Sunday, June 02, 2013

In the Himalayas, Journeys of Faith and Flowers

"Pilgrimages, religious or otherwise, are inspired by stories — some true, some fictional and some in which fact and legend are seamlessly stitched together. Regardless of their veracity, these stories resonate."

[New York Times] Deep in the gorge that it carves through the Himalayas, the Alaknanda River rushed beneath a footbridge. On the right bank sat a busy Indian village, Govindghat, its one street lined with spartan hotels and shops brimming with Sikh religious items and souvenirs. On the left bank, a man wearing a frayed sweater-vest and a ski cap greeted me imploringly.
“Horse?” he asked, hoping I would hire his mules to haul me and my pack up the path to Ghangaria, an isolated mountain hamlet in Uttarakhand state. Ghangaria is the base for visiting the legendary Valley of Flowers National Park — where some 300 varieties bloom in peak season — and Hemkund, a lake and sacred Sikh pilgrimage site in the Garhwal Himalayas.
“Horse?” he repeated. “Five hundred rupees...”
I thought about it. Ghangaria can be reached only by foot, hoof or helicopter (the latter being way beyond my budget). The route is about eight miles long and climbs some 4,000 feet, to 10,006 feet above sea level. It was already afternoon and I’d eaten only a few biscuits that morning. But it was a brilliantly sunny day and I felt energetic. Even as the price dropped to 400 rupees — less than $8 — I declined and headed up the first set of switchbacks, knowing I could eat Maggi masala (Indian ramen noodles) at a trailside stand and hire a “horse” along the way if I changed my mind. (Eventually, I did).
The cobblestone trail rose through a valley flanked by steep, forested slopes, capped by bare cliffs. Below, the Lakshman Ganga — a tributary of the Alaknanda — surged with startling force, as glacial snowmelt poured down over huge boulders.
Between early June and early October — except when landslides triggered by monsoon storms block the mountain roads — hundreds of Sikh pilgrims tackle the trail each day. When I was there in late September, it flowed with people eager to worship at one of the holiest places in the Sikh religion. Many traveled as families, most of them headed by bearded men in colorful turbans. Some wore traditional kurtas or blue warrior robes, others wore jeans and sweatshirts. The most devout walked barefoot. Some who couldn’t manage the climb rode mules. Others sat on wooden litters carried on the shoulders of four men, or in wicker chairs hauled like backpacks by porters. The latter two options, I thought, surely belonged on a list of “stuff in India that you’d never see in the United States.”
Shortly before dusk I reached Ghangaria, where it was so cold I was soon wearing every piece of warm clothing I had with me. My hotel room, like all others in town, had no heat; hot water was available only in buckets, for a small fee. On the plus side, the bed was piled with blankets, and prices were negotiable (I paid 300 rupees, about $5.50 at 55 rupees to the dollar.)
By the time I set out for Hemkund the next morning many pilgrims were already on the trail. We’d have to climb another 4,000 feet in just four miles to reach the hallowed lake, which sits 14,200 feet above sea level. The place had to be special, really special, to inspire all of these people — most of whom wouldn’t be described as “outdoorsy” — to undertake this kind of trek. There was clearly something at stake here beyond sightseeing, which I reflected on as I hiked. Read More