LET ME TOUCH THE HORIZON
Perched at a height of 14250 feet, surrounded by snowy peaks, the sea-green rotund lake was described in the ‘Puranas’. It is said, in the ‘Satya Yuga’ Lakshman- the younger brother of Rama had meditated on its bank. So was King Pandu- the father of the Pandavas, in the ‘Dwapar Yuga’. Guru Gobind Singh- the tenth Guru of the Sikhs and the founder of the ‘Khalsa’ order also said to have meditated on its embankment in an earlier birth. And in the ‘Kali Yuga’, standing on its bank, I am soaking-in the all-embracing unspoiled beauty that surrounds the lake. A few chunks of ice are floating on the crystal clear cobalt coloured water that reflects the deep blue-sky. Super imposed on that reflection of vast blueness, are the images of the surrounding snow-peaks. It is ‘Hemkunda’- a glacial lake of astonishing beauty. The place is called ‘Lokpal’ in Hindu scripture and ‘Hemkunda Sahib’ in Sikh scripture.
Day one: The trek starts from ‘Gobindaghat’ (1829 mts) – the road-head, a small settlement wedged between mountains, on the confluence of ‘Alakananda’ & ‘Lakshman Ganga’. When I reached Gobindaghat, it was bursting at its seam with pilgrims, as this is the ‘Yatra’ season. Named after Guru Gobind Sing, it is on the Hrishikesh-Badrinath road, 271 kms from Hrishikesh and 23 kms from Badrinath.
Through a narrow lane, lined with shops, we cross Alakananda over a steel-suspension bridge and the ascent starts. Ghangaria — our destination for tonight — is 13 kms ahead. The treeless paved winding trail, on the bank of ‘Bhuindar Gad’, had us scurrying up for cover, as the fierce sun beats down on us and the path ahead hold promises of shade as it goes through ‘Gobind Pashu Vihar’– a reserved forest of Himalayan Fir, Spruce, Maple and Cedar. We turn back to see the picture post-card settlement of ‘Gobindaghat’.
Soon we reached the first village –‘Pungaon’- a village of eerie silence; not a soul around. The small stone houses are locked. The ‘Chati-Walla’ (roadside tea-stall proprietor) solved the mystery. ‘Pungaon’ is a winter settlement. The villagers usually reside in ‘Bhuindar’– a bigger and higher village. The trail is steep and tiring, but lined with ‘Chatis’ every one/two kilometers. So we gulped down gallons of tea and rested in between steep climbs. A plethora of wobbly rickety horses with huge ‘Sikhs and Sikhanis’ on them, desperately clutching the reins; cute babies in ‘Kandis’ (wicker baskets) carried by Nepali porters, sleeping away the rigours of the journey; babies carried on motehs’ back, tied with “dupatta”, elderly ladies & gentle men in ‘Dandis’ (a chair carried by four bearers) and boisterous Sikh youths marching ahead along side an elderly Sikh sweeping the trail with a broom (considered a pious act) – complete the picture on the trail till we reached Bhuindar.
Bhuindar, on the confluence of Bhuindar Gad and Lakshman Ganga, is a filthy village with nauseating smell. Villagers are too busy in catering to the needs of the reach Sikh pilgrims rather than for such mundane activities like cleaning. After all, this is the booming business time of the year, which last only for three months. We are relieved to depart and hit the trail again and immediately revived with a soothing sight of a snowy peak — the ‘Hathi Parbat’ (22070 fts) — 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 Ghangaria before the downpour and lodged in the dilapidated forest bungalow. Ghangaria has good hotels and a modern Gurudwara. But I had my own reason to choose that ramshackle bungalow. It is where the great Himalayan traveller and writer Umaprasad Mukhopadyay stayed during his visit sometime in 1950s.
Day two: Ghangaria (3089 mts) – a narrow valley covered with dense forest and surrounded by soaring mountains is damp and despite the best efforts of the sweepers of the Gurudwara, is filthy. As we hit the trail, a sunny morning greeted us. 1 km ahead, the trail bifurcates — one leads to the Valley of Flowers and the other to Hemkunda. We took the path that leads to Hemkunda.
It’s a tough climb ; more than 4000 ft. in 6 kms. The track goes through glaciers and spellbinding scenery. Lakshman Ganga dives into a gorge in a blinding fury, tongue of a glacier gobbles up the trail and we had to amble over it with snowy peaks giving us company. Panting & puffing like a steam engines, we reached at the base of a flight of stairs. This is the short cut. The longer route goes through slippery glacier. We had little choice ! Off we went in a labourious walk, up the stairs. They say there are 1300 stairs. But I, for sure, was in no mood to count. I had to summon all my strength to reach the top of those blasted stairs. But once on the top I was rewarded with the most astoundingly beautiful sight I have ever seen.
In front of me, with an octagonal Gurudwara on its bank and surrounded by snowy peaks, rests a rotund cobalt coloured glacial lake. A small rivulet — ‘Lakshman Ganga’ — issues from one side of the lake, which turns into a mass of swirling water down stream. Blue, yellow and red alpine flowers are in bloom. The sun came out of the cloud bathing the small valley in brilliant sunshine. Sikhs are having a holy dip in the ice-cold water of the lake while a middle-aged Sikh in yellow turban and red jacket, is meditating on the bank. On one corner of the lake stands a rather modern Lakshman temple. An image of ‘Lakshman’ in black stone and two images –‘Ganesh’ and ‘Lokpal’, are housed in the sanctum. None of the images appears to be old. The Gurudwara has a picture of Guru Gobind Singh and a ‘Granthasahib’.
History, myth and legend: According to the ‘Puranas’, in the “Satya Yuga”, Lord Shiva created this place, as well as, the lake for the ‘Lokpals’- the preservers of the earth. In the modern times (1931), Frank Smythe came in this region on his quest to conquer Mt. Kamet. He again came in 1937 and recced this region and named the valley “Valley of Flowers”. 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 they were searching and a religious congregation accepted this place as the place where Guru Gobind Singh must have meditated. So was born ‘Hemkund Sahib’ the second most sacred Sikh pilgrim center after the GoldenTemple.
It’s time to leave this heaven and go back to our chaotic city life. The image of that middle aged Shikh gentleman, in yellow turban and red jacket, meditating on the bank of the icy white lake, will haunt me forever. I recalled a Tsao poem,
“Go far into the void, and there rest in quietness. / All things arise and bloom in their time, / then they return to their roots. / Their returning is peace.”