Views in India, chiefly among the Himalaya Mountains/Gungootree, the Sacred Source of the Ganges
GUNGOOTREE, THE SACRED SOURCE OF THE GANGES.
Having recovered from the fatigues and bruises attendant on our journey to the source of the Jumna, to the great dismay of a portion of our followers, we determined to proceed to Gungootree, whence the sacred Ganges takes its rise. The nearest route from Kursalee to Gungootree may be traversed in four days, but the natives always endeavour to dissuade travellers from taking it at any season of the year, recommending in preference a lower, more circuitous, and therefore longer way. The more direct road leads over a great arm of the Bundurpooch mountain, which separates the valleys, or rather channels, through which the sacred rivers hurry from their icy birth-place. The greater part of this tract is desert, and uninhabited, conducting the wayfarer through regions of rock and snow, destitute of the dwellings of man, or of supplies for his use; there is danger also that fuel may be wanting for that necessary solace to the weary, a blazing fire, while the necessity of dispensing with every thing like superfluous baggage must oblige the party to rest at night in caves and clefts of the rock.
Amid the most formidable evils reported of this route is the bis-ka-kowa, or poisonous wind, said to blow over the highest ridge, and to exhale from noxious plants on the borders—a very natural supposition among a race of people ignorant, of the effects produced on the atmosphere at so great an elevation. Yielding to the universal clamour, we consented to take the longer and safer path; but some friends, who were obliged to forego the journey to Gungootree, crossed into the valley of the Ganges by a very difficult and romantic route. After parting company at Banass, they descended to the banks of the Bhim, a roaring torrent, rushing beneath precipices upwards of two thousand perpendicular feet from the river; the eagles, wheeling through the sky from their eyries near the summit, appearing not larger than crows. The ascent then led over a mountain covered with cedars, a noble forest, not uncheerful, though marked with sombre grandeur.
The next day's march conducted the party along the banks of a torrent which poured down the face of a mountain from a bed of snow near its summit. The day was cold, the ground hard with frost, but the air bracing, and the scenery wild and magnificent. A long and toilsome ascent over Unchi-ghati followed: scrambling up the bed of a stream over rough stones, rendered slippery from being cased in ice, they reached the limit of the cedar-forest, and subsequently came to birch and small rhododendron. The scene then assumed a very wintry aspect, and soon every thing like foliage was left behind; attaining the crest of the pass, which was covered with snow, and at an elevation of some hundred feet above the limit of the forest, on looking back on Bundurpooch, Duti Manji, and Bachuncha peak and ridge, few scenes of more sublime grandeur could be found throughout the whole of these stupendous regions. The prospect of range after range to the south and east was very extensive; an ocean of ridges in one wide amphitheatre, closed in by the line of the snowy mountains resting their fantastic peaks against the dark blue sky. Below, the course of the Bhagirati could be traced, which, after issuing from its gigantic bed of snow, rejoicing in its escape from the wintry mountains and their rugged and awful approaches, flows in tranquil beauty through a peaceful valley. In descending the south-east side of the pass, the birch which had clothed the previous path gave place to pines and evergreen oaks, which grew in great abundance in advance of the cedar; the rhododendron, which near the crest was merely a creeper, became a tree,
a change in the nature of vegetation marking the different heights, which is exceedingly interesting to the traveller.
The descent of this mountain to Nangâng was long and painful, and to Europeans a new route, the generality of travellers crossing the ridge from the Jumna to the Ganges either higher up or lower down; but the next day's march compensated for all the fatigue incurred in its approach. Descending to the Bini-ke-Garh, a torrent rushing down a high ridge to the northward, the glen which it watered proved of surpassing beauty; nothing could exceed the loveliness of the foliage which clothed this summer valley, or rather vista; for, opening on a view of the precipitous heights of the Unchi-ghâti, it contrasted its romantic attractions with the sublimer features of the mountains beyond. Reaching the junction of the Bini and the Bhagirathi, the holy name given to the sacred river, the travellers found the Ganges a noble stream, much wider and deeper than the Jumna at the same distance from its source, but not so tumultuous.
Descending to Nangâng by a different route to that mentioned in the foregoing notes, we also were compelled to encounter many difficulties; the prospects, however, repaid them. Equally grand, though different in character to those last described, at a very considerable depth below, we looked upon a cultivated scene, the hanging terraces, common to these hills, waving with grain, and watered by winding streams, and running along the bases of high woody ridges, sometimes shooting up into peaks, crowned with pine-trees. Beyond, again, were the eternal mountains, in all their varieties; snow resting on the crests of some, others majestically grouped with venerable timber, and others bleak, bare, and barren, rising in frowning majesty from the green and sunny slopes which smiled below. Between these different ranges, ran deep ravines, dark with impenetrable forests, rendered more savage by the awful music of the torrents roaring through their fastnesses, while presently their streams, issuing forth into open day, were seen winding round green spots bright with fruit-trees. Such, or nearly such, for every traveller sees them under a different medium, were the prospects which beguiled us as we slipped and slid down the steep side of the mountain pass. Nangâng formed our halting-place; several days' march still lay before us; and there were more mountains to climb, more forests to thread. We now observed a diversity in the timber, chesnuts of magnificent growth being the prevailing tree. Our sportsmen found plenty of game: the monal, the feathered wonder of the Himalaya, and other varieties of the pheasant-tribe, peopled these vast solitudes, and paid tribute to the guns of the invading strangers.
We met with some delightful halting-places on the line of march—grassy terraces carpeted with strawberry and wild flowers, where the cowslip, the primrose, and the buttercup brought the pranked-out fields of our native country strongly to the mind. Many of the travellers in the Himalaya are moved even to rapture at the sight of the first daisy which springs spontaneously on their path; as an exotic in some garden of the plains, it excites deep emotion, but growing wild, spangling the meadow-grass with its silvery stars, it becomes infinitely more interesting, and the home-sick pining exile will often gather its earliest-encountered blossom weeping.
Leaving this luxuriant vegetation, we arrived at a wild spot, the summit of a ridge of peaks covered with snow; and though the prospect was more circumscribed, and of greater sameness, we enjoyed it amazingly. We seemed to be hemmed in on all sides with thick-ribbed ice, transported to antarctic snows, imprisoned amid icebergs, vast, freezing, and impassable. Presently, however, we emerged, and, descending through the snow, reached the boundary line between the districts of the Jumna and the Ganges.
The extreme limit of these river territories were marked in the manner usually employed in rude and desolate places, by heaps of stone—many raised by Europeans, who thus commemorate their pilgrimage. These cairns being destitute of an inscription, it is impossible to say who the adventurous architects were, since no European name has any chance of being retained in its primitive form by a native.
The next point of great interest is the summit of a ridge whence the first view of the Ganges is obtained; a sight which never fails to raise the drooping spirits of the Hindoo followers, and which excites no small degree of enthusiasm in the breast of the Christian travellers. The sacred river, as seen from this height, flows in a dark, rapid, and broad stream, and, though at no great apparent distance, must still be reached by more than one toilsome march. From a height about two miles from Gungootree, the first glimpse, and that a partial one, is obtainable of that holy place, which lies sequestered in a glen of the deepest solitude, lonely and almost inaccessible, for few there are who could persevere in surmounting the difficulties of the approach. Considerable distances must be traversed over projecting masses of rough stones, flinty, pointed, and uncertain, many being loose, and threatening to roll over the enterprising individual who attempts the rugged way. Sometimes the face of the rock must be climbed from cliff to cliff; at others, where there is no resting-place for hand or foot, ladders are placed in aid of the ascent; while awful chasms between are passed on some frail spar flung across. These horrid rocks would seem indeed to form invincible obstacles to the approach of the holy place, but religious enthusiasm on the one hand, and scientific research stimulated by curiosity on the other, render the barrier inadequate for the purpose of resisting the invasions of man. The difficult nature of the access, however, prevents the concourse of pilgrims, who resort to more easily attainable spots esteemed sacred on this hallowed river.
The grandeur of the scene which opened upon us, as we at length stood upon the threshold of Gungootree, cannot be described by words. Rocks were piled upon rocks in awful majesty, all shivered into points, which rise one upon another in splendid confusion, enclosing a glen of the wildest nature, where the Ganges, beautiful in every haunt, from its infancy to its final junction with the ocean, pours its shallow waters over a bed of shingle, diversified by jutting rocks, and even here shadowed by the splendid foliage of some fine old trees. The devotee who undoubtingly believes that every step that he takes towards the source of that holy river, which from his infancy he has been taught to look upon as a deity, will lead him into beatitude, is content to seek its origin at Gungootree, but the true source of the sacred stream lies still higher, in still more inaccessible solitudes: and it was reserved for the ardour of those who measured the altitudes of the highest peaks, and penetrated, to the utmost limits of man's dominion, to trace the exact birth-place of the holy river. Captains Hodgson and Herbert, in 1818, found, at the height of thirteen thousand eight hundred feet above the sea-level, the Bhagarati, or true Ganges, issuing from beneath a low arch at the base of a vast mass of frozen snow, nearly three hundred feet in height, and composed of different layers, each several feet in thickness, and in all probability the accumulation of ages. Neither here, nor at Gungootree, is there any thing resembling a cow's mouth, to support the popular fable, which must have been invented by persons utterly unacquainted with the true features of the scene in which the sacred river gladdens earth with its ever-bounteous waters.
A pilgrimage to Gungootree is accounted one of the most meritorious actions which a Hindoo can perform; and in commemoration of his visit to this holy place, a Ghoorka chieftain has left a memorial of his conquests and his piety, in a small pagoda, erected in honour of the goddess on a platform of rock, about twenty feet higher than the bed of the river. The brahmins who have the care of this temple are accommodated with habitations in its close vicinity, and there are a few sheds for the temporary residence of pilgrims, many of whom, however, are content with such shelter as the neighbouring caves afford. The usual ceremonies of bathing, praying, and marking the forehead, are gone through at this place, the officiating brahmin taking care that the fees shall be duly paid. Notwithstanding the stern and sullen nature of his retreat, at some periods of the year he may be said to lead a busy life, conversing with devout pilgrims, and carriers of water to distant lands, who require his seal to authenticate their burdens; and making the most out of all his visitors, whatever their country or their creed may be. Though dispensing with his orisons, we paid him for his services; and it seemed a matter of indifference to him on what account he received the cash.