Title:  Mythology

Long before Sikhs began coming to Hemkunt, the lake was known to the people who lived in the nearby valleys as a place of pilgrimage. Its name was Lokpal, and its sanctity derived from its association with tales of the gods. Most notably, the god Lakshman, the younger brother of Ram, is said to have meditated or done penance at Lokpal. In a popular story told by local people and visitors alike, Lakshman was brought to the shore of Lokpal after being mortally wounded in a battle with the son of Ravana. Lakshman's wife wept and prayed that her husband be saved. The monkey god Hanuman was then able to find a life-giving herb. When the herb was administered to Lakshman, he miraculously revived. In celebration, God showered flowers from heaven, which fell to the earth and took root in the Valley of Flowers.

Another story is told about Lakshman's previous incarnation as a seven headed snake. In this form, so the local people say, he meditated under the water at Lokpal and lord Vishnu slept on his back. The name Lokpal refers to Vishnu, the sustainer, who looks after the earth. Lokpal is also rumoured to be the native place of yet another god: Shiva, the destroyer, and his wife Parvati. Stories like these, and the ones about Hemkunt related below, have written sources in the Puranas (ancient volumes of Hindu mythology) and the Hindu epics (the Mahabharata and the Ramayana), but as they are passed from person to person and from generation to generation, they change, taking on local references and becoming blended with elements from other stories with other sources.

Traditionally, Lokpal was visited on three annual festivals held during the summer season. The pilgrimage to the lake was made primarily by women, both Garhwali villagers from the valley below Lokpal and villagers of Bhotia (Indo-Tibetan) ancestry from neighbouring valleys. All who went to Lokpal recognized the sanctity of the lake. Out of respect for the purity of the water and its environs, they made the steep ascent barefoot, clad only in white cotton dhoti (an unstitched garment). The women left their clothes and shoes behind at a halting place set in a glade of fir trees. There they would spend the night singing songs of the goddess, and at dawn they would set out to scale the slope to the lake. This halting place became the site of what is today Gobind Dham or Ghangaria, named after the ghagara, or petticoats, which the pilgrims would leave there.

When the pilgrims reached Lokpal, they would make offerings of coins, coconuts, Brahma Kamal flowers, and parshad (a consecrated sweet). They would often bathe in the cold water, and pray to Lakshman for the blessing of a son or for the health of their menfolk. A story by the local people about a Bhotia man who had no children. He came to Lokpal and his faith was so strong that he crawled the circumference of the lake on his elbows. When he returned the following year he had a son.

The Dasam GranthIn the late nineteenth century, Sikhs began to search for Hemkunt: a place, high in the Himalayan mountains, which their tenth Guru alluded to in the autobiographical Bachitra Natak. The title of this work roughly translates as the 'wonderful drama'. It is included in a compilation of writings attributed to Guru Gobind Singh, known as the Dasam Granth. In poetic language, the following story about the Guru's previous birth is recounted in chapter six of Bachitra Natak:

Excerpt from Bachitra Natak in Gurmukhi

(Dasam Guru Granth Sahib Ji 1952: 54-55)

In these verses, the Guru tells of his origins. He describes the place Hemkunt Parbat Sapat Sring, the "lake of ice" "mountain" adorned with "seven peaks", as the same place where King Pandu, the forefather of the five Pandava brothers of Mahabharata fame, practiced yoga. There, the Guru did intense meditation and austerities until he merged with God. Because his earthly parents had served God, God was pleased with them and gave a commandment that the Guru to be born to them. In the world he would carry out a mission to teach the true religion and rid people of evil ways. He was reluctant to leave his state of union with the creator, but God compelled him. In this way the Guru took birth into the world.

The first Sikh to pen his speculations about the nature and location of the Guru's tap asthan was hagiographical writer Bhai Santokh Singh. In his fourteen volume Sri Gur Pratap Suraj [Prakash] Granth (originally published in 1843), Santokh Singh elaborated on the story of the Guru's previous life as told in the above passage from the Dasam Granth.

Dusht Daman:  The Destroyer of Evil

Santokh Singh narrated a mythical tale of a powerful youth who was called into existence during Sat Yug, the 'age of truth' (the first of four ages according to Hindu mythology) to do battle with fierce demons that terrorized mortals and gods. When they had been destroyed, the youth, known as Dusht Daman, the 'destroyer of evil', was instructed to go to Hemkunt Sapatsring to meditate until he was called upon by God. Guru Gobind Singh's own account in Bachitra Natak completes this story. After realizing his oneness with God through meditation and austere discipline, he was reborn in Kal Yug, the 'age of darkness', as the son of the ninth Guru and his wife. Later, after his father's martyrdom, he became the tenth and final living Guru of the Sikhs.

The search for and discovery of Hemkunt came out of the desire of the Sikhs to erect shrines to honour places consecrated by the visit of the tenth Guru during his lifetime or, in the case of Hemkunt, during his previous lifetime. Although Bachitra Natak was included in the Dasam Granth some time in the 1730s, Sikhs apparently did not consider looking for Hemkunt Sapatsring until the late nineteenth century. It did not become a place of pilgrimage until the twentieth century.

Pandit Tara Singh Narotam, a nineteenth century Nirmala scholar, was the first Sikh to trace the geographical location of Hemkunt. He wrote of Hemkunt as one among the 508 Sikh shrines he described in Sri Gur Tirath Sangrah (first published in 1884). Much later, renowned Sikh scholar Bhai Vir Singh was instrumental in developing Hemkunt after it had been, in a sense, re-discovered by another Sikh in search of the Guru's tap asthan.

Sohan Singh was a retired granthi from the Indian army who was working in a gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Tehri Garhwal. In 1932, he read the description of Hemkunt in Bhai Vir Singh's Sri Kalgidhar Chamatkar (1929). This account of the place and the meditation of a great yogi there was based on the tale of Guru Gobind Singh's life and previous life as told in Bachitra Natak and the Suraj [Prakash] Granth.

Painting of Sant Sohan Singh

Bhai Vir Singh's description was so compelling that, on reading it, Sant Sohan Singh resolved to search for the place where Guru Gobind Singh had meditated. He set out in 1933, perhaps working from clues in Bachitra Natak and the Mahabharata, and Narotam's Sri Gur Tirath Sangrah. He was not successful that year, so returned to try again in 1934.

In Pandukeshwar, near Gobind Ghat, Sant Sohan Singh made inquiries of the local people about the location of the place where King Pandu had done his penance. It was they who said that the lake known as Lokpal might fit the description of Hemkunt Sapatsring. In an account told by the villagers, he met with some Bhotia women who were on their way from Badrinath to Lokpal to celebrate a festival. He asked if he could accompany them. In another version, he climbed alone to the shore of the small lake surrounded by rocky peaks. Accounts of what happened next also vary. What is clear is that Sohan Singh felt certain that he had found the very place where the Guru had meditated in his previous life.

In his excitement to spread news of his discovery, he went first to Mussoorie, a hill station in Uttarkhand. He wanted to approach Sikh authorities in the hope that a memorial could be set up beside the lake. He spoke to the president of the gurdwara there, but his story met with skepticism. He moved on to Amritsar and announced his discovery before the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. The authorities there also did not listen. He then decided to approach Bhai Vir Singh, whose book had first inspired his search.

In the winter of 1934, Sohan Singh met with Bhai Vir Singh in Amritsar. At first the scholar was not convinced, and asked many questions about Sohan Singh's find. When at last he felt satisfied that the place fit Guru Gobind Singh's description, Bhai Vir Singh committed himself to the cause of developing of Hemkunt. He gave Sohan Singh 2,100 rupees with which to buy supplies to start construction of a small gurdwara on the shore of the lake, then he went on to publicize the discovery of Hemkunt and to collect and manage further funds for its development.

Early in 1935, Sohan Singh was purchasing building materials in Mussoorie when Modan Singh, a havaldar from the Survey Department, approached him and asked him what he was preparing to build. Sohan Singh explained that he had found the place where Guru Gobind Singh had meditated in his previous life, and Modan Singh asked if he might accompany him to the site. They went together to Hemkunt that same year. In Pandukeshwar they hired a contractor to oversee the construction. They obtained permission from the local people, and then, accompanied by local men, they went to the lake and started work on a ten by ten foot stone gurdwara. The construction of the gurdwara was completed the following year. The Sikhs also had their contractor enlarge the ancient Hindu mandir which stood on the shore of the lake.

Havildar Modan Singh retired from the military in 1936 after deciding to dedicate the rest of his life to the service of the Guru's tap asthan. In 1937, the Guru Granth Sahib was installed in the hut on the shore of the lake, which became the site of the highest gurdwara in the world. In 1939, Sant Sohan Singh died, but not before entrusting Modan Singh with his mission to continue the development of Hemkunt Sahib.

The first structure at Gobind Dham was a small tin shed built by Modan Singh. Prior to its construction, he had found shelter from rain, cold, and wild animals in the hollowed out trunk of a tree. The tree still stands in the courtyard of Gurdwara Gobind Dham, and pilgrims gather around the plaque mounted nearby to read its story. In 1951, the Chief Khalsa was given responsibility for the upkeep and further development of the route to Hemkunt. Now, gurdwaras have been constructed all along the route from Harwar/Rishikesh to Hemkunt Sahib. During the formative years of development there was no motorable road leading to Gobind Ghat, and all supplies had to be carried over rough terrain and steep inclines by mule and by porter.

With the inspiration of Bhai Vir Singh, the first jatha (group of pilgrims) was formed and sponsored by the Chief Khalsa Diwan, Amritsar in 1952. In 1958, responsibility for Hemkunt Sahib shifted to the Chief Khalsa Diwan branch in Kanpur. Shortly before his death in 1960, Modan Singh established a seven member trust to oversee the further growth and operation of the pilgrimage. Today, in addition to Gurdwara Sri Hemkunt Sahib, the trust manages gurdwaras in Hardwar, Rishikesh, Srinagar, Joshimath, Gobind Ghat, and Gobind Dham, all of which provide food and lodging for pilgrims.

Inspiration for building a larger gurdwara at Hemkunt came from a woman who was given the mission to lay its foundation stone in a vision of Guru Gobind Singh. When Mata Ram Kaur, a housewife from Punjab, presented herself in Gobind Ghat in 1960 and revealed her purpose, the management were skeptical. She was able to convince them of the sincerity of her mission by describing details of Hemkunt that, never having been there before, she had no way of knowing.

In the end, a new gurdwara was built. The plans for it were made in 1964, but work could not begin until 1968 when the motorable road was extended to Gobind Ghat. The new gurdwara was designed with the image of an upside down lotus flower in mind. The roof of the structure is able to withstand the weight of heavy winter snowfall, and doors on all five sides welcome visitors from every direction and every faith. The lower storey was completed first. In a room in its centre the Guru Granth Sahib was installed beneath a brass canopy. In June of 1988 the Lakshman temple was enlarged still further with the help of the military. The upper storey of the gurdwara was completed at the end of the 1993 season, and the Guru Granth Sahib was installed in June of 1994. Work still continues at the site to improve paths and facilities. The numbers of pilgrims to Hemkunt Sahib have been steadily multiplying from the time of Hemkunt's discovery in the 1930's until today. In 1977, the first year for which data is available, there were 516 Sikh visitors. By 1980 there were 6,050. And by 1990 there were 189,340.

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