I took two weeks off and spent time visiting some of the more important pilgrimage centres in the Gharwal Himalayas. Gangothri, Yamunothri, Kedarnath and Badrinath are places to which we [mainly Hindus] have been going since time immemorial. Mention of these places has been made even in scriptures and thus it must have been nearly 5,000 years since these journeys are being made. Why and what drove them to take this none too comfortable [downright dangerous then] journey?
Yamunothri is the origin of the river Yamuna and Gangothri is that of Ganga [in reality the origins are some way further up in the Gangothri Glacier]. But the places the pilgrims can go are the farthest they can go. These rivers are the life blood of the country and the earliest settlements of our ancestors were on the banks of these rivers and worship of these rivers thus dates back to pre history. Thus the worship and veneration has gone into the psyche of us Indians.
What about Badri and Kedarnath? Both have temples dedicated to Lord Shiva and are located at heights of around 12000 ft. After an arduous climb, you reach a place where there is a kilometer wide flat land surrounded by high rise mountains with snow caps. These two are places of indescribable beauty. My guess is that the pilgrims and other seekers must have been able to reach this height and could go no farther. They must have been awed by the beauty of the land and must have felt the Devine presence and a place where even death was welcome!
So much for the history and feeling. Now to come to some real facts. At all these places the approach is narrow and made even narrower by ill placed and kept petty shops. Garbage and dirt is strewn all over. Mendicants and beggars harass the pilgrims at every step. The shrines made up of black granite are grimy because of grease and floors are slippery. There is disorder and noise everywhere. I tried imagining how it would be if one removes all these and leave just the shrines. In my mind I saw a picture which was heavenly. It was impossible to hold on to this image as realty was otherwise.
I came back with the impression that we have no respect for our heritage and treat these great places with contempt. The sad part of the whole thing is that we even don’t know that we are sullying these shrines!
The redeeming feature of the trip was the spectacular Ganga Aarthi on the banks of the river at Haradwar. The ceremony, lasting for half an hour where in ten priests pray in praise of the mother Ganga with multi layered lamps. The evening I saw this spectacle there must have been more than 5,000 people witnessing with rarely seen discipline. I believe this thanksgiving ceremony has been going on for the last 1,200 years nonstop.
I returned home with the feeling, how nice it would be if our people show the same respect downstream and stop polluting this great river which at places is nothing but a flowing cesspool.