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; 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.
Built around three piping-hot sulphur springs by the river, 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 bathe in the hot spring (free), which has separate pools for men and women.