A Journey to Gaumukh
Written by Sheila Sharma
Translated by Shama Chowdhury
Illustrations by Reenie Kaur
Published by National Book Trust, New Delhi
Excerpts from the book:
Devyani and Aditya were so tired that they could hardly keep their eyes open and at Harsil they couldn’t wait to fall into bed. But Grandpa insisted that they eat some nuts and a little food first. He said, “You must never go to sleep on an empty stomach in a cold climate.” Gulping down a little food, the children tumbled into bed.
It was too early in the year for snow, but at night Harsil had its first shower of rain and the mountain peaks their first snowfall of the season. Aditya looked out of the window in the morning and woke Devyvani. “Look at the snow-capped peaks,” he said excitedly.
Golden sunshine poured down. Aditya saw a flock of sheep and ran off to play with them. He asked the shepherd to let him hold one of the lambs, and, clutching it in his arms, began to walk with the shepherd. “Why don’t you let the lambs run along the ground?” he asked.
Being from a remote part of the hills, the shepherd spoke a different language. He explained in gestures that it would be too tiring for the lambs to walk as the flock had a long way to go.
Devyani ran up to join her brother but stopped short when she saw the shepherd. She clutched her Grandpa’s hand. “Who’s that, Grandpa? He looks so frightening with his matted hair and beard!”
Grandpa explained, “He’s a Gaddi. When it begins to snow in the higher mountains, he collects the sheep of those who live in the area and brings them to the lower slopes to graze.”
“Why bring other people’s sheep? He should only bring his own,” stated Devyani.
“He does it because it benefits him. He is not paid money, he is given a lamb instead. That way he builds up his own herd. In the hills, lambs and goats mean wealth.”
“But surely money is wealth,” objected Devyani.
“What would he do with money? What’s the good of money if it doesn’t get you anything to eat” Sheep and goats have many uses-their milk can be drunk, their wool makes blankets and their skin rugs. Now you can imagine how dear their animals are to them, and how precious. That’s why the larger a man’s herd, the richer he is considered. The Gaddis of the hills are just like our shepherds in the plains.”
“He doesn’t seem so frightening to me now,” remarked Devyani.
“They live high up in the forests, away from civilization, so, of course, they look unkempt. Wandering about in the open, in the sun, their complexion gets rough and rugged. They are nomads and are always on the move. But if you go up to him you’ll see that his face is gentle and his eyes soft. That’s why Aditya liked being with him.”
At dawn the next day they set off for Gangotri. Grandpa mentioned that earlier in their journey the Ganga flowed beneath them. Here, the same river was known as the Janhavi after the ashram of Janhu Rishi. There was a story about it in the Puranas.
“What are the Puranas?” asked Devyani.
“Ancient, very ancient holy books. As you know, there is always some exaggeration in stories. The legend goes that once the river Ganga crept into the ashram of Janhu Rishi. The terrified inhabitants thought they were about to drown but Janhu Rishi soaked up the water and released it from his thigh. That’s why the Ganga came to be called the ‘Janhavi.’ Now this place is known as Jangla.”
“That’s only a story, what’s the truth, Grandpa? Did Janhu Rishi really soak up the Ganga?” Aditya asked.
“Well, Aditya, I wasn’t there. But whatever really happened, nature certainly plays strange tricks. It certainly seems as if the Ganga is flowing out of the lower part of the mountain where the Janhu Ashram is. There must either have been a crack in the mountain or the flow of the Ganga suddenly increased and a stream entered the ashram. Janhu Rishi must have cut away a part of the mountain so that the water would flow away from the ashram, towards Gangotri, and join the Ganga. And so the ashram was saved.”
“But Grandpa, in the story the Ganga flowed out of Janhu Rishi’s thigh. What does that mean?” Aditya questioned.
“Let me explain. If we were to imagine that the ashram were a person, then the top of it would be the head, the middle the waist, and the lower portion the thighs. Since the Ganga changed direction at this point it’s said that the Ganga emerged from the thigh. You can see the stream splashing swiftly down to join the main river at the bottom of the mountain. Actually it’s only this part which is called the Janhavi, but now ‘Janhavi’ seems to have become one of the names for the Ganga.”
“Why is this dead wood floating in the Janhavi?” asked Devyani, pulling some toward the shore and paying no heed to Grandpa’s warning, “Careful, don’t slip and fall in!”
Devyani sniffed the wood. “It has a nice smell.”
“Yes, this is the wood of the Padma. It has a sweet smell.”
“This bit looks just like a bird. I’m going to take it home. I’ll always remember that I took it out of the Janhavi.”
The children were very tired, and fell asleep at once. When Grandpa woke in the morning he found they had vanished. He thought that they might have again gone into some cave but their voices sounded close by.
“What’s happening? Why have you collected all these stones?” asked Grandpa.
“Look at these beautiful stones, Grandpa. We don’t have stones like these at home. We have even given them names. We’ve called this one ‘Grandpa’,” Devyani added.
“Why on earth? What resemblance did you find between your Grandpa and this pebble?” Grandpa asked laughing.
“You wear a sacred thread and so does this stone, Look!”
“You mean that brown line running across the white of the rock. You’ve become very cheeky!”
“And this pebble is called, ‘Grandma’.”
“Why? Are you planning to assemble an entire family from these stones?”
“It has a bindi on its forehead. See this black dot at the top, doesn’t it look just like a bindi?”
“And this one is called ‘Sapphire’. Look how blue it is. I’m going to take all these stones home.”
“Only if you can carry them yourself. I’m only taking back some Ganga water. Come with me, I’ll show you a really unusual stone.”
What is special about the rocks of Gangotri is that most of them are white. Grandpa showed Aditya a rock which had marks which looked like a bow and arrow with a pair of sandals near by. “These are supposed to be the prints of Rama’s sandals to which Bharat paid homage. Have you noticed, Aditya, how the water of the Ganga flows into this cave? It comes down in the shape of a Shivalingam,” Grandpa pointed out.
On their return to the forest rest house Grandpa got busy with preparations for the journey to Gaumukh. He negotiated with the mule-owners who were to take them part of the way. They would have to cover the rest of the distance on foot, slithering and sliding over rocks and boulders.
“Are you ready to go?” Grandpa called out. “Remember, we have to make an early start. I’ve already told you that when travelling in the mountains, one must set off at the crack of dawn.”
“Will we reach Gaumukh tomorrow?” the children asked.
“No, we’ll spend the night at Chirbas. The next day we’ll go to Gaumukh but return to Chirbas for the night. We’ll pass Bhujbas and Pushpabas on the way, but we won’t stop.
Devyani asked suddenly, “Aditya, what’s Chirbas? What sort of name is that?”
Grandpa overheard her. Wrapping his blanket around himself, he came and sat by the children. “You’ll see that the vegetation will change as we climb higher,” he said. “Up to a certain altitude you find chir pines, after that birches, higher up shrubs and flowers, and, still further, there’s only grass. After that there are just rocks. To the point where the last pine grows, the area is called Chirbas (abode of pines); up to the last birch Bhujbas (abode of birches), and the treeless region, where there are only bushes and seasonal flowers, is called Pushpabas (abode of flowers). The area beyond Gaumukh, which is all rock, is called Tapovan (land of austerity). You’ll see it all for yourselves tomorrow morning.”