This was written by William Dalrymple, A British writer who lives in India and has written several award winning books about India.
Source of the Sacred Ganges "If you think it is cold now," said the holy man, "you should see it in winter." Ram Sarandas and I were standing on the edge of the Ganges, not far from its source high in the Himalayas, near the Indian-Tibet border. It was May, but while in the plains the mercury was hitting close on 48 degrees, here at Cheerbasa a chill wind was blowing down from the snow peaks and I was shivering in my thermals. Ram Sarandas, however, was naked but for a saffron loincloth, and seemed completely immune to the icy winds. He stood in front of me smiling broadly, skin oiled and supple, his hair tangled in a mass of knotted dreadlocks. "But even you can't live here in the winter," I said looking at the glacier glinting in the sun, only a mile down the valley. "It must be completely cut off." "It is," said Ram. "From November to May the road is closed. Some years we get fourteen feet of snow here. So I stay in my hermitage, praying to Mother Ganga." "Do you have electricity?" "Of course not. Just a petromax lamp. I eat dried fruit and in summer I dry green leaves and eat them as well. For sixteen years I have lived liked this." "But what if you fall sick?" "In all these years I have never had any serious cold or fever." "Don't you feel the cold?" "Yes! But I am used to it like the creatures and other wildlife here. I do my yoga for fourteen hours a day. But first, I take a dip in the Ganges, normally at 5 am. This sets me up for the day." "A dip ? Even in winter? But isn't the Ganges frozen over?" "Yes, sometimes. But we cut a hole. The cold is good: it helps you concentrate more on what you want to achieve. It leads you more brightly into the path ahead." Ram paused and considered for a second. "Only occasionally I have problems," he added. "But then I am looked after." "What do you mean?" I asked. "Once or twice I have taken a dip in the freezing waters, and I have stuck there, frozen to the ice. But something extraordinary happens: I have felt myself lifted by the waters. I was in the arms of the Mother Ganges, and it was Ganga herself who pulled me out, just like a mother. All the sadhus up here report the same thing. The River Goddess: she looks after us like a mother looks after her child." What Ram Das said was something I had heard again and again on my journey up the Ganges last summer to make a series, Indian Journeys, for the BBC. For Indians revere their rivers like no other nation, and of all river they revere the Ganges. According to Hindu theology, the Goddess Ganges - or Ganga as she is known in India - is the Mother Goddess of the whole Subcontinent. She is tangible, approachable and all accepting: distilled compassion in liquid form. As well as Ganga, Hindus have given the Goddess 107 other names: Daughter of the Himalaya, Cow Which Gives Much Milk, Having Beautiful Limbs, Eternally Pure, Light Amid the Darkness of Ignorance... Being brushed by a breeze containing even a drop of Ganges water is said to erase instantly all sins accumulated over a hundred lifetimes. According to the Agni Purana, written about 1,000 B.C, bathing in the waters of the Ganges is an experience similar to being in heaven. To die while being immersed in the Ganges results in moksha, final spiritual liberation. For this reason, Hindus from all over India try once in their lives to visit the Ganges and bathe in her waters. But the more hardy and devout make one more effort still. Although the entire river is held to be sacred, Hindus believe that its source is of an extra special sanctity. According to Hindu cosmography the source- the Cow's Mouth which lies hidden high in the Central Himalayas- is the most sacred place on earth. To visit it is the most auspicious act you can perform. So every summer, as the sun dries and desiccates the white-hot plains of India, a stream of pilgrims leave their farms and villages, pack their belongings into bound-up cloths, and plod their way up to Hardwar, where they bathe in the river. Most then return home. But a few, mainly sadhus (or wandering Holy Men), press on into the cool of the High Himalayas, taking the old pilgrim's route across the mountains to Gaumukh, the Cow's Mouth. The closer you get to the source, the more you find yourself surrounded by these sadhus. For years I had seen the holy men in my travels all over India and found them slightly menacing figures. But it was only seeing them in such numbers up in the wild Himalayas that made me realise quite how many of them there are, and how many different forms they take. Some are freelance wanderers, moving from town to town; others live ordered monastic lives in ashrams, dividing their day according to strict rules and performing severe penances. Most fascinating of all are the naked naga sadhus like Ram Sarandas. I had always assumed that most of the Holy Men I had seen in India were from traditional village backgrounds, and were motivated by a blind and simple faith. But my assumptions were corrected when, one morning, I fell in with Ajay Kumar Jha. When I had hailed Ajay he had replied in fluent English, and as soon as we began talking it became apparent that, though he looked indistinguishable from any of the other sadhus, he was in fact highly educated. Ajay and I walked together along the steep ridge of a mountain, alone but for the great birds of prey circling the thermals below us. I asked him to tell me his story and after some initial hesitation, he consented: "I have been a sanyasi [wanderer] only for two and a half years," he said. "Before that I was the sales manager with Kelvinator, a Bombay consumer electricals company. I had done an MBA and was considered a high flyer by my employers. But one day I just decided I could not spend the rest of my life marketing fridges. So I just left. I wrote a letter to my boss and to my parents, gave away my belongings to the poor, and took a train to Benares. There I threw away my old suit, bought these robes and found a guru." "Have you never regretted what you did?" I asked. "It was a very sudden decision," replied Ajay. "But I have never regretted it for a minute, even when I have not eaten for several days and am at my most hungry." We had now arrived at the top of the ridge and the land fell steeply on every side. Ajay gestured out over the forests and pastures laid out at our feet, a hundred shades of green framed by the blinding white of the distant snow peaks: "When you walk in the hills your mind becomes clear," he said. "All your worries disappear. Look! I carry only a blanket and a water bottle. I have no possessions, so I have no worries." He smiled: "To walk every day is a good life. But to walk in the Himalayas thinking of God: that is the best life. Men feel good when they live like this." Two months earlier my journey had begun at Hardwar, the gateway to the Himalayas, where the Ganges debouches into the plains. From there, we headed on up into the hills, winding our way up the narrow gorge of the river valley. It was a terrifying road, narrow and precipitous, and the government had littered the way with warning signposts to try and curb the enthusiasm of the more excitable drivers. Those near Hardwar were fairly light-hearted: NO RACE, NO RALLY, ENJOY THE BEAUTY OF THE VALLEY. But as we approached the roadhead, the tone was verging on the morbid: BETTER LATE THAN NEVER. LIFE IS SHORT: DO NOT MAKE IT SHORTER. At Gauri Kund the tarmac road finally came to an end. From here, we followed the polished cobbles of the ancient yatra route, passing along a pilgrimage route that has been trodden by wanderers, holy men and pilgrims for over three thousand years: one of the most ancient sacred routes in the world. It is this stage in the pilgrimage - across some of the highest ridges in the world - that separates the real devotees from what Hindus sometimes call dongi sadhus: hollow holy men. Apart from a few foresters and shepherds no one lives on these high passes at all. Here, it is said, Shiva can sometimes be stumbled across in the form of a goatherd. It's very wild country and after nearly one hundred kilometres of this, the track arrives at Gangotri, the last staging post on the journey. When a temple was first built here, perhaps some two thousand years ago, Gangotri was actually the source of the Ganges. But since then the glacier which feeds the river has retreated some twenty miles up the valley, and the source is now a day and a half's trek up from the temple. It's another measure of the sheer antiquity of this extraordinary religion: as if Hinduism is a faith whose history is to be recorded not in human but in geological time. The final stage of the trek is through an almost symbolic wasteland: an inhospitable high-altitude moonscape, twelve thousand feet high, burningly hot by day, icily cold by night, as one approaches the last ring of high Himalayan mountains which guard the source. Early one morning, at the end of my trek, I slipped down the far side of these peaks, and emerged onto what appeared to be a kind of pebble shore. I focused my eyes through the mist. As I looked indistinct shapes slowly resolved themselves into solid objects, revealing a sight so strange that it seemed at first as if we had stumbled onto a film set rather than a natural panorama. Ahead, rising perhaps 400 metres into the air, was a solid wall; at first I took it to be rock, but gradually it became clear that it was in fact a crystal amphitheatre of ice. The haze hung like a sheet just above the pointed peak of this ice wall; another thinner line of haze hung over the water at its base, so that the whole glacier appeared somehow disembodied by the vapour, suspended, as it were, between two clouds. Stranger still, the Ganges flowed directly out of the glacier, emerging not - as most rivers do - as a small stream which gradually gained volume as it flowed seaward, but rushing from the ice as a fully-formed river, a wide grey swathe of snowmelt, thirty metres across. You don't have to be a Hindu to feel that this is one of the most extraordinary places on the face of the earth. No man-made shrine or structure breaks the solitude; no priest intercedes between God and man: the ice wall is the shrine. Only when you see such a sight in the pre-dawn glimmer of a sub-zero Himalayan morning can you really grasp how easy it is to deify such a river. As we watched one sadhu , pulled off his shoes, stripped off his clothes and jumped into the freezing water, standing there stark naked amid the bobbing ice floes, eyes shut, hands cupped in prayer. The sun was now risen and the mist had begun to clear. At the two great boulders that form the natural gateway to the Cows Mouth, I paused for a last look. The naked sadhu was still praying waist-high amid the ice floes of the freezing water; many other holy men were standing as if transfixed on the bank. I felt a tinge of satisfaction at having finally reached this most remote of places; but as I headed back down the valley, I also felt strangely sad that however far I travelled on this globe, I would probably never again see so strange and otherworldly a place.