november :oo, i i v v v o s i 1 i v v oo

spirit ~ QUEST
a journey of
he lusty shouts of Bole so
nihaaal, Sat Sri Akaal – the
pausing for breath every 30 yards
or so – a sip of glucose D water
– mules and men jostling for space
on a narrow rocky path, 15,000
ft up in the mountains – tower-
ing snow-clad peaks above and
a gushing river below – scary to
look up and scarier to look below.
These are some of the sights and
sounds experienced on the trek
to Hemkund Sahib.
Hemkund Sahib (lake of ice)
is the glacial lake and gurudwara,
high up in the Himalayas. The
Sikhs believe it is the tapasthan
(place of meditation and prayer)
where Guru Gobind Singh, the
tenth Guru, united with God in
his previous incarnation.
The people of the nearby valleys
knew the lake as a place of pilgrim-
age, long before the Sikhs came.
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sv1 uvvou1 sixus vxn.vx ox . 1vvx 1o uvxxuxu s.uin .xu vv1uvx w.x1ixc
1o vvvv.1 1uv vxvvvivxcv
by Arun Ganapathy
november :oo, i i v v v o s i 1 i v v oo
spirit ~ QUEST
Hemkund Sahib: the lake of ice
november :oo, i i v v v o s i 1 i v v o,
spirit ~ QUEST
They called it Lokpal – the sanc-
tity derived from its association
with Vishnu who lived here and
Laxman, the younger brother
of Ram, who meditated and
did penance there.
In the late 19th century, the Sikhs
began to search for the Hemkund
their guru had alluded to in his
autobiography, the Bichitar Natak.
“I shall now relate my own story,”
wrote the guru, “How God sent
me into this world. I was busy
performing penance on the hills
of Hemkund, where the seven
peaks called Sapt Shring are
prominent, and where King Pandu
performed austerities.”
Based on this, Sikh writers
working on Guru Gobind’s life
speculated about the location of
Hemkund. Pundit Tara Singh
Narotam, a nirmala scholar,
wrote of Hemkund as one among
the Sikh shrines in the Gur tirath
Sangrah and Bhai Vir Singh
developed the geographical idea
of Hemkund in his work, the Sri
Kalgidhar Chamatkar.
In 1932, Sohan Singh, a granthi
in a gurudwara in Tehri Garhwal,
read Bhai Vir Singh’s description
and found it so compelling that
he resolved to search for the
spot. Working from clues in the
Bichitar Natak, the Mahabharata,
and the books of Sikh writers,
he reached Pandukeshwar in
1934 and asked the locals about
the place where King Pandu did
his penance. They said it could
perhaps be Lokpal. He found the
place where the Guru had medi-
tated, published its discovery to
the world, and built a gurudwara
at the spot. Little would he know
that it was to become a well-
known site of Sikh pilgrimage.
The journey begins
It was dark in the one-street vil-
lage of Ghangaria, high up in the
Himalayas, but already there was
a bustle. Sherpa porters with faces
wrinkled like stewed prunes, jerk-
ed large wicker baskets onto their
backs, as per custom, the bells of
the first mules tinkled, and hun-
dreds of Sikh pilgrims, wearing
bandanas with the ik onkar symbol
poured out of the gurudwara into
the pre-dawn darkness. Each car-
ried a bamboo stick in one hand,
and a jerry can in the other.
“Bole so nihaaal,” cried one of
them. His voice, like a warrior’s
battle cry carried through the
entire village and the Sikhs around
responded with equal vigour, “ Sat
Sri Akaal” and they were off on the
climb to Hemkund.
The trek from Ghangaria to
Hemkund is six kilometres. The
pathway, initially broad and gen-
tly sloping, followed the course of
the Laxman Ganga river, which
tumbled milky white over the
rocks below. As we walked, the
sun rose and filtered through
the leaves dappling the ground.
Through the breaks in the foli-
age, I glimpsed the peaks dusted
white with snow, as though some-
one had dredged icing sugar on
them. Then the path got steep-
er, and the panting for breath
november :oo, i i v v v o s i 1 i v v o8
spirit ~ QUEST
dominated over the admiration of
beauty. Every switchback became
a temptation to sit, pant for two
minutes, and watch others going
up. A frail old man, perhaps in his
mid-70s paused for a minute, asked
me the time, and flew on. The gold
standard he was carrying said he
had done the journey on bicycle
from Ludhiana.
As I sat wondering what made
him, and others like him attempt
this arduous trek, the line I had
read earlier on a website came back
to me – “Sikh pilgrims go there
inspired to walk the same difficult
path that the guru walked,” wrote
the author and it made sense.
The path got even steeper and
narrower. Mules on their way down
now jostled for space with the pil-
grims. Some of them pushed you to
the edge and it was scary to think
that one small slip would send me to
the river, a thousand feet below. The
Sikhs on their way down stopped
those going up at regular intervals,
and handed out Glucose D, but
as we climbed, breathing became
more difficult. Finally, after five
hours of climbing, a waterfall and
a set of dizzying stone steps came
into view. Atop the steps was the
Nishaan Sahib of Hemkund.
Hemkund Sahib is a place of
raw grandeur, built for meditation.
Behind the Nishaan Sahib, the land
dipped again towards the gurud-
wara and the lake. All around were
the towering snow clad peaks of the
Sapt Shring, as still and beautiful as
in a photograph. They hemmed in
the lake whose shore ran from the
gurudwara at one end to the edges
of the mountains at the other.
Just below the peaks, glaciers like
long white tongues, stretched to
the lake’s edge and fed its waters,
smooth, and clear as glass. Cold
winds blew down the slopes and cut
across the surface of the lake creat-
ing silver ripples on the surface.
As I watched, a group of Sikhs
undressed and took a dip in the
freezing water, while a few others
collected it in their jerry cans. One
of them pointed to the peaks and
I followed his fingers with mine to
see seven Nishaan Sahibs – one atop
each of the Sapt Shring, like thin
pencils fluttering in the icy winds.
(I was told, they were planted afresh
every year) The wind froze my fin-
The holy Granth Sahib
november :oo, i i v v v o s i 1 i v v o,
spirit ~ QUEST
gers and made me hurry towards
the gurudwara.
The gurudwara at Hemkund is
a star-shaped, two-tiered structure
that stands at one end of the lake.
It commemorates the spot where
the guru was first commanded by
God to be reborn in this world
and teach men the true path.
On the top deck was a large
hall, where under a gold canopy
lit with flashing fairy lights, was
the holy Granth Sahib. Rows and
rows of Sikhs wrapped in blan-
kets sat on a thickly carpeted
wooden floor in front of it. Some
of them nodded into their prayer
books, a few others hummed a
shabad, more to keep awake than
out of piety, while others at the
back had fallen asleep out of
sheer exhaustion and the warmth
of the place.
All of them awaited the ardas
at 2 pm. The ardas was a sort
of grand finale to the entire
pi l gri mage and a symbol i c
participation, in Guru Gobind’s
life in Hemkund.
The granthi took the micro-
Taking a dip in the frigid water
november :oo, i i v v v o s i 1 i v v ,o
spirit ~ QUEST
phone and explained the signifi-
cance of their darshan and ishnan.
He recounted the story of Hemkund
as it was told in the Bichitar Natak
and said a little about Guru Gobind’s
life. Then he started a chant and
the rows of white and orange tur-
bans chorused. Every so often, he
stopped and the Sikhs erupted into
shouts of wahe guru.
The reading of the Hukumnama
again, signalled the end and a young
Sikh boy went around the hall dol-
ing out mouth-watering karah
prasad. A line formed and the pil-
grims went up and prostrated to the
Granth Sahib. They did a parikrama
and presented the rumalas they had
brought to the granthi.
Just at that moment, he took
the mike again, cautioned us
about the deteriorating weather
and darkness, and requested us to
leave. As I rested on the way down,
the old Sikh I had seen on the way
up breezed past again carrying a
large jerry can of water. He was
as fresh as a daisy. I felt ashamed,
and wondered what powered
him so effortlessly.
“We pour a drop into our car-
burettors every day, phir gaddi
chalayenge,” said a group of Sikh
truck drivers when I asked them
why they were collecting the
water of the lake. Faintly amusing
and rustic, the answer neverthe-
less offered a clue to their beliefs
and the energy of the old Sikh.
Hemkund is a journey of faith. [
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