Inspiring Altitude: The Journey to the Source of the Ganges

Touched by the Magnificence and Grandeur of the Scenery Returning Pilgrims Spoke of a Spiritual Transformation

A lone pilgrim walks among stunning scenery as the path follows the steep sided valley from Gangotri.

All the classic Himalayan pilgrimages are, by the very nature of their high altitude destinations, really quite arduous and challenging. I therefore knew what to expect when I set out from the small village of Gangotri to walk up to the 13,000ft source of the Ganges at the beginning of June. However, this time I thought that I may have seriously underestimated the difficulty of my journey: after a couple of hours I was confronted by four porters, coming the opposite way, carrying a lifeless body on a makeshift stretcher.  Instead though I took inspiration from a sadhu, dressed in white, far in front of me doggedly walking on up the path, and kept on walking.

On the lower reaches of the journey there are some rather rickety bridges to negotiate.
On the lower reaches of the journey there are some rather rickety bridges to negotiate.

The 18 kilometre uphill climb, along a steep sided narrow valley, brings the pilgrim to the face of a glacier, partly shaded at the top by an overhanging shelf of ice not unlike the peak of a cap.  Water thunders out from a narrow opening at its base, which looks just like an animal’s snout, marking the initiation of the nascent river, cascading and tumbling from its underground channel, as it begins its two and a half thousand kilometre journey to the Bay Of Bengal.

A lone pilgrim walks among stunning scenery as the path follows the steep sided valley from Gangotri.
A lone pilgrim walks among stunning scenery as the path follows the steep sided valley from Gangotri.

The glacier is known as Gaumukh, or literally Cow’s Mouth.  It’s the journey’s end for sannyasis, religious mendicants, the faithful and seekers of spiritual nourishment who come to this spot to bathe, bow their heads and pray to the river Goddess.  High beyond the glacier sit the three jagged, pristine, snow capped peaks of Bhagirathi. At around 22,500ft the mountains dominate the north western skyline.  The river at this stage shares it’s name with the mountain. It is not until nearly two hundred kilometres further south that the river is known as the Ganges.

A group of Vaishnavite sadhus on the path to Gaumukh with the Bhagirathi peaks in the distance.
A group of Vaishnavite sadhus on the path to Gaumukh with the Bhagirathi peaks in the distance.

It was still early in the season.  Although the sun shone for extended periods the cool, powerful gusts of wind tugging at my jacket confirmed the local reports that fresh snow had fallen on the higher mountain reaches just a few days before I arrived. There were very few pilgrims making their way up the valley at this time.  While this enhanced the isolated beauty of the place it also made the process of creating images much more time consuming. I spent long periods waiting for someone to walk into my frame, particularly on the latter stages of the route where the valley opened up to spectacular views. On some of these exposed spots the winter’s chill still lingered in the thin pure air.  As I sucked it in I felt it catch deep in my lungs, often bringing on a helpless fit of truncated coughs.  During the four days I was up there the weather was kind, thankfully; but it could be dramatically changeable. One late afternoon clouds swept down from the north, blocking out a brilliant blue sky, and brought rain to the valley in an instant. At night it was cold and there was little to do but retreat to the relative warmth of my sleeping bag.

Nirmal Das attends to the make-shift temple which is just a few hundred yards from Gaumukh every day during the summer months. His routine began in 1988.
Nirmal Das attends to the make-shift temple, which is just a few hundred yards from Gaumukh, every day during the summer months. His routine began in 1988.

The towering scale and raw beauty of the landscape is magnificent. I stood alone amidst its vast, rugged grandeur and felt very small and insignificant. I have been to the Himalayas many times before but this time the sheer magnitude of the panorama changed my perception of scale forever. They call this land Dev Bhoomi, the abode of the Gods. They are right. For if divinity resides anywhere it is surely in this elevated place of majestic solitude. There are few colours to catch the eye as this is a bleached, drably painted rock strewn environment. Huge boulders, so big that I found it difficult to comprehend the power that placed them there, litter the valley floor. From time to time rocks fall from the steep slopes to interrupt the inscrutable silence of these mountains. Occasionally large black, raven like birds with yellow beaks glide overhead watching for crumbs left by departing pilgrims.  There was, however, one constant which was with me from my very first steps out of Gangotri to the icy source at Gaumukh: the roar of the river.

Pilgrims reach the final stages of the journey.
Pilgrims reach the final stages of the journey.

No one lingers for too long in this starkly beautiful landscape; no one leaves unchanged nor unmoved.  During my time at Gaumukh the elements and altitude confronted and hammered away at my senses. I left with reluctance and a renewed taste of wellbeing.  Pilgrims spoke of the difficulties coping with the cold, the altitude and of feeling a strange melancholia, and all hurried away back down the valley after completing their brief rituals. Many, though, spoke of feeling a spiritual purity, a fulfilment of a sacred calling and a lasting transformation.

A pilgrim completes his personal ritual by dipping his mala in the sacred river while the other dresses after taking a bath.
A pilgrim completes his personal ritual by dipping his mala in the sacred river while the other dresses after taking a bath.
Recharging my batteries at the river's source at Gaumukh...
Recharging my batteries at the river's source at Gaumukh...






Comments

Nick said...

Thanks for reading my blog post. Please let me know what you think. English only please :)

mahamani said on

Hello Nick, Namaste.
I would like to go on a similar pilgrimage, but I didn’t see any female sannyasi. Were there any? Would it be safe for a single western sanyassi to attempt the trek to the source of the Ganges? I don’t know of anyone who has done this trek.
Hari Om,
Mahamani

Surya Narayan AMMA-Das said on

JAI GANGA MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!

I am so overdue for another trip back here!

Thanks for your incredible pics and blog posts.

AUM NAMAH SHIVAYA! AUM NAMOOOOOOOOOOOO NARAYAN!

charlie said on

Dear Nick,
I love your website and the stuff about Gangotri, really good challenge.
I am contacting you as I am an ultra endurance athlete and adventurer and am begin to plan an expedition that a bit of info from you could be really helpful.

The plan is to run the length of the gages from the Bay of Bengal to the source in Gamukh. The running is no issue, but the logistics may well be. I am running pulling a bamboo trailer with all my equipment e.g. food and clothes. I was just wondering if you could tell me bait about the path from Gangotri to the source. Is the path passable with the trailer? Is it really rugged terrain or is the path quite manageable. From your photos It looks really decent quality.

Similarly the road up to Gangotri? is it decent quality etc?

Thank you very much and cheers for your time,
Charlie

vivekanand jha said on

its really nice to see your blog. it is awesome, pleasant and refreshing. your photos are great and dedication is inspiring!
thanks a lot.

vivekanand jha said on

The towering scale and raw beauty of the landscape is magnificent. I stood alone amidst its vast, rugged grandeur and felt very small and insignificant. I have been to the Himalayas many times before but this time the sheer magnitude of the panorama changed my perception of scale forever. They call this land Dev Bhoomi, the abode of the Gods. They are right.

Finest Lines!

Saras Binjola said on

Dear Nick you must be til now got Enlightined by klicking such marvelous picturs arond Mestries Sadhus and secred Himalay.I recomond Nobel price for You ! Whats wrong with your Fb page it seems like you do not like to put more there .Best wishes from heart to you.

Anne said on

Beautiful photos! Just wondering if you know whether it would be possible to do this trek in November?

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Nick Fleming Behind the Lens

Portrait session with young sadhu during the Kumbh Mela in Hardwar (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Taking a breather on the Armanath Yatra, Kashmir (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Photographing Nihangs of the Baba Bakala Dal (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Resting at Gaumukh, source of the Ganges (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Near Jammu (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Nick Fleming photographing a pilgrim on the ghat s at Varanasi (<a target="_blank" href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
With Nihangs in Anandpur Sahib, Punjab (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Nick Fleming and sadhu at dawn on the ghats at Varanasi (<a target="_blank" href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Photographing in Patthar Masjid, Srinagar, Kashmir (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Photographing on the bathing ghats at Hardwar during the Kumbh Mela (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
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