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.