We are in the north of India, more precisely in the region of Garhwal Himalayas, which along with Kumaon, form the state of Uttarakhand, also known as Dev Bhumi. The northern land is originally inhabited by Kuninda, people who practiced a kind of primitive Shaivism. Now it is an important pilgrimage destination for the whole of India as it is home to some of the most sacred rivers, the first being the Ganges.
The Chota Char Dham is the area of Garhwal that encloses the most important places of pilgrimage in the Hindu religion. The temples of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath are equivalent to the four sources of the four sacred rivers of India with river Yamuna from the Yamunotri, river Ganges from the Gangotri, river Mandakini in Kedarnath and river Alaknanda in Badrinath. The annual pilgrimage season begins from April and continues until October.
Every year thousands of devotees comes out for this holy journey. Hindus take the char dham yatra to Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri and according to popular belief this pilgrimage frees them from the cycle of rebirths. Hindus try to do a tour of Char Dham pilgrimage at least once in their life. The Char Dham Yatra has been practiced for centuries and still today lakhs of visitors take this annual pilgrimage. The significance of this yatra is that many also believe that a trip to these sites wash their sins and attain salvation.
We started from Uttarkashi, and we began our journey, our pilgrimage on foot to reach the four sacred source of the Ganges. In practice we climbed the valley of Hassi Ganga, a tributary of the Bhagirathi River. We start above Lake Dodi Tal, which was filled with snow, and we had to find another passage. Our guide after hearing other people, proposed to go through the step of Aintcha Pass.
The climb is long. We stop in the village of Pindki. We ask if there is a hotel. There is nothing. We ask if there is possibility to sleep somewhere and something to eat. Then a guy beckons us to follow him and brings us into a home. The next morning we leave. The trail to get to Jamunotri at times is fairly steep.
The waters of the Yamuna River originate from the glaciers of Mount Kalinda Parvat at about 4400 meters high. The temple of Yamunotri is at a distance of 6 km from the city Hanuman Chatti. The temple is of particular relevance, as opposed to the path that runs from Janki Chatti up to the temple of Yamunotri, that is able to reveal breathtaking views. Around here are mostly Indian tourists. Near the temple we see the hot vapors of thermal waters, which is also exploited for cooking food to offer to the gods during the puja. There are a few small ashrams and guesthouses where you can take refuge while in Yamunotri.
After Uttarkashi valley slowly begins the rise. The first day we stop at Bhatwari. Here we had the pleasant surprise to find a shack that in addition to hot and spicy food, had the steamed momo, which are typical of Nepal and Tibet.
The next stop is Gangotri. Gangotri actually it is not the exact spot where the Ganges starts, or rather Bhagirathi, but Gaumukh, about twenty kilometers from Gangotri. But most of the faithful stops at Gangotri temple, not continuing past. Near the banks of the Ganges at Gangotri, the legend says that is the pitfall where Shiva had penance. Here we are at the border with Tibet, and we trek in the surrounding areas, which are wonderful and fatigue disappears as soon as we look around.
Surely if you go to Gangotri you cannot miss going to Gaumukh and the meadows. In Tapovan where reigns the Shivling that is approximately at 6,500 m, where is located the lingam of Shiva, the deity of the mighty phallus of the Himalayan Mountains. Another route, not at all easy, but worth mentioning is towards Kedar Tal that is at about 4,400 m. You will love the evening Aarti ritual held in this temple, as is done by the river that flows down. You can choose to stay in guest houses and restaurants in this region, if you want to take a break and relax.
After Ghuttu, we climbed the Mandakini River Valley, the source of which is Kedarnath. The last village to which you can get by bus is Sonprayag. From here you can continue with the jeep up to Gaurikund. We stayed at one of the hotels, and we agreed with the staff for dinner, with rice and vegetables, prepared in a nearby cabin.
The next day to get to Kedarnath took us eight hours. The temple here is dedicated to Shiva. Behind the temple stands the peak of Kedarnath, which reaches 6900 meters. Even in this case the source of Mandakini is located a few kilometers to the north of the temple, beyond the lake Gandhi Sarover, where the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi were scattered.
To cross the ridge from Mandakini to Alaknanda, we were forced to make two long stages, an uphill and the other downhill. There is possibility to sleep only at Chopta and in between there is nothing, but only woods and forest. Near Badalpur we began to feel an incessant sound of drums coming from the top of the mountain. There was a small procession that was coming down by mule or on foot. It was a wedding with the groom was on one of the mules, dressed up, with a distinctive headdress and a composition mainly made with banknotes.
The climb from Ukhimath to Chopta was very long and tiring. Chopta is composed of two or three hotels and there are no housing. We ask to sleep and found us a room, of course know that we cannot bargain, as there are no other possibilities and some took advantage. Here for dinner we finally found something good with rice and the beans stew.
The descent to Gopeshwar is in the midst of green forests with thick vegetation, with a lush and impenetrable undergrowth.
Badrinath is named in honour of Vishnu. The temple has a spectacular location on top of Nilkantha at about 6500 m. The surroundings of Badrinath are dotted with small temples dedicated to Vishnu. Around the temple there is a small town, full of shops and hotels and restaurants.
But by the fourth source of Badrinath, in a side valley to Alaknanda valley, the valley of Bhyundar Ganga. There are two other places of exceptional interest of the Temple of Sri Hemkund Sahib, sacred place for the Sikh, and the Valley of Flowers, famous and known throughout the world. We returned to Govind Ghat and from there we climbed the valley of Bhuinder Ganga. Apart from Joshimath and Govindghat, there are only small villages with few houses.
The river flows collected in the mountains, and the road climbs with hairpin bends that never end. Joshimath is a colorful town. After Joshimath the trail descends steeply for more than 500 meters, until you get to Vishnu Prayag, where there is the confluence of the limpid waters of Alaknanda and turbid ones of Dhauli Ganga which comes from the area of the Nanda Devi.
Ghangharia is a village inhabited only in summer and has few hotels and restaurants. From here depart the paths to go to Sri Hemkund Sahib and Valley of Flowers. Hem Kund is a lake which is at 4,200 meters. On its banks has meditated, the tenth and last patriarch of the Sikhs. This patriarch gathered in a book, all his thought, and the thought of previous patriarchs. The temple and the lake in this period are still covered with snow. The lake is frozen.
On the banks of this lake it was built a temple, and it is one of the holiest places for the Sikhs. When we arrived in Ghangaria, we were virtually surrounded by these Sikhs. They made us visit their gurdwara, where we were offered tea, and they made us sit with them. We were also invited to dinner.
The next day we went to the Valley of Flowers. The best time to visit you, however, is during the summer when this space explodes in a riot of colors, with 300 many endemic species of wild flowers that characterize it, many of which have medicinal properties. Among the best known are Indian Maple prickly poppy, dwarf iris, anemones, primroses, geraniums and orchids in whose marvel live musk deer, blue sheep, snow leopard and some rare species of animals like black bear.
During our stay in Rishikesh we saw our first sunrise on the Ganges, eat fresh fruits for breakfast every day, wrapped in blankets and drinking chai on the terrace of our hostel and met great people. This region is the heart of India for backpackers, who come from the hectic life of the city just below. Its tranquility and generosity mean that many of the people who visit the city to the slopes of the Himalayas remain longer than they thought at first.
It may sound cliché, but in Rishikesh you will meet people, who just take a walk, healers, therapists, and even the locals have something special. One afternoon as we walked back to the hostel, we met a crowd of people dancing near a band on the bank of the river as the sun set.
Coming down from Himalayas, the Ganges here is completely different from most southern areas. It is clean, blue and beautiful, so clean that we can bathe. Rafting is one of the most common activities in Rishikesh. I have to book in the afternoon so we can watch the sunset as we descend the rapids and drink our tea before the last descent.
The most famous city in India to do Yoga is definitely up to expectations. Everywhere you go you will see the posters of classes. There is the Parmarth Niketan Ashram and the Beatles ashram. We take a spin around to admire the murals that graced the walls of this place and just enjoy the tranquility of this place.
And, it would be incorrect to not end the day without the Indian street food. We go to the stand at the end of Laxman Jhula bridge on the shore to the east and ordered something to eat at one of the nearby restaurants for authentic and beautiful dishes. The stalls in this area are a story in itself with long rows of stalls full of handmade jewelry by Tibetan refugees, works of Madhubani art, textiles, tapestries with sequins and more.
No matter which way you turn, you will see the Himalayas all around you, and it is impossible to describe how wonderful it feels. We use a couple of hours of your time for a small hike near the waterfalls and see the green mountains that surround us.
Our downward journey continues to Haridwar, one of the holy cities of Hinduism, that houses the largest pilgrimage in the world of the Kumbh Mela. The Kumbh Mela is a Hindu ritual pilgrimage, whose central element is the purifying bath that allows people to atone for all sins. This is where the holy river, the Ganges, begins its journey after the long journey from the Himalayan sources. Haridwar was built at the foot of the Shivalik Hills.
According to Hindu tradition, from here begins the pilgrimage that leads to Mount Kailash, known as the gate of Paradise. With a long history behind it, Haridwar is one of the seven holy cities of Hinduism. The city is full of small and large religious buildings perched elegantly on the banks of the Ganges.
For Haridwar there are five places of pilgrimage essential for every believer, the ghats of Har Ki Pauri and Kankhal, the Mansa Devi Temple, built on a hill which offers a beautiful view, the Chandi Devi Temple and the Maya Devi Temple, one of the the oldest in town.
The legendary Kumbh Mela is the most impressive peaceful gathering of earth, and is held every three years in rotation in the city of Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain. Every six years, the Ardh Kumbh Mela is held alternately in Haridwar and Allahabad. Every twelve years takes place instead the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad leading to up to one hundred million people.