Thursday, June 23, 2005

Pilgrimage : Sardar style

Nishan Sahibs tied to the bikes were fluffing in the strong mountain breeze yells you that they are out on pilgrimage. Hero Hondas, LMLs, Yamahas, Kawasakis, Vespas and even old Bajaj supers, they were on all of these. Mostly with one companion, but some was even triple riding. Faces covered in traditional ochre or saffron colours to keep dust and heat away, many riding barefoot with boots and other paraphernalia hanging from sides of the bikes, these were real brave Sikhs on pilgrimage to Hemkund Sahib, a Sikh shrine located 276 kms from Rishikesh up in the Garhwal Himalayas at an altitude of 4329 meters, where Guru Govind Sigh is said to have attained enlightenment in one of his previous birth.

These brave men truly embody the rough and tough image of a warrior community. They have come from various places in Haryana, Delhi, but mostly from Punjab. Those from Punjab had taken the route via Poanta Sahib à Dehradun à Rishikesh and those from Delhi / Haryana have come via Haridwar. Each way it is at least 250 kms upto Rishikesh. From Rishikesh the climb up the hill begins. Mother Ganga, lay like a white chaddar, flows with thundering roars along the road upto Devaprayag, the confluence of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi giving birth to the Ganges. Beyond Devprayag, it is Alaknanda that keeps your company along the twirls and curves of the road giving you a real feel of white waters, quite different from the muddy polluted waters of the Ganges we see down below. The road upto Joshimath can be called good for a mountain road for most of the places but punctuated by stretches of real bad patches. It is still called motorable because you are sitting in a car and someone else is bothering to maneuver those rocky terrains. These are landslide prone areas where roads got damaged so badly that you constantly get thrown from one side to the other inside the car. The road between Joshimath and Badrinath is a nightmare. It is kuttcha and dusty from Vishnuprayag onwards for about 20 kms. As the road has a gate system which opens for one-way traffic, 50 / 60 vehicles moves in a cavalcade raising a virtual dust storm. Visibility reduces to 10 / 20 meters at times. Imagine getting trapped in such roads in a bike. You get a thick white layer once you come out of it.

To add to the bad roads, there was the mid June sun blazing down unrelentedly coocking up steams in the bared mountains. You could feel the hot loo even in higher areas like Nandprayag. But none of these was deterring these brave sardars. Some were going up and equal numbers were returning greeting each other by raising hands. Some are found repairing themselves punctured tyres or the engine that has given up. One scooter was even seen pulling another with a rope whose Bajaj scooter had given up. Have you ever thought of traveling 1200 kms on two wheelers, 600 kms of which will be in the mountains? My impression was that you have to be a real brave heart or stupid to try this. But now add one more to that list – a sardar can also do it.

The motorbike journey ends at Govindghat, about 20 km from Joshimath. Probably it takes three days for them to reach here from their hometowns. There you leave your vehicle and joins the crawl up the mountain on foot. Hundreds of pilgrims arrive at Govindghat everyday in all forms of vehicles – from trucks to luxury cars. Their numbers should be at least thrice that of Hindu’s going to Badrinath everyday. The 19 kms trek from Govindghat to Hemkund Sahib takes you from 1890 metres to 4329 meters altitude. It takes three days for one to return to Govindghat. The sight I had on my way to Badrinath of endless antlike lines of Sikh piligrims going up in the mountain was unforgettable. There were small babies, kids and aged ones amongst the crowd. Everyone was getting ready to embark upon this tough three days trekking on foot. Your heart fills with sheer respect for their religious faith and this extraordinary attempt to pay obeisance to the god almighty.

Many of the Sikhs even makes it to Badrinath after returning from Hemkund sahib. Badrinath is about 24 kms from Govindghat. My body was aching from the constant swaying it had received for 3 days in the Qualis we had traveled Badrinath from Dehradun. I just can’t think of the condition of those brave sardars on two wheelers. They will certainly be exhausted, but their faces tell of determination. I had taken few photographs of these brave men to tell others back home and believe it. Their images will be one of the unforgettable memories of my trip to Badrinath.
(This is the first of a series of my travellouge on Badrinath)

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