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September 11, 1996


A walk in the clouds

Text and Photographs: Nadar Parakh

Following a mighty river to its source is a good idea, especially if that source lies hidden in the majesty of the Himalayas. India has several great rivers, and consequently several great sources. But two rivers that would immediately spring to the mind of any self respecting Indian are the Yamuna and the Ganga. So deeply do the beds of these rivers run in the national psyche, that not only are they mentioned in our national anthem, but even the juice stalls in Bombay call a combination of orange and sweet lime juice, Ganga-Yamuna!

So the source of these two great rivers is surely worth a visit, to uncover some of the most beautiful and accessible walking in the Himalayas; for the romance of being there, and for being the first to touch the waters, before they go down to millions in the plains below.

Yamunotri, the source of the Yamuna, was our first destination. Who would believe, seeing these sacred waters, frothy blue and sharply clear, that by the time they reach Delhi, they have been reduced to a gutterish trickle? Here, near the source, the river is alive.

That was more than could be said of us as we dismounted from our ramshackle bus, into pouring rain, having spent eight hours journeying from Mussoorie. Though these bus journeys are never comfortable, the beauty outside and the sense of camaraderie borne out of discomfort inside, still manages to make the journey fun.

From Mussoorie we descended steeply to the Yamuna, our bus steadily filling with people, parcels and goats. The road then followed the Yamuna, taking in at every bend, more people, parcels and goats. After a lunch stop at an idyllic spot, the road entered the higher ranges, the territory of snow capped mountains and pine forests. By now the journey was further enlivened with our fellow passengers ejecting the lunch that they had eaten at the idyllic spot, more people, parcels and goals.

Finally, a bend in the road brought us to Hanumanchatti, the base point for the walk to Yamunotri. A ragtag group of huts and hovels, pilgrims and flies awaited us, as we left what by now seemed the snug security of the bus and walked out into the cold rain. Itwas already 5 pm, and our night was to be spent at Jankichatti, a three-hour walk away.

Engulfed by our voluminous plastic rain gear, we started out as best we could. It was cold and wet, we were not sure we could reach our night stop before dark. The rush of returning pilgrims often came close to throwing us off the little ledge of slushy path there was, between rock face and the freezing river.

As we were silently evaluating our own sanity for having undertaken this trip, our world changed. Suddenly, in a flash of Himalayan brilliance, the rain stopped, the sun came out, the pilgrims disappeared, the path improved and we were confronted by a wall of icy peaks, their sheer rocks and glaciers of ice catching the last peach rays of the day.

Everything was right about that first walk. The astounding beauty of the peaks we were walking towards, the crashing of the river alongside, the sprinkling of wild flowers on our path and the sense of mysterious desolation that pervades these mountains, coupled with our own quickening steps to race the onset of night -- all made this walk magical. I will never forget it.

Jankichatti, our destination for the night, is another string of huts and hovels, this time made prettier by the sheer good fortune of its location. Surrounded by grassy meadows, this settlement confronts the icy mass ahead with surprising warmth. The glow of a hundred lanterns and fires greeted us, along with the smells of fresh parathas.

Accommodation is ridiculous. We were fortunate to have access to the best beds available, a Birla guesthouse. A concrete monstrosity, painted in fluorescent shades of pink and green, this guesthouse still offers the only accommodation in Jankichatti that cannot be classified as absurd. Other hotels, costing around Rs 150 per night for a double room, include a freezing room with mattresses that could be blocks of some nearby glacier and a black little toilet, where the draughts have an uncanny knack of getting you where you're exposed. But by now it was black outside, the rain had restarted and I was on the first day of my honeymoon with hot parathas and dal; a honeymoon which, as has always happened to me in the Himalayas, fizzles out very fast.

Dawn showed us that the peaks facing us had been dusted with powdery snow at night, and this, combined with the morning mist swirling beneath them, further increased this dreamlike quality. By now, the path to heaven -- in this case, Yamunotri -- was already paved with horse dung, as hordes of pilgrims, mule backed, palanquined and on foot, made their way upwards to The Spot.

The walk from Jankichatti to Yamunotri can take anything between 3 to 5 hours each way, depending on how well you walk. On leaving Jankichatti the path first meanders through a gnarled forest, before it starts climbing slowly. Soon the path is in the midst of a thick forest, moving high above the river. This path is gentle paradise. Lush greenery, red blossoms and snow everywhere -- what could be better?

The pilgrims do pose a challenge here however, and deny one the pleasure of instant nirvana. Huge fatties, healthy men and women, chubby children and naturally the old and infirm, all prefer to reach the spot either on mule or in a palanquin. Common is the sight of emaciated poverty struck villagers carrying a look alike laughing Buddha up to God, heaving and panting, as their substantial load chants incantations to the heavens above: for blessings. This is not a holy sight.

But this is Yamunotri. And on reaching it the faith of the pilgrims, regardless of their chosen modes of transport, is humbling. There is a nondescript temple here, that virtually has to be rebuilt after each winter, several small stalls selling all varieties of offerings, and an impossible bridge over the river made from strips of corrugated metal. Even if you are completely lacking in faith, just the thought of crossing that bridge bring reams of prayers and pleas to mind.

A highlight of Yamunotri is the hot spring. Men have an open air pool, murky brown and reeking of sulphur, whereas women have to battle more valiantly with the dense fumes in a closed tin shed. But the water is hot, and at that point nothing could be more important than escaping the ice outside.

The only drawback to this dip, other than the fact that the water looks highly highly questionable, is that the sulphur and heat so alter the blood pressure, that the resulting effect of intoxication makes the walk back down to Jankichatti a challenge. But in religious places, where alcohol is strictly prohibited, the high from this spring is greatly welcome.

Having spent another night at Jankichatti, we made our way back to Hanumanchatti the next morning. The sun was out, the peaks were sparkling and the air was bitingly clear. It was the sort of day that brought cameras to mind. All the way down to Hanumanchatti we took innumerable snaps of each other and of the surrounding views; snaps which at the time we thought would look artful, but in retrospect were not. No photo can capture the beauty of those scenes. The only way to know the Himalayas is to be there.