Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Gangotri: The old order and the new and an ode to immortality

Each journey, for me, has a meaning – besides the beginning and the end. Each journey is life-changing, I think, in some way or the other. And this one of course, was a bit more than just another journey – it had many more layers of meaning tucked away into it than many others. So to start with, it was an adventure trip that I had been planning with my nephew Rahul for a couple of years. It was his first trip to the Himalayan heights and not surprisingly, he spent a lot of time chalking out the details and putting together his gear in London - where he lives. Well, Himalayan high altitude may be new for him, but camping and meticulously planning out the details of our trek to Gaumukh (3900 metres) and hopefully beyond that to Tapovan (4450 m) was something that he did with a lot of enthusiasm and ardour. In fact, I found myself increasingly caught up in his youthful enthusiasm as the dates neared.
As for me, Gaumukh was the pilgrimage that I was hoping would perhaps provide some of the answers that I have been seeking for a couple of years now. It was for me another mile on the journey that has taken me to Haridwar, Rishikesh, Pushkar, Benares, Dakshineshwar and Amritsar. Now that we’re back, and as I take stock of whether I have my answers or not, I know that I have some - while others still linger on. As another trip to the Himalayas – which for me is my spiritual home – this was long awaited. The rugged and extreme Garhwal was a region that I had not really encountered before, except for a much less intensive trek to Har-ki-dun. That too was a journey with depth - with a childhood friend who has always been there for me. Back to this one - perhaps it’s fitting that the toughest Himalayan terrain was left for what could well be my last trip to the rugged heights. The experience – in terms of geography and pushing the physical envelope was everything it promised to be. From Gangotri to Bhojbasa and further on to Gaumukh, the glacial snout which is considered by us Hindus as the birthplace of our holiest of holy rivers – the Bhagirathi and the Ganga – provides the most complete range of features that one can hope for. From glacier walks to crossing mountain streams and walking on scree and terminal moraine and even dodging rock falls – the scenery does not disappoint even for a moment. Besides the thrills, the landscape is intensely beautiful too – as one walks along the river bank with the stately Shivling and Bhagirathi peaks for company. There are the chir pine forests of Chirbasa and the Bhuj trees along the way. One runs into company in the form of the mountain goats or the Ber, as they are locally called.
But for me, the trip has taken me beyond just the Himalayan grandeur that was the passion of my youth. Rahul – who the hill folk have decided to call my ‘bachcha’ - much to my delight, did come up trumps. And even though I’m exhausted and can’t even imagine making it to Tapovan – he does it with a fair degree of skill and competence, despite his status of a first-timer. He has braved the steep gradient, the height gain, the lack of oxygen and of any defined paths. And most important, he has enjoyed every bit of the adventure and will probably come back again for more. Besides, along the way to Gangotri & Gaumukh, Rahul also developed a taste for simple Indian food such as chapatis, the delicious pahari rajma and alu paranthas - which my dearest friend Alka, a skilled mountaineer, who's been on many tough expeditions, feels is the best cuisine to tackle Himalayan journeys. And my 'bachcha' has also passed the test of ferrying his own load during the trek, something that I've always failed to do.And while maintaining his composure under pretty extreme conditions, he was only ruffled a little bit when some ugly red scars mysteriously appeared on his forearm at Doon School - at my friend Purnima's home, after we got back to the plains. Probably ruptured blood vessels from a scratch he got from his rucksack or heat rashes. Anyways - nothing that the magic neosporine powder from the little white bottle with a blue cap couldn't take care of!
As for me, I was thinking of my father throughout the trip – in fact, it was a journey made for him in many ways. As I sat on the rocks near Gaumukh with my feet dipping in the freezing waters of the Bhagirathi, I knew that he was definitely there in my life, even though death had taken him away from us forever.
And as I helped my ‘bachcha’ pitch his Summit Series tent at Bhojbasa – battling as we did against the snow-storm, I knew that it didn’t really matter, if I could not ever make it to such heights again. There were the signs of immortality strewn all around me. And I just love to drink it in and absorb it. The Himalayas are eternal and so is life – that’s the biggest takeaway from this journey! And then it's not really a surprise or hardly a coincidence, when soon after our return to Delhi via Uttarkashi and Dehra Dun - my cousin Srila (my Bachcha's mother) sends me a photo of my parents which is one of the best recent ones that I've seen of my good-looking father. The photo must have been hidden away in her albums and she must have suddenly chanced upon it. For me, it certainly eases the degrees of separation and brings back my father much closer to me.


Debjani said...

Hello Ayesha,

This was very exciting to read not the least because it sent me hurtling down memory lane of our trek to Har Ki Doon. That trek with you had come at a very complex moment in my life -- my mother had passed away a year ago, I had just moved away from a dear one and I was planning to move back from U.S. -- my adopted home that had given me so much!
Walking through the varied landscape of gradients and meadows and past the crystal clear waters of the lake(what was it called?), I had wondered about life and its complexities, wondered and agonised. And the answers had come, slowly, in bits and pieces; as you have put it so perfectly, the immortality of the mountains is so overwhelming. It made my riddles seem so inconsequential and reminded me that life itself is the raison detre.

That was then; today, as I read your blog I realized that this is another exciting path I can chart for my son, my sporty son who loves the outdoors and little else. This is going to be our journey. So what if I cannot share his disappointments and joys about the Englsih Premier League? He and I can together revel in the Himalayas -- I think we can at least make the trek upto Gaumukh, even if not all the way to Tapovan.He went for a short trek to Mont Blanc last year and was so excited about that!

I had so many questions about the trek itself. How long did it take for you to go from Gangotri to Bhojbasa? Its about 7-8 hours, isn't it? What were the camping sites like after Gaumukh? How many days did it take for you? From what point is the first picture in the blog taken? Its breathtaking!

keep writing...

New Jersey Raj said...


Thank you very much for sharing this wonderful post with me. As kids in Durgapur, we both had wonderful parents – specifically, our fathers. Now as middle-aged folks, we mourn the deaths of our fathers. For me it’s extremely difficult because I live so far away. I always feel guilty. But in some ways, death is so inevitable. After my father’s death – I felt so helpless without my his presence in my life. I am not particularly religious – I don’t believe in reincarnation and all that stuff that constitute the premise of Hinduism. I get my strength from Mahabharta and Karna remains my role model. I try to do what I’m supposed to do – that’s what Krishna told Arjuna in Gita. After my father’s death, I sought solace in philosophy and I found that in Martin Heidegger –he wrote: ”What is necessary for authentic living is resolute confrontation of death”. This is what Hindus do – we extinguish the funeral pyre (Chita) and turn around and move on. That’s what they said in Upinishada: Choroiboti (Move on).

I don’t want to mourn the death of my father – I want to celebrate his life. I think that’s what you are trying to do – going to the Himalayas was a very good idea for you. I’m glad that you felt the presence of your father. That’s wonderful. Our departed fathers are always with us – we are their progeny. Life goes on.

Your nephew (Bachcha) is a handsome kid. I wish I could take trips like the one that you did. Instead, I’m sitting in a hotel room in Bermuda writing a power point presentation. Sux

Anyway my childhood friend – please keep writing –you bring back the wonderful memories of our magical childhood in Durgapur

All the best

Suvro Chatterjee said...

That was a good read, Ishani. I am a Himalaya buff myself. The Skandapurana says "In a thousand ages of the gods I cannot tell thee of the glories of the Himalayas"! I should like to go from this world, if God is good to me, the way Puran Dass went in Rudyard Kipling's magnificent story, The Miracle of Puran Bhagat. Keep writing!
Suvro Chatterjee

Kaisar Ahmad said...

Great piece, Ishani ! Have never been there, but it's on my list of "things to do before it's too late !" Would also strongly recommend to our readers a book of splendid text and photographs of that area called "Panch Kedar" by Debal Sen who is an ardent mountain-lover (in addition to being one of Calcutta's leading cardiologists)