Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Enchanting Mother Ganga... Our First Dham - Gangotri

Day 2 – Uttarkashi-Gangnani-GANGOTRI-Bhaironghati-Harsil-Bhatwari-Uttarkashi

Part II (Gangotri)

Moving ahead from Gangnani, we passed through small villages like Jhala, Harsil (more on that later), Dharali and Lankachatti with hills, deep gorges, snow capped Himalayan peaks and the River Bhagirathi Ganges flowing alongside giving us constant company all along. We were gaining height with every passing minute but it wasn’t just the altitude that was rising. There was one more thing… my excitement and anxiousness to meet the Ganges in its purest form – at its source!

10 am – Situated at a staggering altitude of 3142 meters or over 10000 feet above sea level, folded in the wraps of the splendid hills of Garhwal… we were finally here – Our first Dham – Gangotri – the source of the River Ganga.

Parking lot at Gangotri - Char Dham
The parking area in Gangotri

The weather was pleasant, a cool breeze blowing across with the sun providing us with the much needed warmth. For such a prominent pilgrimage destination like Gangotri, the place almost wore a deserted look, a far cry from what one can expect in the season period when one has to park one’s vehicle as far as up to 4 kms due to the heavy pilgrim rush and cover the rest of the distance on foot.

Narrow Lane leading up to the Gangotri temple Char Dham
The narrow empty lane leading up to the Gangotri Temple

An almost empty lane led us to the main Temple complex. There were no pandas (priests) in sight to catch hold of you, half the shops were closed and though Gangajal bottles lay in abundance, there was no one to buy them!

Gangajal bottles in the Lane leading up to the Gangotri temple Char Dham
Shops selling Gangajal bottles and other religious paraphernalia

As we reached the embankment, the Ganga glistened in the sun. Complete silence filled the space. The only noise was from the gurgling river water, the whistling breeze, the occasional clanging of temple bells and the chirping of birds.

The holiest river of India - The Ganges glistening in the sun at Gangotri - Char Dham
The holiest river of India - The Ganges at Gangotri, Char Dham
Gangotri - Char Dham
The mighty river Ganga, worshipped as a living Goddess
in various forms at Gangotri

In spite of the hint of sunshine, it was quite cold down there. My woolen socks were no resistance to the ice cold rocks, and the same applied to my hand gloves. My hands were numb and the sole of my feet hurt. But I was too happy and excited to mind any of it.

River Bhagarathi in the backdrop of the beautiful snow clad Himalayan peaks, Gangotri - Char Dham
Distant snow clad peaks were clearly visible from the river bank.
Oh! it was heaven, it must be!!

Due to the extreme cold, I couldn’t brave myself to bathe in Her waters but we did sprinkle a few drops of the holy water onto ourselves and even drank a few drops of it. I sat down there on one of the boulders… even the mere sight of this bliss giving Goddess was something… She was flowing graciously from the high glacial peaks hauling with her an entire civilization, the ancient legends and myths, a complete legacy that has long held on…

River Bhagirathi in  Gangotri - Char Dham
People at the main bathing ghat in Gangotri
How can I explain the magic of Her unwavering presence, the power of Her benediction, that ecstasy, that sheer thrill of being in the presence of Gods… It was surely stirring me in some inexpressible way…

River Ganges known here as the Bhagirathi flows down calmly
The Trident - a form of Shakti aptly placed on the banks of the river Ganga
at Gangotri - one of the Shakti sites of the Char Dhams

We filled some Gangajal bottles for ourselves and our relatives back home and proceeded towards the main temple.

While ascending up towards the temple, one comes across the sanctified Bhagirath Shila, a stone slab where King Bhagirath had meditated to bring the river Ganges on earth…

Bhagirath Shila in Gangotri
The Bhagirath Shila near the banks of the Bhagirathi River

The history of the holy River Ganga - How the Ganges came on Earth

According to the traditional history, a Suryavanshi King Sagar, after killing the demons on earth, decided to perform the Ashwamedh Yagna (horse sacrifice) as assertion of his supremacy. The horse was to be taken on an uninterrupted journey around the earth accompanied by his 60,000 sons. Indra (the ruler of heaven), fearing their success and his throne, stole the horse and tied it in Kapil Muni’s ashram while the sage was deep in meditation. The sons came across the ashram in pursuit and on finding their missing horse there, rudely demanded the saint for the same.

When Kapil Muni opened his eyes, all 60,000 of them were turned into ashes. Sagar asked for forgiveness, but the curse could not be reversed. However, Kapil Muni suggested that if the holy Ganga, the river of heaven, were to come down to the earth, the touch of Her waters would ensure the liberation of the princes.

Many descendants of Sagar failed in their efforts to bring the holy Ganga to earth, until Bhagirath was born. He continued his severe penance until Ganga agreed to come down to the earth from the heavens. But Her surge was so fierce that her fall was sure to cause disorder and disaster. Thus, Bhagirath prayed to Lord Shiva to contain Ganga in His matted locks, who in turn agreed thereby releasing only a few drops of Her celestial waters. That is the reason why, the Ganges is called River Bhagirathi here and it becomes Ganga only at Devprayag after meeting the Alaknanda.

The river thus flowed on earth, delivering the sons of Sagar from their curse, cleansing all that was impure in Her path and how it continues to do so even today!

Walking up a few steps from the Bhagirath Shila, on the left bank of the thundering Bhagirathi Ganga, stands the Gangotri Temple raised on a plinth, about 20 ft high, and done up in white stone. The shrine is topped with a gilded roof and crowned with a golden spire.

Magnificient Gangotri Temple made with white granite
The magnificent Gangotri Temple

The temple at Gangotri, believed to have been consecrated by Adi Shankaracharya, is built by the the Gorkha captain Amar Singh Thapa in the 18th century. However, the temple was renovated in 1935 by the Maharaja of Jaipur, Madhosingh, which is why its architecture resembles the Rajasthani style.

Majestic Gangotri Temple - Char Dham
The Gangotri Temple in the lap of the Himalayas

Photography is prohibited inside the temple as is the case with all the famous temples in India. But one thing that was different was that there was absolutely no pilgrim crowd, just the lone priest, me and my family (due to off-season of course). With no pushing and shoving, no peeking above shoulders and no one pesking you to move-on, we were almost feeling like a VIP getting some kind of a special darshan!

The priest pointed out the various deities in the sanctum – in the centre was the main deity Goddess Ganga draped in a beautiful white embellished sari surrounded by others like Lord Ganesha, Mother Yamuna, Lord Shiva, Mother Saraswati, Bhaghirath and Goddess Durga - before handing us the prasad of makhanas.

Idols of Lord Shiva, Goddess Ganga and King Bhagirath
in the Temple premises

Gangotri – A dream of all Hindus?

I now understand why Gangotri is a dream of all Hindus, the ideal pilgrimage destination. The place complete with its aura of spiritual tranquility is magical… Really! Here time stands still… Very still!! It throws you off in a trance... even if you do not have the luxury of faith, the town still doesn’t disappoint and leaves you mesmerized!

12 pm – How I wished time could just stop that day… the place was heavenly, perhaps even better and I could have spent hours there… doing absolutely nothing! But a fair bit of distance was still to be covered… It was time to move…

Related information

Rituals at the banks of the river Ganga

Various rites and rituals like shraadh and pind daan are performed on the banks of the River Ganga and are believed to deliver the pilgrims forefathers from various cycles of rebirth. The water (Ganga Jal) from Gangotri is also collected to be offered at the 12 Jyotirlingams, Kedarnath and Rameswaram.

Season - When to visit Gangotri

The temple opens on the auspicious day of Akshay Tritiya (May) and closes down on Yama Dwitiya or Bhai Duj (November) and remains closed down for the rest of the six months every year. During that time, the idol is taken to the nearby Mukhba village near Harsil (25 kms from Gangotri). Considered the winter home of the Goddess, the devotees are required to pay their obeisance at the village for the 6 month period.

Temple Timings –

4 am - Utthapan (Awakening) and Shringar (Adornment)
6 am - Mangala Arti (Morning Prayer)
9 am – Rajbhog (The morning feast)
2 pm – Shayan (Sleep)
3 pm – Utthapan (Awakening)
6.30 pm - Shringar (Adornment)
7.45 pm - Sandhya Aarti (Evening Prayer)
9 pm - Shayan (Sleep)

Note that the timings might be a little bit different in summers and winters.

How to reach
Gangotri - Important Distances

It is approximately 300 kms from Dehradun, 250 kms from Rishikesh, 100 kms from Uttarkashi and 60 kms from Gangnani. It is accessible directly by car and bus.

To view the travel route map for Gangotri - CLICK HERE.

Previous posts from this trip -

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Enroute to Gangotri - Gangnani

Day 2 Uttarkashi-GANGNANI-Gangotri-Bhaironghati-Harsil-Bhatwari-Uttarkashi

Part I (Gangnani)

As instructed by our driver Vishwanath the previous day, we left Uttarkashi at about 5 am. It was very difficult to get out of the comfort of the multiple blankets that early in such chilly weather and I was virtually shivering. The only thing going for us was that we were to leave without taking a bath.

It was pitch dark when we started our journey. I could only see a faint outline of the River Ganga (known as Bhagirathi till it joins the Alaknanda at Dev Prayag) but from the roaring sound that was almost reverberating in the stillness of the morning, I knew it was very much there.

River Bhaghirathi at Maneri, 10 km from Uttarkashi
First sighting of the River Bhagirathi at Maneri, about 10 km from Uttarkashi…
Sorry for the shivering hands!

About 2 hours later we reached Gangnani which is situated around 43 km from Uttarkashi, our first stop en route to Gangotri. Now 43 kms doesn’t sound much to people like us from the plains but with the never ending serpentine roads which are broken and shattered in patches, the average speed just about comes to 20-30 km/hour. This is why it takes time to reach places and it is always good to leave early and have spare time on your hands.

Gangnani, also known as Rishikund tirth, is the place where devotees generally prefer to bathe in a hot water thermal spring before moving on towards Gangotri. There are separate kunds (bathing tanks/pools) for both men and women. I was expecting at least some people, if not a crowd as it was off season, but to my surprise there was not a single person in the kund.

The hot water spring at Gangnani - Enroute to Gangotri
Wow, I thought… Hot thermal spring all for myself… 
My very own personal hot water pool!

A dip in the hot water kund and all the cold and shivers miraculously vanished away. It was such a relief… sheer bliss… I could have spent an entire day in there!

The Sage Parashar Temple at Gangnani - Enroute to 
The hot water kund at Gangnani, 
The stairs on the left take you to the sage Parashar Temple

The Sage Parashar Temple at Gangnani - Enroute to 
The Sage Parashar Temple at Gangnani

Completely refreshed and energized, we visited the temple of Sage Parashar – father of Ved Vyas (the writer of the epic Mahabharata) situated near the kund.

Gangnani Beautiful Himalayas - Enroute to Gangotri
We catch the sight of the the early rays of dawn lighting up 
the spectacular pea-green patchwork blanket of nature just as we leave…

Our Travel Route Map for the Day
Uttarkashi - Gangotri - Uttarkashi
(Click on the image to enlarge)

      - Our travel route for the Day 2 

      - Halts en route to Gangotri and back

Previous posts from this trip -

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Happy Holi... The Colors of the Holy fire, Holika Dahan


Dhuleti/ Dhulendi/ Dhuli Vandana

One of the most awaited festivals – The festival of color, HOLI - is finally here! This is the last festival of the Hindu calendar before New Year arrives on Gudi Padwa (April 4th).

Trees have begun to smile with their sprout of tender leaves and budding flowers. People are out on the streets shrouded in a mist of blues, reds and greens, powders of all possible colors rejoicing this renewal of nature, the arrival of spring, celebrating all good things in life, celebrating the very spirit of life!

Radha Krishna playing the colorful festival of Holi
(Image courtesy Google Images)
In a bid to bridge the complexion gap, 
a very innocent but naughty Krishna (dark-hued), 
acting on his mother Yashoda’s advice, 
had drenched His beloved Radha (fair-hued) in color and water!
This slowly evolved into the festival of Holi and 
continues to mask all boundaries of class, caste, age and gender till date!

Colorful Latmar Holi played in Mathura
(Image courtesy Reuters)
It doesn’t matter if you are black or white; 
the splash of colors makes everything bright!

There’s more to the festival however…

Holika Dahan

A traditional ancient ritual that takes place on the full moon night of Phalgun Purnima, one day prior to the bigger event of color the next day;
Holika Dahan is marked by the lighting of bonfires at temples, housing societies and localities all across the country.

Several stories are associated with the ritual but the one that i have grown up hearing is that of Prahlad, the 5 year old braveheart and
a staunch devotee of Lord Vishnu, who defied his father's wishes, the demon king Hiranyakashipu (who self proclaimed himself as God) and worshipped Lord Vishnu instead. So strong was his faith that His Master will protect him that he even agreed to sit on the burning fire with his aunt Holika who was blessed with a boon that fire could never harm her.

What happened then left everybody amazed! Holika was burnt to death while Prahlad who had been continuously chanting Lord Vishnus name escaped unharmed! Thus, even today this tradition is carried out in admiration of the strong devotion of Bhagat Prahlad, the bonfires are lighted as a symbolic burning of the demon Holika.

Holika Dahan during the Holi festival in India
Logs of wood, dried twigs, leaves and branches are collected
and bonfires are made out of them

Full moon night of phalgun poornima on the night of Holi
When night falls, people start gathering…
And In the twilight of the full moon…

Today was also the rare phenomenon of "Super Moon"

The Bonfire a symbol of burining of Holika the demon during Holi in India
The bonfire comes alive!

Lamps are light during the Holika Dahan in the Holi festival in India
Lamps are lit...

People praying to the Holika Dahan fire during the Holi festival in India

Oat grains, coconut, flowers and water are offered to the fire God (AgniDev)
and prayers for a bountiful year ahead.

People offering coconut, water and other items in the bonfire during the Holi festival in India
People circumabulating the Holika Dahan fire during the Holi festival in India
The fire is then circumambulated with an oath 
to make new beginnings and by letting bygones be bygones...

Prasad of coconuts is taken back during the Holika Dahan in the Holi festival in India
The ashes left in the fire are considered sacred, collected and taken back home as Prasad. The fanning of the smoke emanating from it is spread in the house and
is considered to bring prosperity and good will to the family.

A Bonfire during the Holika Dahan ritual during the Holi festival in India

The ritual not only reestablishes the conviction of people in the ultimate divine power but also serves as a reminder that good always triumphs over evil no matter how difficult the circumstances seem to be and that we should never veer off the right path.

Festival of colors, Holi
Let this Holi be a time when we change not only the colour of our faces, but the colour of our hearts. Let us not only play Holi, but let us become holy. Let the only colour that truly penetrates our beings, be the colour of God.
Swami Chidananda Saraswati

Today is Dhuleti and this post comes amidst all the vibrant fun and frolic, singing and merrymaking that's happening right now in many parts all over the country! Though i do not play holi as it is a bit too wild for my liking but i do enjoy being with family, feasting on the delicious sweets like gujiya and thandai, the joyful festive mood thats palpable in the air and taking part in the festivities the night before (Holika Dahan)!

Is Holi celebrated in your part of the country? If yes, how do you celebrate it and what are the rituals you observe in your culture?

Monday, March 14, 2011

The journey finally begins... Haridwar to Uttarkashi

Day I - Haridwar-Uttarkashi

We caught the Shatabdi train from Delhi at 6 am and reached Haridwar by 11 am. At the Haridwar station, our driver Vishwanath was waiting for us and we started our journey to Rishikesh (and then to Uttarkashi), 25 km from Haridwar, which is one of the starting points for the Char Dham pilgrimage.

Haridwar railway station
Haridwar railway station shaped like a temple

During the drive we sighted the Har Ki Pauri, the holy river Ganga, Mansa Devi temple and the Laxman Jhula which refreshed some of my earlier memories of the place. At Rishikesh, we stopped briefly for lunch at the Laxmi Dhun Restaurant.

We had our lunch here in Rishikesh - Enroute to Uttarkashi
Restaurant at Rishikesh

After filling our stomach tanks, contemplating what lay ahead in store during the coming days, with a growing sense of anticipation, I stepped into my car, the time had come… to finally leave the populated cities, the buzz, the clamor and embark on a trail to discover the intriguing tradition of the Himalayas

After driving for about an hour, the landscape started changing dramatically. A maelstrom of colors – the visions of the blazing sun, the clear blue skies, the floating clouds, curtains of forests parting only to reveal the undulating hilly terrain, the winding roads set my heart aflutter – it was love at first sight! All of this was looking like a dream, to prove myself it wasn't, my camera was happily clicking away!! I spent the rest of the day soaking in these ever changing sights unraveling themselves as they rushed past my window

Magnificient views on the way to Uttarkashi from Rishikesh
On the way to Uttarkashi from Rishikesh
Scenic views on the way to Uttarkashi from Rishikesh
Magnificient views on the way to Uttarkashi from RishikeshMagnificient views on the way to Uttarkashi from Rishikesh
Scenic sunset on the way to Uttarkashi from Rishikesh

6.00 pm – We were still some 15 km away from our first night halt, Uttarkashi, enroute to Gangotri. Complete darkness had befallen and all I could sense was deep valleys on one side and hills on the other. With bumpy roads, sharp hair-pin turns and only shadows to stare into; suddenly the ride had turned a bit scary…

On the way to Uttarkashi from Rishikesh

In spite of the extremely hostile terrain, I must add this, our driver Vishwanath, with his good maneuvering skills and a calm head had put us completely at ease. Over the next few days, we realized that he had extremely good planning proficiency too.

7.00 pm - About an hour later, we reached Uttarkashi (more on the place in a later post).

Where to Stay in Uttarkashi

As I have stated in my earlier post our stay during the Yatra was to be at the tourist rest house (TRH) of GMVN. Our 4 bedded room at Uttarkashi was very clean, spacious and the location of the rest house was peaceful too. The bathrooms were also very well maintained. The meals were just ok and not very good.

Gmvnl Hotel at Uttarkashi where I stayed
The Tourist Rest House (TRH) of GMVN, Uttarkashi

My room at the Garhwal mandal vikas nigam Ltd in Uttarkashi
Our Deluxe Room at TRH, Uttarkashi

View from my hotel room balcony - Uttarkashi
View from the balcony before leaving the next morning

For more details, you can visit their website - http://www.gmvnl.com

Our Travel Route Map for the Day
Rishikesh - Uttarkashi Road Map, our route in Brown

Tips –

In these regions, it is not allowed to drive before 5 am and after 7 pm and there are very strict actions taken for the implementation of this rule. Barriers are put up at various points and it is best to leave early and reach early and safely too.

Previous posts from this trip -
2. Planning the Char Dham Trip
3. Introduction to Uttarakhand and Char Dhams

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

ISKCON Temple, Delhi

It is such a coincidence that our first stop of the trip was a place I had started my wonderful blogging journey with… almost exactly a year and a half ago…

ISKCON Temple, Delhi

After unpacking our luggage in the pre-booked ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) guest house room in South Delhi, we freshened up and went to the temple.

The ISKCON Temple, Delhi

ISKCON Temple as viewed from the terrace of the guest house

Circular in shape, the temple is very beautiful, decked up with Krishna leelas at the ceiling. The aarti was about to begin. The circumambulation path shows the various ISKCON temples situated all around the world. It was fascinating to look at how ISKCON temples are built abroad.

Beautiful Krishna Leelas at the temple ceiling…
captured just moments before the prayers began

Divine image of Mother Yasoda with Lord Krishna inside the temple

Idols of Sita, Ram, Laxman and Hanuman at the ISKCON temple

Idols of Shri Radha Parthasarthi at the ISKCON temple

Idols of Sri Gaura Nitai at the ISKCON temple

After the prayers, we headed straight towards the snacks counter where I had some Sandwiches and Samosas washed down with a cool glass of Lassi. In addition, the temple premises also houses the Govinda’s restaurant serving buffet meals priced at Rs. 330/person.

Govinda snacks counter in the temple premises

From our balcony we had a good view of the very famous Lotus Temple of Delhi and decided to visit the same in the evening. But unfortunately, as we came to know later on, the temple was closed that day (Monday).

A view of the Lotus Temple (in white) 
from my balcony at the ISKCON guest house Delhi

With nothing much to do that day, I decided to spend the rest of the day at the temple itself. The temple premises are huge; of all the ISKCON temples I have written about till now, this one is definitely the biggest.

Divine image of Lord Krishna along with His 
beloved Radha with the ISKCON Temple in the background

Kaliya Nag Uddhar at the ISKCON temple Delhi

Before retiring for the day, I attended their Vedic sound and light show titled ‘Gita Saar’ which was a 25 minute show aimed at Self realization through Lord Krishna’s teachings.

A life size image of Lord Vishnu with Goddess Laxmi inside the Vedic expo hall

Next morning, we caught the Shatabdi train to reach our next destination Haridwar...

Address of ISKCON Delhi :

Hare Krishna Hill,
Sant Nagar Main Road,
East of Kailash.
Contact no. : 011-26235133,4,5,6,7 / 011-26288816
E-mail : iskconpb@pamho.net

Previous posts from this trip -

1. Char Dham Yatra
2. Planning the Char Dham Trip
3. Introduction to Uttarakhand and Char Dhams