Straight to the source
David Hollier and Jess Hill embark on a chase to chart the sacred Ganges
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.qantas.com.au/holidays.
www.incredibleindia.org Room at the Inn, Kerala — Page 4
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