, more heated conversation among drivers, more shouts, more burning clutch pads, and more screeching brakes later, we saw a welcome sign ‘Barkot : 50 km’. It took many a police man controlling the traffic, many CATs hard at work and three and a half hours wait in a hot humid van for us to reach Barkot. Now to find our hotel the ‘Karan palace’. All the hotels at this part of the world is called a palace. We saw the Indira palace, the Chauhan palace, and many more, but no Karan palace was to be seen. After many phone calls, our tour operator at Delhi, gave us a contact number at Barkot. From him we learned that, this place was well after Barkot, on the Barkot – Yamunotri route. So off we left to find it. Later at around 9:00 pm, we checked in at Karan Palace. Don’t get misled by the name, the place was a basic, below par pilgrims’ camp with very basic amenities. But anything was ok for us, and the only thing that we wanted was a good dinner, and a blanket to curl in; and the place provided both. After dinner, we had a discussion, with the local representative of our tour operator. And from him we heard the worst possible news that one could have; ‘the roads ahead are even worse, and the jams of the previous day has not yet been cleared. So to make it to Yamunotri and back the next day, we had to leave at around 4:30 am’. With the beautiful dinner, and this piece of information to digest, we retired to our beds.

18th May 2010 – Day Four – Himalayas are really majestic!

Excuses were many; the previous day was tiring, the mosquitoes never let as sleep, the wake up call never came; the result the same, we were Late…; well, not that late, we left at around 5:30 am. I would have called that an ‘early start’, but later events proved that ‘early’ meant different here on the mountains!

The jams and the bad roads followed us through. The rocky cliffs of the Himalayas flexed their muscles. The road; much better now, kept winding and twisting, following the course of the meandering Yamuna. I lost count of the number of times we crossed the river up and down. A very unusual road sign kept showing itself every now and then, the meaning of which we could never decide on. Clearing the jams, and moving on was not simple task. Many different drivers, formed something like a traffic regulation authority, and started stream lining the traffic. Things began to fall in place, and we started moving, at a better pace.

Sitting, in the car, curled up in a blanket, is not as boring on these mountain roads. The view kept changing, every second. The face of the mountains looked different from different angles. Don’t know how many photos we clicked. Thanks to the digital camera, you don’t have to keep track of the number of times it is clicked. We could see small hamlets and villages, floating in a sea of green wilderness. The terraced farmlands, and the zig-zagging mountain trails that connected the villages to them, a temple; home to the village deity standing majestic atop a lone hillock, a school in a clearing, the students standing in lines for the morning assembly; the teacher walking around with a cane ready in his hands, the scene kept changing; the beauty and the serenity remained. We were becoming more and more conscious of the mightiness of the Himalayas, and more of the sense of being small and insignificant, tiny specks afloat in a grand scheme of things. And liberated too, we were; the trammels of everyday routine melted away as we followed the Yamuna; gushing on in the valley below.

We reached Janaki Chatti at around 9:00 am. To reach Yamunotri (3,165 m above sea level), the first of the four dhams, we were put to a test by the Gods. They demanded, we trek up a steep 6 km winding mountain trail. This trail and a couple to be followed were specified in the detailed tour guide supplied by our tour operators. This knowledge, and the past experiences on couple of such trails (Adventures on Udzungwa Ranges); had me venture into gymming for the last three months. And now, the time has come, to put that to a test.

Amma, Ammanna and Usha Aunty were advised to take ponies by our driver; and they happily did so. That left, me, Hari, Ayshu and Chaithu to tread the paths. Hari left out first, and went well ahead of us. The three of us, treaded at a slower pace, taking photos and videos and having small stops at frequent intervals. Though the climb was tough, the most demanding of all the four dhams, according to the guide, the Gods, were kind enough, and made it enjoyable, for they threw in a spectacular sweep of scenery – forested slopes streaked with silvery waterfalls, and the snow clad Bancharpoonch and Kalinga peaks presiding over from the heavens above.

Gymming did do a lot of good. I was not feeling tired at all and was actually moving at a good pace. By around 11:30 am, we reached the half way mark, covering about 3 km (in 2 hours, well that was actually great). Amma and ammana were waiting for us here. They had reached the spot some 30 minutes ahead of us. Usha Aunty and Hari had already left. So after some catching up, and exchange of bags (we gave our back packs minus the cameras to them, well they are on horse backs!), we left off again. The trail now was much more steeper, and more demanding. We were digging deep into our reserves of strength to make it to the top. Then we hit, our dreaded old friend, Mr. Jam. This time, it was not the vehicles, but the ghodawalas and the doliwalas, who were responsible. The winding trail was too narrow for either of these people to make it, and there were too many of them too. The pedestrians were kind of pushed to the edges, where we were finding it difficult to cling on. There were no people to police the situation, and it was getting worse. We kept standing at the same spot for hours. The rains came then, ice cold rains, and it made things really worse, or something more than worse. Many horses and dolis were made to return. Pilgrims were asked to walk the rest of the distance; some adhered, but many kept waiting for the jam to be cleared and continue on horse backs. Amma and Ammanna returned back after waiting till 1:00 pm.

The returning horses and the dolis were not making it better. The trail was too narrow for two sets of people to walk. We kept standing. The rains got harsh, and our jackets proved inefficient to keep us warm. We were kind of stuck at the same place for three hours. More people were coming from behind; the mess becoming a hullabaloo. People started talking of a stampede up above. And, we decided to turn back. The sad part, Yamunotri was just half a kilometre ahead!

We walked back at a very slow pace, stopping to take photos at every possible place. After all we had the whole day at our disposal, and we had to compensate for our loss. The way up was now closed, and the whole of the mountain trail was left open, and we were all alone. This encouraged us to click more photos, and spent more time in the wilderness. We reached Janaki Chatti at around 4:00 pm. Amma and Ammanna were waiting for us at the Ganga-Yamuna hotel. We had our lunch and waited for Usha aunty and Hari. They came at around 6:00 pm. Both of them had been stuck in the same jam, but well ahead of us near the gates of the temple.

They talked about the hot water pools at the gates of the temple, and how people boiled rice and potatoes tied in cloths in these boiling water pools (called Khunds here) and offered it to the deity. They had also collected water from the yamuna at yamunotri.

We left the Ganga-Yamuna hotel, at around 6:15pm, and went in search of our van. Now there were many parking lots, and all of them full, and we had a difficult time finding our van. The mobile networks were all useless in these wilderness and that didn’t help our cause at all. After many minutes of searching, we found our van, and left for Karan palace. We reached Karan palace at around 9:00 pm and were welcomed by the sweet smell of dinner. After an heavy dinner, we retired to our beds. The day had been pretty tiring and all we needed was a good night’s sleep.

19th May 2010 – Day Five – From the Yamuna valley to the Ganga valley

We were allowed to get up late. Actually, we were asked to get up late. The hotel had to cater to a group of pilgrims, going to Yamunotri, early in the morning, and didn’t want us in the way. We welcomed the idea and had a good long sleep. It was 8:30 (again early by normal standards, but very late in the mountains) by the time we all got up and got ready. After breakfast, and a quick photo session we left Karan palace.

We were following the same no-roads now. The same dusty and land slide prone part of the Himalayas. The barren mountains were now radiating heat, and the temperature was going up again. After about an hours’ drive we switched roads, and were on the route to Uttarkashi, better road, and fast we drove. Then we reached this beautiful spot, right in between the Yamuna valley; which we were following all this way; and the Ganga valley. This was a beautiful site. The Yamuna valley on one side, and the Ganga flowing on the other side. What made the place more special was the cold winds that blew from the Yamuna valley, and the warm winds from the Ganga valley. If you align yourself properly to this wind currents, you have one of your ears, getting cold and the other getting warm. A small temple, on a hillock, and a tree, which the local people called the ‘money tree’ could also be seen. The rocks of the hillock were also special. Think it was the mica, in them, they glowed like gold in the sunlight. After a brief stop, and more photos, we continued, on wards to Uttarkashi.

We were now following the Bhagirathi (the Ganga as it is called here). The drive was kind of uneventful. And we spent time watching movies. We reached Uttarkashi, at around 1:30 pm. Again our hotel. Mahima Resorts (a good place), was off the town, and on the Uttarkashi – Gangotri road. We had lunch, and planned for a town tour in the evening. We also had some washing to do, and some repacking of stuff. One thing that Yamunotri, had taught us is that, our warm cloths were not warm enough on the mountains, and we needed better ones.

Off we went to Uttarkashi town in the evening. The town gets its name from Bhagirathi, which flows in a south-north direction here. Again this is a temple town. It’s said that, Lord Shiva, is at his happiest, (happier than at Kashi) at this town. It is considered as a very holy town, and is said that, any person dying in and around this place, is taken to heaven!

We went to the Shiva temple, that the city is famous for, and the adjoining Sakthi temple. The Shiva temple is famous for the swyamboo (roughly translated as originated on its own) Shiv ling and Nandi. The Sakthi temple enshrines a huge trident, that’s said to have fallen from the heaven. The metal composition of this trident is not known. The trident stands some 20 ft tall, and its again not known how deep into the soil it is rooted. The astonishing thing is that, even a slight touch of a finger makes the trident oscillate slowly.

After the temples, we hit the market area. After getting some woollen clothes and other things, we went back to the hotel. The hotel served a great dinner. The next day again, we had to leave ‘early’, to make it to Gangotri. This time we understood how early, early meant, and set our alarms accordingly.

20th May 2010 – Day Six – At heaven’s gate

We left Mahima Resorts, at around 4:00 in the morning. Catherine, an Australian, also joined us. She was going for a trek to Gaumukh, the origin of Bhagirathi. This trek needs special permission from the Government authorities, and they allow only a 100 people for the trek every day. This is a 30 odd kilometre trek and can be done in 3-4 days. The trek takes you to the 8 X 30 km Gangotri glacier which feeds the Ganga.

We were now following the Bhagirathi. The roads were much better, and kept on winding up. We saw the Kedar Ganga, and the Chini Ganga, tributaries joining the main stream of Bhagirathi. We passed through the town of Harshil, which is famous for its apple orchards. We were finding it difficult to keep the camera shut; what, with the pine and deodar forests, the stunning river canyons and the snow clad peaks brilliantly beautiful in the morning sun, no one could have! This was one of the most awesome legs of the entire journey. Then we hit another jam, this time not of vehicles, but of mountain goats. This too was a beautiful sight. The mountain goats, many many of them, running up and down the mountain trails in flocks. After a tea break at Ganganani and another at Bhaironghat, we continued our journey.

At Bhaironghat, we learned of a traffic jam that has developed on the road to Gangotri. It was told that vehicles can now go on only some 2.5 km ahead of Gangotri. We reached this spot at around 9:30 am. The traffic block was caused not by the number of vehicles, but by some group of great souls, who found out the best way of parking their cars is in the middle of the road!

We decided not to wait for the jam to clear, and started walking up the road. After all it was just 2.5 km. The cold hit us hard, and even the new woollen cloths were not enough. Ammanna found it difficult to walk, and we got a doli (palanquin) for her. Try as it might, even under the extreme cold and the climb up, nature could never distract us from clicking on our cameras.

Gangotri (3,140m) is considered the place where, Lord Shiva collected the Akshaganga, descending down to the earth, from the heaven’s above, in his hair locks. Akashaganga was brought down by Bhagirath, after years of thapas. The beauty of the place can never be put on paper. Even the photographs don’t do justice to the place. The surrounding snow clad peaks, the pine forests decorating the mountain slopes, the gushing Bhagirathi, the white rocks that boundaries the river.., every thing added a dash of heavenliness to the scene. We truly were at heaven’s gate.

Now it was time for a dip in the Ganga. We tested the water with our toe tips, first. Now, if the water was half a degree colder, it would have frozen to ice, and we were supposed to take a dip in this! Our guide challenged us and offered a gift of Rs. 100 for every dip after the third one. This challenge was the only thing that made us do it. Amma, Usha aunty, Chaithu and Ayshu were happy, with me pouring couple of mugs of water over their heads. Me and Hari attempted the dip. Hari could make four dips. Now it was my turn. I got into the water, waist deep. The first thing that got my attention was the force with which the water was flowing. I was finding it difficult to keep my legs firm, the cold was also against me. I hurried and took two dips. Don’t know what happened after that. The whole body went numb with cold. I was not feeling anything and was sort of stunned with hypothermia. The next thing I felt was Hari pulling me out. The others said I went for 2 more dips after the second, but I never knew. Getting out of the water, didn’t help cure the numbness. The entire body remained un-responsive for the next 10 minutes or so.

We visited the shrine. Here again there was a long queue. But, thanks to our guide, who made some sort of arrangement with a temple guard, and we had our darshan. Time to go back. The doliwaals (palanquin bearers) were waiting for Ammanna. We left the temple at around 12:00 noon. Now, the doliwaals walk very fast; they actually sort of run, and we were all finding it difficult to keep up with them. Going to the temple was not that big a problem, they had told that they’ll wait at the gates and we could walk at our own pace. Now was a different scenario. These people (for that matter even us) didn’t know where our van was, nor did we have a clue to the might of the jam, that’s developed. The mobile networks had no coverage. Add all this together and the only solution is for someone to walk with them, and show the vehicle. I was selected as this someone, and the others retired into a small shop and ordered hot samoosas.

We started walking down, and the rains started pouring down at the same instant. The doliwalas continued their walk, and I had no option, but to follow them. The cold was now biting into the bones. And I was wearing only a t-shirt and trousers. No warm cloths, no jacket, no shoe either.. I had left everything except my camera with Amma! The only thing, I felt like doing was to run forward, and run I did, taking a leaf of Bear’s (ultimate survival) book; running to keep the body warm. Thanks to the gymming sessions, I could make the 3 km run to the van. The others reached in due time, with loads of steamy hot samoosas.

The jam had not been cleared. It took us ages to reach Bhaironghat, where we had our lunch. The drive continued. Had a stop at Harshil. Visited an apple orchard here. The apples were very small and green. We also so the Ganga temple, here where Ganga is worshiped during the winter months, when Gangotri will be covered in snow. We rode on and reached Uttarkashi at around 9:00pm. Had a feast of a dinner. Went for a walk with Hari and Ayshu. Visited a dhaba, had more Alu paratha.. A great end to a great day.

21st May 2010 – Day Seven – The sunken city and the first of the prayags.

Day seven was a travel day. We left Mahima resorts at around 7:30 am. We left the beautiful Himalayas and where back among the dusty hot ranges. Went on sitting the van till we reached Chamba, where we had our lunch. The van again, till we reached Tehri Dam. Now, that is a huge dam; it took us about two and a half hours to go round the reservoir. We could see ruins of the old city of Tehri, which got sunken, when the Dam was constructed. A brief photo session, and back in the van, for a never ending run.

We reached Rudraprayg (where the Mandakini flowing in from Kedarnath and the Alakananda flowing in from Badrinath confluence), at around 6:30 pm. Mandakini had a deep emerald green colour, and Alakananda was greyish green. Both the rivers retained their identities, for some time, even after the confluence. The might with which the rivers flowed into each other, the gushing sound, together with the halo of mythic supernatural virtue, made this a place of marvel.

On again, we went with the journey. Had couple of hours of jam en route; a landslide hitting us at Agustmuni, and reached Guptkashi at around 9: 30 pm. Our hotel, the Bharath Palcae was some 2 km ahead of Guptkashi. The long journey had made us all tired, and we hit our beds, right after dinner. The next day again, we had to leave very early.

22nd May 2010 – Day Eight – Down in the Dumps!

We left Bharat Palace early in the morning, and followed the course of the Mandakini. Right after passing Guptkashi, some 2 km from our hotel, we hit the jam. Now this was the grimmest of all the traffic blocks that I have ever seen. We could see cars, hanging on to the winding mountain road, far ahead. We were stuck at the same spot for more that 5 hours. At around 10:30 am, our guide, came back and suggested a return journey. He said, even if, the block gets cleared we will take another 4-5 hours to reach Jankaichatti, from where we had to take the 14 km mountain trail to Kedar (3,584m), which again will take some 10 hours on horse backs. This could seriously jeopardise our plans for the next day.

So, drop we did, and returned to Bharat palace. We had an early lunch, collected water from a strange, fascinating water hole; a local wonder. Even in the hottest summer and the wettest rains, the level of the cold sweet water remains the same. ‘How much ever water you take from it, the level never goes down or up’; the local guard says. ‘Jawahar lal Nehru, used to drink water from a similar water hole in Shimla’, says his friend.

We left the water hole and continued on to Pipalkoti, via Rudraprayag and Karnaprayag. Reached Uday Palace, Pipalkoti at around 9:00 pm.

23rd May 2010 – Day Nine – Paradise on earth

We left Uday Palace, at around 7:30 in the morning. The roads were super good now, and we made good progress. The ever frustrating Mr. Jam was also out of sight. We reached Vishnuprayag (confluence of the Alakananda and the Dhauli Ganga) at around 10:00 am. Again, the way, the rivers held on to their identities, even after the confluence, was fascinating.

We passed the town of Joshimat. From here the traffic on the mountain road is well controlled. The entire area is under the control of the Gharwal Rifles, regiment of the Indian Army. The roads were very good, and the scenery, the Himalayas presented got us out of the Dumps, that Mr. Jam had pushed us into the day afore. We came across the small town of Pandukeshwar, housing the Yoga Badri temple.

Feasting on the enchanting beauty, and never ever willing to take our eyes off the fascinating topography, we never realised that, we had reached Badrinath (3,100 m). The road deposited us some 50m from the main shrine. We had our lunch at the Ashram, and went to the temple. The steaming water from a hot spring at the foot of the temple, on the banks of the Alakananda, was channelled into pools for the pilgrims for a spiritually purifying dip. We stood in the queue, for some 4 hours, before we could gain an entry into the temple. The freezing temperature and the low pressure both together were no match in distracting us from the fascinating view, the Himalayas provided. The violet and white flowers, that covered the slopes of the mountains, the green grassy pastures, and the white, snow capped tops, the mystic atmosphere, the gushing Alakananda, the beautifully painted temple; everything with Badrinath, added an aura to this paradise on earth. We had our darshan at around 8:30 pm. After supper at the Ashram, we retired for the day.

24th May 2010 – Day Ten – The last village

This was another very early day. We had booked tickets for a special darshan at the temple, and this was at 6:00 in the morning. We reached the temple at around 5:30 am. The breathtaking view of the sunlight reflecting off the snow clad Neelkand peak welcomed us to the shrine.

After darshan, and breakfast, we left to Mana. This is the last village on the Indo-Tibetan border. The place was another paradise. With the beautiful Himalayas, forming a fort of a wall around, and the Alakananda flowing down in a valley the slopes of which are curtained with loads of flowers, paradise it is! The sad part was that, we could spend only an hour there. The mountain roads, open for the down hill traffic at 9:00 am, and if we missed it, we would be stranded for another day. We left Mana, with a heavy heart. Not before long, we are going to be back in the hassles of every day life!

We were told of another great attraction nearby; The valley of flowers; a unique valley with many many species of flowers (the most at a place, if the guide is to be believed), which was discovered in 1931. This is some 20km trek from Badrinath and is only open from mid June to mid October. We were shown photographs of this beautiful place, making us all make this decision of returning to Mana and this beautiful valley, some other time. Our guide also talked of the Hemkhund Sahib Gurudwara (19 km trek from here) and Roopkhund (the skeleton lake), and told that these are must see attractions.

We drove on to Uday Palace, Pipalkoti, where we had lunch, and continued our journey to Srinagar. Now we were one day early at Srinagar, courtesy, Mr. Jam at Kedarnath. This created some problems and red faces at the hotel reception. But after many a phone call, we were given accommodation at a different hotel, a new one Rana Pratap Residency, on the banks of the Alakanada.

25th May 2010 – Day Eleven – The Ganga Arathi

We left Srinagar, after breakfast at around 9:00 am. At around 11:00 am, we reached Devprayag (confluence of Alakananda and the Bhagirathi to form the Ganga). Let me quote the words of the British Captain Raper :

“The contrast between the two rivers joining here is striking. The Bhaghirathi runs down a steep declivity with rapid force, roaring and foaming flowing over large fragments placed in its bed, while the placid, Alakananda, flowing, with a smooth, unruffled surface, gently winds round the point till, meeting with her turbulent consort, she is forcibly hurried down, and unites her clamours with the blustering current.”

After spending some time here we continued our journey to Haridwar. Reached The Urmi, Haridwar at around 2:00 pm. The tour operators, had made arrangements for us to have the extra day (gained by missing Keadarnath) to be spent here.

After lunch, we had a brief rest. We had loads of washing, and repacking to do. Thanks to the good facilities at The Urmi, we had everything sorted out before long. Evening came, and off we went to the famous Har ki pauri. Temples lined both the banks of the Ganga here. Every single one of them claimed to be the oldest Ganga Matha Temple. After visiting some five, six of these temples, we procured vintage viewing points on the ghat, for the famous Ganga Arathi. This by itself is a great sight; a ballet of swirling lamps, on the banks of the holy river, dancing to the beats of the Ganga Math hymns, as it rushed impatiently on to wash the Gangetic plains with its benediction.

26th May 2010 – Day Twelve – Its Adventure time

The yatra for all spiritual purposes was over; but the extra day at Haridwar, opened endless possibilities. We had a tour of the city of Haridwar, visited the Bharath Matha temple; which portrayed the rich heritage of India, the Chandi Devi, and Manasa Devi temples, atop to hillocks on either banks of the Ganga. Our tour operators also operated the cable cars at these places, and offered us a free ride to both the temples. The view from the top of these hillocks are simple great!

After lunch, we (just the 4 more adventurous of the group) left to Rishikesh, the potpouri of yoga schools, ashrams and temples. But we had left the spiritual selves back at the hotel, and were here on an adrenaline surge; white water rafting. We went upstream some 21 km by road, and reached the rafting start point. All of us were first time rafters, and except for Hari, non-swimmers! The captain of our team (just the 4 of us) made us believe in the life jackets and the helmets, and off we were in the river in no time. After a very brief teaching-learning session, we were on the rapids; interesting names they had; back to the centre, roller coaster, tea-off, golf course, club house, body surf, double trouble… This really was a life time experience; the more we were tossed up, the more we craved for this water sport.

Tired, dripping wet, but over joyed we entered a small eatery for our late tea. The elements had made us very hungry, and we ate, all that the place, Brunch it was called, could provide. We also dried up ourselves, and left back to Haridwar, in a vikram. Dinner was being served when we reached The Urmi.

27th May 2010 – Day Thirteen – Back to the History books

Left The Urmi at around 7:00 am. It was Budha Poornima, and the driver wanted to avoid the traffic around Haridwar. The whole day was spent driving. The Himalayas, the scenery, the cold temperatures, everything was a thing of the past, and here we were back in the soaring temperatures, the air con blasting at its max speed, still finding it a tough fight, against the heat wave outside. We reached Delhi at around 2:00 in the afternoon. Back at Hotel Indraprastha.

After lunch, at around 3:30 pm we went out on a city tour. We visited the Humayun’s tomb, the Qutab minar, the Lotus temple, the India Gate, the cultural heritage of a great nation, written in the poetic artistry.

Back at the hotel, tired, and fighting for a seat very near the air con, we talked of the Great Himalayas, the view, the rivers, and wondered, when will be the next time, we return to this paradise. On the Char Dham trail in Uttarakhand, we bowed not only to the Gods inhabiting the Himalayan heights, but to the alters that nature had embroidered with unbridled splendour. The journey on the Pilgrim’s trail, was as much the destination, as were the four shrines Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath.

As we looked back, at our 12 day jaunt, in the high reaches of the Himalayas, our memory banks were overwhelmed with a flood of images; strolling through mysterious pine forests, an outing in an apple orchard, the refreshing spray of waterfalls in our sweaty faces as we trudged up steep zigzagging trails, meadows painted with colourful wild flowers nodding in the wind, the gurgling laughter of silver-blue streams, veils of light mist fluttering across the snow capped peaks, the confluence of rivers, the river rapids on which our raft was tossed up and down……….

28th May 2010 – Day Fourteen – The Airport

There was nothing much to do. Our flight was scheduled to be at 2:00 pm. And following the advise from the Hotel manager, we had an early start and left around 11:00 am to be in time for the flight. Reached the airport well in time, and checked in after a minor confusion with the baggage. Everything went smoothly, till the announcement of the flight being late came; the flight’s been delayed by 7 hours, courtesy an air traffic jam! We remember our cab driver’s (the one who took us around Delhi the previous day, and the one who dropped us at the airport) words; “You haven’t seen the most important thing in Delhi yet… The Delhi Traffic Jam!”

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