Mode of travel : Walking only
distance walked: From Varanasi to Gomukh the starting point of River Ganga
Time taken: 84 days
cities along the way: Varanasi, Allahabad. Kanpur, Farukhabad, Bijnaur, Haridwar, Rishikesh, Tehri, Uttarkashi, Gangotri, Gomukh, Tapovan
Four years ago, I embarked on a journey on foot, it was the first time I walked this long. Here, I share a few glimpses from my walk along the sacred river Ganga.
The Idea :
After finishing my Narmada bicycle journey, I was back in Mumbai. Everything was fine except the big city felt like a big cage. For the past few months, I was drinking the waters of Narmada and now in Mumbai, even the filtered water smelled foul, the freshly baked food tasted old, the air felt not a life giving force, the few friends I had were busy in their routines, books I did not feel like reading and movies I felt I had watched enough.
In the past few months, I was just repeating the same pattern and it felt like a big meaningless emptiness. It felt as if the city had rejected me and I had rejected the city.
I felt a strong urge to go to a place where there is fresh air and free flowing water. And the Himalayas came to my mind. One afternoon in August the thought struck me. In the same evening, a friend whose bicycle I used for the Narmada journey called and asked to return his bicycle. I said to myself “Great Sachin, now you have no means to travel.”
On the same day, a friend from Varanasi called and said “baba, Kashi is calling you.”
I replied :” No, Kashi is not calling me at all.”
For me Varanasi was a symbol of death where people go when it is their time to leave the body. I have no idea how I came to this conclusion.
Same night, I was sitting with a friend around 2 in the night. It was raining heavily and the thought of going to the mountains again struck me and I remembered the conversation about Varanasi.
So, I thought why not first go to Varanasi and then head to the mountains.
As I imagined this, I thought of a possible route from Varanasi to Himalayas, and that is when Ganga came to my mind. Ganga flows in Varanasi and its source lies in the Himalayas. A thought entered my mind “Why don’t you follow the river all the way to its source in the Himalayas. Yes, I should do it. It will be a beautiful journey to experience. I whispered inside my head. And it is decided that I am going to travel along the river Ganga from Varanasi to Gomukh.
Why On Foot :
As I decided to follow the river, I realized I do not have a bicycle anymore and I do not have money to buy a new one.
So, How do I travel? I do not want to travel in cars and buses. I do not want to hitchhike either. So, what do I do? And another thought entered my head “Why don’t you walk, Sachin?” and I replied: Yes, I should walk.
All this happened in less than a minute. In a minute, I decided my route and how I am going to travel. I heard somewhere in a movie “It takes less than 20 seconds to make the decisions which will change the course of your life.” For me, it was a little more than twenty seconds but I have always been a lazy fellow.
Next morning, I called my friend Nancy to book the train ticket for Varanasi
it was the first long walk I was undertaking and I had no idea what to take and what to drop. As usual, I carried 4-5 books thinking I would read while I take breaks and lots of blank paper assuming I would have a lot to write. I took a yoga mat and sleeping bag as well. A friend from Delhi parcelled his tent to Varanasi. Apart from that, I had three pairs of clothes, sleepers, toothbrush & toothpaste, towel, and a few other things. I did not have new shoes, actually the shoes I had were in very bad shape and I did not have a lot of money to buy good shoes. So, I fixed every hole in the shoes and changed the sole. I did buy a pair of socks though.
On 16th August, 2017, at 3 AM in the morning, after 36 hours of train journey, I made it to Varanasi. The first thing I did was to have a kulhad chai. My friend Rajat was kind enough to offer his place to stay near Panchganga Ghat.
For a week, I stayed in Varanasi. I did not want to stay this long but I had to as Ganga is flooded and there is a high alert on the path I am supposed to take. Meanwhile, I walked around in the old streets of Kashi, talked to a few interesting people, I even met a guy who was doing his PhD on Bhairav. I sat one night on manikarnika ghat just looking at the burning of dead. The human flash we so much love smells worst of all.
Starting the Walk:
On August 24th, I started the walk. The first day, I walked almost 18 km and I spent the night with people whose houses were submerged in the flood. There was water everywhere and extreme humidity was making the beginning an annoying one.
The Journey: It is a brief summary only I am sharing here but maybe I should write a book about the whole walk as there was no experience I had as challenging, profound, joyful and which tested my mental limits and revealed the angels and demons I am.
On the fourth day of the walk, I got a cobra bite. I almost died on that day. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but what they don’t say is what almost killed you creates a lot of fear in your head, at least in my head. And it is almost impossible to get rid of the fear, all you have to do is, endure it, accept it and keep walking. The most difficult part for me was to start walking again after I survived the bite. Slightest movements in the buses would make me think of the snakes and often I would wake up with a dream of a snake in my sleeping bag. Sometimes It was too much to take but eventually you realize it is just in your head.
People I met during the walk:
I met very interesting people. In Varanasi, I met a man who went on a fisherman boat from Varanasi to Kolkata when there were no dams. He was in his 90s now. I stayed a night at a baba’s place who wakes up everyday at 3AM in the morning and abuses Shiva for two hours as much as he can. That is his way of praying. Make God angry and then he comes and burns you but that way you have his vision before the death. Meanwhile, he is friendly with everyone else.
I stayed two nights with a baba ji who had polio and couldn’t walk. So, he used his hands to walk. When his parents died, his brothers and their wives were abusive to him and that made him leave home. He walked with his hands for four years and nowhere he was treated with love but as crippled. Until he reached where he is now which is a nowhere place with big wild grasslands all around and nearest village from the place is 12 km. When he reached here, he could not bear anymore the pain he experienced. So, he gave up, and decided to move no further. He said “If God is here, he shall take my life and release me from the pain.” 13 days he stayed with no food and water. On the 14th day, a shepherd found him almost dead and gave him some water from the Ganga and his share of food. He put him under a tree and brought food and medicine almost everyday for the next two months. This is a twelve years old story, now the man has a small hut and people think of him as some saint. He is welcoming to everyone and gives water, tea and food to whoever passby.
I met an old man in his late 70s who in the last 40 years hasn’t missed his morning ritual of going to Ganga even a single day. He is perhaps the most inspiring man I have ever come across. When I was a teenager, I used to think of Einstein, Ramanujam, Sindbad, and Tom Cruise as my idols and this man surpassed all for his simplicity and contentment with life.
I was offered tea by a man who broke his silence of 12 years just to offer me a glass of black tea and some cookies. I still remember him. The few words he spoke and how they still impact you. I think the less you speak, the wiser and graceful you become.
I can talk about so many people who shaped my journey but I would skip them for now.
On occasions I saw big crocodiles and gharials in Ganga. Up in the mountains, I was lucky enough to see leopards on two occasions and even a bear.
The places I stayed:
As I was traveling with little money, staying in a hotel was never an option and the tent I was carrying, I decided to drop it as it was too heavy.
Mostly I stayed in baba’s huts, at times I was offered accommodations in big ashrams. Sometimes, few people would invite me to their homes thinking of me as a pilgrim on a great journey or maybe they just like to help people in need. On a few occasions, some people even booked a hotel for me and there were times I slept under a tree, on a ghat and even in the fields under the open sky. On occasions, I slept in police stations and abandoned houses. It all was very flexible.
Condition of the river:
When they say Ganga is the holiest of all, I have no doubt. But I also have to say, Ganga is one of the most polluted rivers as well. When I started the walk, I hated how dirty the water was. I would not even dare to put my feet in water until I crossed Kanpur. So many dirty streams of gutters are released in the water. I visited some of the villages near Kanpur region where there are so many cases of cancer as they think of the river as holy and drink its waters, also because they do not have a choice.
We all know about big dams on the river. Whenever there is a dam on Ganga, the river is disturbed, the environment in the region does not remain in harmony anymore. I am not going into the debate of how dams are essential for the world to survive. I am speaking purely sentimental as whenever I saw a dam, I felt there is no harmony in the surrounding and it disturbed me deeply.
The water of Ganga is quite clean when you cross Haridwar and reach Rishikesh. You almost do not believe that it is the same Ganga which flows in Varanasi.
The river gets corrupted like the human mind as older it gets in the plains.
The Last stretch and walking in the himalayas:
On october 12, I made it to Rishikesh and after resting for some time on october 16th, I started my journey in the himalayas. Finally I was having fresh water and air for which I left Mumbai. My backpack was almost gone and shoes were in no condition to move. The friends I stayed with borrowed their shoes and backpack for the rest of the journey. A friend who is a filmmaker wanted to make a movie about the walk, so he is also walking along for the next few days. For the next two weeks, all I am doing is walking from one mountain to another and it is going to be like this for the next 300 km. It is tiring to walk in the mountains but the water is so energizing it immediately makes you feel alive and the best part is there is no humidity.
One of the nights, I slept outside a Dhaba where a leopard roamed around for 15 minutes. In Uttarkashi, again I was mistreated by a policeman. The only people who have bothered me during my journeys are the police. Some of them have been super nice too.
When I reached Uttarkashi, I rested in a hotel and watched TV the whole day and ordered food in the room. It was the money given by the filmmaker friend who walked with me. In the evening, when I came out of the room, I saw a beautiful sunset and realized I wasted the whole day watching TV. This is what money does. So, the money I had, I distributed to all the babas and a few children I met on the road and the moment I left Uttarkashi, I was walking with zero rupees, not even having money to take a bus ticket when I got back.
When I arrived in Harshil, I had a strong fever and the last thirty kilometers, I walked in fever but without thinking too much. Finally, when I made it to Gangotri, I fell flat on the ground and not in the sense of achievement but I fell as I was very sick. A french person who was a biker got me a room and gave me some medicines. She even left some money for Gomukh trek as you need a permit to walk.
Walking from Gangotri to Gomukh is a beautiful experience. I had not seen such beautiful mountains before. Snow capped mountains take you to a different world. When I finally saw the source, I removed all my clothes and took a dozen dips in ice-cold water and tears of joy were flowing and freezing from my eyes.
I sat there for a few hours, extremely calm. With no thoughts perhaps. This is what too much crying does. Tears whether of pain or joy, they take away everything and bring stillness and freedom from all thoughts, at least for a while. This is what happened to me in those two hours.
I decided to walk to Tapovan and stayed there for a night. There were no people as the previous day was the last visiting day for tourists, even the baba who used to host people came down. So, I had a stone hut on my own. There was no food though, but I did not mind as the sight of Shivling peak can make anyone forget thirst and hunger.
In those moments, I felt complete. It kind of felt like I am the mountain, I am the river, I am all these streams which make Ganga and all those stones which are slowly getting moulded by the force of the water. It felt like I am all of it and I am nothing at all.
Next morning, when I had this thought, the journey was finally finished, the mountain whispered in my ear “No my boy, your journey has finally started. Go back, rest, eat well and come again.” and there was a drop of joy in my eyes.
To know more about the journey, visit: NOWHEREHUMAN