Where the Ganga Descends

A MILD controversy exists as to whether the true Ganga, or Ganges, is the Alaknanda or the Bhagirathi river in its upper reaches. The two rivers meet at Deoprayag and then both are called Ganga, but there are some who assert that geographically the Alaknanda is the true Ganga, while others say that tradition should be the criteria, and traditionally the Bhagirathi is the Ganga. Certainly the Bhagirathi is the more beautiful river, almost caressingly so, and people have responded to it with love and respect ever since. In Hindu mythology, the god Shiva released the waters of the goddess Ganga from his locks and she sped plainswards in the tracks of Prince Bhagirath's chariot:

He held the river on his head

And kept her wandering, where

Dense as Himalayan woods were spread

The tangles of his hair....

Moreover, the Ganga issues from the very heart of the Himalayas. Visiting Gangotri (the temple near its source) in 1820, the writer and traveler Baillie Fraser noted: ``We are now in the center of the Himalayas, the loftiest and perhaps the most rugged range of mountains in the world.''

Perhaps it is the realization that I am at the very heart of things that gives me an almost primeval sense of belonging to these mountains and this river valley. For me, and for many who have lived in the Himalayas, the Bhagirathi is the most beautiful of the four main river valleys of the Garhwal region. This valley seems to have everything - people of a gentle disposition, deep glens and forests, and tier upon tier of terraced cultivation leading up to the peaks and glaciers ahead. Whether or not it retains its pristine charm depends on the dam-builders further downstream.

Along the valley there are extensive forests of pine, and higher up these give way to deodar, oak, chestnut, and birch.

It was the valuable timber of the deodar that attracted the adventurer Frederick Wilson to the valley in the 1850s. He leased the forests from the Raja of Tehri-Garhwal in 1859, for a period of five years, and in that short span of time he made a fortune. The old forest rest-houses along the road to Gangotri were built by Wilson as staging-posts, for the only roads then were narrow, precipitous tracks linking one village to another. Wilson married a local girl, Gulabi (``Rosebud''), from the village of Mukhba, and portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Wilson still hang in some of these sturdy little bungalows.

On behalf of the Raja, and to facilitate the pilgrim traffic to Gangotri, Wilson built a 350-foot suspension bridge over the Jadganga gorge, 1,200 feet above the young Bhagirathi where it thunders through a deep defile. This rippling contraption was at first a source of terror to travelers, and only a few ventured across it.

To reassure people, Wilson would often mount his horse and gallop to and fro across the bridge. It has long since collapsed, but local people will tell you that the hoofbeats of Wilson's horse can still be heard on full-moon nights. The supports of the old bridge were complete tree trunks - massive deodars - and they can still be seen to one side of the new motor-bridge put up by engineers of Indian Railways.

Wilson's life is fit subject for a romance, but even if one were never written, his legend will live on, as it has done for over 100 years. His name is still a household word in the valley. He introduced the apple into the area, and ``Wilson apples'' - large, red, and juicy - are sold to travelers and pilgrims on their way to Gangotri. Some men leave a trail of legend behind them, not so much because of their good or bad deeds, but because they give their spirit to the place where they have lived.

In the old days, only the staunchest of pilgrims visited the shrine at Gangotri. The paths were rocky and dangerous, ascending and descending the faces of deep precipices and leading along banks of loose earth where landslides had swept the original path away.

The Gangotri temple, situated at 10,300 feet, is on the right bank of the river, a small neat building without too much ornamentation, built by Amar Singh Thapa, a Nepali general, when the Gurkhas held sway in this area early in the 19th century. The rock on which it stands is said to be the place where Prince Bhagirath did penance in order that goddess Ganga be brought down from her abode of eternal snow.

Here the rocks are carved and polished by ice and water, so smooth that in places they look like rolls of silk. The fast-flowing waters of this mountain torrent look very different from the huge sluggish river that finally empties its water into the Bay of Bengal over 1,000 miles away.

The river emerges from beneath a great glacier, thickly studded with enormous loose rocks and earth. The glacier is about a mile in width and extends upward for many miles. The chasm in the glacier, through which the stream rushes into the light of day, is named Gaumukh (the cow's mouth) and is held in deepest reverence by Hindus. These regions of eternal frost were the scenes of many of their most sacred mysteries.

The Ganga does not enter the world as a puny stream, it bursts from its icy womb as a river 30 or 40 yards in breadth. At Gauri Kund (below the temple) it falls over a rock of considerable height and continues tumbling over a succession of small cascades until it enters the awe-inspiring Jadganga gorge.

A night spent beside the river, within sound of the fall, was an eerie experience for me. After some time it began to sound, not like one fall but a hundred, and this sound permeated both my dreams and waking moments. Rising early to greet the dawn proved rather pointless, for the surrounding peaks did not allow the sun to enter Gangotri before 9 o'clock. Everyone rushed about trying to keep warm, exclaiming delightedly at what they called gulabi-thand, literally ``rosy cold'' - guaranteed to turn the cheeks red! Preferring the rosy sunburn I had acquired further downstream, I remained beneath my quilt until the sun finally flung its golden shafts across the river.

In mid-October the shrine and the small township must close for the winter, as access to it becomes impossible. Snow then covers everything, and even the hardy purple-plumaged whistling thrushes, lovers of deep shade, move further down the valley. Far below the forest-line, the Garhwali farmers go about harvesting their ripening paddy, as they have done for centuries. Their terraced fields form patterns of yellow, green, and gold above the deep green of the river.

Yes, the Bhagirathi is a green river. Although deep and swift, it does not lose its serenity. At no place does it look hurried or confused - unlike the turbulent Alaknanda, just over the next range, fretting and frothing as it goes crashing down its boulder-strewn bed. The Alaknanda gives one a feeling of being imprisoned, because the river itself is imprisoned by a narrow gorge. The Bhagirathi is free-flowing, easy. At all times and in all places it seems to find its true level.

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