"Full many a ray of purest ray serene the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness to the desert air."
from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray

Friday, July 8, 2011

Dwadashajyotirlinga yatra : Day 14 - Travel from Haridwar to Guptakashi

At 6 in the morning, the train stopped at Haridwar. And the group managed to get out of the train in record time.

At long last, we had set foot in the state of Uttarakhand, devbhoomi - land of the gods, and the land of my ancestors. I hope that I am sufficiently blessed to be able to visit each year.   

A peaceful scene of cows greeted us outside the railway station. We had to wait for the last car to arrive before our group could get into cars. We needed to get to the hotel to change and have breakfast, before we set off for Guptakashi. We have so far seen 11 jyotirlinga, and Kedarnath would be our last temple on this trip.

The hotel at Haridwar was a pleasant surprise. I had always thought of Haridwar as a small pilgrimage place. It was a relief to find a luxury hotel. We would be back here in three days after the visit to Kedarnath. As we prepared to travel, Ashverya and I realized something - we would be traveling the whole day in cars, and we could be in everyday clothes, translation - no sari or salwar kameez. Not that we don't love dressing up, but hey, jeans are jeans and shorts are shorts.

One of the ancient names of Haridwar, as cited in the Mahabharata, is Gangadwar - the door of the Ganga. This is the place from which the holy Ganga leaves the mountains and flows into the plains. We had already visited Nashik and Ujjain, where drops of nectar had fallen during the legendary battle for immortality between the divine beings and the unholy ones. Haridwar is the third of four locations where the drops of nectar had fallen. The fourth place is Prayag, that is not on our itinerary for this trip. Another trip, another time, Shiva's will... The exact spot where the nectar fell at Haridwar is the ghat - banks, known as Har ki Pauri - footsteps of the Lord.

View of Hrishikesh across the Lakshman Jhoola
We were off in cars to Guptakashi, having had our first sighting of the holy Ganga. It is usual to see hundreds of people, that become thousands on auspicious days, dipping in the river known as the Bhagirathi, brought down to earth by king Bhagiratha to purify the ashes of his ancestors. This story is re-lived on a daily basis by thousands of people who come to Haridwar after the cremation of their family members to immerse the ashes in the Ganga.

The sage Agastya had performed penance here with his wife Lopamudra, whose image we had seen in front of the Devi temple at Shrishailam ten days ago.  Haridwar is also known as Maya, and cited as one of the seven holy spots for the followers of Sanatana Dharma to attain salvation.

Seven years ago, we had come to Haridwar before our Char Dham yatra - piligrimage to the four abodes of divinity. The Char Dham in the state of Uttarakhand are: Gangotri - the source of the Ganga, Yamunotri - the source of the Yamuna, Kedarnath - the temple of Shiva, and Badrinath - the temple of Vishnu. As the earth has been warming up and the glaciers have been receding for decades now, the source of the Yamuna is now three miles north of Yamunotri, and the source of the Ganga is now at Gaumukh, nine miles north of Gangotri. 

About ten miles from Haridwar is the town of Hrishikesh. Hrishikesh means the lord of the senses in Sanskrit. It is named for Vishnu who is said to have appeared here to bless the sage Raibhya. By law, the town is vegetarian and dry. There are two suspension bridges across the Ganga - Ram Jhoola and Lakshman Jhoola. There is a statue of Shiva here at Paramartha Niketan that I have wanted to visit. Another trip, another time, Shiva's will...

Also, Hrishikesh has a bungy jump site, the first in India, that Karan had just jumped from. I would have loved to jump as well, but this needed to wait for another time. We had a long journey ahead. Hrishikesh in the Haridwar district is surrounded by the twin districts of Pauri Garhwal and Tehri Garhwal - the foothills and the valley region respectively of Garhwal, which has been referred to as Kedarkhand in the scriptures.

Shivalik ranges
While the distances were not great, the speed of less than twenty miles an hour stretched the short distance into many, many hours. Nobody was complaining though, least of all me. The captivating natural beauty of the Shivalik ranges allowed us to look out any time in any direction at spellbinding scenery. The roadsigns add to the entertainment value - from the flirtatious "Be gentle on my curves" to simple facts like "Whisky is risky".

The driver of our car was a devout follower of Sanatana Dharma, and I made the hilarious discovery that I was the only Kshatriya - warrior in the car. If an opportunity of sacrifice arose, it would be my dharma - duty, to make the sacrifice. The driver corrected me - it is not your dharma to give life, it is your dharma to take lives to protect us. Touche! We had the most interesting conversation with the driver. He had worked for two years as a truck operator in the Gulf, and now as a cab driver, he was a part of the biggest revenue generator for Uttarakhand - the travel industry. He lamented the decline of faith practices among the followers of Sanatana Dharma.

We stopped along the way for chai. Madhukarji bought us one of the greatest joys of childhood. There was a person roasting bhutta - corn on the cob, on the side of the road.

We drove up along the Ganga to Devprayag, where the Ganga is formed by the confluence of two holy rivers - the Bhagirathi coming from Gangotri and the Alaknanda whose tributary Mandakini flows by Kedarnath. Devprayag is a border town in Pauri Garhwal (the foothills) - the home of my ancestors, bordering the district of Tehri Garhwal (the valley).  

As we drove past, both rivers were clearly visible as they merged, both muddy as they brought fertile soil down the mountains with the seasonal rains - the Bhagirathi on the left and the Alaknanda on the right in the photograph. 

The temple of Raghunathji can be seen in the upper part of the village.

Dog walking alone through the mountains, how and why do they travel alone?

My dream house, and somebody else owns it :)

Everyone is on the path to salvation

Mandakini on the left, Alaknanda on the right
Slightly more than an hour later, after touching the district of Pauri Garhwal, we had entered the district of Rudraprayag, and reached the town of Rudraprayag at the confluence of Mandakini and Alaknanda.

24 miles from Rudraprayag is the town of Guptakashi, where we were scheduled to stay at night.  
Green card check
We were stopped by the police for a "green card" check, said the driver. Immigration check?? Apparently, the green card is a summary information card that stores the driver's licence, car insurance and the like.
Shivalik ranges


Mountain streams by the roadside
A while later, we stopped for chai. We had been traveling north, up along the Mandakini, towards its source, the Charabari glacier, close to Kedarnath. The Mandakini first meets with the Vasukiganga at Sonprayag, and flows south till it loses its identity after meeting the Alaknanda in Rudraprayag that we had just passed. The Alaknanda goes on to meet the Bhagirathi that flows from the Gaumukh glacier and forms the Ganga at Devprayag that we had seen this morning.

Step-farms by the Mandakini

Shivalinga in the furious flow of the Mandakini
As we stood in the balcony of the chai place, looking down at the fast-flowing river, I noticed this black boulder that was being washed by the Mandakini, and every once in a while, the water would flow over the head as well. If this was not a shivalingam, what is?  

We watched how the furious flow and the gigantic jagged boulders on the river floor make for reverse currents on the water surface, and it is impossible to tell which way the river is flowing.

Mandakini flowing from the right to the left, in this picture

An hour from Guptakashi campgrounds
Finally, there was a road sign where the road forks into the way to Guptakashi and to Ukhimath, the winter home of the deity at Kedarnath. On the right side of the photograph, the signboard talks about the wedding of Krishna's grandson Aniruddha with Banasura's daughter Usha, which is believed to have happened close to this spot.  

 King Banasura's daughter Usha had fallen in love with a man she saw in her dreams. Her friend, the minister's daughter, Chitralekha was an accomplished painter. She drew portraits of many kings and divine beings to help Usha identify the prince of her dreams. Finally when she drew the portrait of Krishna, Usha said there was a resemblance but it was not him. Then Chitralekha drew Krishna's son Pradyumna, and Usha said there was an even closer resemblance but it was not him. Finally Usha identified Pradyumna's son Aniruddha as the person she wanted to marry. With her knowledge of maya - illusion, Chitralekha kidnapped Aniruddha from Dwarka and brought him to Usha's palace where the lovers married and lived happily. When Banasura found out, he was enraged and made Aniruddha captive. Krishna attacked Banasura's kingdom to free his grandson. Shiva had blessed Bana with his protection, and a great battle was fought between Krishna's army and Shiva's forces. The story has a happy ending as Aniruddha took his bride home with blessings from all. There is an Usha Aniruddha temple in Ukhimath. Another trip, another time, Shiva's will... 

Guptakashi was now less than 20 miles away.

Guptakashi is a small town in the Mandakini river valley. After the war of the Mahabharata, on the advice of Krishna and elders, the Pandavas sought Shiva's blessings to be forgiven for the sins of fratricide and for killing Brahmins. But Shiva would not appear to them. It is believed that it was at Guptakashi that the Pandavas saw Shiva, and just as they identified him, he took the form of a bull to mix in the herd that was grazing there. Bhima tried to get hold of the bull who became gupta - vanished, by sinking into the ground. The spot became known as Guptakashi - it is one of the places that is believed to be equivalent in holiness to Shiva's city Kashi, or Varanasi where we were a couple of days ago. Shiva as the bull, later re-surfaced in five places in Uttarakhand - the face at Rudraprayag, the arms in Tunganath, the locks at Kalpeshwar, the hump at Kedarnath, and the navel and stomach at Madhyamaheshwar. All five places have beautiful Shiva temples that are worth visiting.

I must have dozed off because I remember hearing "we are here" and then looking up the steep steps at the campgrounds.
Just like the step-farms of Uttarakhand, the campgrounds had laddered mountain slopes where tents were pitched. The lowest rung was the dining hall, the next rung was assigned to people in our group who had difficulty walking, the middle rung had two tents one of which was mine, and the upper rung had the rest of the group.

I cannot imagine that anyone remembered at that time, that we had arrived at Haridwar railway station this very morning, that journey seemed so long ago. All minds were on the trek to Kedarnath tomorrow, the toughest access of all the Jyotirlingas.  

Sarveshanandaji took pictures of the exotic flowers around the place.

Dinner was served an hour later. After dinner, the Swamijis suggested that one of the group members should not come to Kedarnath, considering her age and general health. Kedarnath at a height of 14,000 feet does cause altitude sickness in some, and there are no hospitals or medical facilities along the way in case someone falls sick. Climbing mountains and visiting temples does not add to spiritual growth, it is the journey within. So unnecessary physical risks that could impact the travel plans of others in the group need to be taken with care. But the group member's daughter who was also traveling with us, had made up her mind, and wanted her mother to visit the temple. No amount of convincing from the Swamijis or others in the group would change her decision.

Kedarnath tomorrow...I knew I would come back here when I had visited 7 years ago, and finally I was at the feet of Kedar again, at Shiva's call.

Aum Namaha Shivaaya!!


  1. The royal suites at luxury hotel in haridwar can easily leave you dumbstruck. The majestic splendor of the place can blow you away with a complete arrangement of rooms suiting your pocket and tastes. Be it a Chilla suite, a Garden suite, a River View suite, or a Villa; the place can accommodate you easily.

  2. Very nice blog and totally pictures are very clear.
    Thank you for sharing us.
    Online Tour Operator in Delhi

  3. Blog and pictures are informative and useful. How many hours does it take to travel from Haridwar to Guptkashi.