Going to Gangotri but stuck in Harsil

“We’ll be landing in Pune in a few moments. The outside temperature is 37 degrees centigrade”.

Surely, the pilot was making a mistake. 37 degrees in mid-March! A surprised murmur ran through the passengers. And I, who only two days ago would have given anything for a little more warmth, was amongst those who had sighed the loudest. As the Airbus began its descent, I relived the extreme cold temperatures of Harsil where Sushil and I had camped only last week.

Our plan was to travel without any plans. Many saints and rishis trek up to Gangotri and we wanted to be with them for a while. Uttarkashi was our last “civilized” halt where we could still make STD calls and eat oily food. And then we were on our way to Gangotri which is as far as the motorable road would go. After that? No questions were asked – everything was left open. Anything could happen. We were living only in the moment. Here and Now! (Thanks, Osho).

I don’t know how true this is as a general statement but it certainly is for me. Sushil agrees it’s been the same with him. The fact is that despite all the plans we make for our future, what actually occurs is so very different from what we had imagined, hoped or planned for. Man proposes but God disposes. This trip, we decided not to propose anything to God and let Him do his will, which He would in any case. We would just flow with it. We would accept the moment as it is. Live the present with an attitude free of wishing it was different. If I’d have said : “Oh! I wish it wasn’t so cold!”, would the cold have disappeared? It would have only made me feel cold as well as miserable!

This decision not to bind our consciousness with visualizations about imagined future events had a magical effect. The whole scene took on an aura of luminosity. We became aware of the morning sun shimmering on the pine needles, spurts of high energy reflecting from the waters of the icy Bhagirathi river which was a constant companion all through our journey to…….where ever we would reach at the end of the day. No plans, remember?

The road to Gangotri is maintained by the army and is in pretty good shape. We’re into the Himalayan range now and a large family of langoors appear startled as we slowly drive by. The leader, a fierce-looking chap, herds his brood to a safer distance up the incline. The forest of deodhars becomes thicker as we arrive at a bend in a valley. This place is called Dabrani and a small chai-shop is a welcome sight to me. Sushil is no great tea drinker but a short break from the twisting drive is what he needs too.

Rana, the owner of the tea-shop is bent over the smoky deodhar fire with his wife – both faces seem full of “character” – surviving in these remote areas with its severe winters has made them tough. There is a reverence in their voices when they talk about Ganga Maiya and about the avalanches they had recently experienced. No complaints about the tremendous hardships of day-to-day survival – which surely are compounded when avalanches cut off the road and Dabrani has to survive as an isolated village for most of the winter. The road to Gangotri has been closed the last two months Rana says, but, only yesterday, the army has managed to open it up till Harsil which is about 20 kilometers from Gangotri. Ahead of Harsil, the road is still covered with frozen glacier melt with icicles hanging like inverted silver swords from the bordering trees and rocks.

Rana made us the tea we’d asked for as his wife finished churning a pot full of “chaach”. Sushil is a lad of milk and honey so he asked if he could have some of the thin, churned curds. We both had two glasses each. It tasted wonderful and healthy as we sat on the charpai outside the shop and gazed at the high peaks. When it was time to go, Rana refused to take money for the chaach and asked only for four rupees for the two glasses of tea. The chaach was from the house and not to be sold. How really rich was this shabby looking Nepali! He could have very well taken another fifteen rupees from us for the chaach but he was king enough to offer it as his hospitality for us – whom he had met for the first time only ten minutes ago. We want to take some pictures. Rana and his wife are not too comfortable with the idea but we manage to get them to agree. We leave with a feeling of having learnt a very important lesson. And I know that this encounter with Rana could have been possible only in the East. India, you magnanimous mother with a heart big enough to welcome, accept and love even those who came to plunder you! We sense the ethereal power of this ancient land as our hands wave out to Mr. Rana, Esq. Owner of the Rana Hotel and King of all he purveys!

The trans-Himalayan road winds ever-upwards and we are now surrounded by high snow covered mountains on all sides. The windows of our Gypsy are rolled up tight; even a small stream of chilled air cuts the skin like a knife. We reach Harsil by mid-afternoon and enter a one-street town which is known mainly because the military maintains a small presence here. Sushil is ex-army and I encourage him to approach the camp and talk them into offering us a place to stay.

There’s no one in sight as we walk into the camp. It looks uninhabited. But suddenly, we are accosted by five huge and ferocious looking Bhutiya dogs. These look like wild wolves and they mean business. The pack is making threatening sounds not three feet away from us. One shaggy-brown chap is particularly aggressive but the two of us just stay still as I talk to them in a soft but firm voice which I hope camouflages the current of fear I’m feeling. We’re just a jump away from being mauled. Thankfully, a Tibetan-looking army jawan appears from one of the closed high-altitude cabins and we’re saved. He tells us that the dogs are trained to attack without warning and that we are actually quite lucky to have remained untouched.

Things go surprisingly easy after that. The camp is actually being abandoned and only a handful of jawans are left behind. Facilities are quite good and the high-altitude cabin is in the shape of a half-cylinder sealed tight except for two tiny 4″x6″ windows for ventilation. It becomes almost hot inside as our body heat warms the room. “Shut the door tight at night” warns the dark-skinned Bihari jawan. “The snow-tiger comes around every night for the left-over food” he adds. He must have meant the snow-leopard (no tigers at this altitude) and we are thrilled at the possibility of a sighting of this rare cat which inhabits the high-ranges of the Himalayas. We still have some of that oily food we’d got packed in Uttarkashi and which has stayed refrigerated in the biting cold and since we are being well-fed by the Indian army we decide to see how the snow-leopard would react to the strong spices of dhaba-food! We leave the bag of pulav and alu-matar out and stay up to watch for our wild dinner-guest. But the plexiglas window is not clear and the night is too cold so both of us fall into an exhausted slumber and dream of different things.

The early morning chill cannot stop us from walking towards the dense deodhar forest which runs along the ridge close to our cabin. But first, I check the food we’d left and sure enough, the bag has been licked clean. Was it the big cat or some other animal? We look for pug marks but it has snowed in the early hours and there are none.

We collect fallen twigs and it takes some effort before we get the fire going. Soon, the air is fragrant with the smell of the aromatic deodhar resin. The sky is a startling blue and the air is alive with energy. The twin peaks towering almost next to us are the Horns of Harsil. Foreboding, if one were to attempt to scale them, but picturesque enough through the lens of the Nikon.

After breakfast, we trek towards the village of Mukhba, three kilometers uphill and towards Gangotri. The infant Ganga (which is what the Bhagirathi really is) springs from the Gaumukh glacier which is ahead of Gangotri.

The village of Mukhba is famous for its ancient temple where the Gangotri deity is installed for the winter. When the snows have receded and the road opened, the devi will be taken back to Gangotri with a lot of fan-fare and rituals.

There is a school on our left and the young teacher becomes noticeably more diligent as she senses our interest in her activities. Around children of various ages are getting ready to run and play as the end of their school day draws near. Five more minutes and the school bell rings to herald freedom! The faces are fresh and radiant and smiles are in full bloom all over the aangan. The teacher now has time to talk with us and then we are surrounded by inquisitive ears which want to know the “who-and-what and-where” of us. The temple priest tells us that it is Shivratri the next day and that there would be all-night celebrations. After all, this is Shiva-land. We are invited. We see a young initiate oiling up the skin of his daphli with apricot oil. He has already polished the brass fittings of the majestic, ancient looking dholak which hangs from the wooden hook on the wall behind us.

Silence takes a backseat as the kids create as big a racket as they can. Some are into cricket. Sachin Tendulkar and Kapil Dev are heroes even on this remote Himalayan ridge! An hour of happy tete-a-tete and we begin walking in the direction of Dhairee, the next village which is on the other side of the river and which we reach after crossing a suspension bridge. The priest in Mukhba has told us about an ancient temple which was built by the Pandavas when they were in exile. The temple, which is atleast 4,000 years old is sinking into the Bhagirathi and it appears half-sunk when we come around from behind it. And it looks ancient, all right.

Once, while driving through the dry and dusty sections of Texas, I remember being bombarded by a barrage of signboards which heralded the existence of – of all things – Billy the Kid’s grave! It was a national monument! And Billy, for all his talents with his six-shooter was really just a gunman! When I’d laid my eyes on the unimpressive looking grave, I’d thought about how many genuinely ancient and historic monuments lie strewn across India. This temple is one such and it is priceless. We have to descend down about 25 stone steps and make a parikrama around the temple. Did, once upon a time, the Pandavas also walk these same steps? We are in a time-warp and become aware of the cosmic-continuity across life-times. Had Arjun also stumbled on the uneven step as I’d done just a moment ago? Strange to think of the Mahabharata in real-time terms!

We are now nearing our other destination which is to meet Mai. A friend who had trekked up ahead of the Gaumukh glacier to a place called Tapovan had told us about this yogi(ni) of undetermined age who had spent nine years in solitary bhakti of her guru up in the remote icy reaches of the Himalayas. She has “come down” (as the priest in Mukhba puts it) to Dhairee on doctor’s orders. We feel lucky to be meeting Mai here and make our way across a surprisingly clean village and peep into the smallish door of the ashram to see the lady in question whirling like a dervish in trance amidst a group of women who were clapping in and out of tune. We enter. She stops her dance and approaches us. I feel love and peace emanating from her. Her smile is all encompassing and I am enveloped by her grace.

Mai’s child-like enthusiasm as she talks with us touches the core of my heart. I have never been served lunch with such love and devotion . There is a large helping of a sweet sheera made of a different type of rice in pure ghee. This is spiritually-charged food which fills me up with instant cosmic power! She refuses to let us wash our thaalis. She seems to take sheer delight in her bhakti of serving food to any and everyone who comes to her. Another queen of the universe! I ask her about life in Tapovan and she tells us how she stores water by chopping up chunks of ice which she keeps in a gunny-sack! No leakages!

Her laughter is infectious. And her good-bye only an au-revoir.

We make quicker tracks back to our army camp. It is only 3 0’clock but the sky is ominous with snow and it’s beginning to get dark.

The encounter with Mai has charged us into a spirit of greater adventure and we decide to trek up to Tapovan if we can. To that end, we equip ourselves with emergency items like torches, thick woollen socks, and the like. Sushil even replaces his city shoes with army-hunters. The small shop in Harsil has everything we need. And being, probably his only customers within several hundred square miles, we get the undivided attention of the delighted shop-keeper. Business was picking up!

Back in our barrack, we pack, eat hot food from the large olive-green hot-case and drift into sleep talking about Mai all set to take off on our trek early next morning. My eyes close looking at my watch which says its only 9.

It must have been 3 0’clock in the morning when Sushil calls out to me from across the room and says : “Let’s head back home”. My intuition seems to naturally support his and the decision is made in an instant. We will not make it to Tapovan this time. Home’s a callin’!

When we open the door at first light, the morning has dawned a dull gray and looks like it has been snowing all night. We could get stuck in Harsil if we don’t hurry and hit the road. Our army hosts insist we eat a hearty breakfast of egg-bhujiya rolled in large parathaas.

Good-byes begin as we first thank our jawans and then wish adios to the majestic Horns of Harsil, the royal forest of Deodhar trees, the icy cold waters of the Bhagirathi and finally the enthralling ambiance of the Himalayan range.

(Contributed by Ajit Harisinghani, author of One Life to Ride: A Motorcycle Journey to the High Himalayas. You can know more about his book at http://onelifetoride.com)



  1. This book is the next one on my Reading List for sure…no 2 ways about it…I have also completed 13 Rides till now (400kms+) and wish to write a book on my travel adventures one day…

    Harsil is one destination which is yet to be conquered by me and your write-up has inspired me even further…

    Keep penning…


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