As the sacred land that holds the sources of the mighty Ganges and Yamuna rivers, GARHWAL has been the heartland of Hindu identity since the ninth century when, in the wake of the decline of Buddhism in northern India, the reformer Shankara incorporated many of the mountains’ ancient shrines into the fold of Hinduism. He founded the four main yatra (pilgrimage) temples, deep within the Himalayas, known as the Char Dham – Badrinath, Kedarnath, and the less-visited pair of Gangotri and Yamunotri. Each year, between May and November, once the snows have melted, streams of pilgrims penetrate high into the mountains, passing by way of Rishikesh, the land of yogis and ashrams.
For more than a millennium, the yatris (pilgrims) came on foot. However, the annual event has been transformed in the last few years; roads blasted by the military through the mountains during the war against China in the early 1960s are now the lifelines for a new form of motorized yatra. Eastern Garhwal in particular is getting rich, and the fabric of hill society is changing rapidly – visitors hoping to experience the old Garhwal should spend at least part of their time well away from the principal yatra routes. In addition to their spiritual significance, the hills are now becoming established as a centre for adventure sports, offering all levels of trekking, whitewater rafting, paragliding, skiing and climbing.
Garhwal is a challenging place to travel around, with extremely long and often nerve-wracking bus and jeep rides being the order of the day. However, you are rewarded with spectacular views of snowy peaks offset by gaudily painted Garhwali villages in deep valleys. All of the tourist bungalows are operated by Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam – GMVN (wwww.gmvnl.com). Most are concentrated along the pilgrimage routes, although their network has been expanding. Standards vary widely, but most bungalows offer a range of rooms and dorms to suit most budgets, along with a restaurant. GMVN also organizes Char Dham tours (often overpriced and inefficient), and offers expensive car rental. The GMVN headquarters are in Dehra Dun, although you will get more help from their office in Delhi (t011/2335 0481). The GMVN Trekking and Mountaineering Division, based in Rishikesh, is the office to contact for adventure-sports packages such as skiing and trekking.Read More
Spreading for 15km along a high serrated ridge, MUSSOORIE is the closest hill station to Delhi, just 278km north of the capital and 34km north of Dehra Dun, from where it is visible on a clear day. At an altitude of 2000m, it gives travellers from the plains their first glimpse of the snow-covered Himalayan peaks of western Garhwal, as well as dramatic views of the Dehra Dun valley below.
These days, Mussoorie is a very popular weekend retreat for middle-class Indians up from the plains. Most foreign visitors come to Mussoorie to study Hindi at the excellent Landour Language School, but the town is also a useful base camp for treks into the western interior of Garhwal. Dominated by the long Bandarpunch Massif (6316m), with Swargarohini (6252m) in the west and the Gangotri group in the east, Mussoorie’s mountain panorama may not be as dramatic as some other hill stations, but it forms a pleasant backdrop to the busy holiday town.
Surprisingly, the Mall and the town’s main hub face away from the snows towards Dehra Dun; the distant peaks can best be seen from the flat summit of Gun Hill, which rises like a volcano from central Mussoorie. This can be ascended on foot or pony on a bridle path that forks up from the Mall, or on the 400-metre “Ropeway” cable car from the Mall (Rs55 return). Alternative prospects of the mountains can be seen on a peaceful stroll or ride around the three-kilometre-long Camel’s Back Road, which girdles the northern base of Gun Hill, passing by the distinctive Camel’s Rock and an old British cemetery (closed to visitors). Another vantage point, the highest in the immediate vicinity, is Childer’s Lodge, 5km east of the Mall above Landour.
At the eastern end of the Mall, beyond the bustling Kulri Bazaar, the road winds steeply upwards for 5km through the fascinating market of Landour, where you’ll find shops overflowing with relics of the Raj, silver jewellery and books. At the top of Landour Bazaar, a square surrounded by cafés attracts both travellers and the local intelligentsia. Nearby, the lovely forested area of Sister’s Bazaar is excellent for walks, especially to the Haunted House, a deserted Raj-era mansion, and around the famous Landour Language School.
Away from the noise and bustle, close to Convent Hill and 3km west of the Library, the Tibetan settlement of Happy Valley holds a large school, a shop selling hand-knitted sweaters and the small but beautiful Tchechen Choling gompa overlooking the Doon Valley and surrounded by gardens. It makes an enjoyable walk from the Mall along wooded roads, but you can also catch a taxi (around Rs120 return).
At Haridwar – the Gates (dwar) of God (Hari) – 214km northeast of Delhi, the River Ganges emerges from its final rapids past the Shivalik Hills to start the long slow journey across northern India to the Bay of Bengal. Stretching for roughly 3km along a narrow strip of land between the craggy wooded hills to the west and the river to the east, Haridwar is especially revered by Hindus, for whom the Har-ki-Pairi ghat (literally the “Footstep of God”) marks the exact spot where the river leaves the mountains. As a road and rail junction, Haridwar links the Gangetic plains with the mountains of Uttarakhand and their holy pilgrimage (yatra) network. Along with Nasik, Ujjain and Allahabad, Haridwar is one of the four holy tirthas or “crossings” that serve as the focus of the massive Kumbh Mela festival. Every twelve years (next due in 2022), thousands of pilgrims come to bathe at a preordained moment in the turbulent waters of the channelled river around Har-ki-Pairi.
Split by a barrage north of Haridwar, the Ganges flows through the town in two principal channels, divided by a long sliver of land. The natural stream lies to the east, while the embankment of the fast-flowing canal to the west holds ghats and ashrams. Promenades, river channels and bridges create a pleasant riverfront ambience, with the major ghats and religious activity clustered around the Har-ki-Pairi temple, which looks like a railway station. Bridges and walkways connect the various islands, and metal chains are placed in the river to protect bathers from being swept away by swift currents.
The clock tower opposite Har-ki-Pairi ghat is an excellent vantage point, especially during evening worship. At dusk, the spectacular daily ceremony of Ganga Aarti – devotion to the life-bestowing goddess Ganga – draws a crowd of thousands onto the islands and bridges. Lights float down the river and priests perform elaborate choreographed movements while swinging torches to the accompaniment of gongs and music. As soon as they’ve finished the river shallows fill up with people looking for coins thrown in by the devout. The ghat area is free to visit, although a donation is required to visit the section at the bottom of the first staircase.
Haridwar’s teeming network of markets is the other main focus of interest. Bara Bazaar, at the top of town, is a good place to buy a danda (bamboo staff) for treks in the mountains. Stalls in the colourful Moti Bazaar in the centre of town on the Jawalapur road sell everything from clothes to spices.
High above Haridwar, on the crest of a ridge, the gleaming white shikhara of the Mansa Devi temple dominates both town and valley. The temple is easily reached by cable car, from a base station off Upper Road in the heart of town, though the steep 1.5-kilometre walk is pleasant enough early in the morning. None of the shrines and temples up top holds any great architectural interest, but you do get excellent views along the river.
The modern, seven-storeyed Bharat Mata temple – 5km north of Haridwar and reachable in shared Vikrams from next to Shivalik restaurant for Rs10 – is dedicated to “Mother India”. Each of its various floors – connected by lifts – is dedicated to a celestial or political theme, and populated by lifelike images of heroes, heroines and Hindu deities.
RISHIKESH, 238km northeast of Delhi and 24km north of Haridwar, lies at the point where the wooded mountains of Garhwal rise abruptly from the low valley floor and the Ganges crashes onto the plains. The centre for all manner of New Age and Hindu activity, its many ashrams – some ascetic, some opulent – continue to draw devotees and followers of all sorts of weird and wonderful gurus, with the large Shivananda Ashram in particular renowned as a yoga centre. Rishikesh is also emerging as an adventure-sports hub, with rafting, trekking and mountaineering all on offer.
Rishikesh has one or two ancient shrines, but its main role has always been as a way-station for sannyasin, yogis and travellers heading for the high Himalayas. The arrival of the Beatles, who came here to meet the Maharishi in 1968, was one of the first manifestations of the lucrative expansion of the yatra pilgrimage circuit; these days it’s easy to see why Ringo thought it was “just like Butlin’s”. By far the best times to visit are in winter and spring, when the mountain temples are shut by the snows – without the yatra razzmatazz, you get a sense of the tranquillity that was the original appeal of the place. At other times, a walk upriver leads easily away from the bustle to secluded spots among giant rocks ideally suited for yoga, meditation or an invigorating dip in the cold water (but not a swim: fast currents make that too dangerous).
Confusingly, the name Rishikesh is applied to a loose association of five distinct areas, encompassing not only the town but also hamlets and settlements on both sides of the river: Rishikesh itself, the commercial and communications hub; sprawling suburban Muni-ki-Reti; Shivananda Nagar, just north; the assorted ashrams around Swarg Ashram on the east bank; and the riverbank temples of Lakshmanjhula, a little further north.
Most of the pilgrims who pass through Rishikesh on their way to the Himalayan shrines of the Char Dham pause for a dip and puja at what is left of the large sandy expanse of Triveni Ghat, close to the centre of town. The river here looks especially spectacular during arati (evening worship), when diya lights float on the water. Nearby, at Bharat Mandir, Rishikesh’s oldest temple, a black stone image of Vishnu is supposed to have been consecrated by the great ninth-century Hindu revivalist Shankara; the event is commemorated during Basant Panchami, to mark the first day of spring.
The dense-knit complex of cafés, shops and ashrams collectively known as Swarg Ashram, opposite Shivananda Ashram, backs on to forest-covered hills where caves are still inhabited by sadhus. The river can be crossed at this point either on the Ramjhula footbridge, or on ferries, which operate between 8am and 7pm according to demand (Rs5 oneway, Rs8 return). Swarg Ashram itself, popularly referred to as Kale Kumbli Wale, was founded in honour of Swami Vishudhanand, who came here in 1884 and habitually wore a black (kala) blanket (kumble). The most conspicuous of the other ashram-temples is Parmarth Niketan, whose large courtyard is crammed with brightly clad gods and goddesses. Gita Bhavan, next door, runs an Ayurvedic dispensary up the street, where they also sell books and khadi handloom cloth.
Around 2km north of Swarg Ashram, a path skirts the east bank of the river and beautiful sandy beaches sheltered by large boulders, en route to Lakshmanjhula. A footbridge spans the river here as it negotiates its final rocky course out of the mountains. It’s the most appealing part of Rishikesh, featuring the enormous, gaudy Kailashnanda Ashram. The attractive landscape and turquoise river are best appreciated from the Devraj Coffee Corner on the west side where travellers spend days watching daredevil monkeys cavorting on the bridge and pouncing on unsuspecting passers-by.
Cradled in a deep cleft in the lap of Bandarpunch, and thus denied mountain vistas, the temple of Yamunotri (3291m), 223km northeast of Rishikesh, marks the source of the Yamuna, India’s second holiest river after the Ganges. The least dramatic but most beautiful of the four dhams (temples) of Garhwal, it’s also the least spoiled and commercial. Access (mid-April to early Nov only; exact dates vary annually) has become easier following road improvements; from the roadhead at Janki Chatti it’s a mere 5km along a trail that follows the turbulent ice-blue river as it runs below rocky crags, with snowy peaks in the distance. The walk can also be combined with the Dodi Tal trek linking nearby Hanuman Chatti to Uttarkashi.
A short way beyond Janki Chatti, the trail becomes much steeper but increasingly dramatic and beautiful as it passes through rocky forested crags to YAMUNOTRI. Sited near the river, around three piping-hot sulphur springs, Yamunotri’s temple is new and architecturally uninteresting; it has to be completely rebuilt every few years due to the impact of heavy winter snows and monsoon rains. Its main shrine – actually part of the top spring, worshipped as the source of the river – holds a small silver image of the goddess Yamuna, bedecked with garlands. The daughter of Surya, the sun, and Sangya, consciousness, Yamuna is the twin sister of Yama, the lord of death; all who bathe in her waters are spared a painful end, while food cooked in the water is considered to be prasad (divine offering). Most pilgrims also bathe in the hot spring (free); both male and female pools have been built.
Technically, the source of the Yamuna is the glacial lake of Saptarishi Kund. This is reached via a hard 12km trek, which heads straight up the mountain alongside the river until finally easing towards the base of Kalinda Parbat. Both this trek and the route over the challenging Yamunotri Pass to Har-ki-Dun necessitate at least one day’s acclimatization, adequate clothing, supplies and a guide.
Set amid tall deodar and pine forests at the head of the Bhagirathi gorge, 248km north of Rishikesh at 3140m, Gangotri is the most remote of the four dhams (pilgrimage sites) of Garhwal, and is closed from early November till mid-April. Although the wide Alaknanda, which flows past Badrinath, has in some ways a better claim to be considered the main channel of the Ganges, Gangotri is for Hindus the spiritual source of the great river, while its physical source is the ice cave of Gomukh on the Gangotri Glacier, 14km further up the valley. From here, the River Bhagirathi begins its tempestuous descent through a series of mighty gorges, carving great channels and cauldrons in the rock and foaming in white-water pools.
From Uttarkashi, frequent buses, taxis and jeeps head up to Gangotri. A shared jeep is the most enjoyable way of making the journey; buses stop frequently and can take more than five hours to make the trip.
Although most of the nearby snow peaks are obscured by the desolate craggy mountains looming immediately above GANGOTRI, the town itself is redolent of the atmosphere of the high Himalayas, populated by a mixed cast of Hindu pilgrims and foreign trekkers. Its unassuming temple, overlooking the river just beyond a small market on the left bank, was built early in the eighteenth century by the Gurkha general Amar Singh Thapa. Capped with a gilded roof, consisting of a squat shikhara surrounded by four smaller replicas, it commemorates the legend that the goddess Ganga was enticed to earth by acts of penance performed by King Bhagirath, who wanted her to revitalize the ashes of his people. Inside the temple is a silver image of the goddess, while a slab of stone adjacent to the temple is venerated as Bhagirath Shila, the spot where the king meditated. Steps lead down to the main riverside ghat, where the devout bathe in the freezing waters of the river to cleanse their bodies and souls of sin.
Across the river, a loose development of ashrams and guesthouses dwarfed by great rocky outcrops and huge trees leads down to Dev Ghat, overlooking the confluence with the Kedar Ganga. Not far beyond, at the impressive waterfall-fed pool of Gaurikund, the twenty-kilometre-long gorge starts to get into its stride. Beautiful forest paths lead through the dark deodar woods and past a bridge along the edge of the gorge to a flimsy rope-bridge, commanding great views of the ferocious torrent below.
It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic setting for a temple than Kedarnath, 223km northeast of Rishikesh, close to the source of the Mandakini at 3583m above sea level, and overlooked by tumbling glaciers and huge buttresses of ice, snow and rock. Kedarnath, the third of the sacred Char Dham sites, is the most important shrine in the Himalayas and as one of India’s twelve jyotrilinga – lingams of light – attracts hordes of Hindu pilgrims (yatri) in the summer months, but is closed from early November to early April. The area makes a refreshing change from the rocky and desolate valleys of west Garhwal, with lush hanging gorges, immaculately terraced hillsides and abundant apple orchards. Kedarnath is also a good base for short treks to the beautiful lakes of Vasuki Tal and Gandhi Sarovar.
BADRINATH, “Lord of the Berries”, just 40km from the Tibetan border, is the most popular of Garhwal’s four main pilgrimage temples, and one of Hinduism’s holiest sites. It was founded by Shankara in the ninth century, not far from the source of the Alaknanda, the main tributary of the holy Ganges. Although the temple boasts a dazzling setting, deep in a valley beneath the sharp snowy pyramid of Nilkantha (6558m), the town that has grown up around it is grubby and unattractive. All motorized transport from Joshimath is obliged to move in convoys; a gate system controls traffic in each direction, in two equal 24-kilometre stages – the first between Joshimath and Pandukeshwar, the second between Pandukeshwar and Badrinath. Several convoys leave Joshimath each day, the first at 6.30am and the last at 4.30pm. At night the road is closed, and Badrinath itself remains closed from mid-November to early April.
Badrinath is still presided over by a Nambudiri brahmin from Kerala – the Rawal, who also acts as the head priest for Kedarnath. According to myth, the two temples were once close enough together for the priest to worship at both on the same day. The temple itself, also known as Badri Narayan, is dedicated to Vishnu, who is said to have done penance in the mythical Badrivan (“Forest of Berries”) that once covered the mountains of Uttarakhand. Unusually, it is made of wood; the entire facade is repainted each May, once the snow has receded and the temple opens for the season. From a distance, its bright colours, which contrast strikingly with the concrete buildings, snowy peaks and deep blue skies, resemble a Tibetan gompa; there’s some debate as to whether the temple was formerly a Buddhist shrine. Inside, where photography is strictly taboo, the black stone image of Badri Vishal is seated like a bodhisattva in the lotus position (some Hindus regard Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu). Pandas (pilgrim priests) sit around the cloisters carrying on the business of worship and a booth enables visitors to pay in advance for darshan (devotional rituals) chosen from a long menu.
This site, on the west bank of the turbulent Alaknanda, may well have been selected because of the sulphurous Tapt Kund hot springs on the embankment right beneath the temple, which are used for ritual bathing. Immediately south of the temple, the old village of Badrinath is still there, its traditional stone buildings and a small market seeming like relics from a bygone age. The main road north of Badrinath heads into increasingly border-sensitive territory, but visitors can normally take local buses and taxis 4km on to the end of the road where the intriguing Bhotia village of Mana nestles – check the current situation before setting out. It’s also possible to walk to Mana along a clear footpath by the road. The village itself consists of a warren of small lanes and buildings piled virtually on top of each other; the local Bhotia people, Buddhists of Tibetan origin who formerly traded across the high Mana Pass, now tend livestock and ponies and sell yak meat and brightly coloured, handmade carpets. Past the village and over a natural rock bridge, a path leads up the true left bank of the river towards the mountain of Satopanth (7075m), to the base of the impressive high waterfall of Vasudhara, considered to be the source of the Alaknanda. Walking time is just an hour and a half and, unusually, there are no chai stalls en route.
Nanda Devi National Park
Nanda Devi National Park
East of Joshimath the majestic twin peaks of Nanda Devi – at 7816m, the highest mountain that is completely in India – dominate a large area of northeastern Garhwal and Kumaon. The eponymous goddess is the most important deity for all who live in her shadow, a fertility symbol also said to represent Durga, the invincible form of Shakti. Surrounded by an apparently impenetrable ring of mountains, the fastness of Nanda Devi was long considered inviolable; when mountaineers Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman finally traced a way through, along the difficult Rishi Gorge, in 1934, it was seen as a defilement of sacred ground. A string of catastrophes followed, and in 1976 an attempt on the mountain by father and daughter team Willi and Nanda Devi Unsoeld ended in tragedy when Nanda Devi died below the summit after which she was named.
The beautiful wilderness around the mountain now forms the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. This is the core zone of the 5860-square-kilometre Nanda Devi National Park, which was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in October 2004. Access into the core zone has been prohibited since 1982 for environmental reasons, and trekking in the National Park is restricted to a limited number of visitors between May and October on a single route from the roadhead village of Lata to Dharansi Pass, which has fabulous views over to the twin peaks of Nanda Devi. The nine-day trek can be arranged through the GMVN Mountaineering and Trekking division in Rishikesh (T0135/243 0799), and costs around Rs25,000 per person all-in, in groups of three to five only. Further information on getting permits can be obtained from the Forestry Office in Joshimath (up two lots of steps to the left of the Dronagiri hotel, and then right).
The Dodi Tal trek
The Dodi Tal trek
The relatively short Dodi Tal trek, which links the Gangotri and Yamunotri regions without straying into high glacial terrain, is one of Garhwal’s all-time classics. It’s not a difficult hike, but local villagers are keen to offer their services as porters or guides, and you should definitely avail yourself of their help if you want to wander off the beaten track and visit the villages. Carry as much of your own food as possible, and also your own tent. The best maps for this trek are the Ground Survey map of Garhwal, and Leomann map (sheet 7 in the India Series), both available from major Uttarakhand Tourism offices.
The trek is described below from east to west, starting from Uttarkashi on the way to Gangotri, and ending at Hanuman Chatti, 14km south of Yamunotri.
On DAY ONE, catch one of the three daily buses or an hourly jeep from Uttarkashi to Kalyani (1829m) via Gangotri (the first is at 7am; 1hr). From Kalyani, it’s a gentle 7km climb through fields and woodland to Agoda (2286m), where the Tourist Bungalow at the far end of the village is currently in a state of disrepair, so you will have to put up a tent for the night.
On DAY TWO, the trail from Agoda climbs beside a river and then zigzags steadily upwards through lush pine and spruce forests, with a couple of chai shops en route. After 14km and a final undulation, it arrives at Dodi Tal (3024m), a lake set against a backdrop of thickly forested hills. Near the basic forest bungalow in the clearing are chai shops and areas for camping.
Some trekkers consider the full 18km from Dodi Tal to Shima on DAY THREE too long and arduous, and prefer to split it into two days. Follow the well-marked path along (and often across) the stream that feeds Dodi Tal, which can get steep and entail scrambling; continue straight ahead, ignoring tracks that cross the trail, until you emerge above the treeline. After a further 1.5km the trail heads left to a small pass then zigzags up scree to Darwa Pass (4130m), about halfway to Shima. This is the highest point of the trek, providing superb panoramas of the Srikanta Range. If you’re ready to rest here, a leftward path beyond the top leads to camping and water. The main route goes down to a valley and then climbs sharply again. It takes about four more hours to reach Shima, where you rejoin the treeline. There’s basic hut accommodation, but bring your own food.
The beautiful twelve-kilometre trail down from Shima on DAY FOUR kicks off with a steep 1.5km scramble alongside a stream, then eases past forest and bugyal, where shepherds have their huts. A well-defined rocky path drops steadily through two villages and zigzags down to the Hanuman Ganga River. It emerges at Hanuman Chatti from where buses run via Barkot to Uttarkashi, Mussoorie and other points in Garhwal. The Dodi Tal trek can easily be tied in with hikes in the Har-ki-Dun and Yamunotri areas.