Travelogue: Part Three: Tracing Down the Magnificent River Yamuna

August 21, 2011

After spending the evening on the banks of the holy River Ganges at Haridwar and witnessing the ‘aarati’ and observing various rituals and ablutions at the ‘ghats’ we returned to the hotel. We had already made arrangements for a Tata Sumo which would take us to all the four Dhams and other important intermediate tourist spots during the nine days journey so that our tour would be fruitful in every sense of the term.
Waking up early morning of 4 July, we packed our belongings and settled the hotel  and boarded the vehicle that was already parked in front of the hotel. The travel agent introduced us to a medium built jovial young man wearing Simla cap-Sachidanand (Sachhu) who would be driving the vehicle during the nine days tour in whose hands our safety was reposed.
 Sachhu greeted us with a smile radiating an assurance that we will be safe and he would be the right person to handle the vehicle for the next nine days till the end of the tour. Throughout the tour, Sachhu, a local person who hails from Tehri Garhwal,  did not betray our confidence in spite of facing adverse circumstances such as bad roads, landslides and even flattened tyres  in the course of our tour.
The Char Dham (four abodes) is the most important pilgrimage circuit in the Indian Himalayas. Located in the Garhwal section of the state of Uttarakhand, the circuit consists of four shrines: Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath.
The Four Dham have been described in the Hindu Scriptures as the sacred places where the visitors could earn the virtues of all the pilgrimages put together. These four shrines receive holy water from the four most scared rivers of India - Yamuna (Yamunotri), Bhagirathi (Gangotri), Mandakini (Kedarnath) and Alaknanda (Badrinath).
According to Mythology, a journey to the four shrines of Char Dham not just washes one’s sins but also ensures the salvation from the cycle of life and death. For centuries, saints and devotees have been visiting these sacred shrines in their search for a spiritual union with the divine. All the four holy shrines of the Char Dham are located at an altitude of more than 3,000 meters above the sea level and remain covered with snow during winters.  With the mystifying Himalayas as the backdrop, these four holy pilgrimages of India amaze the travel enthusiasts and the devotees alike.

According to the Hindu tradition of ‘parikrama’ or clockwise circumambulation, pilgrims visit the Char Dham from left to right. A pilgrimage to Char Dham begins with Yamunotri, the westernmost shrine in the Garhwal, dedicated to Goddess Yamuna, followed by the Gangotri shrine, which is dedicated to Goddess Ganga. The third stopover of the Char Dham tour is the sacred shrine of Kedarnath and finally the shrine of Badrinath, the fourth and the last of the destinations in the Char Dham pilgrimage circuit.
The shrines of the Char Dham remain open to the pilgrims and tourists for six months from May to October, May-June being the peak months. The flow of pilgrims and tourists gradually reduces during the rainy season and the onset of winter. From November to April, the entire region would be covered by snow closing these shrines and roads. Hence, all those local people who are chiefly dependent on the religious tourism for their livelihood have to sustain themselves with whatever they would earn during these six months.
We left Haridwar at around 7.30 am on 4 July and proceeded through the Deharadun-Mussoorie-Yamunotri Road towards the first destination of the ‘Char Dham’ tour-Yamunotri. As the distance to Yamunotri from Haridwar is around 250 kilometres through the ridges of the mountains and valleys, we could not spend much time in between. Hence, we bypassed Deharadun, the capital of Uttarakhand. As we reached the outskirts of the hill station-Mussoorie, Sachhu stopped the vehicle to view the majestic Kempty Waterfalls.
Mussoorie, located at a distance of 38 kilometres from Deharadun has been a fascinating hill station that was developed by the British. In 1820, Captain Young from the British Army was so influenced by the beauty of the place that he made this place his residence. Mussoorie is located at a height of 2,500 meters in the green Himalayan range. Due to its location and beauty, Mussoorie is considered as the best hill station in the northern region. The modern bungalows, malls and well laid gardens which are located on the small hills around the area are enough to attract any tourist.
Kempty Falls, located 15 kilometres from Mussoorie on the Deharadun-Mussoorie Road is one of the most popular attractions of the region. Surrounded by high mountain ranges and located at a high altitude of 4500 feet, the falls offer a breathtaking view as the water falling down from a high altitude of 40 feet splits further into five more streams. This place was developed as a tourist destination by John Mekinan, after 1835. The name Kempty is derived from ’Camp-tea’, as the British would organize their tea parties here. The base of the water falls in the valley has been developed as a resort with restaurants and hotels.
After enjoying the magnificent sight of the Kempty Falls we proceeded towards Yamunotri through winding roads through the ridges of the Himalayan mountains hopping from one mountain to the other but keeping the track of the River Yamuna as the road to the source of the river has been carved through the ridge of the mountain more or less parallel to the valley through which the river flows.

As it was getting dark, Sachhu halted at a place known as Rana Chatti, few kilometres short of Yamunotri where we had our dinner and spent the night.  It was a beautiful location with surrounding hills and valleys and the colourful evening sky provided picturesque background to the wonderful frame of nature.
Once again we commenced our journey towards Yamunotri early in the morning of 5 July and by around 8.30 am reached Janki Chatti, the last village till which the vehicle could reach.  As Sachhu told us that after visiting the Yamunotri shrine we should come back to the spot  by 1 pm, we had quick breakfast and planned our next move as to how to proceed to the destination which is 6 kilometres away through rugged mountain ridge.
As all of us being senior citizens, we ruled out trekking as the route to Yamunotri was quite difficult to negotiate. Hence, we zeroed on the horse-ride. As it was the off-season, there were a number of horsemen who mobbed us with a request that we ride on their horses, which are not exactly horses but a cross-breed between the horses and donkeys which are known as ‘mule’ and are locally known as ‘Kechar’, which are being medium built and sturdy are suitable for mountain journey.
It is said that during the peak season in the months of May-June, the mule-keeers usually charge Rs. 1,200-2000/- per mule for a distance of six kilometres. However, during off season pilgrims could bargain and they would be ready to offer their mules for a lower price. After hard bargaining we settled at Rs. 500 for each of the seven mules. Four guides accompanied us, three of them managing two mules each.
For those pilgrims who are neither able to neither trek nor ride on mules, there are other alternate arrangements to reach the destination, of course for a price. There are ‘doli-wallas’, a team of four persons, carrying  single pilgrim on a harnessed chair and  charge around Rs.2,500 to 5,000 during  the months of May-June, negotiable during the rest of the pilgrim season.  Another mode of transport is that of individual carrier known in the local language as ‘Kandi’ who would carry the pilgrim  seated in an improvised basket   on his back with a strap supporting the basket resting on his forehead.  The ‘Kandiwallas’ charge around Rs.1, 500 to 3,000 per pilgrim depending on the demand.
The narrow 6 kilometres path to the shrine of Yamunotri, though paved, is quite difficult to negotiate. The path being carved out of rocks by the sides of the mountains, those who ride on mules have to be extra cautious to see to it that they would not bang their heads against the protruding sharp rock-edges. As the mules had to climb steps at certain places, we had some kind of difficulty as it was the first experience of ours riding mules that also on a rugged and uneven path.
After reaching the mid-way, the mule-keepers asked us to alight and have snacks and tea and also asked us to sponsor theirs. Moreover, they pleaded for some money to feed jaggery and grams to the mules. The mules were rested when we had tea.  After around fifteen minutes we started our journey again and after three hours of ride reached our destination –the shrine of Yamunotri, from where I could see at a distance the origin of the River Yamuna streaming down the mountain and passing by the side of the shrine with a hissing sound.
After alighting from the horses, we walked towards the shrine through a narrow lane lined with stalls selling ‘puja’ articles, offerings, Prasad, souvenirs and eatables. We crossed to the left bank of the river by a foot-bridge where the shrine of Yamunotri is located. There are two hot water ‘kunds’ (ponds), one each for men and women where they take a dip before proceeding to the shrine to offer prayers or conduct ‘puja’.
The actual source of the River Yamuna is a frozen lake of ice and glacier (Champasar Glacier) located on the Kalind Mountain at a height of 4,421 meters above the sea level, about one kilometre further up from the shrine. No one can reach to the exact origin of the river as it is not accessible. Thus, the shrine was built at the foot of the hill and pilgrims therefore offer ‘puja’ at the shrine itself.
The shrine of Yamuna was constructed by Maharaja Pratap Shah of Tehri Garhwal. The image of the river deity (Yamuna) is made of black marble. Along with Yamuna, Ganga and Saraswati are also worshipped at this shrine. The River Yamuna, like the Ganges, has been elevated to the status of a divine mother for the Hindus and has been held responsible for nurturing and developing the Indian civilization.
The shrine usually closes on the Diwali in mid-October or first week of November, with a brief ceremony. The temple staff returns to their villages and for the rest of the time the valley is covered with a white sheet of snow. With the melting of the snow next summer, the shrine re-opens to the pilgrims and tourists.
River Yamuna crosses some of the important states of northern India including Uttarakhand, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Passing by Himachal Pradesh and later Delhi, it meets several of its tributaries on the way. It creates the highly fertile alluvial, Yamuna-Ganges Doab region between itself and the River Ganges in the Indo-Gangetic Plain. Nearly 57 million people depend on the Yamuna waters. Yamuna accounts for more than 70 per cent of Delhi’s water supplies. Just like the Ganges, the Yamuna too is highly venerated in Hinduism and worshipped as goddess Yamuna, throughout its course. In Hindu Mythology, Yamuna is the daughter of Sun God, Surya and sister of Yama, the God of Death, hence also known as ‘Yami’. According to popular legends, bathing in its sacred waters frees one from the torments of death.
After spending sometime inside the shrine and in its limited surroundings, we came back to the ‘mule parking’ and started our journey back   to Janki Chatti. The return journey was much difficult as the path was sloppy and descending the stairs at certain places gave jitters. The mule-keepers asked us to hold the seat behind in one hand and bend backwards as the horse descended the slops and especially the stairs. It was indeed scary and at one place in an attempt to click a picture, momentarily I lost balance and was about to slip. However, my quick reflexes and the alertness of the mule-keeper saved the day.
As we were returning, I could see a number of pilgrims on their foot with sticks in hand trekking all the way towards the shrine. Many of them were elderly persons. Though the trek was difficult, the faith writ large on their face was keeping them going.
As suggested by Sachhu, we reached back to Janki Chatti by 1 pm and went back to the hotel from where we had started in the morning. After having lunch we proceeded to our next destination-Gangotri.

By Eugene D'Souza, Moodubelle
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Comment on this article

  • Maxim Pinto, Mangalore/bangalore

    Tue, Aug 23 2011

    Very nice article..Uttarakhand is beautiful, but i recommend sikkim is beauty of india.One has to visit this place in his lifetime.

  • Abraham Coutinho, Mundkur/Bombay

    Tue, Aug 23 2011

    I salute you Mr. Eugine D'Souza for your detailed travelogue with such lovely clear photographs. I felt, as if I visited these spots.

    You take care of every details of nature and history. That makes you special.

    British made Dehradun a capital for it is cool like their mother land England.

    Yama's wife's name is also Yami. Context - in Hindu Puran - Kacha's visit to Yama's home. Reference "Yayathi".

    Hindu philosophy - Char Dham visit will gives one "Mukthi" (Salvation): In Hinduism, I learnt that as per ones good deeds/punya his/her birth status/"Janma Yoni" improves say from insect to repitle to animal and finally to human being. That is "Nara Janma" from where one should go to "Narayan" the God not to hell. That should be aim. For that one should live a good life and do good deeds. But there is no prescribed or standard limit of "Punya" which takes you to heaven. Even if you have done enough punya and you feel still feel it is less,then leave no chance, go and visit these "Char Dhams" by virtue of which you are on your way to Heaven. On the contrary such visit clears Heavenly way for sinners also. No re-birth. There is also no guarantee that the Human being shall again take birth as Human being only. It could be less than that in to "Prani Yoni" = animal birth.

    It is here,(Char Dham) the old ones who are not far away from death are automatically pulled paving their way to Heaven. The young ones can also visit and clear their heavenly way early.

  • Ronald D, Udupi

    Tue, Aug 23 2011

    Beautiful travelogue with mind blowing pictures!

  • Dinesh, Mangalore/USA

    Mon, Aug 22 2011

    You have a very fascinating way of sharing your experiences. I feel as if I was there with you. The pictures just make it even more wonderful.

    On the one hand, I feel that the government could have improved the facilities for the visitors. On the other hand, it would mean a lot more visitors, pollution, chaos, and the natural beauty will be under enormous pressure.

    Tell us about the soft side too. What were the difficulties, how did you get along with your fellow travelers, how do you trust those who made the arrangements (or is it just luck), and so on.

  • P.S. Dinakara, Mangalore

    Mon, Aug 22 2011

    Dear Eugine
    Accidentally I was happend to see your 1st article Journy of life time aboard Dehradun Express. Had I not read, it would have been a great personal loss for me. Chardham is the soul of Indian culture and tradition. The Photographs and your narration made me feel like as if I have travelled along with you to the holy place. Thank you for wring a wonderful article. I will be waiting to read the next instalment.
    With warm regards:: Dinakara

  • Joy, Mangalore

    Mon, Aug 22 2011

    Dear Eugene,
    Thanks for the wonderful article. I would like to know if you had done this trip via a travel agency or is it that you had gone on your own. If you had travelled on your own , how did you manage to gather information about different tourist spots and how to get to different spots etc .. Please share your insights as it may benefit many of us who are inspired by the article and would like to go there as well.

  • Sr.Hilda Albuquerque, Mangalore

    Sun, Aug 21 2011

    Dear Mr.D'Souza,
    Thank you for sharing your rich experience on Haridwar. Years back I did my retreat there and I relived those precious moments by seeing the wonderful creation of God. Congrats for capturing those beautiful scenes.

  • vasant raj, udupi/Abudhabi

    Sun, Aug 21 2011

    India is a beautiful country with greedy politicians...

  • Stanley Noronha, Kulshekar/Kuwait

    Sun, Aug 21 2011

    I like nature and the article really interesting with beautiful scenic photos. Thanks for writing and sharing the experience. All the best Mr. D'Souza.

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Title: Travelogue: Part Three: Tracing Down the Magnificent River Yamuna

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