Along this backbreaking journey, you go past the stalled Lohari Nagpala Hydel project, a ghost site with dark tunnels, abandoned buildings and rusting earthmoving equipment. The Supreme Court halted the project after if became clear how much damage it had cause to the flora and fauna of the hills. Parts of this hill road are vulnerable to landslides and at these points it’s particularly difficult to negotiate.
Gangotri is high up in the hills and from the parking area to the shrine is a short walk down an alley flanked by cheap hotels, eateries and curio shops. A short drop away, the Ganga growls down a rocky gorge hemmed by snow-capped mountains.
The Ganga Devi shrine sits in an open courtyard. It’s a sheer rock structure, simple, no-frills and dignified. Pujas are performed on the riverbanks. That’s where you give your offerings to the Goddess – not in the temple. On the October day we reached, the temple was to shut, for the area would soon be covered in a thick layer of snow.
Devotees are gearing up to carry the Goddess in a palanquin to another warmer shrine some 25 km downhill. It’s an annual ceremony and an elaborate one. Bagpipers from the Army’s Grenadiers regiment form the escort party as they march out of the temple complex after an elaborate puja and serenading of the Goddess.
The courtyard is crowded, devotees hanging around, tourists soaking in the atmosphere, sadhus and sadhvis chanting prayers, villagers singing a local tune, shutterbugs taking shots of the riot of colour from difficult angles. Nearby, at another quadrangle, the Grenadiers have organized a community lunch, piping hot subzi, puri and halwa. The soldiers are courteous, welcoming and an absolute honour to be with.
There’s a holy man, this time one with a silky flowing white beard, in a pair of saffron trousers and a jacket of like colour. I get to strike up a conversation with him and he’s a sure shot charmer. His eyes are soft and distant as they glance through round, steel-framed glasses. His right arm rests on a stick as he makes commonsense conversation. An engineer by training, he’s lived a life of renunciation and meditation in the hills. Every minute of his life has been in the company of the Supreme Being, he says.
The sadhu is quiet, but every word he speaks has a ring of boldness. There’s stillness in him, grace and high dignity. “You don’t have to go extraordinary lengths to make God know your innermost cravings. God knows them anyway. He’s the one who’s sculpted you. He’s the one who gives you your cravings. He’ll take care of you,” he counsels a distraught woman. “Don’t worry, all will be well,” his voice reassuring, warm, comforting, almost therapeutic.
A bare, Spartan cottage further up the hill in the wilderness is the sadhu’s home. He has lived here more than 25 years. Barring a few very rare occasions, he’s never gone anywhere. The harsh winter doesn’t bother him. “My mind is trained. Nothing bothers me,” he says. Suddenly, he’s done with the conversation and he walks away leaving his devotees thirsting for more.
Uttarkashi, they say, is Dev bhoomi – the holy land, playfield of the elevated soul, land of spiritual bliss. In every sense it is. Even for diehard non-believers, the majesty and immensity of these tall hills and tranquility are immeasurable. It sates and equips you to deal with life and the challenges it throws up. There’s one lesson these difficult tracts leave you with as you drive down the winding roads: Go about life. Do your best. That perhaps, in itself, is experiencing God.