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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.