In Search of the Ganga’s Origin  

Till the eighteenth century Indians blindly believed that the Ganga actually emerged from the Vinduswarovar. Even the Ramayana states that the source of the Ganga was not Manaswarovar but Vinduswarovar. Thus both these lakes became sacred spots for the Hindus. The Mahabharata too mentions these two lakes. The five Pandavas on their way to Badarikasram had visited these two sacred spots. People were aware of the existence of Manaswarovar but no one could provide any information about the exact location of Vinduswarovar.

Intrigued by the information about this mysterious Vinduswarovar, men started searching for its exact geographical location. Initially expeditions were undertaken, mostly by foreigners, to trace the existence of Vinduswarovar. Undaunted by the potential hazards of such expeditions and ready to face severe physical hardships, they went about the Himalayas to trace it. Interestingly most of them were Christian missionaries. Their actual interest lay in exploring a route to Tibet, going there, and proselytising the Tibetans. Thus they undertook several expeditions and recorded everything they saw on the way. Their records are invaluable since they provide us with valuable data and also act as guides for future expeditions. Accounts of three Portuguese missionaries – Antonio de Andre, Azvedo and Disderi – can be found in Birendra Nath Sarkar’s book in Bengali titled Gangar Katha.

In the month of April or May in 1624, Antonio de Andre, a Portuguese missionary, with a team of adventurists, undertook an expedition from Haridwar. They aimed to reach Tibet. They walked along the banks of the Ganga for several days and reached Deoprayag, the confluence of the two rivers Ganga and Alakananda. Perhaps impressed by the high roaring waves of the Alakananda river, Indians had for long presumed that the source of the Ganga lay in the heart of the Alakananda. Antonio de Andre, therefore, firmly bent on reaching Tibet by this route, continued his journey along the banks of the Alakananda. But as he scaled the heights he found the routes turning more and more hazardous. He would often come across pilgrims going to Badrinath. Physically exhausted and severely wounded, yet with radiant faces, they would walk on to reach the Badrinath temple. After a fortnight’s walk, Antonio de Andre reached Joshimath – the confluence of Vishnu Ganga and Alakananda.

Devprayag, confluence of Alaknanda (right) and Bhagirathi (left) some rivers, beginning of the Ganges proper. 
Devprayag, confluence of Alaknanda (right) and Bhagirathi (left) some rivers, beginning of the Ganges proper. |Wikimedia Commons

Andre considered the Alakananda to be the Ganga and referred to her as the Ganga in his writings. He also presented the readers a graphic description of the route he was following.

The mountainous paths are extremely dangerous. In fact there are places where there is nothing called the pathway. Bridges made from ropes are often used to ply from one mountainous terrain to another. Below flows the roaring Ganges. The sight is frightening. Most of the places are covered in deep layers of snow and we have to traverse upon them.

About the mountainous road Andre says,

Over here the road is dangerous. There’s nothing called a path here. One has to depend upon a bridge made out of rope in order to pass from one mountain to another. And down below flows the river with great force. The roaring sound of the river is terrifying. Sometimes one needs to cross heaps of snow as well. The entire mountain range is covered in a thick blanket of snow.

Descent of Ganga, by Raja Ravi Varma
Descent of Ganga, by Raja Ravi Varma|Wikimedia Commons

After having travelled for almost a month and a half, Andre reached Badrinath which he described vividly.

It’s a stone temple, which countless pilgrims visit every year. With their arrival the courtyard pulsates with life. There is a hot spring, in front of the temple which flows in several directions. Its water is so warm that its not possible to touch it for long. The water finally gets collected into a cavity, located slightly away from the temple. The pilgrims bathe here expecting to cleanse their sins.

A village called Mana is located a few yards away from Badrinath. Andre bypassed Mana and proceeded towards Tibet. The road was perilous, and the more he advanced the higher were the layers of snow. At times the snow appeared to be knee-deep as well. Andre and his men walked only during the day and after sunset they took shelter under some stony boulders. There were blizzards every evening. To keep themselves warm they would all huddle together. Their limbs would freeze, turn numb and become swollen. Drinking water was scarce so they would chew ice and wait for them to melt in the mouth. Andre provided a detailed description of these hardships they endured during the expedition. ‘It’s a strange world of dazzling snow. And partial blindness occurs if we look at the mountains for long. Gradually we were all losing our eyesight and it was growing increasingly difficult to proceed forward.’ Yet, they walked on till they reached a large lake. Describing the lake Andre wrote, ‘… in front of us is a large lake. The lake is the source of the two rivers the Ganges and the Sindhu.’ Later he referred to it as Manaswarovar. This is how the lake was known over the centuries. Andre had visited the place in 1624 and published his story in 1626.

A small shrine at Gaumukh, Gangotri glacier
A small shrine at Gaumukh, Gangotri glacier|Wikimedia Commons

In 1631 Azvedo, another Portuguese missionary, started his journey to Tibet from Haridwar. After walking for a few days, Azvedo and his companions reached Deoprayag. Like Andre he too considered the Alakananda to be the actual source of the Ganga. Another seven days’ walk took them to Srinagar, the capital of Garhwal. Azvedo’s arrival coincided with the funeral ceremony of the ruling king. The king was dead and his queens were being dragged to his pyre for sati. Describing this four-hundred-year-old gruesome practice, Azvedo wrote,

...a huge pyre of sandalwood was set up on the shore of the Ganga. A large crowd had gathered to view the ceremony. Sixty queens were being prepared for sati. The queens looked petrified at the thought of being burnt alive. Yet, they could do nothing since a large number of guards cordoned them off. Large drums and cymbals were kept ready while a group of priests stood in front of the pyre chanting mantras, performing the last rites of the king. The moment the pyre was lit a huge uproar arose from the crowd followed by the terrible wails of the queens. Several senior queens started walking round the pyre, yet the moment fire touched their body, they started screaming in pain. Looking at them the rest of the queens too started wailing aloud. Nobody wanted to jump into the pyre, yet, they could not escape because servants of the deceased king caught hold of these miserable ladies and hurled them into the blazing fire. Some were beaten up so badly that they fell unconscious. Then their unconscious bodies were tied with ropes and thrown into the fire. Meanwhile the cacophony of drums and cymbals tried hard to drown the wails of these hapless ladies. It was a ghastly sight to behold.

The team continued their journey along the banks of the Alakananda and, after a fortnight’s walk, on 31 July 1631, bypassing the Joshimath, they reached the Badrinath temple. They started preparing for their journey to Tibet from here. They crossed Mana and kept walking on the snow-covered paths. Finally after a few days they came across a beautiful lake, which Andre probably too had found previously. ‘I am now standing in front of a large lake,’ wrote Azvedo.

The local people consider it to be the origin of both the rivers Ganga and Sindhu. But none of these two rivers are visible, as their paths are covered by chunks of large stones. However, we are able to hear the sound of their roaring waves. The rivers are visible far from here.

Settlements along the river
Settlements along the river|Niyogi Books

Father Disderi, another Portuguese missionary, followed the footsteps of Azvedo and went in search of the origin of the Ganga. In 1725, having travelled to places like Haridwar, Deoprayag, Srinagar and Badrinath, he reached a large lake surrounded by mountains. ‘There is a large lake in front of me,’ wrote Father Disderi.

According to our guide, it takes quite a few days to complete a tour round the lake. People here consider it to be the origin of the Ganga. Another river has originated from the other side of the lake, which is known as Sindhu. This river flows down to Kashmir via Tibet. Scores of pilgrims here come to bathe in this lake. They believe it to be holy.

Though all three missionaries mentioned above primarily intended to visit Tibet for proselytising, they nevertheless made sincere efforts to trace the origin of the river Ganga. The documents of their journey left behind for us, even though full of contradictions, are geographically very important. The documents assisted men who later undertook similar expeditions. Another important explorer’s name ought to be mentioned here. He was a royal messenger, sent by Emperor Akbar to trace the origin of the Ganga. But his name is forgotten and there is no written record of his journey. All these explorers however unanimously claimed that Manaswarovar was the real origin of the Ganga, and river Alakananda was the real Ganga.

In 1767 Major James Rennell was appointed as the first surveyor-general of the East India Company’s dominions in Bengal. And it was Rennell who first tried to ascertain the exact geographical features of our country. He undertook the task of making a thorough survey of the Ganga. His area of survey however was restricted to four states only – Bengal, Orissa, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. He worked for four years and then wrote, ‘… even though there are many rivers in the world which are larger and longer than the Ganga, yet, Ganga is unique for her diverse traits.’ He drew a map of the Ganga where he cited Manaswarovar as its source. The map was published in 1790. Later data collected from different sources proved that Rennell’s map was incorrect. So the task of drawing a correct map of the Ganga fell upon three people – Lt Webb, Capt. Raapper and Capt. Hayerse.

In April 1808 Webb, Raapper and Hayerse collected a group of men and began their journey from Haridwar. They however did not follow the path of river Alakananda. They walked along the banks of the Ganga and after ten days reached Uttarkashi. Uttarkashi was then a large village and was also the last point of human habitation. They walked for another seven days and reached Bhatwari. They found a few families living at Bhatwari. The journey so far was hard, yet the journey beyond Bhatwari proved impossible. The steep mountainous paths proved dangerous. At times they had to crawl their way up as walking was out of the question. And below these mountainous paths lay the ever-flowing, ever-roaring Ganga. A moment’s indecision would lead them to death. A few hours of inhuman effort, however, finally brought them to the mountain top. Then it was time for them to alight. While descending with a few tribals they came across two waterfalls.

The journey proved very challenging and all the members of the team were utterly exhausted. So Lt Webb decided to call off the expedition. He collected information from the local people and returned home. Describing his experience Lt Webb wrote in a letter,

Sculptures of Goddesses ‘Ganga Yamuna Saraswati’ at Ellora caves
Sculptures of Goddesses ‘Ganga Yamuna Saraswati’ at Ellora caves|Wikimedia Commons

We reached Bhatwari on 27th. I collected all possible information from the local people. Inaccessibility of the roads made us decide to leave our luggage with the villagers. Next day as the sun rose we begun our journey. Two local men accompanied us. We could barely walk a few miles that day as we were utterly exhausted. A leader amongst us warned about the impassibility of the roads ahead. So we were forced to return. Had it been possible to proceed further, we would have carried on, despite all dangers. Moreover my companions too were not very keen on proceeding further. Frequent change of weather, scorching sunlight during the day, and extreme cold at night deterred most of us. Some amongst us fell ill. To proceed forward ignoring these deterring factors meant – proceeding toward certain death. We gave up our plans, but collected a lot of information about both Gangotri and the origin of the Ganga from a local person at Bhatwari. Every day he collects water from the Ganga and sells it at a high rate. He informed us that Gaumukh is far off from Gangotri and the entire stretch is covered with snow. No definite source of the Ganga can be traced other than a narrow trickle of water coming out of the cave of Gaumukh. Neither does Gaumukh resemble the face of a cow. From his statement I realised that we were actually sixteen to eighteen miles away from Gangotri. And it was impossible for us to identify the exact source of the Ganga without visiting the place. (Capt. Raapper, ‘Narrative of Survey for the Purpose of Discovering the Sources of Ganges,’ Asiatick Researches, Vol. XI, 1818)

This was the first record of the actual source of the river Ganga – the Gaumukh cave. Prior to it, no one could ascertain the exact origin of the river Ganga.

Another foreign explorer who reached Gangotri and wrote a detailed account of his experience was James Baillie Fraser. He was born in Scotland in the year 1783. Even though he was employed in various professions, his primary love was painting. In 1813 he came to Calcutta and joined the British Army. And as an army man he went to the Himalayas to fight a battle against the king of Nepal. After the battle was fought he spent time exploring the origins of both the rivers Ganga and Yamuna. His love for exploration was coupled with his desire to paint. So in July 1815 he reached Gangotri. Fraser wrote of his experiences,

After crossing Bhairavghati we reached Gangotri. In front of us was the confluence of Ganges and Kedar Ganges. The water then flows forward at great speed towards a large dungeon. From there it continues its course into a deep mountain ravine. A small bridge is constructed over this ravine. Crossing this small bridge, one is able to reach a small temple dedicated to the Ganges. Previously there wasn’t any temple here. A few years ago the army chief of the Gorkhas, Amar Singh Thapa, donated four/five hundred rupees to construct this temple. It is said that the temple was constructed over the stone, where King Bhagirath had meditated. Square in shape the temple is twelve feet high. The peak of the temple is round in shape, resembling a pagoda. It’s made of common white stone. The temple faces the emerging point of the Ganges. There is a small balcony in front of the temple surrounded by stone walls. There is a small room in one part of the building, for the priest to live in. There are a few small rooms inside the temple premise meant for pilgrims who visit the area. Other than these there are several caves nearby where pilgrims put up when the temple rooms are occupied. The river Ganges flows beside this temple. Deodar trees and chir trees are found in abundance all around. The solemn and tranquil ambience of the place automatically generates a kind of reverence for the place. On one side of the temple is the mountain range comprising multiple-sized stones. Who knows, after many years, these stones may crash against the temple and destroy it completely. Shadows of the pine trees darken the face of the mountains while the effervescent Ganges continues her journey uninterrupted. The beauty of the place is simply indescribable. (Journal of a Tour through Part of the Snowy Range of the Himala Mountains, and to the Sources of the Rivers Jumna and Ganges, 1820)

Kumbh Mela
Kumbh Mela

Fraser had reached Gangotri but failed to reach Gaumukh. The first foreign explorer who crossed the Gangotri glacier and reached Gaumukh was Captain Hodgson. He was employed with the Survey of India. Hodgson was assigned the task of inspecting the Himalayan rivers and writing a detailed account of them. In 1817 he followed the course of the Ganga and reached Gaumukh. This is what Captain Hodgson wrote:

… in front of me is a muddy snow wall which is extremely steep. I presume the snow is several hundred years old. Slightly below it, the Ganges is trickling out of a cave. This cave is Gaumukh; surrounded by heaps of ice. I feel the ice layers are several hundred feet high. Water is emanating above these layers of ice. For about one and half miles, snow clad mountain ranges surround the cave. However the colour of the snow is not white. It is muddy brown in appearance. Gorges are found here and there, whose depths cannot be assessed from above. The gorges are of different shapes and are highly dangerous. The height of Gaumukh is perhaps 12,941 feet. Gaumukh is considered to be a pilgrimage by the Hindus because holy river Ganges originates from it. Bhagirathi or Ganges issuing from under a very low arc at the foot of the grand snow bed presents a wonderful sight. The river is bounded on both right and left sides by high snow and rocks. But in front over the Debouche, the mass of the snow is perfectly perpendicular, and from the bed of the stream to the summit, we estimate the thickness at less than 300 feet of solid frozen snow, probably the accumulation of ages; it is in layers of some feet thick, each seemingly the remains of a fall of a separate year. From the brow of this curious wall of snow, and immediately above the outlet of the stream, large and hoary icicles descend; they are formed by the freezing of the melted snow water of the top of the bed, for in the middle of the day, the sun is powerful, and the water produced by its action falls over this place in cascade but is frozen at night. The Gangotri Brahmin who came with us, and who is only an illiterate mountaineer, observed that the thought these icicles must be Mahadeva’s hair, from whence, as he understood, it is written in the shastra, the Ganges flows. I mention this thinking it a good idea, but the man had never heard of such a place, as actually existing, nor had he, or any other person to his knowledge, ever been here. In modern times they may not, but Hindus of Research may formerly have been here, and if so, I cannot think of any place to which they might more aptly give the name of a Cow’s Mouth, than to this extraordinary Debouche. The height of the arch of snow is only sufficient to let the stream flow under it. Blocks of snow were falling about us, so there was little time to do more here, than to measure the size of the stream. Measured by a chain the main breadth was 27 feet. The greatest depth at that place being knee deep, or 18 inches, but more generally a foot deep, and rather less just at the edges, say 9 or 10 inches – however, call the mean depth 15 inches. Believing this to be (as I have every reason to suppose it is) the first appearance of the famous and true Ganges in day light, saluted her with a Bugle march. (Captain J.A. Hodgson, ‘Journal of a Survey to the Heads of the Rivers Ganga and Jumna,’ Asiatick Researches, Vol. XIV, 1822)

Evening Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat  
Evening Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat  |Wikimedia Commons

The first Indian who recorded his experiences about the Ganga was Jadunath Sarbadikary. Between 1854 and 1859 he had visited different pilgrimage sites of India. He had documented his experiences in a diary which he published later as Journey to Pilgrimages. He had also travelled along the banks of the Ganga, from Rishikesh to Deoprayag. His was the first travelogue in Bengali which described the route of the Ganga in great details:

The two sides of the hanging bridge of Lakshman Jhula culminate on two mountain tops. The middle part of the bridge is suspended just a little above the river. Walking across the bridge is therefore a scary experience. The roaring water beneath constantly reminds the traveller that a moment’s mistake will plunge him straight into a cascade of water and drag him to the land of eternity. To make matters worse the deafening sound produced by the roaring water, reduces normal audibility.

It was Swami Akhandananda, disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, who first reached Gangotri and wrote down his experience. In 1887 he had started his journey from Baranagar Math and reached Haridwar. From there he undertook a journey towards Tibet and reached Gangotri instead. He published his experiences, ‘Three years in Tibet’, serially in a journal. Later the series was collected and published in the form of a book.

I left Bhatwari and reached Gangotri after four days. The last village on the way to Gangotri was Dharasu. Gangotri is about twenty-five miles from this place. After covering half the distance, I came to Bhairava Jhola. Here pilgrims heading to Gangotri offer prayers to the Ganga before proceeding further. On the way there is just a chatti or shop and a small temple. After reaching Bhairav Ghati, I lost my way. Here another stream, the Bhot-Ganga, meets the main stream of the Ganga. I wandered a little, but finally managed to return to the correct route after sometime.

As I proceeded along the road to Gangotri, the grandeur of the Himalayas began to unfold before me. The huge mountain range, which looked like a tortoise, all white with snow, rose before me. The Bhagirathi was running down sharp bends of this mountain. Its gurgling waters incessantly appeared to chant ‘Hara’ ‘Hara’ – the name of Lord Shiva. Even though the stream of the Ganga is rather narrow at Gangotri, the force with which the water emerges is strong enough to sweep away the hundred white elephants of God Indra. It is perhaps both to cleanse and sanctify the innumerable Jivas (human beings) living on earth that the white waters of the Ganga rush with such rapidity and force. The river Bhagirathi runs between high mountains whose upper slopes are white with snow. Below the snow-clad tops grow the tall pines. On either side of the stream are smooth marble-like white rocks, piled upon one another, resembling a ‘Vedic altar’. This panoramic view was so picturesque that I abandoned myself completely to enjoy the heavenliness of the place. I moved from rock to rock, sitting here and there, because I knew that I would never again see such a divine sight. I took in as much as I could the divinity strewn here on the lap of the Himalayas. My senses kept absorbing the quietude and beauty of the place, till my heart brimmed over with joy.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Ganga: An Endless Journey’ published by Niyogi Books. The book was originally published in Bengali, written by Chanchal Kumar Ghosh. The translation is by Sarbani Putatunda.

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