Hemkund: A Rose with a Thorn
June 21st – The beautiful lake, 6 km trek to Hemkund Sahib
A light breakfast at Himalaya and we proceeded by 9.30 to go on a 6 km trek to Hemkund, which is an important pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Sikhs. The site is situated on the banks of a beautiful glacial lake and surrounded by seven snow-clad peaks. Sounds unbelievable, doesn’t it? Hemkund is inaccessible from October to April because of the snow. Each year the first Sikh pilgrims arrive in May and repair the damage caused to the path in the harsh winter.
The river flowing by was littered with plastic bags and bottles. It was disheartening to see Ghangaria falling prey to commercialisation. This trek is gradual ascent on the cobbled path since Hemkund is at a higher altitude of 4329 m than Valley of Flowers, which was 3250 m, so the climb is difficult and really steep. Seeing that and a bit tired from the last few days trek, we immediately decided to take a horse ride up. At the starting point we saw this lovely waterfall flowing through the glacier. One need not pack food for this trek as you will find several stalls on the way. There weren’t many people while going up, and on the initial path the smell of mule dung just hits you and it persists for some time, but its all about acclimatizing to your surroundings. The horse ride can get a bit wobbly, but its fun. We started talking to the horse owner asking him about the place, language, number of tourists who visit the place and more importantly how many times in a day do they climb up. They answered once or twice in a day. That’s a difficult job, I thought to myself.
Around 41/2 kms after the trek, we had to get off the horseback and walk our way to the top, as there are glaciers ahead and horses obviously aren’t allowed. So either people walk it up or go on “pithoos.” We could see hundreds of pilgrims climbing up and hundreds leaving, all of them chanting “Satnam Waheguru.”We started saying that as well. When we reached it was fairly clear and we could see the peaks around.Citing glaciers had become a regular sight for us, something which we enjoyed walking on throughout the trip. When you stop in the middle of the path through the glacier and look up to see the source of it, its majestic.
The winding road to Hemkund. There are two ways of going up, you either take the well laid out route or the shortcut which is quite steep. We took the first one. On our way we would stop to take pictures of the landscape or catch our breathe, and would find many pilgrims encouraging us to go on and that we’ve almost reached. I found that really kind. The route has been well-made, so its an easy climb. In the mountains, flowers grow in abundance. With the winter season over, and the snow melting, chances are high to spot to several amazingly pretty flowers. Varieties of flowers, ferns, and herbs are massed in the valley in all their frail beauty and scented sweetness. Close to the entrance of the gurudwara, we spotted a pile of garbage on one side and felt really disappointed to see that sight. You are 4230 m above sea level and people are just ruining the place, unfortunately we didn’t see anyone doing anything about it. The path leading to the entrance is also dotted with shops selling religious souvenirs – photo frames, shawls etc.
You can see the snow-capped peaks in the background as you enter, it was quite a contrast to the noise and congested place. But I guess all religious places would be. The Sikhs believe that Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru of the Sikh faith, had meditated on the bank of this lake in one of his earlier births. It is widely believed among Sikhs that Guru Gobind Singh introduced the customs now universally associated with Sikhism. Since its discovery in 1930 by Sikh Havaldar, Solan Singh it has become a major pilgrimage center. Like many religious places in India, the custom is to enter the holy place bare feet as a sign of respect. We found a safe place to keep our shoes, and the floor was so cold, I could feel a shiver go down my spine, so I decided to keep my socks on and proceeded to the main hall or Darbar Sahib in the gurdwara. As we entered the hall, we saw large number of devotees sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor and listening to prayers. The tradition is also to cover their heads before entering the hall. Sri Guru Granth Sahib – the holy book of the Sikhs – was draped in fine raiment, flower-bedecked, and placed under a canopy, which was decorated in attractive colored materials.
With several devotees we moved slowly towards the canopy and there was a Sikh man in attendance, chanting prayers. The devotees, as they come, kneel before – the Guru Granth Sahib – the forehead touching the ground and placed a small offering. It was our first visit to a gurudwara so we followed the same ritual, offered our prayers and moved ahead.
Next to the canopy there were few singers, who were doing a good job. Seeing them reminded me of a conversation we had with a Sikh pilgrim from Punjab, on our way up to Ghangaria from Govindghat. He asked us from we were, on replying Mumbai, he asked us if there were singers in gurdwara in Mumbai, and whether he can get a job there as a singer. We’ve never visited a Gurudwara in Mumbai so we did not know if they had singers there.After visiting the religious place it was time to go to the lake. The entry point to the lake was crowded, with several pilgrims, only men – young and old – taking a dip in the water. There were suspended chains which you can hang on to while you immerse yourself in the icy cold water. Our eyes popped out, its freezing cold, how can they jump in the lake with only their underpants on. We watched few of them in amazement and also made them conscious. The lake is set like a jewel in a crown of seven of the most picturesque snow peaks of the Himalayas. When you see the reflection of the surroundings on the crystal clear water, your heart will definitely skip a beat. The view was simply amazing. There are thin sheets of ice floating on the lake and the glaciers from Hathi Parvat and Saptrishi peaks feed the lake and a small stream called Himganga flows out of this lake.
We decided to go away from the crowd onto the other side of the lake, where it was much more peaceful and serene. I thought to myself that no wonder this place is a spiritual power place, it is perfect to meditate and attain a higher state of consciousness. It was the closest we came to snow on this trip.The rock-strewn shores of the lake are covered with moss and flowers in bloom. Flowers were spread far and wide. A small bird enjoying in the lake. This is one of my favorite pictures, taken by Clyde, and it captures the fun the bird is having bathing in the lake, causing ripples in the water. The reflection of Hemkund Sahib on the calm waters. It was an unusual sight, seeing mice darting about on the hills. Sniffing and staring at us, cautiously watching every move we made. Another small bird hopping on the ice sheets. Oh, what a feeling! We saw people leaving by late afternoon, the place was so much better then, all you could hear was the birds chirping and the wind brushing through you face. From the far end we heard people asking us to get back, they were the caretakers and guard of the place. We had to leave.
There is also a Lakshman temple on the banks of the lake. It is believed that Lakshman, the younger brother of Ram, meditated by the lake and regained his health after being severely wounded by Meghnath, son of the demon Ravana, during a battle.On reaching the entry point of the lake, the guards seemed annoyed with us. They said we should have informed someone before venturing to the other side of the lake, as its a bit risky. We tried to convince him that we didn’t go far away and that the place is so beautiful we couldn’t resist to spend some time away from the crowd.
The guard explained that there are animals which come to the lake to quench their thirst, like a bear with her two cubs. So if we were to stay a little longer we could have caught a glimpse of life on this snowy land. But it was getting late, and it was time to head down.
Just adjacent to the gurdwara there was a eating hall or Langar Hall where communal meals are served. Langar is the term used in Sikhs for the free, vegetarian-only food served in a Gurdwara and eaten by everyone sitting as equals. There were just handful of people when we reached. The food is prepared by voluntary helpers, who stay at Hemkund for four months to serve thousands of pilgrims who flock this place. Outside the langar we saw few helpers washing the dishes and bowls in steamed water.So I took one bowl from them and got myself hot khichdi, a dish of lentils and rice. They were also serving tea. Its just basic food but the warmth and hospitality of the people just makes it taste better. I loved the khichdi, and Clyde didn’t eat much as he is not very fond of it. The image above shows the voluntary helpers who prepares food for nearly 6000 to 7000 people everyday. After eating it was time to descend. We were the last few people to leave the place and the weather was getting dicey with dark clouds covering the mountains around . We took the short cut which is more steep than the route we took to climb up. In no time it so was so misty and foggy that we couldn’t see beyond 5 feet.
Then we approached the glacier and one of the paths on the glacier had disappeared because of the bad weather conditions. There were group of helpers who guided everyone in the right direction, helping people to cross the path. People were walking in a queue while crossing the glacier, at a very slow pace, holding the stick to walk carefully, because if you slip or step in the wrong direction, you are history.
A woman ahead of us asked Clyde to look after his 10-year old kid and help him cross the glacier as it would be difficult for her to handle him. So Clyde with a stick in one hand and the kid on the other side crossed the glacier. The kid, by the name of Dilpreet Singh was a cute fellow, totally oblivious to the situation in hand, started to dance on the glacier and slipped twice. But fortunately Clyde held him and nothing unpleasant took place. We couldn’t click pictures at that time, as the visibility was deteriorating and we wanted to reach Ghangaria safely.All of us managed to cross the risky part, and we reached a lower altitude the visibility improved a bit. It was tea time, so we rested at a stall on the way and had the best tea we’ve had on this trip. Lot of people who were behind us, moved ahead some of them asked us to not to waste too much time and reach down at the earliest. We were really lucky that it didn’t rain.
On the way we saw a handsome horse, resting in his stable. 3 km left and the smell of mule dung hits you again. Climbing down is always easy, but the last 2 km was a bit tiring. We would halt, catch our breath and walk again and chant “Waheguru” as well sometimes to keep going. Now the whole valley was visible. What a relief! It took us around 4-5 hours to reach Ghangaria. Clyde was desperate to have a steamy mushroom soup at Himalaya, so it was already decided that as soon as we reach down we head straight to the restaurant. But on the way we made several stops. A guy was engraving names on finger rings for Rs 10, so me and Clyde decided to get one each. He got one because I asked him to, such a sweetheart. There is a shop in Ghangaria, which is run by Rajnish Chauhan, an avid trekker and a tour guide, that sells mountaineering equipments, gear, pictures & CDs of the Valley of Flowers etc. I remember while passing it in the morning, reading a notice on the glass door, which read – “I have gone trekking, will be back in the evening.” So this time we thought we would make a stop and see some of the pictures he has taken. He also runs slide show on The Valley of Flowers for tourists and is well-versed with the place. He treks nearly everyday to the Valley and knows the names of every plant and animal.
When the season is over, he heads to Auli to give skiing lessons, and goes camping on various mountain peaks in Uttaranchal. He claims to have seen a snow leopard three times, but has never taken a picture, so am not sure how far its true. But we really envied his lifestyle, adventurous and thrilling. We bought a CD on Valley of Flowers for Rs 100, it has the full history of the Valley when it was discovered in 1931, the flowers, the route etc.
If you need a tour guide to take you around Valley of Flowers, contact Rajnish -
Distt Chamoli – 246433 (UK)
He charges Rs 600 for the whole trek.
Now it was time to finally go and have some soup. We had a delightful dinner, talking about our experience at Hemkund. The foggy weather towards the end of our journey, the pristine lake and the diverse flora and fauna sums it all up.
June 21st Expenses:
Breakfast at Himalayan: Rs 24
Horse Ride: Rs 600
Chai & Parle G: Rs 26
CD of Valley of Flowers: Rs 100
Dinner at Himalyan: Rs 220
Room: Rs 950
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