Tehri town was just a little place along the bus-route from Rishikesh to Gangotri, and the protesting men, women and children chanting slogans against the Tehri dam only made us curious.
Shrouded in a veil of icicles and mist, the Bhagirathi emanates from the Gomukh—a massive snout of one of the longest glaciers in the Himalaya. The glacier starts from a massif of mountains called the Chaukhamba and sprawls over 26 km. of awesome terrain, interspersed with other glaciers like the Shwetawarna, Raktawarna and Chaturangi, all named after the hues of rock and snow peculiar to each one. The names of peaks from where these glaciers originate and inch downwards, are even more fascinating. The Sudarshan Parbat, Sri Kailash, Mana, Vasukhi, Bhagirathi, Kedarnath, Shivling, Meru and Bhrigupanth—all rise above 6,000 metres in a clock-wise direction around the main glacier. But it is rather unfortunate, or shall I say fortunate, that most people have neither the heart, nor the knees,to climb to such places.
As one starts walking downstream towards Gangotri, the path takes a gentler gradient which can be negotiated by most people. And it is here that a layman’s impression of `Himalayan solidity’ is replaced gradually by one of ‘Himalayan fragility’—as big and small landslides are seen crashing down every few minutes from the crumbling slopes of the mountains. Initially, one is afraid of being swept away, but gradually one starts noticing the beautiful, leaning birch trees. Throughout winter they are the and their white barks glisten in the sun. A few kilometres downstream there is a place called Bhojbasa, which is where most pilgrims make a night’s halt, before proceeding on to Gomukh. Only a few years ago this place was full of bhoj (birch) trees, but the continuous stream of pilgrims and trekkers, and the indiscriminate felling pursued by the Bhojbasa Ashram, have totally wiped them out. Today not a single birch tree is to be found at Bhojbasa.
About halfway from Gomukh to Gangotri there is another little ‘Padaw’ or a resting place called Chidbasaafter the chir pine trees all around. Here one can also see other small bushes like the juniper and stunted rhododendrons, which act as self-appointed soil conservators on the steep slopes.
Devout pilgrims can be seen bathing in the ice-cold waters of the Bhagirathi. Young and old bathe in these sub-zero temperatures; the holy dip can sometimes lead to severe illness, but that is of no consequence to the pilgrims whose faith and perseverence helps them overcome all such obstacles.
Like all Himalayan regions, the weather in this abode of snow changes within minutes—from bright sunshine the sky becomes dark and overcast and suddenly little white flakes of snow cover the whole landscape. But, like all good things, Gangotri has also suffered at the destructive hands of man. Although there are laws to the contrary, people have encroached into the forest areas. They have built hotels, chopped trees down, and some sadhus are cultivating potatoes—a crop not suited to these fragile slopes. Tourists, pilgrims and even the sadhus must all realise that we have only one Gangotri, and that the geographic and moral degradation of this holy place must be stopped immediately. Instead of becoming a party to the misuse of land around Gangotri, the government administration must use a firm hand to stem the rot.
Landslides have been a normal feature of these mountain slopes in the past, but due to the depleting forests and pastures, their occurrence has been increasing rapidly over the years. Rock-blasting for building roads has added to this instability, and today landslides and mud-flows have become a permanent evil. An example is the entire hillside at the village of Netala near Uttarkashi which has been gradually slipping and sliding downhill. The village is now perched precariously on a ledge, and the people are clinging on to the hope that the next landslide will not occur within their own lifetime. But it is a losing battle. Two centuries of forest exploitation have left brown scars in the mountains which have all been converted, eventually, into landslides. The seismic tremors which are a regular feature of the young Himalayan ranges have only aggravated the problem.
Ganga the second highest silt carrier in the world. This is an important point as it has bearing on the annual rate of siltation experienced by any reservoir downstream.