And quiet flows the Ganges!!

Much water has literally flown down the Ganges and washed out a good bit of the Himalayas since my starting to pen down thoughts of a memorable trip. Who would have thought that our fears of an avalanche would turn out to be true, taking with it hundreds of villagers and pilgrims? As can be guessed, it is the Kedarnath tragedy which brought the whole country to a standstill, that I am talking of. The statue of Lord Shiva, who stood tall when we passed him by, had the swirling brown waters of the Ganges around his waist at the time of the tragedy - an image that keeps going through my mind all the time! The time when the calm water of the Ganges at Rishikesh turned turbulent taking with it, to the Sunderbans probably, devotees who had trekked upto Kedarnath in the hope of attaining nirvana.

Often I was told to complete my blog related to the trip but now I realize after so much events happening in the last couple of years in my small world, that included snorkelling (rather struggling to take a breath while floating 25km at least above the seabed of the Atlantic Ocean) halfway between US and Cuba, the trip to the "Do Dhams " - Badrinath and Gangotri(Gaumukh) is still the highlight of the events in my life. Even as I try to decipher the ant-like figures of the men in khaki trekking above the waters of the Bhagirathi in the photos, those carefree days spent in the company of my sisters come rolling back.
The Commonwealth Games have come and gone and the organizers are spending quiet days counting the bars in prison. The status of sports persons are no better except for Sachin, the cricketeer, who has got the Bharat Ratna. Two years down the line, much of the sheen of India Shining has worn off and India is still struggling to keep its head above the waters in a world where everything seems to be going awry. However here I am, retracing our footsteps through the Himalayas. After one more stopover at another of Uttarakhand Tourist Homes, we carried on through one of the most picturesque routes. These were never short of adventures with long traffic jams enroute where travellers were fully prepared to bathe,cook, eat, wash and dry clothes - all with the help the most basic infrastructure. It often reminded one of the Junglebook song - "Bare necessities, the simple bare necessities, forget about your worries and your strife........." One does really forget everything and keeps praying to get through the next second safely on the HIGHways. Literally living in the present. Images keep flitting through my mind- an orange saree very artistically spread out on the retaining bamboo structures, newspaper boys frantically shifting the dailies from one truck to the other from both sides of the road block, cooks travelling with groups spreading out gas cylinders, stove and cookware to cook lunch....
A colourful funeral procession with people carrying logs with them to the cremation ground... and so on and so forth. Soon we reached Sreematha mandir(temple) ,Kemunda, Dhansoli or Khansoli, ( I am not sure how it is read!!) 2300km above sea level. The view was breathtaking. The driver got a good break while we went berserk clicking the setting sun through the devadharu (deodar, sounds better this way!) trees. Soon we were at Bhatwari district, Uttarkashi where we were told that traffic was not being permitted as repair work of the road was going on and we may have to turn back. After long discussions majority of us were against turning back but soon we gleaned the information that there was another UTDC(Tourist Development Centre -Toursit HOme in short) nearby. So we rushed there only to be told that it is fully booked though there was a better one further up the hills. With no option but to drive upto Raithal, we gave up all hope of reaching our destination Gangotri, where we had our bookings.
The totally unplanned stopover was a pleasant surprise and "Simply Heaven" as the Uttarkashi Tourism had advertised on their billboard. Decent accomodation though it could be better maintained -  colourful flowers, untouched and pristine village, innocent faces of villagers, lined with hardships faced by them, carrying the ubiquitous mobile phones and to top it all our first glimpse of the snowcapped Himalayas.
On the road once again we came across whole families including women and children getting ready for the winter - cutting grass, tying them up and carrying big rolls over their small backs. The chill of winter was already upon us and even in the afternoon sunshine we felt cold. Many of the horses and their guides were making their way back to the plains as the season was coming to a close. The route to Gangotri and other pilgrim centres in the hills of the Himalayas close down for the winter. It is a wonder how the people who stay back survive .
The Loharinag -Pala Hydro power project caught our attention as my sisters, much older than me, fondly remembered my father for whom Hydroelectric projects were dearer than his own children. Pictures of the dams in Kerala used to adorn the walls at the entrance to our house where normally one finds jaded photos depicting eternally young relatives! As the talk veered towards the eminent personalities of our family, time passed and the driver negotiated expertly the twists, turns, rocks and slurry from landslides. Soon devatharu trees gave way to rocky granite with fissures showing the path taken by the streams as ice melted. "There is Gangotri " pointed the driver in the general direction of a snowcapped peak looming large above us. All of us stared in silent awe at the grandeur as the reality of what we achieved sank in.
At another pit/loo stop only the flaps of the temporary toilet tents helped us maintain decorum as we attended nature's call - once again thanks to some unknown officer of the Uttaranchal Tourism board who probably within his meagre budget realized the need for providing the facility at such godforsaken places on the way to Dharali, Harshil.
The mannerisms of the mountain people  never stopped surprising us. They strided down the roads and up the mountain tracks for miles on end carrying any amount of provisions - Shepherds chased their totally indisciplined wards up and down the mountains - Unblemished faces untouched by the vagaries of progress took to new ways without batting an eyelid. May earthquakes or melting rivers come and go, shattering their lives, fields, shops or houses they painstakingly rebuild their lives, salvaging whatever they can, into picturesque villages.
Gangotri seemed to be an anticlimax - another Uttarkashi village, another rest house- though an environmentally conscious one I must say! - a separate storage shed for plastic, solar collection discs - for what no idea- as it was beside some logs of wood for burning! - the usual shops with plastic goods and water cans - for taking Ganga water- usually given when one is drawing the last breath! After taking the blessing of Goddess Ganga at the temple at Gangotri and attending the arathi in front of the spot where King Bhagirath meditated, to bring the River Ganges down to Earth so that its waters could liberate the souls of his ancestors who were cursed by Sage Kapila, we proceeded to Gaumukh. The story is well narrated in the following link
http://www.sanatansociety.org/indian_epics_and_stories/the_life_of_ganga.htm#.Up7RvsQW18E

None of us could fortunately foresee what we were in for!!!!!!!!!!
Life flows by faster than the waters of the Ganges, fortunately not so turbulent now possibly because it has reached the plains and called for a more mature outlook on life now that I am a grandmother. The memories of a happy childhood are once again flowering in me thanks to my school friends in the whatsapp group! Delhi the city I made my home looks washed and decorated with bright green leaves, washed clean after the rains, and Shivamalli flowers that once spread out like a carpet at the entrance to our home in Kerala.
mountain deers.JPGpath strewn with boulders.JPGpath strewn with boulders.JPGmountain deers.JPGTwo winters spent mollycoddling my grandchild while heavy snowladen trees and cold winds blew outside took me back to the hardships faced by the natives living in the Himalayas. Central heating was probably unheard of in those places. Eating food that gives warmth and sharing, and spreading the inborn warmth made these people more warm hearted than the average westerners I guess. 
Like young brides totally ignorant of the hardships of family life, we sisters were led one early morning to the mules waiting for us. We were accompanied by tourists with heavy rucksacks that gave us a false sense of comfort and safety. The only sister who had climbed on horseback was giving lessons on the manner in which a horse has to be managed. Bend forward when the horse climbs up and bend backwards when it climbs down, she said, but all that was soon forgotten as we struggled hard to keep ourselves seated while our movement was in total contrast to the movement of the mule. One guide for two mules being the norm each of us had, a guide either before or behind us. My guide being in front of me, the sister behind me had her guide behind her, such that she felt she had no guide and kept a constant tirade as to the totally irresponsible behaviour of the guides who seemed to, according to her, have been paid preposterously large sums of money for nothing at all! 
path strewn with boulders.JPG
On being asked how much further to the next loo stop the prompt response was ten minutes – dont you see that building there?....- till we soon realized that he was only trying to help us keep our sanity. After a grueling few hours of bumpy ride we reached the only spot where there seemed to be humanity and an excess at that, we soon realized! A watery meal of Maggi noodles was served as the ‘free lunch’ included in the rates and then back on to the mules for another four hours ride to nowhere – literally. The “loo” was in the open air and the less said about it the better! The foot wide path over round cobbled stones and overhanging cliff that jutted out just above our head made us hold on to the mule for life. At times the mules had to cross rivulets of which it appeared they were too scared. So they would come to a grinding halt. The guide would then leave us and go across to the other side and blow a whistle softly using his mouth. The mules would then go across and trot to the next steep climb catching us totally unaware!!!

 We reached a resting point where the elder sisters just collapsed and cried out that they could take no more. We were told that from that moment we could either go take a walk or return - Gaumukh or the source of Ganga being a few more kilometers up the rocky path. The area was more wide open with high mountains on all sides. The first snowflakes were falling on the peaks of the highest ones. Far away we spotted a few backpackers trekking their way to other paths. mountain peak.jpg
Blue skies with puffy white clouds and water guzzling at the foot of the mountains beckoned us and I did not need another invitation to follow my sister who was keen on achieving her ambition of reaching the source of Ganga. However as we trudged along it soon appeared that my sister also gave up and signaled to me to continue. Later I was told that, on the contrary, she had signaled to me to turn back! Anyway here I was happily boneweary but trudging along with all my strength following the footsteps of my hometown guide. I concentrated on keeping one foot ahead of the next and wondered at the silence and loneliness all around me. I could spot a mountain deer patiently chomping away at bits of grass that hid under the round stones and the sharp screech of an eagle made me look in its direction, soaring high up in the sky. Ahead of me there was no one and behind me too I did not find anyone. I was alone on the top of the world – all alone with nothing but the white clouds floating up above in the blue ether. mountain deers.JPG
Tears, for reasons I knew not and that I did not have any control over, flowed down my cheeks. Was it tears of happiness or sadness I had no idea but my mind was full and overflowing. There did not seem to be any track – I kept tripping over round stones. I was thirsty and hungry but it did not seem to matter anymore. My mind was blank.hermitage.JPG
Then far away I spotted the figure of a hermit’s shanty with its blue sheet flapping though the air was still. It seemed to wave at me beckoning me to keep coming forward. Soon I reached the zero milestone and flopped on it. My guide who had gone still further – who had travelled the full distance only on foot – soon brought me water from the source of the Ganges. The sweet taste of the clean and pure Ganga water satiated my thirst. I felt that this is how it should be. No need to move from here. It’s a lovely place to be till the end of the world. No malls, no calls, no nothing – just a long wait!zeropoint.JPG
However I soon realized that my body was protesting and with a lot of effort and a few snaps to show my achievement I uncoiled myself, each joint screaming with pain. We both slowly made our way back to the spot where we had left the rest of the group but then there was no one there and no one in the base camp down below where we planned to spend the night. Confused we looked around to see two mules and one guide coming towards us and he appeared to be boiling with anger. It seems we had delayed him so much that it would be difficult to reach back before dark he grumbled as he strapped both of us on to the mules. Ahead of me was my guide in a white jacket, which was the only thing I could see in the dark after a few minutes. The rest of the journey is a blur as we galloped on the same track, round stones falling off as the guide or the mule slipped, reaching far down after a few agonizing minutes during which I realized the depth of the valley below. Once I nearly went over the mules head as he suddenly lurched downwards but managed to keep my hold.

In the pitch dark I could hear the tapping of the mule’s feet as it trot over the granite. High above me the stars were twinkling in the sky and if only I could, I would have been able to count them as the sky was clear and beautiful! Tired, sleepy and hungry my mind was numb and fearless. The white jacket ahead was all that was available to let me know that we were going on this hazardous journey. If any of the next generation had known what we were in for I am sure we would not have been anywhere near the Himalayas.
A few hours later I suddenly heard someone shouting my name and then came across my sister, spread-eagled, held tightly by two young guys, shouting my name asking if I had reached. Our guide kept going even as I tried to make out what was happening and shouted that I am fine but whats with you???!!!! A sight I will never forget in my life. 
It transpired later that she had nearly gone for a toss and fortunately as it was the fag end of the journey there were people waiting to help them get down and I had spotted her even as she was stopped from falling. 
The way back home was comparatively less adventurous though we did cut across the mountains to Tehri, passing more villages and beautiful panoramas, seeing daily life as the mountaineers faced it in a stoic manner as the few glimpses below indicate.carshop.JPG
Organically grown vegetables old on the wayside caught our attention and the car was loaded with it much to the disgust of the chauffeur who could not comprehend our attraction for buying what he considered as just home grown “sabji”.
organic vegetables sale.JPG
In contrast to city-bred mothers who are reluctant to carry their own babies we found buffalo babies and lambs being lovingly carried around.
Getting ready for winter.JPG



School kids seems to have a tough time reaching their destination. 
Going to school is a risky business.JPG

And local Himalayan weeds were seen being taken over by parthenium grass, indicating how far the cancer of progress was advancing.
himalayan weeds.JPG

parthenium taking over the weeds.JPG

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