In The Garden of Eden
As we stood on the confluence of ‘ Lakshaman Ganga’ and ‘Alakananda’ at ‘ Gobinda Ghat’ (1829 mts) – the road head to the ‘Valley of flowers’ and ‘ Hemkunda’- and looked at the concrete path that is snaking its’ way to the sky, we could not suppress a long sigh. Simultaneously we thought -‘ climbing again’. But we were not to blame. We have just completed one of the hardest trek of Garhwal – a distance of 52 kms over the most rugged but the most beautiful terrain that I have ever seen and finding a few extra days on our hand we decided to take this leisurely trek. But despite this being a pilgrim trail and a popular trek, the trek seems to be not an easy one.
Gobinda Ghat a small settlement, named after the 10th Guru of the Sikhs, is bursting at it’s seem with Sikh-pilgrims, ‘Dharamshala’, ‘Gurudwara’, hotels, shops, horses& their keepers and porters. It stands on the ‘ Hrishikesh’ – ‘Badrinath’ road, 171 kms from ‘ Hrishikesh and 23 kms from ‘Badrinath’. The narrow shop-lined lane, through which we had to pass, left us short of breath and we hurriedly started to climb. As we gained height the dirty and noisy ‘Gobinda Ghat’ looked like a surrealist picture out of which the freshly painted red rooftop of the ‘Dharamshala’ stands out reflecting the strong mid-day sun.
Soon we reached the first village-‘Pungaon’- a village of eerie silence. There’s not a soul around and the small stone houses are locked. The mystery was solved by the ‘Chati-Walla’ (proprietor of roadside tea-stall). ‘Pungaon’ is a winter settlement. Excepting the winter, the villagers reside in ‘Bhiundhar’-a bigger village, way up. The trail is steep and tiring, but lined with ‘Chatis’. So we gulped down gallons of tea and took frequent rest before steep climbs. A plethora of wobbling rickety horses with huge ‘Sikhs & Sikhanis’ on them – desperately clutching the reins; cute babies in ‘Kandis’ (wicker baskets) carried by Nepali porters; elderly ladies & gentle men in ‘Dandis’ (a chair carried by four bearers) and boisterous Sikh youths marching ahead along side an elderly Sikh who is sweeping the trail with a broom (considered a pious act) and climbing very slowly – complete the picture on the trail. Soon we reached Bhiundhar
Bhiundhar, on the confluence of ‘Bhiundhar Gad’ (small mountain river) and ‘Lakshman Ganga’, is a filthy village with nauseating smell. Villagers are too busy in catering to the needs of the reach Sikh pilgrims and have no time for cleaning. This is booming business time that last only for three months. We are relieved to depart and hit the trail again and at once were rewarded with the soothing sight of a snowy peak – the ‘Hathi Parbat’ (22070fts); so named for its likeness to the back of an elephant. Crossing ‘Lakshman Ganga’ we reached a beautiful meadow dotted with alpine flowers. The forest canopy gave way to open sky covered with dark rain-cloud. We reached Ghagria (13 kms). before the downpour and lodged in the dilapidated forest bungalow. Ghagria has good hotels and a modern ‘Gurudwara’, but I had my own reason to choose that ramshackle bungalow. In this bungalow the great Himalayan traveler and writer Umaprasad Mukhopadyay stayed during his visit sometime in 1950s.
Ghagria (3089 mts) – a narrow valley surrounded by soaring mountains, covered with dense forest, is damp and despite the best efforts of the sweepers of the Gurudwara, is filthy. Next morning, as we hit the trail, a sunny morning greeted us. 1km up, the trail bifurcates- one leads to the ‘Valley of flowers’ and the other to ‘Hemkunda’ in a Y formation.
It’s a tough climb 0f more than 4000 ft. in 6 kms. The track goes through a glaciers and spellbinding sceneries. Lakshman Ganga dives into a gorge in a blinding fury, tongue of a glacier gobbled up the trail and we had to trudge on the slippery surface in the company of snowy peaks. Panting & puffing like steam engines we reached at the bottom of a flight of stairs. The trail through the stair is a short cut. The other route, longer & tortuous, goes through the slippery glacier. We had little choice! So, off we went in a laborious climb up the stairs. It is said that there are more than1300 steps in that staircase. But I, for one, was in no mood to count. All sufferings end. Ours’ too end and we were rewarded with the one of the most astoundingly beautiful sight that I have ever seen.
Before me with an octagonal Gurudwara in its fore ground, surrounded by snowy peaks, lays the most beautiful, cobalt colored & rotund glacial lake (4150 mts). This is the ‘ Hemkunda’ known to the pilgrims from the ancient time as ‘Lokpal’. ‘Lakshman Ganga’, a small rivulet, issues from one side of the lake that turns into a mass of swirling water down stream. All around blue, yellow and red alpine flowers are in bloom. As the sun came out of the cloud, the small valley, resplendent in colors, bathed in brilliant sunshine, simply hypnotized me. A middle-aged Sikh, in red turban, is meditating on the bank. Young Sikhs are having a holy dip in the ice-cold water. On one corner of the lake stands a rather modern Lakshman temple. Images of ‘Lakshman’ in black stone and two other images one of ‘Ganesh’ and the other of ‘Lokpal’ are housed in the sanctum. None of the images appears to be old. The Gurudwara has a picture of Guru Gobind Sing and a ‘Granthasahib’.
According to the ‘Puranas’, Lord Shiva created this place and the lake for the ‘Lokpals’- the preservers of the earth. Since time immemorial Hindu pilgrims used to visit this place, which is believed to be place where ‘Lakshman’ meditated in the ‘Treta Yuga’. In 1936 Sohan Sing and Mohan Sing, two Sikh pilgrims embarked upon a religious expedition to locate the place in the deep of Himalaya where Guru Gobind is said to have meditated in an earlier birth. The Guru had described the place in ‘Bichitra Natak’ -a religious scripture authored by him. After a long and arduous search they came upon this place, then known as ‘Lokpal’. This place matched the description of the place described by the ‘Guru’. Later a Sikh religious congregation accepted ‘Lokpal’ as the place where Guru Gobind Sing must have meditated. So was born ‘Hemkund Sahib’ one of the most sacred center of Sikh pilgrimage.
Next day we were on the trail to the ‘Valley of Flowers’. The track goes on the bank of ‘Bhiundhar Gad’ and over the tongue of a glacier. It’s short distance, only 3.5 kms, though the valley is spread far beyond. As we enter the valley a vast meadow unfolds with Rataban and other snowy peaks in the backdrop. In 1981 this 87 square kms valley gained the status of a National Park and grazing was banned in 1982. Human intrusion was banned in February 1983. The Park now has 521 species of flowers and herbs.
The valley usually blooms during mid July-August. This is the first week of June. But still we could savour the enchanting beauty of a number of alpine species. The herbaceous flora of this zone represents a spectacular array of multi-colored flowers, for instance, Bramha kamal (Saussurea obvallata), Primula involucrata, Aquilegia pubiflora, Lilium oxypetalum, Epilobium latifolium, and Corydalis meifolia can be seen during the growing season.
Of 31 rare and endangered plants found in the Valley of Flowers 13 are medicinal plants. Most of the rare plants grow in unusual habitats such as rocky slopes, forest edges, and marsh meadows. The species are rare because of restricted habitats, small population size, narrow range of distribution, and over exploitation by people for medicinal uses in the recent past.
The density of wild animals in the Valley of flowers is very low. Himalayan tahr, musk deer, mouse hare, Himalayan black bear, red fox, Himalayan weasel, common languor, flying squirrel has been sighted. According to local people Himalayan brown bear, bharal, and snow leopard are also seen in the Park.
In 1862 Col. Edmund Smith came into this valley and later T. G. Longstaff with Arnold Mumm and Charles G. Bruce in 1907 passed from this valley. But it is the botanist and philosopher in Frank Smythe that recognized the true beauty of the ‘Valley of Flowers’. In 1931 Frank Smythe came in this region on his Kamet expedition. On his return, he crossed the ‘Bhiundhar pass’ and descended in this valley. He came again in 1937 and recced this region when he christened the valley -“ Valley of Flowers”.
We reached the middle of the valley, a place called ‘Bamani Dhaur’ (cave of Brahmin). A few paces ahead stand the grave of Margaret Legge. In the late June of 1939 she came to the ‘Valley of Flowers’ to study the flora. On 4th July she went up a slope to collect sample and slipped to her death. On the request of her sister, she was buried among the flowers that she came to study. Next year her sister erected this small memorial and inscribed on it –
“ I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills/ from whence cometh my help.”
It is time to go back to the mundane world of ours. But before leaving, I recalled the words of Frank Smythe, “ So I spent some of my last hours in the Valley of Flowers, seated by the camp fire, until flames died down and stars brightened beyond hill-tops; and all about me was the serenity of God.”