The Himalayas are mentioned in numerous scriptures, highlighting the sacredness of this mountain range. Even two of the scriptures that we chant frequently, the Devi Gita and the Chandi Path, make reference to them.
In the Chandi Path, when troubled by the forces of duality, where do the Gods go to pray? None other than the Himalayas!
In the Devi Gita, the Goddess shows Her universal form consisting of the Himalaya Mountains as Her bones, the trees as Her hair, the rivers as Her veins, and the sun and moon as Her eyes.
But, in the Devi Gita, when asked about Her places of pilgrimage, the Goddess replied that all places are Her place of pilgrimage, because she exists everywhere.
Why then do we have, or need, special pilgrimage places? Why then is it so important to make the journey all the way to the Himalayas?
Though the Goddess is everywhere all the time, many of Her children have difficulty perceiving this. As an expression of Her endless love for Her devotees, the Goddess has named special places where her divine energy can be felt more deeply.
In this way, if we aren’t able to perceive that God is everywhere at all times, then at least we can feel God’s love in specific places at specific times.
In addition, most of us cannot focus on worship each moment of the day, so carving out a specific time for a special festival or a pilgrimage can provide the necessary inspiration to focus our attention on worship.
The pilgrimage places where sadhus, saints, and, as the Chandi Path mentions, even the Gods have worshipped, have a special divine bhavana. If we are receptive to this, it can serve as a catalyst to help us perceive God’s presence all of the time.
There are a lot of pilgrimage locations throughout India, but the Himalayas offer something extraordinary.
Here the climate is ideal, it is remote and a place of solitude, and nature is in its most majestic of forms.
Leaving the world behind, it feels as if we’ve entered a heavenly paradise filled with divine beings showering us with love and inspiration.
This is why, since time immemorial, sadhus like Swamiji have made their way to the Himalayas to make use of these ideal conditions for worship.
Their tapasya, in turn, keeps the location sacred and serves as an inspiration to the pilgrims.
On the road between Uttarkashi and Gangotri, we saw many such pilgrims making their yatra (pilgrimage).
These journeys traditionally take place at the beginning of the monsoon season, when the Himalayas are abundantly green.
Along the roadside, against that lush green backdrop, can easily be seen the many yatris who shine brightly in their orange clothing.
They are the pilgrims. They are the ones that are compelled to spend their vacation in sacrifice to God. They are the ones with pure devotion that walk uphill and/or downhill for hours at a time. They are the ones that are inspired by the tapasya of the saints and sadhus who have visited the sacred spots.
But there is something even more surprising about the total scene. Stepping back, I would venture to say that the sadhus too are equally inspired by the spirit, tenacity, and devotion of the pilgrims.
Imagine this pilgrimage scene and the pure hearts of the people of India….
On this day, there were thousands of them — mostly boys and men, but occasionally women. They were dressed in orange shirts and shorts and had walking sticks.
They had a pack on their back for their daily supplies, a fanny pack carrying their valuables, and a cloth tied like a brazier carrying one set of fresh clothes.
They each had a bottle of Ganga water from Gangotri or Gomukha hanging from the waist. Some tied the Gangaajal on their walking stick and balanced it on their shoulders taking extra precautions not to spill the sacred water.
Some are walking by themselves and others are in small groups of four or five. Those lagging behind the small groups end up joining other groups who were slowly creeping up behind them. Sometimes the groups grew to more than 20 people.
They follow the road, slowly, step by step, and since their isn’t much space, they merge into a single file line when a car passes by.
They come from all over India, and they are going back to various parts of India – north, south, east and west. But they all have one thing in common — their desire to offer gangaajal collected from Gangotri or Gomuka to the deities at their local Shiva Temple.
They were adults with jobs, families, and responsibilities. They were students with futures yet to unfold. Undoubtedly they had obligations and many things to do, and yet they chose to use what little holiday time they had to make this annual pilgrimage for God.
The longest and most famous of such journeys is from Gomukha (the origin of the Ganga in the Himalayas) to Rameshwara (all the way at the Southern tip of India). Ram had said that anyone who brings water from the Ganga in the Himalayas to offer at Rameshwara would receive special blessings.
Swarms of people making the yatra reached Gangotri. Upon arrival, they collected Ganga water, bathed in the Ganga, and then, placing the collected Ganga water in front of themselves, they chanted and prayed to it as a form of divinity.
It was incredible to see so many people taking the time out of their daily lives, routines and jobs, to make this offering to God.
And what dedication!
Many of them were walking huge distances, while carrying the smallest amount of possessions with them.
We are used to performing sadhana by sitting for eight to ten hours a day, but these pilgrims were probably walking for that much time every day!
“Om Namah Shivaya! Om Namah Shivaya!” and “Shri Ram! Jai Jai Ram!” could be heard occasionally as some softly chanted a mantra with each step of the foot through the mountain path.
Others could be heard singing devotional songs, while some were simply listening to bhajans. Most appeared to be in meditative silence, focused on God with every step.
All of them, in their own way, tried as much as they could to dedicate this time and effort to God.
No matter what we are doing, if we do it for God, that itself is our sadhana. That itself is our tapasya.
While the devotion of the pilgrims is so inspirational, the expression of support offered by the local people was equally touching. These yatras would be much more difficult to accomplish without the support of the local people, who provide rest stops, beds, and food along the path.
Such is the cultural of India, that everyone feels blessed to support any and all endeavors which express heart-felt devotion. Swamiji and I certainly experienced this support many times on our journey.
There were rest stops set-up every six to seven kilometers (approximately four miles) that offered shaded areas for the pilgrims to take rest. At some rest stops they even had mattresses laid out on the ground for pilgrims to sit or lay comfortably.
As we drove by a rest stop, there was a familiar scene of a collection of walking sticks with orange backpacks hanging together on a horizontal bar.
Many of the walking sticks, which were well intact at the beginning of the yatra, had become frayed at the bottom. They took the resemblance of a clod of wooden fibers several times larger than the original circumference of the walking stick, symbolic of the tenacity and pure devotion required to make such a long and difficult journey.
Every couple of rest stops there was a dabha, which is a place offering nutritious warm food. The love and support of the local people was overwhelming – I saw many times that the food was offered free of charge to the weary, tired pilgrims.
Some local people were so inspired to support this annual tradition that they set up areas with free freshly cooked food and water. As the pilgrims walked by, and even as every motorist passed by, they called out to them to pull over, rest and eat.
One time when we drove by, the local people pleaded with our driver to stop, exclaiming, “Please, everyone, get down and take rest, take food!”
Even more touching was that some of the local people drove small trucks alongside the pilgrims, played bhajans for them, and offered them food and water as they walked!
Just think, a pilgrim could begin the journey downhill from Gangotri without a rupee, and could arrive all the way to Rishikesh (total distance 180 miles) without missing a meal! What an incredible and sincere offering!
Everyone participates in some way — either in supporting the devotees, or being the devotee, but participate they do!
Swamiji told that long ago, when there was just a foot path and no paved road, there was a sadhu by the name of Kali Kamliwala (literally the guy with a black blanket) who used to make tea for anyone passing by on their way to Gangotri.
It was this sadhu who started the tradition, and now it has expanded into a full support system for all the people making this journey.
Swamiji went on to explain …
The pilgrim scene was quickly coming to an end. That evening, Swamiji looked across the river and saw that only four pilgrims remained out of the hundreds that had visited here recently. Though Gangotri experiences a lot of foot traffic from the pilgrims, most of the people stay for only a short period of time. The pilgrims will come and go, but the Himalayas remain the residence of sadhus, sannyasis, and Lord Shiva himself.
The next morning while chanting, I could feel the bhavana of Lord Shiva and felt that indeed, He is a permanent resident of the mountains. I am sure this is why the Rishi’s named him He Who is the Beloved of the Mountain and He Who is the Resident of the Snowy Mountain. The constant flow and sound of the Ganga, like a never ending mantra, muffled and drowned out all thoughts and quickly drew my attention back to the sadhana at hand.
The beautiful Ganges, which thrusts itself forward toward the ocean with such vibrant energy while boasting a “no-regrets, no looking-back” attitude, performs endless service to the sadhus, calling our wandering minds back to the mantra. But more than this, what an example the Ganges River shows us to follow!
Having experienced the grandeur of the Himalayas, it is no wonder that it is mentioned in several scriptures. It is not at all surprising that people flock here by the thousands from all over India. Indeed, this sacred mountain range is one of the greatest blessings that God has showered on humanity.