This post, which went unpublished, was written in Tapovan, a stunning meadow camp above Gaumukh on the Gangotri Glacier, on September 13, 2013. Enjoy!
Her words – rushing Hindi pushed through a toothless mouth – were unintelligible to me, but the meaning was clear. She was warning us, gesturing at the mighty Ganga raging below us and wagging a wrinkled finger in the air. Our Liaison Officer, Raju, translated: treat the Ganga with care, give it love as it gives love, or it will unleash fury like that unleashed from Kedar months before.
Water is a dichotomous force. Like the Hindu gods Vishnu and Shiva, water is the force which sustains us, and can also destroy us. In our short time on the Ganga thus far, we’ve seen much of both. From Rishikesh into the mountains to Uttarkashi, the banks of the Ganges were terraced with vivid green rice paddies, the river’s bounty providing for all. In the Rishikesh evenings, aarti offerings are made on the Ganga, with wishes and hopes of devotees carried downstream on her mighty waters. Ganges water is pulled from springs, used for bathing and drinking and cooking and praying and cremating. It is collected in small buckets to serve the needs of a house, and collected behind the Tehri Dam – one of Asia’s largest – to serve the needs of a nation.
But while it nourishes and sustains, it also destroys. This monsoon was a particularly vengeful one. On June 16, Kedar lake in the Garhwal burst in an epic GLOF (glacial lake outburst flood), its waters raging down-valley and obliterating everything in its path. Estimates range from 10,000-25,000 people killed, and countless villages and vital infrastructures destroyed. In the monsoonal months following, rains fell like never before. Our sirdar, Khemsun, said he has never, in all his life, seen a monsoon such as this. The whole state of Uttarkhand shows the scars, with roads ripped from hillsides, villages awash in Himalayan silt, buildings knocked down and temples washed away.
As I sit here, contemplating the power of water on this sacred river, the irony is not lost on me: back home in Colorado, our nearby Evergreen Lake is pushing hard against its 80 year old dam, threatening to burst and send its waters in a torrent downstream. Other cities – Lyons, Ft. Collins, and more – have been beat up by record rains in a normally dry place. Water, our lifeblood and our reckoning.
I am now sitting in a tiny ashram at 14,300 feet in a meadow called Tapovan. It sits an hour’s walk above Gaumukh, the headwaters of the Ganges where the river emerges with force from the snout of the Gangotri Glacier. Towering above me are the silent sentinels of Shivling, Meru, and the Bhagirathi peaks. Our host here is Muni Baba, or Silent Baba. He’s lived here, alone, for five years, and has not spoken a word to anyone in nearly ten. Nonetheless, we had a rich “conversation” of sorts over rice and dal this afternoon. He told us of the beauty and the power of the Ganges. He spoke of the love it gives, the sustenance it offers to so many along its 1,500 mile course. And, like the old woman three days ago, he also spoke of its fury, the destructive power of Shiva that can be released if Ganga is not loved equally in return.
That is the story we – Pete McBride, David Morton, and I – are here to share. The story of love and hate, of life and death, sustenance and destruction, throughout this magnificent watershed. The old woman’s final words come back to me: Treat it well, and you will be treated well.