Rishikesh to Gaumukh, Part 1

They say, travel leaves you speechless and then turns you into a story teller. Here I am with some of mine, from the Himalayas.

It was the last leg of my trip to the Dev Bhoomi – Uttarakhand (UK). I was in Rishikesh and still had 4 days in hand before heading back to Delhi for the return journey home. Having spent well planned time in Haridwar, Rishikesh, Dehradun, Mussoorie as a tourist, it was time to get in to the traveler shoes.

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Ganges, near Rishikesh

After considering few options I chose to follow Ganga mayya all the way up to her very source, Gaumukh (mythologically speaking). Trek to Gaumukh starts from Gangotri. So I had to first sort out travel and stay arrangement up till Gangotri. On learning about this plan, my sister thoughtfully connected me to her friend, Sajish GP(S), Bengaluru guy who had found his roots in the mountains of Dev Bhoomi. An avid trekker in this region, he assured that plenty of buses and shared taxi ply on the Rishikesh-Gangotri route and hotels would be available at dime a dozen. Reassurance about travel safety in the state readily came from enough sources, giving flight to my plan.

Although there were direct bus from Rishikesh to Gangotri, they were ‘day’ buses and so I decided to take it easy and break the 12 hour journey into 2 days: Day 1, reach Uttarkashi and halt for night. Day 2, take another bus for Gangotri to reach there leisurely in time for the evening’s Ganga aarti on the banks of river Bhagirathi. Day 3 was to start the mystic trek to Gaumukh, the melting glacier from where Bhagirathi originates, considered the source stream of the Ganga.

There was just one more task in hand – I didn’t want to be weighed down by my excess luggage! The regional Tally office came to rescue and guided me to a local Certified Partner who was more than happy to keep my bag at his office. So, here I was, all set for this solo trip, to get closer to not just Ganga mayya but also the mighty Himalayas.

Day 1: Sitting on the front seat of bus to Uttarkashi, I was in complete awe of unspoiled beauty of the mountains. Roads were surprisingly in good shape for an area prone to frequent landslides. The bus was equally packed with locals and pilgrims. During a conversation with the co-passengers I learnt that pilgrims on ‘Chhota Char Dhaam Yatra’ start with a visit to Yamunotri, followed by Gangotri, Kedarnath, culminating at Badrinath (moving clockwise). From Uttarkashi the road for Yamunotri and Gangotri branch out. Kedarnath and Badrinath are on a slightly separate route, even though geographically Gangotri is within 50 km of Kedarnath.

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Tehri Garhwal landscape just after crossing Chamba

Eight hours later, covering less than 200 km, bus reached the sleepy town of Uttarkashi at around 4 PM. I checked in a tiny room of a very basic hotel near the bus stop and immediately stepped out to explore the place. Uttarkashi is bestowed with plenty of natural beauty, but there was nothing much to do, not even a quiet place on the banks of gurgling river. For the first time in this month long trip it felt lonely! Hmm.. This was the farthest away from home I’d ever been.

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Beautiful but sleepy Uttarkashi

Wandering the streets, I came across Ramlila (yeah, it was Dasara time). Ravan was impressive with his dialogues just before the dramatic ‘Sita Haran’. Bit tired and bit bored, I retired for the day quite early that night.

Day 2: The morning was cold enough to get the woolens out. Standing at the bus stop with my backpack, I turned left and right, looking for the conspicuously missing shared taxis. Just then a jeep stopped and the driver inquired where I wanted to go. I said Gangotri and he asked me to hop-in. I grabbed the usual front seat, greedy for even more spectacular views today.

Roads were narrow now, due to on-going repair / expansion work. Tree were also different from what I saw on way to Uttarkashi. Barely 10 km into the journey, I spotted a few sheep on the road. Not unusual for up-country. But before one could spell SHEEP, our taxi stopped behind a long line of stationary vehicles. Hundreds of sheep were marching down. When it seemed unending, I stepped out of cozy taxi in the cold morning to find that there were not hundreds but thousands of them! It was not the daily exercise of taking them grazing but migration from hills to the plain of Rishikesh for next few months. O boy, winter was coming!!

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Don’t miss the black sheep

Our journey resumed once the road cleared. Snow peaked mountains, glowing in the morning sun, started to show up. Soon we were in the middle of unending mountain peaks. It was stunning. On the way scores of high school kids tried getting a lift from our already packed taxi. We could accommodate only two girls, who seemed to have befriended the driver by regularly getting him some apples from their farms. The not-so-lucky kids had to walk the 10 km to school! And they apparently had an exam that day!! Unthinkable for me, but it was just another day for those kids.

By now, I got talking with a co-passenger. Soon I learnt that the taxi was going only up till Harshil, a village 25 km before Gangotri. This took the wind out of me. I argued with the driver for having misled me but it was too late. We reached Harshil by 10 am and my co-passenger offered to be my guide. When life gives you lemons make lemonade. I decided to spend a few hours in Harshil, which turned out be the highlight of this trip. Harshil seemed a small village with not more than 200 houses, with sizable Tibetan population living peacefully with rest of the crowd. They were offered this place by Government of India when they were escaping from China (hmm… I don’t know exactly when). Buddhist influence is visible at the very entrance of village with multi layers of colorful ‘prayer flags’.

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Prayer flags blessing the area around Harshil

No mention of Harshil is complete without reference to apples. I had never seen an apple tree in my life before and here I was in the middle of apple orchards, with the mountains in the background and bubbling river in the foreground! To me, this was the place where heaven meets earth. No wonder legendary Raj Kapoor chose Harshil for shooting Ram Teri Ganga Maili.

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Captivating Harshil

After a few hours, I left Harshil with some apples in my bag and the Ganges by my side who kept me company all the way till Gangotri and later till Gaumukh.

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Ganges, known as Alaknanda here

When you leave a beautiful place, you carry it with you wherever you go. Harshil is one such beautiful place.

 

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On the trail of Rama

Last year it was Humpi. This year Rameswaram. Next year, I hope, it will be Sri Lanka 🙂 It was not planned this way but it turns out that we are following the trail of Rama, albeit somewhere from the middle.

After a successful first family outing last year along with friends to Hampi, my parents were receptive to the idea of an exclusive family trip this year. Choosing the places to visit also turned out to be easy. Parents wanted pilgrimage to Kanyakumari & Rameswaram. The youngest sister wanted to keep her date with the main deity of Madurai, after whom she is named. Going that far, Tanjore was a must visit. Though visit to Tanjore was debated till the eleventh hour because including it meant a tight schedule, resulting in our footfalls in 4 cities on day 1 (Bangalore, Madurai, Tanjore & Rameswaram!). After some deliberation the route was decided as Bangalore-Madurai-Tanjore-Rameswaram-Kanyakumari-Madurai-Bangalore (in retrospect, it was not the best route!).

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“There is no moment of delight in any pilgrimage like the beginning of it.” – Charles Dudley

Madurai

The hustle and bustle outside Meenakshi temple gets you excited. The area is ideal to shop for handicrafts, utensils, bangles, clothes, fruits, sweets among others. Surprisingly, there are hundreds of shops inside the temple complex too, mostly selling toys and souvenirs. The temple is dedicated to Parvati, known as Meenakshi here, and her consort, Shiva (known as Sundareswarar here). It is customary to visit the Shiva’s shrine before darshan of the goddess. The long queues and tickets for darshan puncture your excitement balloon in an otherwise very pleasing experience.

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Thousand pillar hall, inside the temple complex, is a bonus for un-expecting visitors. The artistically carved 985 (not 1000! No, we didn’t count them) pillars of different shapes and sizes leave you gaping. The hall also provides the much desired photo opportunity for the tourist 🙂

Tanjore

Tanjore was complete contrast to Madurai – hardly any shops around the temple, no serpentine queues, and no entry and darshan fee to begin with. The structure and architecture style is also completely different from Madurai. The only common thing was the deities – Shiva & Parvathi (but then again the difference is that Shiva is the main deity here).

Brihadeeswarar Temple is a brilliant example of the major heights achieved by Cholas in Tamil architecture. One has to pass through 2 beautifully carved entrance gates before reaching temple complex. Apart from the main temple in the center, there are multiple smaller shrines and halls inside the complex, including 4th largest single stone carved Nandi, each one independently built long after the main temple. This temple tour was made more memorable by our guide, Mr. S Raju, who narrated interesting anecdotes and stories about the temple and town, blending facts, myth, and humour effortlessly.

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Rameswaram

This was the continuation of our Ramayan connection which started last year from Kishkinda, near Humpi. Rameswaram though cut off from Indian mainland fascinates tourists and pilgrims alike for being one of the Char Dham. We started late from Tanjore and reached Rameswaram at witching hours. Due to this we decided to miss next day’s early morning Mani Darshan and bathing in the 22 Tirthas (holy water bodies) at Ramanathaswamy Temple! Long queues returned here after their absence in Tanjore. Even a special ticket would take around 2 hours to get darshan! We barely managed to go around the temple to visit important shrines and had darshan. Paucity of time meant missing almost everything else at Rameswaram and rush to Dhanushkodi.

Dhanushkodi

Dhanushkodi, also referred as Ghost City, is further away from Indian mainland, towards Sri Lanka. Including Dhanushkodi in the trip was coup d’chance. I had never heard of the place till my boss mentioned about it on hearing my travel plans. And it turned out to be the best part of our trip. Life will never stop surprising you!

Road to Dhanushkodi is soft because of sand, unusable by regular vehicles after a point. This could be one of the reasons for this beautiful beach to remain so clean, left untouched by commercial exploitation. The town is under constant vigil for security reasons as Sri Lanka is less than 30 km from here! We enjoyed every minute of 2-3 hours that we could spare here in the calm waters of the Bay of Bengal, acquiring new experiences, creating memories to last a life time.

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Kanyakumari:

Except the fact that it is the southern tip of Indian peninsula, I found nothing special about Kanyakumari. I’m sure one can easily find equally good sunrise and sunsets points. There are a few places worth a visit such as Vivekananda Rock Memorial, but nothing that will make me recommend it to someone. Surprisingly Kanyakumari seemed less influenced by Tamil Nadu. Most people speak Hindi and north Indian food is easily available!

Vivekananda Rock Memorial, Patel Point of Kanyakumari

Vivekananda Rock Memorial, Patel Point of Kanyakumari

We were looking forward to visiting Padmanabham Palace, near Kanyakumari, on our way back but missed it because it was closed (Monday holiday) 😦 But we were more than compensated with beautiful wind turbine farms on the way from Kanyakumari to Tirunelveli.

Madurai

Making best use of the available time, before catching the return train to Bangalore, we visited Thirumalai Nayak Palace in Madurai. We could also afford (time) to eat the famous Jil jil jigarthanda.

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It was first of many trips, a trip of many firsts! For all or some of us, there were enough firsts in this trip – family trip, flight, Tamil Nadu, beach… Wondering whether first foreign trip awaits next year, and we continue on our trail of Rama! 🙂

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French Connection

Concentration Center

Saree clad women going around on cycle. Sign boards of names prefixed with a le/la/Auro. House with vibrant yet soothing colours. French windows.  Nothing new for sure. It’s just that the frequency with which you see any of these multiplies many folds as you wander in the streets of Pondicherry, a former French colony.

The minute I landed in Pondi, with bells on, I found it behind the times, sort of. But then that’s what draws people to this place, I guess. I did a double take at the map of Pondicherry, the city. It is no bigger than HSR Layout, an area in Bangalore, where I live! Wonders will never cease.

First thing I did on reaching Pondicherry was registration for next day’s concentration session at Matrimandir inside Auroville, a universal township. It takes your ears some time to get used to the silence in that place. Many people miss out on visit to Matrimandir, even after visiting Auroville, because it requires a first time visitors to register at least a day in advance, for concentration session inside the golden metallic sphere.

Surprisingly, Auroville has lot to offer for shopoholics. All the products sold here are made inside Auroville, by its residents. Most shopping centers in Pondicherry are highly priced, suitable for the ones paying in Euros & Francs. Those with champagne taste on a beer budget will be highly disappointed.

Vegetarians, wishing to try out a new dish, have very little choice Others can have a feast, with option to choose from Tibetan, Vietnamese, and many more cuisine, not to forget French, of course. There are plenty of options for stay as well, that can even support a shoe string budget.

For most people, a one day trip to Pondicherry will be more than enough. As for me, I am sure of at least one more visit, to cover all that I missed out this time around – watching a sunrise on the beach, exploring the city on cycle, buying some famed ceramic & terracotta stuff, watching a performance at Auroville, hanging out longer around Matrimandir… re-bond with the French connection.

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