A version of the following article and images appeared in edition 373 of 'The Big Issue' magazine in Jan 2011. To see the full series of images visit the gallery.
After The Deluge
Across the Christian world, from New York to Paris, Launceston to Lapland, I am the centre of attention, albeit briefly. I stand and wait obediently, bearing the weight of decorations and shadowy family tensions. I am the living, breathing and already slowly dying annual Christmas tree, dramatically severed at the base.
I am a role player, trying to soothe broken hearts and minds and create a semblance of calm amidst the enforced festive frenzy. It’s a difficult job but having kids around lightens the load, except when they pluck my fine fingers from my abundant arms.
The build-up to this once-a-year festival is frenetic and full of contradictory emotions. But much more striking is the post-festive ‘come-down’. It is mercilessly abrupt – like the chainsaw that felled me the first time. Now, once the festival of contradictions is over, I am forgotten. Wrestled from my hold I am unceremoniously and roughly dumped, usually on the nature strip, left to die a slow and lonely, yet at times strangely peaceful, death amidst the fresh green grass.
And that’s if I’m lucky. At other times you may find me torn limb from limb on the unforgiving sidewalk asphalt or, as humiliatingly occurred to me in Paris, left drooping and dejected outside a psychiatrist’s office.
I am left, abandoned and paralysed, to face the weather and suffer the ignominy of passing mongrels lifting their hairy legs to mark their territory – me. Now I belong to them, and the streets. Oh, what a fall from such ceremonial heights. From being the centrepiece, the beacon and the Mecca to which the worshippers of consumption make their annual pilgrimage, to now this - a forgotten, forlorn, ignored, shunned and even despised outcast. I am the post-Christmas Christmas tree, felled from great heights.
Needle by green-brown needle I lose my clothes until I am bare, barren, nothing more than skin and bone. My plentiful and once graceful fingers lie curling on the ground, strewn hither and thither by the winds and passing feet.Occasionally there is an exception to this depressing end on the streets. The homeless folk along the Canal du St Martin in Paris kept me in good company for many weeks after one Christmas, appreciated and clothed in tinsel, living whilst dying amongst a flock who also know what it means to live and sometimes die on the streets. They gave me care, attention and respect, even if their canine friends didn’t.
But either way I s'pose we all end up in the same place. Hopefully I'll eventually be mulched, to support my millions of growing but doomed cousins around the globe.
An Indian Odyssey - Sacred Cows
Rishikesh, June - July, 2011
It would be remiss of me not to have a section on India's 'sacred' cows (which often die a slow painful death due to ingesting plastic bags of food left for them by devotees - no-one ever said they were particularly smart, just 'sacred').
Shiva, The Destroyer (in order to create anew), and Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu ('Preserver of the universe'), helped the cows' popular rise to fame. Shiva's vehicle was a bull, representing the brute and blind power, as well as the unbridled sexual energy in man. Krishna was (or perhaps 'is') a cowherd...and amorous lover (he apparently had 16,108 wives!).
I grew quite fond of these imposing yet generally gentle beasts during my time there. On one occasion I was repeatedly licked by a cow. It was a very strange sensation - like a thousand cats' tongues in unison.Just hangin' out and chewin' the fat with some of the locals.After lunch I usually take a stroll through town to work off some of the calories.A brahmin bull looking for treats from a holy man.Oi! What are YOU lookin' at?!No-One, Um, I mean Nothing...just absent-mindedly staring at the grass
.I can feel a suede jacket coming on! This fur felt so good.Some impressive but delicate bits... Not sure if the cow in the background is more impressed by the substantial gear traveling alongside or simply by the fact that she can lick her own nostrils.No shame here - you take it where you can get it. What's the goss girls?Refugee from the fashion world.But Oh, I am soooo cute.I was once too, but not so anymore - notice my battered and broken horns...and the lovely bit of onion sitting in my nostril, on purpose of course - I keep it there as an ayurvedic nasal stimulant.Mexican stand-off?A massive bull with a necklace of money passes through town with curious onlookers in tow.Just walking along and sudd...The girl in the background knows I'm up to something.Oh yeah, tear of joy.If I stretch my neck any further it's likely to break.Hold on, I'll lift my leg to make it a bit easier for you.That scene above was too hot...somebody, anybody, get me some water...pleeeease.
Quickly.Hangin' by the Ganges - doing our daily prayers.Rumps.Pepsi Girl.Surely there's something other than plastic in here worth eating?Ah yeah, here it is on the tip of my tongue.
'MMmmmmm.The Hand of God - I always wondered what the body looked like that was attached to the hand in that famous painting. Looks like he's in good shape for his age.Feeding the bull on the Laxman Jhula bridge.
An Indian Odyssey - The Beatles Ashram
Rishikesh - June/July 2011
The abandoned Maharishi ashram where The Beatles stayed in the 60's and wrote the White album. It's a massive overgrown complex with astounding architecture - a real shame that it's falling into ruins although the abandoned atmosphere makes it pretty special.The main entrance.Atop one of the multi-storey accommodation blocks with the forest slowly advancing over the years.Destroying to create afresh.While My Guitar Gently WeepsSome of the very funky meditation domes. The acoustics inside are very impressive when you bang out an "Om".Meditation dome and sleeping quarters # 19.A shrine to Shiva, God of Destruction (in order to create anew)LSDAll you need is Love.
The encroaching forest.Frayed electrical cord.Below, the Bat Quarters...The bats hang out in the extremely dark meditation cells which are not dissimilar to solitary confinement cells.'Om' - the sound of the universe
- Tags:abandoned, architecture, ashram, beatles, guru, hindu, maharishi, mahesh, music, religion, spiritual, the beatles
An Indian OdysseyRishikesh: May 22 - August 1Ahh, Rishikesh...home of the Western seeker and occasional genuine guru. Yoga Capital of the World. Spiritual Supermarket of the Universe!Ganga Ma passing through town one evening.
I love this high quality ad offering 'galactic chronicles' and 'once in a lifetime experience'...
and this one asking if you are feeling 'lovely'...but I'm sure it meant to say 'lonely'...funny either way...
and this one offering what looks like a course in 'Tour Guiding'...although no doubt s'posed to be 'Study Your Guide'.
But enough on yoga and spirituality for the moment, let's hang with the cheeky monkeys...Check out this little gremlin - there's plenty of them about...and they're very good thieves as well. One girl had her glasses taken clean off her face. She instinctively grabbed them back and the monkey then slapped her across the face. Another girl had a monkey lean over her shoulder and take a single bite form her apple before leaving her be again.A lean Makak racing across the bridge 70 kms up the river at Devprayag.They are extremely feisty buggers. My guesthouse owner used to fire his sling-shot at them regularly. I had several stand-offs with them at the guesthouse where they would gang up on me and try to take over the terrace. Mimicking their aggressive style (teeth bared, hissing and growing tall) just seemed to make them contemptuous of me and they would make sudden lunges even closer towards me. So eventually I added some lion-taming tactics with chair in one hand combined with the above and that helped me regain the terrace! But generally I felt a little self-conscious after this circus act and would retreat into my room hoping none of my neighbours witnessed my antics. :)
One of my neighbours, desperate for sun, took to sun-bathing bikini-clad on the unfinished top-storey amid reo-iron spikes where she hoped to escape the disapproving eyes of the locals. But I don’t think the solitary construction worker on the adjacent rooftop disapproved. He was unable to peel his eyes off her and get back to work for more than a minute at a time. 3 glances, dig. 3 glances, dig. 3 glances, dig. etc etc. Oh, the poor man, it must've been heavenly torture.
On another hot afternoon, policemen escorted two young western women off the river beach for smoking and being in bikinis.
Correct bathing etiquette for women - fully clothed on one of the public ghats in town. It was a beautiful site to watch how groups of women worked together to prevent prying male eyes while they changed from their wet clothes. A group of women would surround the bather and encircle her with a long sari to act as a screen and create a mini changing room.
And now to a common scene, above. Indians would often, without asking, turn their camera on westerners to record the novelty of seeing us fair-skinned, light-haired aliens. Many-a-time they would also ask to pose with us and sometimes, strangely, when they didn't have a camera they would still ask/demand to pose with us for a photo on our camera but were not interested in receiving a copy of the photo - they seemed to just want the novelty of the experience.
This shop owner was a ripper - every time sometime walked passed he would call out 'Everything is Possible' of 'Fantastico'. He was a bit 'out there' or perhaps a bit enlightened - one day I saw him sitting in his shop with multiple dried red streaks running down his face. He had earlier been walking in the rain and his tilaka (which symbolises the third eye) had run all down his face - he felt no need to wipe it off and left it for many hours. He looked like a very relaxed head-injury victim ! :)
The Third Eye
Streaks of green fungus grow around this spiritual advertising mural.
One of the many riverside yoga schools.
There are several varieties of yoga schools and spiritual courses around Rishikesh. On one occasion I had a reiki session. Part way through the practitioner abruptly stopped and ran outside to attack monkeys that were attacking her precious cat amid a frenzy of screams, hissing and spitting. Shortly after we resumed the cat jumped suddenly onto my stomach and began preparing a place for its siesta. Tres relaxing!
Yoga aspirant, teacher or neither?
Hanuman, the ape-llike deity, tearing open his chest to reveal Rama and Sita residing in his heart. Hanuman was an ardent devotee of Rama (an incarnation of Vishnu, 'Preserver of the Universe'). A beautifully tacky sculpture, about 4 metres in height.
Shiva sitting atop a tiger skin at the Ram Jhula ghat - if you'd like to know why you can visit here...
Laxman Jhula (Rishikesh) at night.
- Tags:ganges, hindu, makak, monkey, religion, rishikesh, river, shiva, spiritual, yoga
- Location:rishiklesh, india
An Indian Odyssey
Devprayag: June 24 - 25
Headed 70 kms up river to Devprayag and the confluence of the Bhagarathi and Alakananda Rivers - the official starting point of The Ganges. Beautiful quiet little town wrapped around the hillside. Slept outside right next to the confluence.One of the many elegant suspension bridges that cross the river at various locations.The Hand of God and The Holy Cow.A skull that I found on the beach - a bit Darth Vadar looking methinks. Probably belonged to a Makak monkey.
An Indian OdysseyGaumukh - Tapovan: May 16 - 21Mount Shivling and Ganga under a setting moon at 4.45 am.We set off at seven the next morning. The sky was perfectly clear and the wind almost non-existant, a light breath across the land every so often. To my relief Hikmasin, my guide, kept a moderate pace and I was on his heels with ease. But these first five kilometres back past Gaumukh were easy. The real test would come after.
Gaumukh Glacier and Bhagarathi Peaks.Bhagarathi Peaks and the top of Gaumukh Glacier.
Mt Shivling, Gaumukh Glacier and Ganga emerging from the base.
We reached Gaumukh quickly, gave it an almost cursory glance (been there done that – but truly I was still enthralled) and began the ascent along the glacial ridgeline. It was narrow and treacherous, with innumerable landslides eating away at the already thin ridge. I stuck close to Hikmasin, tracing his exact footsteps as closely as possible, hoping we had the same size feet! Patches that looked like earth were in fact solid ice with a thin coating of grit and dirt. I tried not to think about our precarious position as I watched numerous rocks dislodge and tumble 800 feet to the valley floor.
Hikers ascending the landslide-riddled ridge at the edge of the glacial face.
3 – 400 metres up on the roof of the Glacier we were welcomed by a panorama of rock, ice and dirt. Looking upstream (if you can call it that) resembled a dirty, stormy, frozen sea as wave upon wave of churned ice and rock crested and fell, crested and fell but without any pattern or rhythm. Just a mass of churning matter, frozen in time. Yet alive, yes alive. And moving. Ever so slowly moving. Tearing, grinding and carrying the earth tens of kilometres, then dumping it at the glacier’s end, an offering to who knows what. The glacier stretched far back, back to Bhagarathi, those wonderful peaks, and then curved around its face into the distance.
My Guide, Hikmasin, atop the glacier.
Hikmasin on top of one of the glacial 'waves'. Bhagarathi peaks are behind.
Our next couple of kilometres was draining - moving forward over an endless sea or rock, up and down as we passed through the mini valleys between the glacial waves. Cairns (small rocks stacked atop one another) were placed regularly to guide hikers, but in a sea of grey, black and white stone, they were often like apparitions, appearing for brief moments in one’s sight before dissolving back into nature.
Young porters carrying camping gear for hiking parties.
Mt Shivling, the roof of the glacier and the waterfall on the RHS
The trek up was going very well. It was maybe 10 am and I was standing in the middle of a glacier on a bright sunny, clam day. My breathing was good, my guide was good and my footing was good. And the scene was beyond clichéd breathtaking. It was phenomenal and deeply profound. Here I was halfway across the world in a foreign land, atop perhaps the world’s holiest river under my own steam. Any doubts about my abilities had fallen clean off and were replaced by the rare and wondrous clarity accompanied by a real sense of purpose and achievement, and a desire to encourage ordinary people to undertake the trek. We are bred in such fear-obsessed societies in the West but the various ill-prepared pilgrims had shown me what ordinary folk are capable of.Mt Shivling and the waterfall. We reached the far side of the glacier and began the 1 km climb up alongside the waterfall. About halfway up the path crossed the tumbling river, offering a great opportunity to partake in Ganga's waters. This would be my first oral consumption of Ganga. I held the bottle up to the light, watching the sediment particles calmly perform their acrobatic feats, waited for them to tire, lifted the bottle towards my lips and poured from inches above. The water cascaded forth, arcing through the air before catching my upper teeth and running back over the roof of my mouth and finally down my throat. Cold, sharp and hugely refreshing.
As we approached the top Mt Shivling reared thrust its head and upper torso into the sky directly above the crest of the waterfall. It was as if the waters descended directly from mountainside to waterfall. They were one and the same, if only in a different form - this water cascading here beside me was that ice and snow clinging to Shivling’s torso. As my head came level with the crest and my eyes rose above, Tapovan laid herself out before me, a flat, light brown, grassy meadow. Hikmasin was stretched out on the meadow, reclining on my bag of clothes and looking back whence we came. He gestured for me to join him and struck up a cigarette (about his third for the climb), offering it to me. I declined, on two grounds: death from lack of oxygen was already close at hand; and the panorama before me was spectacular.
We were looking back down over Gaumukh Glacier. All the frozen standing waves looked much smaller from this perspective, just as the glacial face had looked deceptively small from a kilometre away but then rose up 3 – 400 metres, towering above you when face to face. But from this vantage point we could see the glacier stretching silently several kilometres from Gaumukh in the north down south towards Bhagirathi peaks, then swinging gently away to the South-East whereupon it disappeared out of sight behind Bhagirathi.A glacial lake on the roof of Gaumukh Glacier.
Back behind us, running several hundred metres towards the base of Mt Shivling and then curving away at the last moment across the face and out of sight, was Tapovan. Although I couldn’t see it from here it ran several more kilometres along the base of Mt Shivling. It was somewhere up along there that Ganga truly began.
Ciggy break over, we turned and walked the last kilometre across the meadow, following the winding stream that was the mighty Ganga. She was now only about 10’ wide – a peaceful mountain stream. Soon we arrived at the tiny stone ashram.
The door was open and a young man stood in the doorway facing inwards. He was wearing a blue tracksuit and bulky headphones. Hikmasin embraced him and spoke in familiar tones like an old friend. The young man responded in mime. This, it seemed, was the speechless holy man, Baba Ji. It was a spectacularly unexpected sight. The only bits that could possibly have made me guess this was Baba was his mass of beautiful dreads and his supremely calm and relaxed countenance. To my great surprise I was informed that Baba Ji was only 24 y.o. and had been up on Tapovan all year round for 4 years, during which time he had taken a vow of silence. A young French girl was here too, also not speaking (but with an air that was more arrogant and superior than calm and relaxed). It was Marcel Marceau territory up here and was very peaceful. Baba spread out some canvas and blankets on the dirt terrace, brought out some chai, and we all lazed about under the sun and clear blue sky in relative silence, staring at nothing and everything. The meadow lay below us and Shivling towered above. Hikmasin would offer the occasional few words, as would I, and Baba would begin his mime response. And the French girl, she simply rotated her prostrate body every few minutes and remained silent. This activity was to be a significant part of my life for the next four days at the top end of the world. Not much happens out here but everything happens. Baba Ji in the sitting/dining area of his house - he only had this one room in which to cook, eat, sleep and pray.Some of the fresh vegetables carried up to Tapovan from time to time by porters. But the most impressive arrival was the tiny Japanese girl (Michiko) who, with only a day pack and wearing a pair of gripless Crocs, scaled the glacial heights to Tapovan without a guide. She was without pride and simply explained that it was a sort-of Japanese tradition (I assume to go journeying solo with minimal gear – not sure if the Crocs were an essential part of the gear list). She reminded me of some of the Japanese who come to Australia and venture across desert tracks from one side of the country to the other on motorbike…and occasionally don’t live to tell the tale. She intended to return the following day. But out of genuine concern I put the fear of G into her that night after a heavy snowfall, explaining that, although she would make the waterfall descent in record time due to the snow and her gripless crocs, she would be very likely to be seriously injured or dead on arrival at the base. Fortunately for her, and me, she heeded the warning and stayed another day. I liked her company. She was strong-willed and adventurous yet soft and unassuming. Like me, she simply liked walking in the mountains rather than living a city existence.
On my third day I dropped down onto the meadow and followed Ganga slowly upstream along the flank of Mt Shivling. She was 6’ wide at this point and, with only the slightest gradient to speak of. She flowed calmly, twisting this way and that through short clumps of brown dormant grasses which were waiting to shoot forth for another season. A few tiny purple wildflowers had erupted across the meadow, butterflies flitted and a solitary bumblebee hovered around me for some time. Looking down onto Ganga and Tapovan (passed a prayer flag and Shiva's pitchfork) from a nearby ridge.And for G’s sake, you wouldn't believe it, there are effing pigeons up here – at 4500 bloody metres! I didn’t travel all this way to document flying rats!Mountain Goaty and Mt Bhagarathi
I walked to the top end of the meadow where Ganga had decreased to about 3 foot wide and I then continued up the narrow rock-filled valley. Ganga from the top end of Tapovan meadow.Ganga and Bhagrathi Peaks.Ganga and remnant snow in front of the Bhagarahti peaks.About two-thirds of the way up the valley, this monumental river which feeds billions was now only 1 foot wide. Three branches came together at this point, heading down the valley. I followed one which came to a dead end only feet away, stopping abruptly an in earthly cul-de-sac. Looking down, I could see her pulsing up rhythmically. I followed the 2nd minor tributary – it continued up only a few more feet past the first and then disappeared under a huge boulder. I followed it’s general trajectory a short way and could hear her echoey call as see traveled underground through the rocks. And then nothing – the earth had closed over her completely. I looked up along the suspected trajectory to a shallow snow-covered depression on Shivling’s flank.Ganga beginning from an eartly cul-de-sac (bottom left) and emerging from under boulders (upper left).Mt Shivling and the snow-covered flank from which Ganga emerges.The third and most significant branch continued up the remainder of the valley to a shallow marsh in a depression at the head of the valley. A small handful of streams ran into this lake, all coming from patches of snow on Shivling’s lower flank – the same flank from which the other tributaries seemed to originate. I boulder hopped up the flank until I found a large flat-topped boulder. I climbed aboard and sat on the source, taking in the scene around me and recognising the great privilege that it was to be sitting here, so completely insignificant under Mount Shivling, surrounded by magnificent, awe-inspiring Himalayan peaks and with a holy river at my feet. There was nothing happening, yet everything happening: mountains rising, rocks crushed, billions being fed, economies created and religions preached because of Ganga. It was a truly awesome, sublime and humbling experience of silence and insignificance. And while Ganga’s journey started here, it was the end of my road. It was time to fill the bladder of a long-ago-drunk Yalumba Shiraz Chateau de Cask and drink the shiraz infused Ganga water! The shallow marsh at the top of the valley.Streams of Ganga running into the marsh from Mt Shivling's snow-covered flank.
A dry section of the shallow marsh.Sitting on the source on Shivling's flank and looking back down the valley into which Ganga flows.A mist-enshrouded Ganga.Mt Shivling, Tapovan meadow and Ganga after a snowstorm.The peak of Mt Shivling.A frozen pond.Amazing lichen, moss and flora, below.
The Bhagarathi Peaks and Ganga at 4.50 am.
An Indian Odyssey
Gangotri - Gaumukh, May 14 - 15
I left Gangotri behind and with it 99 % of the pilgrims. Only the hardcore devotees ventured beyond, mostly to Gaumukh Glacier (the Cow's Mouth - where Ganga emerges from the Glacier), but a tiny few up to Tapovan. Among these hardy souls were dozens of citizen pilgrims and saddhus (holy men), some who had walked the full 250kms from the foothills, barefoot, with simply a water jug and maybe a blanket or rug. Although I didn’t see one, I read that some will make the entire journey through a continuous succession of prostations, laying flat out time after time, until they reach their goal. These one percenters were seeking a serious spiritual bonus, for, Depending on who you speak to, it is said that a dip in Ganga Ma at Gaumukh will save you from any future rebirth. Pity I'm not a believer as I took a dip at Gaumukh and all I got was an immediate splitting headache and near disappearance of private bits!
There’s a lot of this ‘depending on who you speak to’ going on when you ask questions about the Ganges or it's spiritual connections. Even when it comes to the relatively simple question of “where is the source of Ganga?" To that question one receives several different answers: 4 – 7 spiritual sources; one map answer (Devprayag); and one geographic source. That’s why for my answer to where is the true geographic source of Ganga Ma, I relied on a BBC documentary team which said Tapovan is my answer.
Tapovan is an alpine meadow up at 4500 metres, 600 odd metres above Gaumukh, and surround by immense Himalayan peaks including Mt Shivling, the lingam (phallus) of Shiva, the destroyer of the ego and ultimately of the universe.
Meanwhile, getting back on track, the trail levelled out into a relatively gentle, if rocky, incline. It would continue in this fashion for the next 19 km at which point it would reach Gaumukh. From there it was a far different story, and at a significantly higher elevation. My lungs would be put to the test once again in this thin mountain air.
I was told that this is a chamelon - he ain't doing a very good job!
I’ve done a lot of hiking over the years but there’s one aspect that still greatly freaks me out: the crossing of rivers via rickety logs. There were several of these. I approach them with wariness, steady myself, step up and set off. But I never know whether to go quickly and confidently or slowly and surely. With a backpack full of camera gear and an icy stream below it’s never an appealing prospect to slip. I always seem to picture this ‘slip and dip’ in my mind as I’m crossing – surely not good sports psychology. I inevitably end up taking the mini-step approach, being over cautious and then, when about 2/3rds of the way across involuntarily making a very ungraceful dash for the far side, arms flailing, mind racing, and heart pounding. Safe again. But there was one enjoyable benefit to the river crossings. I was finally able to drink fresh water directly from the streams. It’s not Ganga water yet but it’s a sweet change to bottled water and my contribution to non-biodegradable plastics going to landfill.
Rockslides are very common especially during the monsoon season.
The 3 Bhagirathi peaks in the distance at the head of valley – the fading sunlight, out of view to me, rakes across the top of the cloud cover above and behind me and spectacularly illuminates their pointed peaks while all else remains in shadow.
After 7 hours, 14 kms, innumerable landslides and about 6 nerve-fraying log crossings, I arrive at Bhojbasa. Bhojbasa feels like something out of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie with an almost moonlike atmosphere. Set in a crater-like depression in the valley, it is relatively barren yet massive mountains tower all around. In the distance at the head of the valley, past Gaumukh and up the glacier, stood the the three snow-covered Bhagirathi peaks: some sort of sentinel or god; commanding and sublime. And a planetarium of stars circled above while the full moon arced across the heavens.
Ganga glowing under a full moon while I froze waiting for the shoot - I wore 2 pairs thermal leggings, 4 thermal tops, 1 woolen top, 1 army jacket, 1 japara, 2 pairs gloves, 2 beanies, 2 socks. It was a tad cold.
A sign near Gaumukh.
Yes, that's a human sitting in the contraption on this porter's back - Jesu, better him than me!
This man shared his damper-like bread with me as we rested together.
His high tech footwear successfully took him to his goal. God, we westerners are soft!
And this man on the left, pulling the funny face for no known reason, was the Baba from the ashram where I had stayed at Bhojbasa the previous evening.
During my ‘rest day’ at Bhojbasa I headed for my ‘fall-back’ goal: Gaumukh. All the while from Gangotri I had been making enquiries as to the difficulty of the hike from Gaumukh up to Tapovan. While it was only a short distance, about 5 kms, it was the terrain, incline and particularly the elevation that concerned me most (especially given my inauspicious start from Gangotri!) It involved ascending the steep and landslide-prone ridge at the edge of the glacial face, boulder-hopping a couple of kilometres across the unstable glacial roof and then slipping and scrambling one’s way up beside and across a steep scree-filled one kilometre waterfall (a near vertical Ganga) atop which lay the peaceful and flat alpine meadow, Tapovan.
So my ‘rest day’ was one of acclimatisation and the short trip to Gaumukh to witness yet another spirtual source. The first four kilometres were similar to the previous day – rocky ground with a slight incline. I saw several mountain goats perform extraordinary feats of dexterity. Startled by me as I rounded a corner, one by one they calmly and easily negotiated a 5 metre high rock wall from top to bottom with a near vertical 80 degree slope. It was incredible to watch. The rock wall was relatively smooth yet they took each step as smoothly and surely, without hesitation, as if they were walking on flat ground. Not so me. As I stepped down a small incline my right foot went from under me and I glided towards the cliff’s edge on my back. It all happened so quickly I had no time to freak out but I picked myself up very carefully as, just inches away, the cliff plummeted 250 metres down into the river. I walked on slowly, my mind now quickly filling with my imaginary fall from the heavens into the arms of Ganga Ma. I saw myself making a great splash, a fantastic schoolboy bomb, as I came down backpack first into the thrashing waters. Suddenly I was swallowed by Ganga and my world became a frothy creamy-brown. An eternity elapsed in my mind (while only 3 seconds in real time) before my lips broke the surface like a feeding fish and I sucked in precious O2. And then I was gone again for another eternity. This went on for some time while I struggled to free my arms from a lead-weight backpack which was looking for a home on Ganga’s stony floor. I had other places I preferred to stay for the night but I took some time to convince backpack to let me be. Eventually, backpack-free, I rose to the surface and, after bouncing from rock to rock like in a pinball machine, I left the game behind and entered a calm stretch where I was able to angle for the far riverbank and scramble out, alive but stranded. All this occurred in the space of about ten metres as I walked along – my own Boys’ Own Adventure in my mind!
Back in reality, About 1.5 km from the glacial face a sign painted on a rock denoted where the face had been in 1966. The last km was relatively hard going. Stones turned into rocks and rocks into boulders, part of a lateral moraine. And an official Forest Department sign declared that entry beyond the 500 m exclusion zone was strictly prohibited.
I love this guy's pose. He's one of the many pilgrims who asked for a portrait session!
Just my luck, 500 m prior to the face, a Forest Department officer enforced the declaration. No-one had told me of this and I was bitterly frustrated and disappointed that even my ‘fall back’ destination may be thwarted. Just as I arrived, the officer jumped up and ran swiftly in the direction of the face. It was impressive to see how quickly he covered the rocky ground. He had allowed a pilgrim to go closer as long as he stopped when the officer called out. The pilgrim had stopped, but only for a minute or two, and then made a daring dash for the face. By this time the officer had a lot of ground to cover and would probably not do so until the pilgrim was devotionaly ensconced beneath the face, staring right down the mouth of the cow. I wanted to be that pilgrim. I took my chance, making the most of this opportunity, and dashing, not so gracefully as the officer, along Ganga’s rocky shoreline towards my goal. I figured by the time the officer caught and began to return the offender I would be at least half way there, and from there it was unknown – I would hide or feign innocence and claim my birthright to knowingly risk my life as I saw fit. The returning officer, already pissed, was not impressed to see me and waved me back. Time to play the innocence card. But surprisingly the offender piped up, enthusiastically expounding on the dangers of such a visitation and declaring that I could not proceed. But hold on, hadn’t he just done exactly that. “Yes, but I was caught and now I am to be punished accordingly.” I wasn’t sure what this punishment would entail and wasn’t really interested. I explained that my sole purpose for traveling thousands of kilometres from Australia at great time and monetary expense was to visit and experience this site, not from some bureaucratically ordained safe-distance but from the distance that was necessary for my fulfilment. I explained that I was aware of the inherent dangers of approaching a glacial face, that I would take precautions and that in the unfortunate event that I may die, so be it, I die. Again the offender enthusiastically piped in, agreeing wholeheartedly with my sentiment. It was rather amusing and, although I knew my current attempt would probably be thwarted, I also knew that to ascend to Tapovan one had to enter the 500 metre exclusion zone, so, if not today, I could return the following day via a slightly different path. The officer won today’s battle and my close-encounter with nature on a grand, intimate, frightening and mesmerising scale would have to wait.
The face of Gaumukh Glacier, about 300 metres tall. Notice the forest officer escorting the pilgrim back (about a third of the way up the pic on the left) - and they are a couple of hundred metres from the face, so you can imagine the relative size.
Here it is, the actual Gaumukh (Cow's Mouth). You can see Ganga spewing forth at the base of the face. And notice the scars of landslides at my feet.
So instead of visiting the glacier's face at ground level I ventured up the glacial ridge-line which would enable me to get closer to the face but from a higher perspective, out of the way of massive rock and ice falls. I was standing atop the slender and curvy ridge-line – curvy because this is where landslides had taken several bites out of it. It was beautiful to look over the edge, but nerve-wracking. Wide, long gashes in the rock and ice scarred the slope. Looking left to right I could see cornices (like in the snowfields where you see a slope's edge severely undercut) and suddenly realised that I may be standing on one and about to take an unwanted slippery dip at an unannounced time. Landslides and rock falls are much more common under the afternoon sun, as the ice begins to thaw and shift. It was well into the afternoon. And the thought that a landlside might well be precipitated by the smallest grain of rock shifting its weight added to my excited terror. I stepped back for a moment to gather my breath and thoughts. But like a curious child I kept returning to the edge, surveying the scene, and riding the high wave of potential danger. The towering glacial face was a dirty bluish-white with striations of ingrained dirt and thick slivers just waiting to crash down onto the river below, one layer at a time as the glacier ground forward millimetre by millimetre over the days and months and years. Rocks big and small, freed from their hold of how many years I don’t know, crashed down violently into the river below. And all this while there was just me, the glacier, the river and the mountains, sitting together under a sky building with the regular afternoon clouds.
WARNING! FOR THOSE FAINT OF HEART, PROCEED WITH CAUTION!
Pic shrunk due to public health concerns. Sorry folks, couldn't resist a nature swim at The Cow's Mouth...and partially sharing it with you! :)
Walking back alone to Bhojbasa, I was aware I had experienced something extraordinarily special during the previous hours. Everything came to life for me. The multitude of rocks, each with a different pattern and hue, glowed. The temple flag danced for me. And the river sung its usual song with new tenderness.
Near day's end, as the clouds closed in as they often did, a lone saddhu continued on towards the glacier, placing faith before common sense. While a non-believer myself, I was developing a real respect for the power of faith, however misplaced I felt it may be. The pilgrims have such a strong faith and belief in the spiritual benefit of visiting these sacred sites that they achieve feats far greater than your average human, despite being entirely inappropriately attired according to western and contemporary hiking standards.
That evening I had still not made up my mind whether I would attempt to ascend to Tapovan. The heart was willing but the mind was weak. I was most concerned about my ability to breath under the strain of vertical ascent. Secondly, Given their famous reputation for carrying packs twice their body weight and their near mountain-goat abilities to scale rocks, I was a little worried that my guide would disappear ahead at an alarming rate. And finally I was a little concerned about the weather which had closed in heavily that afternoon. But I was assured all would be clear in the morning. And so that night, after chanting followed by a dinner of rice and dhal, eaten while sitting barefoot in an open-air courtyard in 5 degree temperature, I made the mental call and organised a guide for the trek.
An Indian Odyssey
Gangotri - May 9 - 13th
250 kms to Gangotri by bus – 13 hours, that's a massive 20-odd km/h! The end of the road. Finally, virtually no more car horns – what sweet relief!
The real journey started in Gangotri. Up until then it had just been a haze of people and car horns. Gangotri is at the end of the road, a road which is only open for 6 months of the year due to winter snowfall. There were still loads of pilgrims, thousands in fact, but that was nothing compared to the cities in the foothills. The arduous 13 hour trip along narrow and rocky mountain roads from the foothills had weaned out the less hardy pilgrims. Yet each day, dozens of buses and taxis and private cars arrived first thing in the morning, disgorging their ‘seeker’ inhabitants at the end of this mountain road and at the beginning of Gangotri’s one and only street. For 95% of these pilgrims their goal was at the other end of this street: the Gangotri temple, one of the spiritual sources of Ganga Ma (Ganges River).
Rockslides are common, especially during the monsoon, along these mountain roads.
Ganga Ma and a hillside covered with Deodar Cedars, a tree that can live up to 1000 years and is endemic to the Himalaya mountains from Tibet to Afghanistan.
A house built into a rocky overhang - very common in these parts.
The Om symbol painted on a rock in the valley.
Pilgrims carried to temple in a palanquin (chair strapped to two long parallel poles and carried by four porters).
Deodar Cedar at the base of massive cliffs.
Gangotri at night.
The river here (although still the Ganges) is called the Bhagarathi River.
The sculpted rock face of the waterfalls.
Many saddhus (holy men), like this one, walk many hundreds of kilometres barefoot on pilgrimages around the country.
But unfortunately I've brought with me four days worth of galloping stomach due to an overnight stay in Uttarkarshi, halfway between Haridwar and Gangotri. Fun, fun, fun. My first taste of India Belly.
On the fourth day I rose, a bit slower than some other well-known prophets, pulled on my hiking boots and pack, pushed aside my barricading door and strode forth to ahcive my goal in the mountains. I was feeling good. Strong again, full of solids and ready for the 14 km hike to Bhojbasa, a staging post for Tapovan. I strode down the main street of Gangotri, feeling the pack comfortably/reassuringly formed around my back, passing pilgrleaving pilgrim after pilgrim in my wake, buying the same fruit and nut offerings as the pilgrims – but for me, not the gods – but neglecting to invest in the pvc screw-top container. Instead I had the Yalumba Shiraz Chateau de Cask bladder from which I hoped to collect and drink Ganga straight from the source.
Through the temple grounds I floated, passed that easily attained spiritual source, out the back gate and up. Up, up, up, up, up. There was seemingly no stopping this ‘up’ phase and my self-assured assupmption that my rise to the heavens would be easy was smashed. After only 150 metres I was left doubled over, arms akimbo trying to find room for that breath that had comfortably been there up until very recently. It seemed a vice had been placed around my chest and quickly tightened while I wasn’t looking. Perhaps it had happened in the temple grounds as karma for my sacrilegious nature. I couldn’t get any breath into my body but there was a strange wheezing sound coming from somewhere, my throat I decided in my semi-delirious state. I was in trouble, quite serious trouble and the pathetic yet hilarious nature of my demise gripped me along with the vice and the wheezing.
Fortunately I was out of sight of any folk in the temple grounds, beyond further embarrassment at this stage at least. I clung to the rock wall for support and waited, having luckily told myself that time may help ease the pain and I may in fact recover. Hopefully not another four days staring at the waterfall. ‘one foot in front of the other’, this had been my motto when I more sensibly assessed the potential difficulties of a trip like this prior to committing. I threw one foot out in front of the other, then the other, and continued to do so at a much more rational pace. It worked. Soon I reached the crest where the trail levelled out and which, I had been assured, would be a ‘moderate’ grade. Things felt possible again.