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.