The call of Gaumukh

Abhishek Kaushal has done the Gangotri – Gaumukh trek three times in the past 13 years. In this pictorial write-up, he shares his feelings and views about the changes he has witnessed during these three trips.

The Gangotri Glacier, one of the largest glaciers in the Himalayan range, is visited regularly by devout Hindus as part of a pilgrimage. A major source of the River Ganga, Gangotri Glacier is also one of the most-frequented destinations for trekkers and mountaineers, who come here for the beautiful views and the challenges that this area throws up. Therefore, it is also a place that I have visited several times (I am not the devotional kind by any stretch of the imagination). In the past 13 years I have visited Gangotri Glacier thrice (including twice in the last 3 years). And I can therefore say with confidence that I have seen the physical changes in the vicinity of the glacier during these 13 years.

Gaumukh (literally: cow’s mouth) is the end or snout (or terminus) of the Gangotri Glacier and it is called so since it resembles the open mouth of a cow. Gaumukh is the starting point of the River Bhagirathi (a major tributary of the Ganga). The Bhagirathi proceeds from Gaumukh, across the valley to Gangotri town and then flows beyond, joining other tributaries and streams, all of which eventually form the Ganga.

The trek from Gangotri town to Gaumukh is 18 kilometres long, and the trekking milestones include: Kankhu Barrier (2 kms), Chidwasa (7 kms),  Bhojwasa (5 kms), Gaumukh (4 kms). Around 4-6 kms beyond Gaumukh lies Tapovan.

In 2003, at the young age of 22, I went up to Gaumukh for the first time. I was serving my Industrial Training with Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL) in Haridwar at that time (during my Diploma in Electrical Engineering). In a spur-of-the-moment thing, I decided one evening to go to Gaumukh. On hearing about it, five of my mates decided to join me. And next morning, just like that, we set off without thinking about the trek or the arrangements required to undertake it.

We started at 5:30 am from Gangotri town in order to return back by evening and trekked all the way to Gaumukh, reaching there at around 11:00 am. It was only when I reached Gaumukh and climbed to higher ground above the Gangotri Glacier that I realized the magnitude and mightiness of the glacier. Since childhood, we were told about the River Ganga, about how mighty, how sacred it is, and the stories of how it supposedly flows from the hair of Lord Shiva … when you reach Gaumukh and see the extent of Gangotri Glacier, you sort of start believing all the stories.

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My first view of the start of the River Bhagirathi (Gaumukh) in 2003; Scanned image of original photograph taken by Abhishek Kaushal

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In my 2003 trip, this is the breathtaking view that I got of the mighty Gangotri glacier with the snout shaped Gaumukh; Scanned image of original photograph taken by Abhishek Kaushal

Now when I look back and think about what the exuberance of youth can achieve, I am amazed – because all the information that we had about the trek was collected at Gangotri town the evening before! In spite of minimal preparations and information, we kept climbing further above the glacier and reached Tapovan after a few kilometres. Since the weather was not clear, I was not able to see much of the mighty Himalayan peaks that surrounded this area.

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In my 2003 trip, standing atop the Gangotri glacier, I saw the alarming view of clouds rolling up the Gangotri valley, signaling impending bad weather; Scanned image of original photograph taken by Abhishek Kaushal

My next visit to Gaumukh happened in 2014, and by then things had changed drastically. I did remember a lot from the 2003 trek, but what I experienced was only 20 percent of the stuff that I remembered and expected. In 2003, no permissions were required to undertake the trek to Gaumukh and now we needed permission from the Forest Office in Gangotri town to do the trek. Further, a guide was required since the trek route had broken at several places in the 2013 floods, and finally it was suggested that we do the trek in 2 days rather than in one single day (as I had done in 2003). This time the weather was clear so I could see peaks like Bhagirathi 1, 2 and 3, Shivling and Meru on my way to Gaumukh. The single pieces of logs that acted as bridges on small streams in 2003 were being converted to better quality small metallic or wooden bridges. The devastation caused by the 2013 floods was clearly visible as the trek route was broken at several spots and at some places ropes were tied to cross over broken sections of the trail. I had never imagined that this trek would have become so difficult and dangerous in a span of 11 years.

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Looking back over the original trail towards Gangotri town during my 2014 trek to Gaumukh; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

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The only good thing about my 2014 trek to Gaumukh was the nice weather which gave me good views of the high Himalayan mountains; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

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During my 2014 trek to Gaumukh, I had to cross a missing section of the original trail using a fixed rope dangling over the cliff; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

The efforts of the government to mend the routes were clearly visible as people were seen working on the trail at various places. In fact, at some places the trail had been cemented and railings had been placed on the cliff-side. One of the major disappointments for me this time round was the absence of the small tea stalls which were there previously to serve the travelers with tea, Maggi and other snacks.

But the biggest surprise of the trip was yet to come: I used to tell my friends about how mighty the glacier looked from Bhojwasa and how great it felt on reaching Gaumukh; this time, the distance from Bhojwasa to the glacier had increased considerably which meant that the glacier had receded alarmingly. Some of this was due to global warming and some could be due to the floods of 2013. The glacier was still mighty and majestic, but looking at the amount by which it had receded, a few questions were ignited in my mind – If the glacier can recede by such an amount in my small life time, then what will happen in the years to come? The stories that people tell about the glacier and how it has changed over the years are really true since I saw the changes with my own eyes in a decade or so. Will future generations actually be able to come here to see the natural beauty and a piece of art, or will they just think of these places as pieces of our imagination when we tell them our stories? On my way back I was a bit dispirited and remember thinking that I would never come to Gaumukh again to see the deteriorating state of the glacier as it made me feel concerned but helpless.

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Standing at this spot in 2014, I realized that the distance between Bhojwasa and Gaumukh had increased since my last trip in 2003 ; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

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In 2014, I got a closer picture of the magnitude by which the glacier had receded since 2003; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

But in May 2016, Gaumukh called me again, for my expedition to Mount Thelu. This time my expectations about the trek and the glacier were tempered. I knew that the amount of snowfall had been very less as compared to normal this winter so most of the views would be old ice, mud and big rocks.

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During my 2016 trip, I saw the lack of snowfall but the glacier was similar in size as compared to 2014; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

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I enjoy a mesmerizing view of the Gangotri valley standing atop the Gangotri glacier in 2016 ; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

To my pleasant surprise, this time things looked promising: the route had been almost completely re-built and was in-fact even better than the one I had taken in 2003. The tea stalls had reappeared and more people were going to Gaumukh to witness and experience the beauty of this area. The condition of the glacier was almost the same as it was in 2014 in-spite of less snowfall this year. But this didn’t make me either ecstatic or dejected – it just gave me hope that while Mother Nature is healing herself in her own way and at her own pace, visitors to this area will cherish and do their best to preserve and nurture this gift we all have been bestowed with.

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I’m glad to see that the fixed rope section that I encountered in 2014 has been repaired and replaced by much safer and comfortable stairs in 2016; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

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Repair works on the damaged section of the Gangotri – Gaumukh trail continue in 2016; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

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Observing the position of the start of the River Bhagirathi (Gaumukh) in 2016 in comparison to what I saw in 2003; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

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