Friday, November 02, 2007

Hemkund Sahib : A journey of lifetime

As per the change of plan going to Hemkund Sahib took priority over VOF. But we had understood that we will not be able to climb the torturous 7 km trek to Hemkund. Therefore we were to hire ponies.

When we got up in the morning, the weather looked ominous. A consistent heavy drizzle greeted us. But the rain had totally stopped by 8 am and the sky cleared. We could afford to start late as we would be traveling on ponies. We had some light breakfast and started off at around 8:30 am. We had hired pithoos for the kids @Rs.540/- for the round trip. It would be impossible for the kids to ride a pony alone, neither it would be easy for an elder to travel with a kid.

Charges per pony was Rs.340/- one way. This includes a charge of Rs.40/- levied by the Eco Development Committee, Bhyundar. I asked the person as to what is charge for. The stark reply was that ‘Environment Tax’ This tax is levied on every traveler on pony or palki or pithoo, but not for those on foot. Given the large number of visitors, they must be collecting a good sum, but how they utilize the money is not exactly known. I could see some sweepers wearing EDC uniform along the trek sweeping the horse dung off the road. However, the same fellows will double up as beggars asking you to give them something on your return journey. The begging is more in the style of darwans keeping alive the British legacy – salute and then beg. You do not normally see beggars on Sikh pilgrim sites.

While trekking a steep climb is arduous, riding a mule on a rocky trek is no fun either. You feel the constant stub on your spine. Despite the discomfort, we could easily go past those devout and brave who had started probably around 5:30 or 6 am in the morning, braving the rains. The climb is really stiff. It was all the way up without any let off. 4000 feet climb is to be covered over 7 km. It was easy to observe that the percentage of people on ponies easily outnumber those on foot on this second leg of trek. I really appreciated those brave people huffing puffing their way up. Some out of compulsion, but some out of sheer devotion. Being non- Sikhs, we probably were among those few exceptions who were going there as a tourist. But you call it a destiny that we all were traveling to Hemkund despite it was not in the itinerary of of my co-traveller's family.

It took us about 3 hours to reach Hemkund Sahib, the revered holy shrine of Sikhs. It is said that Guru Govind Singh had attained enlightment here in his previous birth. It takes about 6 hours to reach there on foot from Ghangaria, i.e., almost @1 km per hour. One should appreciate the effort of people who had constructed the shrines at 14000 feet. The shrine is located on the bank of the lake or sarovar surrounded by seven peaks. There also is Hindu temple dedicated to Laxman, the brother of Lord Rama. Laxman also supposed to have done penance here. The place remains buried under several feet of snows for most of the year.

I had it in my mind that if I can make it to Hemkund, then I will take a dip at the lake, however cold the water might be. It would be the experience of lifetime to take a dip in the icy cold water of a lake at 14000 feet. Almost every sikh arriving there were seen taking the holy dip. The sun was playing hide and seek with passing clouds. I had observed that the weather becomes warmer when sun was in the frame. I waited for such a moment, took my clothes off quickly and plunged into the icy cold waters. It all happened in a flash. I did not feel the cold. My wife recorded it in the handycam. But could not take a still shot. So I had a second dip. This time I felt the biting cold. I will have no repent from my visit to Hemkund. Not only I went there, I also took the holy dip in the icy cold water. A young guy asked me on return –are you Punjabi? I relied in the negative. He probably was surprised to see a non Punjabi taking that icy cold dip.

Brahma Kamal, a kind of lotus that grows on land in the area at this altitude, was seen in full bloom on the upper areas around the lake. I climbed those mini hillocks to get some good photos. I had never exerted that much just for photography. The effort was worth. Incidentally, Brahma Kamal is the state flower of Uttranchal. There is a story in Mahabharata where Brahma Kamal is mentioned. Remember the story of Bhim meeting Hanuman in a jungle. Bhim was going up the jungle looking for Brahma Kamal when he met Hanuman disguised an old monkey. These areas around Badrinath are associated with the Pandavas and Mahabharata in a big way. They supposed to have lived here and went to the heaven from Badrinath. There is a famous trek known as “Swargarohini Yatra’ or the Ascent to the Heaven, which is suppose to follow the trek the Pandavas used for going to heaven. Badrinath has a lot of mention in Purans and other mythology.

Coming back to Hemkund, no one stays there at night. The interiors of the Gurudwara appear to be a wooden structure. For Prasad, one is issued a receipt against their offerings. The Prasad is to be collected at Govindghat on return. We joined the devotees in the langar for lunch. The langar is not like the one in Amritsar. But it certainly is appreciable to feed so many people at 14000 feet. Everything has to be carried up there on a daily basis including firewood. The crowd started dispersing soon after langar around noon. One has to leave that place by 2 pm to reach back Ghangaria by twilight. Ponies are available for 200 to 250 for the downward journey. But most of the people took the downward journey on foot expecting it to be easier.

Easier!! Coming down the steep rocky trek was a nightmare, specially when we took the shortcut. To add to the woo, it had started raining almost as soon as we had started. It was a heavy drizzle. We had to put on the plastic raincoats or barsatis. The rain had stopped after an hour or so. The trek had also become relatively better sloped. The rain had made the trek bit slippery at places. We limbered down the trek slowly trying hard to maintain grips in the interlocks of rocks to prevent slipping or fall. Because of this the calf muscles got badly stressed. After about 5 kilometers of journey downward, we could see the Ghangaria village. That appeared like a mirage. The condition of legs were so bad by then that we had literally dreg them to reach hotel. I was so exhausted that somehow I managed to make two glasses of Glucose water and then lied motionlessly for about 10 minutes before normalcy returns. It took us about 4 hours to come down. We thought coming down on foot would be easier!! But believe me, coming down on ponies would have been still harder. To add to my problem, the plastic raincoat had soaked me out from inside with sweat. My clothes were so wet as if I had got drenched in the rain. I should have torn them off once the rain had stopped.

We had ordered a bucket of steaming hot water to soothe the muscles. In fact the demand for hot water had gone up suddenly and we had to wait for our turn. Those who had taken at least one way journey on foot that day could be easily identified in the crowd. The portions from hips downwards were so sore that every step was painful. Climbing up or down even a 6 inch step was torture. The masseurs were seen doing brisk business. They charge Rs.50/- for massage of legs. But we had decided against it and made use of the combiflam tablets and muscle relaxants.

By next morning, we had recovered fairly enough to think about day's plans of going to the VOF. We had to trek to VOF. Ponies are not allowed.

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