“Welcome to the Land of Gods” is a signboard that will greet you the moment you reach the Garhwal Himalayas. What Arun Kolatkar wrote about Jejuri is quite true about the Garhwal Himalayas too: “what is god / and what is stone / the dividing line / if it exists / is very thin / at jejuri / and every other stone / is god or his cousin” (in the poem, A Scratch).
|On my way to Gomukh from Gangotri|
My recent trekking to Gomukh with a group of 35 students taught me quite many a lesson about gods of all hues including wealth.
We started our trekking from Gangotri soon after breakfast. Gangotri, as the name implies, is (supposed to be) the origin of the holy river Ganga. We had reached Gangotri a day before our trekking with enough time left for a wandering in the holy mount. One of the places that caught our fancy during our wandering was the wooden cabin of a Baba (sage) who lives very close to the place where the Ganga spouted forth lustily through the gap between two rocks into what is now known as Suryakund, the erstwhile origin of the river. The Baba calls himself Gangaputra (son of the Ganga). He has a collection of “eight quintals” of photographs related to the Ganga. He is constructing a museum near his cabin in order to display those photos.
He admonished the students with me when they said they were on the way to attend the arati at the Gangotri Temple. “Which goddess are you going to worship?” he asked. “It’s a broken idol there that they are worshipping.” The priests and others have converted the religion into a business, he explained. He accused the students of being part of the whole commercial process sustained by the enterprise called trekking which pollutes the Ganga at its present source, Gomukh.
The real origin of the Ganga was Gangotri, explained the Baba, showing pictures of the place before the glaciers started receding. Now, you can trek up to Gomukh. The Uttarakhand government has even opened the trekking further where the glaciers still exist toward Tapovan and Nandanvan. But the glaciers have vanished entirely up to Gomukh.
Where will you get the holy water of the Ganga? At Gomukh?
The Baba’s question stayed in my mind as I climbed the rugged and often dangerously narrow trail toward Gomukh the next day with a rucksack on my back. I had imagined that the Baba was exaggerating when he spoke about the presence of human excreta in the Ganga right from Gomukh. It is only when I reached Gomukh that I apprehended the veracity of his grievance. The Baba’s remark was imprinted so strongly in my mind that I could not bring myself to jump into the Ganga from our raft in spite of the repeated solicitation from both the guide and my students while rafting in the river later at Rishikesh. I was not afraid of the river. I could have tolerated the blackness of the waters. But the stench of human excreta wafted into my nostrils from Gomukh while I sat in the raft at Rishikesh (a distance of about 300 km between the two places), my chest smothered by the stinking life jacket and my brain throbbing beneath the plastic helmet.
While the arati was going on at the Gangotri temple, I watched my students talking to who knows whom on their mobile phones. They had questioned me much on the way from the Baba’s cabin to the temple about the relevance of gods and religions. They tended to joke rather than discuss. The Baba had initiated no more spirituality in their minds than scatological scents in mine.
The arati at the temple was a dramatic ritual for me. I liked it. Religion should be dramatic. It should have the potential to evoke what Aristotle called catharsis (purgation of emotions). What I noticed at Gangotri was, however, mere spectacle (another Aristotelian term that means ‘show’ or the optical part of the ritual). The Baba was right, I thought. It was a broken idol that was being worshipped by people who were expending their excess wealth in sterile spiritual practices.
The Baba had cut down a whole range of trees in the mountain side in order to construct his museum. “I’ve planted five trees for one that I’ve cut,” he said to us justifying his deed. Where did he plant them, I wondered. The whole range of the mountains that we trekked from Gomukh looked denuded. Of course, they were the mountains that had been covered by snow once upon a time and cannot sprout life due to the rocky surface. Now the snow has receded. Human waste of all kinds including plastic has taken its place. Will the Baba’s museum bring back the snow? Will it at least reduce the waste ejected by human beings? Will it take away the odour of human excreta from my nostrils? The mounts of excreta which I saw at Bhojbasa (the base camp for Gomukh trek), a place that has not even a single toilet though scores of trekkers gather every day there.
[This is the first part of my reflection on my trek to Gomuk. The entire journey from Delhi and back lasted a week, 30 Sep-7 Oct.]