Journey to Hemkunt Sahib - 1979
This letter, dated September 30, 1979, comes from Sat Kirn Kaur Khalsa, one of our sisters from Los Angeles who is now in India. She requested that it be shared with the Sadh Sangat.
Sat Nam Ji,
We just got back from our Yatra to Hemkunt Sahib. What a trip it has been. How beautiful it is to back at the Golden Temple. Two weeks in India and I feel as though time has almost stood still. I thoroughly enjoyed the Yatra to Hemkunt Sahib. Believe me, climbing up to Hemkunt Sahib is hardly the whole of the challenge of the Yatra. We started out on an overnight train to Hardwar - the Hindu city on the Ganges. The train, luxurious by Indian standards, but something of wood, rough, hard and more like World War I vintage to my imaginings. But we could stretch out and with our pads and sleeping bags we spent a good night. The countryside is lush and green, so peaceful to look at, so unhassled by the ravages of modern technological society. Sun shining to greet us in the morning we were met in Hardwar by two very comfortable looking buses which took us and our sea of luggage to Rishi Kesh (top knot - hair) where a large Gurdwara is situated just near the Ganges River. Grazing land, hills and Ashrams situated across the Ganges from overlooking hillsides filled our panorama from the rough-hewn six-story guesthouse that housed us for the night. This Gurdwara contains an orphanage where homeless boys of all faiths are brought and raised as Sikhs. What an oasis from the poverty and filth that dominate so much of India. It appeared that the boys spent a good deal of time learning and practicing Kirtan. Guru Mustuk Singh, at first glance ran to join them and spent his first hour there peeling and chopping onions for the langar. He felt at home there and later won the joyful attention of the little boys as he played by the swimming pool (green with algae growth) just next to our building. People love the children too much and they become silly very quickly
We have some very wonderful Sevadars traveling with us who smooth the way, take care of our meals and accommodations. Bahadur Singh from New Delhi is on this trip. Charn Singh, a restaurant proprietor is managing our food and Didar Singh and Lal Singh generally take care of everything, serving, communicating, any small detail is attended to with great zeal and devotion. Such humility.
Getting to Hemkunt Sahib is a three day journey and so far perfect conditions. The second day we made many stops along the road, at tea stands for snap shots of a herd of goats, being very careful to eat only packaged things or from our personal stashes to limit our intake of germs that looked prevalent to us in the humble (dirty) places we stopped. But all these places are status quo. You change your standards a little (a lot) and accept the standard that the people are engaged in. The second night we ended up on the floor of a very large room, maybe a school.
Day three on the road took us up to 6,000 feet elevation and a very long day on the road. The countryside follows the river and roadside streams and waterfalls are plentiful. The distance in miles is not great but the roads are narrow, winding and very mountainous so progress is slow. We have to stop for oncoming traffic and sometimes we stop suddenly coming close to a head on collision round some blind curve with an oncoming truck or bus. It’s not all that bad, especially since the horn is constantly being sounded. We are grateful it is not raining. We are part of a Yatra and maybe ten other buses full with Sikhs are paralleling our trip to Gobind Ghat, the starting point of our climb. Somehow there always seems to be a basket in the front of the bus filled with chapattis and rice, a bucket full of subjee. The food always seems to appear out of the unknown for we are in very rural surroundings.
Weary after a very long third day drive we arrive at our destination. Hurriedly we are scooted off the buses, carrying as much as possible and start a one mile trek down a dirt road to Gobind Ghat, the Gurdwara where marks the beginning of our trek. Hundreds of people are milling around with similar intentions. We are particularly anxious to secure a decent sleeping place as our standards of roughing it are already being realized. At the Gurdwara, the familiar profile of the Akand Kirtan Jattha member who has preceded us on this journey, Amarjit Singh, is standing outside a building marked with chalk on the doors, "reserved for American Sikhs.” Wahe Guru! One toilet for all 45 of us, some with diarrhea and well squeezed into the rooms , we gratefully spent the night.
Gobind Ghat is situated at the base of some very tall Mountains who’s tops are wisped with white clouds and . . .snow. The sound of the river of water cascading through the cavernous spot is loud and adds to the din of the voices of crowds of Sikhs and ragged coolies preparing for the day. Donkeys and baskets ordered, we got our first glimpses of our local helpers. Little wirey men, dark skin, fine features, dressed in the most intricately patched ragged suits of dirty clothes.
The glimpse of the mountains, sky and water was awesomely beautiful, very Cosmic and led us to be humbled to the Unknown of our expectations. Some said it was just a 7 1/2 mile hike the first day and in spite of the forebodings it sounded like a very nice thing to do. Guru Mustuk got a basket to ride in. He did not take to it readily preferring to walk the first twenty minutes or so till he got really tired and allowed himself to be carried. The basket rode on this little man’s back, suspended from his forehead with the rider sitting in back in a chair-like position. Many of the baskets contained children, but many baskets contained large women and old ladies who dwarfed their carriers in size.
We crossed a bridge as people greeted us and gave us apples. We started walking up very rocky and somewhat steep trail. The most distinctive part of the trail being the large numbers of people all on Yatra. Such a rustic place to have such a large concentration of bodies. I pushed my way ahead of many and before too long we were in a wooded terrain marked by the downward flow of the river and pleasant up and down trails. We passed our first tea stall, a welcome sight to many, but a funny site on a hiking trail to find tea and cookies being served with an array of fried edibles for many. The tea stops were a rest for all of us and Wha Guru Chews became the trademark of the American Sikhs. “Wha Gurus” along the way, people greeted us, welcomed us, walked with us for a way. Finally we were all spread out from each other as each felt his natural pace. Waterfalls were exquisite and plentiful. We would meet up at tea stands where Bahadur Singh would order potatoes or papadams or tea for us and our carriers. Many ladies started out on donkeys.
We left base Gurdwara at about 7:00 AM. We passed some villages of these helping people. So primitive it is hard to imagine such simplicity or poverty even existing in the United States. But people are accepting of their lots and there is no anxiety attached to these folks. This is all they know and it is their way of life.
Four hours of steady hiking was so pleasant and beautiful. The last two hours became long and a bit steeper so that in time we became weary and by 1:30 PM grateful to catch sight of Gobind Dham, our destination for this day. Greeted with “Wahe Guru ji Ka Khalsa”. We first went to the Gurdwara for langar and respects to Guru Sahib. One of the first people there, I did not comprehend my tiredness till I sat down for a while. Then the cold air chilled our tired bodies and we rested swathed in blankets at 10,000 feet elevation. We managed to squeeze our bedding into the tiny, dark rooms of the rest house at Gobind Dham. Gobind Dham is like a little forest village. A beautiful camping spot marked by the dirty little, somewhat unpleasant buildings we stayed in, an army camp, some tea stands and the Gurdwara. The air seemed colder because of our overheated states. I bathed in the water there , and though it was very cold I felt a great deal better.
Later in the evening we went to the Gurdwara for Kirtan. It was tiny but beautiful. The Guru ensconced with multitudes of decorations: streamers, glitters, colors, wooden carved pulki, 2 gas lanterns and a very rousing kirtan with Katha (dissertation). The people coming down from Hemkunt Sahib could always be marked by their enthusiasm. Playing Kirtan feels like a gamble, sometimes asked on the spot to play, no time or place to practice and ears tuned to hear words properly pronounced. I played first of our group and to my surprise it sounded very beautiful. The choice of Shabd, about Guru Gobind Singh calling from the jungles for his Sikhs, his Khalsa to rise up, a very appropriate one. To bed, seven of us squeezed on three beds. But once asleep, the discomfort disappeared and we thanked God for a very perfect first day
Up early the next morning, a quick breakfast of rusk toast and tea we faced the challenge of the second day’s climb. About four miles to go, yet reputed to be a very steep climb. We would need our walking (pulling) sticks. Sure enough, we started out by walking up out of the wooded area of Gobind Dham with no variation like a down hill stretch for relief. Reminiscing the Grand Canyon we walked very slowly, steadily, blessing ourselves for having made it ½ kilometer out of town. From here we were out of the wooded area, above the tree line. Below us we could see the small roofs and trees of Gobind Dham. Above we could gaze at approaching wisps of clouds encasing the nearby peaks, more gushing streams, beautiful rocks and a heavenly blue sky that made us feel over more close to Whahe Guru. I felt so blessed to have come so far. I had no doubts about reaching the top. I would somehow, and I found that even as the steps became harder, my body more tired, my knees burning, that for more than to catch my breath there was nothing that could stop me. My body kept going as though some magical force was moving me forward. Chardi Kala! One man described Guru Gobind Singh’s hawk as his symbol of peace. That every Khalsa was expected to keep up so that even at the moment of death he should do one more act, live beyond that point, Chardi Kala. . . I could just sit and comprehend the greatness of God all day. But the destination still lay ahead and the curious wonder of the unseen heights of Hemkunt Sahib cradling a crystalline lake . . . Satnam Wahe Guru with every breath. We had gone a long way and there was much more to go. A bit of encouragement came when we caught a glimpse of the Nishan, or flag at the top. It loomed larger as we came nearer. Donkeys almost pushing us off these narrow trail but grateful for a pause to catch the breath. Some great devotees contrasted us by braving the walk in bare feet. Wahe Guru. My hiking boots held up nicely, but most everyone else trekking in flimsy rubber shoes, no socks, made my ten year old boots look like the cadillacs of walkers. After four hours I began to wonder if the top would ever come. Dnd then we saw a grey stairway of stones and slabs laid out as a stairway to heaven. At this point the donkeys took a longer, less steep trail. The elevation was already 15,000 feet, higher than I have ever been. The steps were grueling and now the expectation of being so close was building. We didn’t think to want to stop anymore and Guru Mustuk insisted on getting out of the basket and making this final ascent on his own two feet . A couple of hundred more steep steps and Wahe Guru! we were there! Thank you God. Now a moment to rest and comprehend the wonder of what God and Guru allowed us to accomplish.
What lay before us was a trail down to a massive concrete open Gurdwara billowed in smoke of the fires burning against the cold air and pots of tea to pass among weary pilgrims. Beyond the Gurdwara lay the lake, larger than I had imagined, the air breathable and filled with greetings of joy and victory. Victory to the Khalsa, the victory belongs to God. Wahe Guru Ji Ka Khalsa! Wahe Guru ji ki Fateh! Everyone with the will to ‘have made it did irregardless of age or physical condition. It is a matter of faith and devotion. What lay ahead was a dip into the icy clear glacier fed water of the lake.
We walked around the edge of the lake, victoriously grateful , a little bit meditative, but very weary and hard to move. Called the phenomena from lack of oxygen here at almost 16,000 foot elevation. After a cup of tea on the rocks, a few raisins and nuts offered, we set out to look for our Sherpa. We payed our respects to the Guru, set in a beautiful little room inside the cement pinnacled open air structure. The room vibrated with prana and the sounds of a very energetic Kirtan.
Promising to return again we wistfully gave a last glimpse to the meditation spot of Guru Gobind Singh where he received the realization of the Khalsa, and the meditating center of Rishi Dusht Dummond. Gratefully, we began to almost run down. Our little Sherpa’s feet moved so delicately and surely down the rocks that he seemed to run way ahead of me. So I contented myself with pacing myself and my knees and toes well behind our little basket carrier. I really appreciate my good health and keep up spirit. Onion juice everyday, I feel, has kept me and my intestines strong.
That evening at Gobind Dham we sat around in our circle of chairs out front of the rest house and bombarded the tea stall again with our orders of potato paranthas (they make the best). Early to bed and early to rise. Our incentive for getting down the mountain fast the next day was talk of going north an hour from Gobind Ghat (our starting point) where there is a Hot Springs!!! to sooth our aching bodies.
As we came down we met many people who were on their way up. We gave sugar candies to the ragged little urchins that live on the path and are constantly begging for something. The second half of the hike was long and the sun hot, made it drag on and feel like a very long five hours (or so) We were exhausted at the bottom. The thought of going up to Badrinath (an hour bus ride) for a dip in the hot springs sounded appealing. So, off some of us went on an adventure that would fill another few pages.
I shall end here with regards, blessings and Wahe Guru to Siri Singh Sahib ji and all our family at Guru Arjun Dev Ashram and Los Angeles. I love it here. The blessing of being at the house of Guru Ram Das is great. May I realize this greatness more fully and become half as humble as those who have walked before us.
God Bless you.
Wahe Guru ji Ka Khalsa!
Wahe Guru ji Ki Fateh!
Journey to Hemkunt Sahib - 1979