Gangotri Via Mussoorie- Published in the Deccan Herald(Sunday Herald) on Feb 1st 2009

                       Gangotri via Mussoorie – a journey to our roots.

Ever since my son discovered that his favourite Bond, Ruskin Bond, stayed in Mussoorie, he decided that he had to meet him. This coincided with my daughter seeing Al Gore’s film, The Inconvenient Truth, after which, she felt she had to see the Gangotri before it melted away tomorrow. Gangotri, the source of the Ganges is also one of the four holy pilgrim spots of the Hindus, the other three being Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. And so this summer we decided to trace the source of the Ganga, the river held most sacred by devout Hindus; the Goddess who deigned to flow down and wash away the sins of the ancestors of Lord Rama at the behest of King Bhagirath.
The Ganga springs from the Gaumukh glacier which is 17 kilometers away from Gangotri and accessible only by foot. A visit to the Gaumukh involves an overnight trek on a beautiful, awesome but cold path undertaken only by a few. Since we are not even novice trekkers, to us the source of Ganga, like to the other pilgrims, meant Gangotri.
Gangotri is accessible from Hrishikesh, Haridwar and Mussoorie. In fact, Mussoorie is often called the gateway to Gangotri, though they are almost 263 kilometers apart! Named after the shrub ‘mansoor’, which grew only on these hills, Mussoorie was discovered by a British officer, Captain Young, who came here to construct a shooting ledge and stayed back. Other British officers followed and settled here in cottages and villas, most of which exist even today with their quaint names intact. In fact the adjoining localities of Mussoorie like Landour, Barlowganj etc, were named by the British and continue to be named so.
Mussoorie is accessible only by road. The nearest airport and railhead are both at Dehradun. You can also drive into Mussoorie from Delhi. The drive from Dehradun to Mussoorie which takes around an hour and a half must have been beautiful, once upon a time. Today, it bears the ravages of mindless deforestation by man. Still, it is not a lost cause, because as you climb, the mercury does drop.
A fact about Mussoorie that you discover only when you reach there is that, vehicles are halted at the entry point and vehicular traffic is not allowed in the mall. Incidentally during the British Raj, ‘Indians and dogs’ were not allowed on the mall, a rule which a young Jawaharlal Nehru enjoyed breaking! But that is another story. Almost everything in Mussoorie radiates from the Mall. So if your hotel is near the mall, you may have to carry your luggage, unless you engage porters. Don’t hesitate to do so, it is their livelihood and thanks to their inborn skill at carrying loads on hilly terrains, they carry loads quite effortlessly.
Mussoorie must have been beautiful once upon a time. Today, it is crowded. Hotels have sprung up at every nook and cranny in the most haphazard fashion. The mall has the ubiquitous shops selling Kashmiri handicrafts, walnut bowls and other handicrafts, sweaters, woollens and what have you. There are any number of restaurants serving anything from only omlettes to Chinese and Gujarati cuisine and chocolates. Chic-chocolate is a place for amazing pizzas and chocolates, but only if you can put up with its intimidating owner! Tourists are sometimes surprised by a very sociable and polite Ruskin Bond on his weekly visit to the Cambridge Book Stall on the mall. For the sightseeing types, there are some interesting spots like the Kempty Falls, the Jharipani falls and the Gun Rock hill.
Leading from the mall are some nice quiet places where you can soak in the beauty of the Shiwaliks and savour the unpolluted cold mountain air. From one of these roads we set off to Gangotri via Uttarkashi. Almost within an hour of leaving Mussoorie, we spot the Ganga and she remained with us all the way, at times as narrow as a ribbon and at times bubblipng her way across the stones and pebbles. A six hour drive past the infamous Tehri Dam brought us to Uttarkashi, which is bursting at the seams. Since the drive to Gangotri would take another three hours, an overnight halt at Uttarkashi was most efficient.
The lodges are almost always full thanks to the huge and numerous groups of pilgrims who are on the Char Dham (Four destinations) Yatra. The rooms are likely to be cramped and overused- cleanliness remains a matter of perception! A much better option is provided by the tents on the outskirts of Uttarkashi. These are surprisingly cleaner, well equipped and set amid scenic surroundings, albeit more expensive. We found ourselves in one such resort camp which is still undiscovered and therefore clean and peaceful with the river Bhagirathi (as the Ganga is called at this point) flowing right outside our tents.
Suitably refreshed and replenished, it was onward march to Gangotri, the next morning. As the road wound its way up, we left the Ganga way below, but she remained visible at all times. The ascent is sharp and sometimes the drop is sheer and a little frightening. The roads are narrow and in poor condition at many places. At other points along the drive, there is hardly any road as it is being re-laid! Landslides are not unknown and can hold up proceedings, so take along an experienced and confident driver with you.
Since we are not exactly the outdoor types, the scenery was a delight to the eye. How the pines and deodhars grow ram rod straight, even on the more precarious slopes remains a perpetual wonder! Waterfalls, small and big, appeared and disappeared suddenly and sometimes crossed our path. Except for the sounds of the river, the waterfalls and the birds, there descends a serene silence (there is no mobile network here!) and we could not help noticing the unusual plants and flowers. Along the way we got caught in a cloud burst of ice. It was indeed an exhilarating, awesome and scary sight to see the road covered with a white carpet of ice! And how could we forget the huge vulture, almost the size of a goat walking alongside on the road before it taking off gracefully like a glider off the mountain! Finally we reached the heights where we spied snow on the mountain tops and slopes. In such environs, it is difficult not to feel spiritual, if not religious!
We are stopped a kilometer away from Gangotri to keep the road clear for the descending traffic. We realized thankfully, that vehicular traffic is released in batches to facilitate smooth flow and reduce the incidence of their toppling over! After a mildly strenuous one kilometer walk we come to Gangotri. Gangotri is a bit of an anti climax after all this peace and beauty. Shops have narrowed down the path leading to the temple, priests heckle you to perform poojas that will wash away the sins of seven generations of your family and the entrance to the temple itself is very narrow. The temple, built by Gurkha Amar Singh Thapa, closes on Diwali sometime in October and opens only in May.
So we hasten to the actual object of veneration, the Ganga herself, just beyond the Bhagirath Shila. As we step down into the Ganga at the point where she is supposed to have entered the earth, we are moved by the sheer force and purity of her icy cold waters. It is necessary to hold on to the supports built along the steps for the current could pull you along. And as we stood at the first accessible point of the river, we realized that religious or not, here is a sight that will gladden every heart. The snow capped mountains rising above and around, the sky so clear and the mighty river rushing by; did I just see King Bhagirath behind that rock, still and steadfast in his penance?
Getting there.
Flights operate to Dehradun’s Jolly Grant Airport. Trains also ply to Dehradun. Look up www.irctc.comfor train schedules and reservations. From Dehradun drive upto Mussoorie. The tarrif for a decent car is around Rs.400. Motor it from Mussoorie to Gangotri via Tehri – Uttarkashi – Harshil. The entire journey from Mussorie to Gangotri and back would cost anywhere between Rs. 6,000 and Rs. 8,000 and is spread over three days.
There are government guest houses, small hotels and camping resorts along the way. Look, the official website for Uttaranchal tourism for information on accommodation.
Travel between May and October. If you plan your trip within a week of the temple opening in May, you will beat the humungous pilgrim rush!
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