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 Garhwal’s Char Dham. The jeep drive from Uttarkashi is breathtaking – in more ways than one – as it winds high above the Bhagirathi and crosses one the world’s highest bridges, over the gorge near Lanka. Although the wide Alaknanda, which flows past Badrinath, may have a better technical claim to be 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 Gaumukh 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 whitewater pools.
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. Across the river from the temple, 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. Near the centre of the town, webbed together by stone pathways and metal footbridges, is the impressive waterfall-fed pool of Gaurikund.
Gangotri’s unassuming temple, overlooking the river just beyond a small market on the left bank, is one of India’s holiest sites. Built early in the eighteenth century by the Gurkha general Amar Singh Thapa, the simple structure consists of a squat shikhara surrounded by four smaller replicas; it commemorates the legend of the goddess Ganga, enticed to earth by King Bhagirath’s acts of penance in order to revitalize the ashes of his ancestors. 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 legendary king performed his meditation. 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.