Straight to the source

David Hol­lier and Jess Hill em­bark on a chase to chart the sa­cred Ganges

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

UN­DER the pol­lu­tion-twisted hues of an early morn­ing sky, the road north out of Delhi has the ur­gency of refugees flee­ing the apoc­a­lypse. In­dia may be mod­ernising, but its traf­fic is still held hostage by me­an­der­ing lines of bul­locks, legs barely vis­i­ble un­der tow­er­ing loads of sugar cane. Ap­proach­ing Harid­war by taxi six hours later, heart rate set­tling, the sky has just be­gun to re­claim its in­tegrity; by Rishikesh, its blue is gauzy but grat­i­fy­ingly dis­tinct.

We are in In­dia to chase the sa­cred Ganges River from its source in the Hi­malayas to its mouth in Kolkata, where it rushes into the Bay of Ben­gal. Though win­ter is en­croach­ing, we are de­ter­mined to even­tu­ally make it to Gan­gotri, the Ganges’ Hi­malayan source. To Hin­dus, the river is Ganga Ma, wor­shipped as a god­dess whose wa­ters grant in­stant ex­emp­tion from the mis­ery of rein­car­na­tion. Its phys­i­cal sta­tis­tics are not par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive; mea­sur­ing 2510km, its length is bet­tered by 34 other rivers.

But no other river in the world can claim the wor­ship of hun­dreds of mil­lions of devo­tees, most of whom will visit the Ganges at least once in their life­time.

It is Christ­mas Eve. Mid­dle-class In­di­ans from Delhi crowd Rishikesh’s car-free streets, pos­ing for pho­tos with sad­hus (holy men), do­ing yoga classes and walk­ing along the glit­ter­ing sands of the milky-green Ganges. Ex­cept for this burst of ac­tiv­ity it’s of­fi­cially off-sea­son and the few Western­ers in town spend their time slouch­ing in cafes, kneel­ing at the feet of swami­jis (teach­ers) and re­buff­ing the so­lic­i­ta­tions of the pan­dits (priests) who ply their trade along the river­bank.

Western­ers may con­sider them an af­front, but Hin­dus are only too happy to pay for a pan­dit’s bless­ing. Far from be­ing frowned on, the ac­qui­si­tion of wealth is one of Hin­duism’s four fun­da­men­tal life goals. Prag­matic to the core, Hin­duism ex­plic­itly en­cour­ages full par­tic­i­pa­tion in the sen­sual and ma­te­rial worlds.

Ru­pees are not so per­sua­sive for the new po­lice in­spec­tor, how­ever, whose im­mu­nity to bak­sheesh is putting a squeak in the greasy wheel of Rishikesh’s tourism op­er­a­tors. To avoid a seven-hour death rat­tle by lo­cal bus, we de­cide on what seems like a ro­man­tic, more ad­ven­tur­ous mode of trans­port. To col­lect our mo­tor­bike we wake at 6am to meet our mid­dle­man out­side the in­spec­tor’s ju­ris­dic­tion. We wait an­other two hours for hel­mets, a de­mand he meets grudg­ingly. In the past, the faith­ful made the 280km ya­tra (pil­grim­age) to the source of the Ganges on foot, rest­ing ev­ery 17km in chat­tis (pil­grim shel­ters). Nowa­days Hindu fam­i­lies are de­liv­ered to Gan­gotri in cars or buses. We’re un­likely to en­counter them at this time of year; the pil­grim­age sea­son has been closed for a month.

Our 135cc Ba­jaj en­gine strug­gles un­der our com­bined weight. Ne­go­ti­at­ing steep, hair­pin bends with the power of a hairdryer and skim­ming the bod­ies of buses and trucks on sin­gle-lane roads, we keep con­ver­sa­tion to a min­i­mum and pe­ri­od­i­cally mut­ter a prayer. The river is al­ways to our right. Clus­ters of men crouch out­side tim­ber chai stalls, the road’s empty stretches punc­tu­ated by pygmy shrines whose red and yel­low flags flut­ter over ver­ti­cal drops. We oc­ca­sion­ally stop to fid­dle with our dig­i­tal eye, but you’d need Jack­son Pol­lock to cap­ture the vast force that drove th­ese moun­tains to­wards the sky, stack­ing ver­tig­i­nous an­gles against the flat, curv­ing line of the pro­tean Ganges be­low. The con­tro­ver­sial dam at Tehri breaks the nat­u­ral flux of the river, flood­ing the val­ley with a hy­per-real ra­dioac­tive green, as im­pres­sive as it is ar­ti­fi­cial.

One hun­dred and eighty kilo­me­tres clocked, con­cen­tra­tion fad­ing with the light, we ar­rive at Ho­tel Monal in Ut­tarkashi, the big­gest town on the Gan­gotri pil­grim­age route. Our host Du­pen­der emerges in a state of al­most manic good hu­mour, an­nounc­ing fresh sheets and a clean bath­room with hot wa­ter. Af­ter the best meal we’ve eaten in In­dia, we over­come fa­tigue to join Du­pen­der by the fire for a chat and, sur­prise, a whisky.

His real trump ap­pears soon af­ter, how­ever, in the form of re­tired ma­jor R. S. Jam­nal. Jammy-sir, as he’s known, soon val­i­dates Google’s de­scrip­tion of him as a walk­ing en­cy­clo­pe­dia, shar­ing the­o­ries on ev­ery­thing from Be­nazir Bhutto’s as­sas­si­na­tion to gov­ern­ment chi­canery be­hind the damming of the Ganges. Since its in­cep­tion in 2000, Ut­tark­hand’s state gov­ern­ment has ap­proved more than 200 hy­dro­elec­tric projects. The power hun­gry of Delhi and Ut­tar Pradesh may have more re­li­able elec­tric­ity as a re­sult, but the Ganges’ role as ir­ri­ga­tor to the flood plains that nour­ish them is in se­ri­ous jeop­ardy.

This school prin­ci­pal, ho­tel owner-op­er­a­tor and sleep­less so­cialite mar­ries in­de­fati­ga­ble en­ergy with char­ac­ter cut from the cloth of the finest states­men. When we ob­serve that he seems des­tined for pol­i­tics, Du­pen­der ex­plodes into a vin­di­cated, Yah, man. You have to be do­ing this.’’ Com­mit­ted to keep­ing his moun­tain home pris­tine, Du­pen­der reg­u­larly cleans the area be­yond his ho­tel and plans to host a pub­lic

screen­ing of AnIn­con­ve­nien­tTruth . Em­bar­rassed by Du­pen­der’s en­cour­age­ment, the ma­jor prods the fire, faintly protest­ing, eyes fo­cused be­yond the flames.

The next morn­ing, 100km still sep­a­rat­ing us from Gan­gotri, we are for­mally in­tro­duced to sev­eral of the gov­ern­ment’s damming projects. It be­comes dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish ham­lets from the ram­shackle shel­ter for the road­work­ers whose task is so ur­gent. More dams, more trucks, more re­pair. They are mak­ing the road from the moun­tain. Men swing sledge­ham­mers into the boul­ders they strad­dle while sari-clad women, ba­bies strapped on their backs, ham­mer away, re­duc­ing the pieces to gravel. Me­tres away, oth­ers spread this over gap­ing holes be­fore cov­er­ing the lot in boil­ing tar dripped from tins. Na­ture is bit­ing off great chunks of road and feed­ing them to the river, and dump­ing rub­ble from ledges col­laps­ing above.

Ac­cel­er­at­ing to avoid a mi­nor rock­slide, we come upon an earth­mov­ing ve­hi­cle up­side down, glass cabin smashed in. We im­me­di­ately con­nect this scene with the am­bu­lance whizzing past ear­lier. Ac­cord­ing to the non­cha­lant clean-up crew, the driver will sur­vive the head wounds. As the road con­tin­ues to de­te­ri­o­rate, mud and pud­dles be­witch­ing the pot­holes, we still feel tri­umphantly in­trepid. It is be­low zero and sharp af­ter­noon light sig­nals ap­proach­ing dusk. With our at­ten­tion trained on keep­ing up­right, we don’t no­tice the snow­line, fast creep­ing lower into the val­ley as we climb.

Twenty-five kilo­me­tres from the next town with a func­tion­ing ho­tel, we stop at a small shrine ded­i­cated to Shiva, the Hindu god of cre­ation and de­struc­tion, to pay our re­spects. The tem­ple bell echoes up and down the val­ley and we hardly no­tice a tiny, be­spec­ta­cled sol­dier, who in­sists we join his su­pe­rior for cof­fee in the mil­i­tary post di­rectly op­po­site.

The Ti­betan border lies just 40km to the north and re­cent in­cur­sions by the Chi­nese army, though harm­less, have em­bar­rassed the lo­cal soldiery, oblig­ing Ma­jor San­tosh to man the post through the win­ter. Like ev­ery­one else we’ve en­coun­tered, he wants to know what we are do­ing. Un­moved by our pil­grim­age, the ma­jor is terse. ‘‘ Road is closed and very dan­ger­ous to you. And it is wrong sea­son.’’

Dis­miss­ing his pes­simism, we get back on the bike and push to­wards and over the sunny side of the snowy ridge. We pass a truck packed with laugh­ing lo­cals and, en­ter­ing the next val­ley, come across the kind of de­tail that might have made the ma­jor’s warn­ing more per­sua­sive: a 25m cor­ri­dor of ice. Crash­ing is in­evitable, avoid­ing the river­side verge es­sen­tial. We go down hard in the mid­dle, hel­mets crack­ing the ice. Shock and a scram­ble to es­tab­lish we are both con­scious. We are re­hears­ing our sur­ren­der to the ma­jor when the lo­cals ar­rive and pile off their truck. ‘‘ You go down now, no more ice, no prob­lem,’’ they en­cour­age. Through the fog of pain and shock, it makes sense. Go­ing on means go­ing down, away from the snow­line. Then there’s the night clos­ing in, and with 18km to the next town, we think fast.

Vil­lager mas­cot in tow, we mo­tor on. Two bends later we aim for the dirt bi­sect­ing two sec­tions of ice. But it isn’t dirt, just a fine layer of dust con­ceal­ing more ice. Down we go again. Same el­bows, shoul­ders and hips find­ing the ice. Now we are def­i­nitely go­ing back. But no, our vil­lagers en­thuse, that re­ally is the last patch of ice. We should keep go­ing, they shout, as their truck dis­ap­pears ahead. For­get­ting that In­dian ad­vice is gen­er­ally as re­li­able as a bro­ken com­pass, we press on in sec­ond gear. Of course, the ice doesn’t just get worse, it gets craftier, dis­guis­ing it­self as pot­holes, dirt and shady patches of tar.

Our feet graze the ice for bal­ance. Fear has ren­dered us barely co­her­ent by the time we reach Har­sil. At the turn-off, sol­diers clutch mo­bile phones and pace for warmth. Hol­ly­wood cast Brad Pitt as Har­sil’s most no­to­ri­ous ex-res­i­dent, Aus­trian Heinrich Har­rer, who was in­terred here dur­ing World War II be­fore his es­cape into the Hi­malayas, chron­i­cled in the film Seven Years in Ti­bet. We are pre­pared to pay hand­somely for the hos­pi­tal­ity af­forded Heinrich. Re­lief turns to dis­be­lief, how­ever, when we’re told that mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions tem­po­rar­ily for­bid the vil­lage from host­ing for­eign­ers. Amused but un­af­fected by our threats to hold them re­spon­si­ble for our im­mi­nent deaths, they warmly wave us farewell.

A highly strung half-hour later, Hi­malayan peaks sil­hou­et­ted against stars that are not in the least ro­man­tic, we stiffly dis­mount in Drahli, an off-sea­son ghost town on the banks of the Ganges. Piles of snow rim its de­serted ho­tels. We dis­cover a hag­gard crew hud­dling in front of a soli­tary flame flick­er­ing in an oil drum. The lo­cal moon­shine has kneecapped the camp­fire ci­vil­ity. As the in­evitable skir­mish erupts, we re­treat, the makeshift lock click­ing un­con­vinc­ingly on our door. Un­furl­ing our quilt, we dis­cover we are not alone. A des­ic­cated mouse rolls on to the floor, re­leas­ing an odour that sets our ol­fac­tory com­plexes to panic. Bruised, dirty, bloody and tired, we ac­knowl­edge this is as close to the source of Ganga Ma as we are go­ing to get. Our de­vo­tion is ex­hausted.

Early next morn­ing, we peer timidly out the win­dow, des­per­ately hop­ing a snow­drift hasn’t ar­rived overnight. Last night’s foot­prints still vis­i­ble, we as­sem­ble our gear and steal through the sleep­ing town to the rocky banks of the Ganges. Its wa­ters con­geal icily be­tween grey and blue stones, its lazy cur­rent emerg­ing from be­tween the dis­tant shiv­er­ing moun­tains that tower up­stream. We don’t speak. The beauty is al­most shock­ing, a vi­sion that needs to be ra­tio­nalised so it can be re­mem­bered. We dip our bot­tles into the river, fill them with wa­ter and drink.

The day ahead will be treach­er­ous for us and the river. As we nav­i­gate ice, mud and rock on our bro­ken bike, this wa­ter will de­scend to the In­dian plains, where it will re­ceive 1.7 bil­lion litres of sewage, 1.4 bil­lion of it un­treated. Un­told num­bers of Hin­dus will bathe in it — 60,000 in Varanasi alone — and by the time it reaches Kolkata it will have en­dured a fe­cal co­l­iform count more than 3000 times the level ac­cept­able to hu­mans. For now, how­ever, the val­ley is quiet, and not so much as a breeze or bird call dis­turbs it. We sit to­gether in si­lence. We are not yet ready to move on.


Qan­tas Hol­i­days has four nights in Mumbai from $644 a per­son or four nights in Delhi from $528; both deals with break­fasts, city tour and trans­fers; flights ex­tra. Valid for travel May 1 to Septem­ber 30. More: 131 415; www.qan­­i­days.­cred­i­blein­ Room at the Inn, Ker­ala — Page 4

Pic­tures: Jess Hill, main; Cor­bis, in­set

In the be­gin­ning: The mighty Ganges is no more than a trickle as it flows from moun­tains near Drahli on its 2510km jour­ney to the sea, main pic­ture; pil­grims make of­fer­ings and bathe in the Ganges at Gan­gotri, in­set

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