Being an atheist, I was in a concussion when my dad proposed to go to Hemkunt sahib in my post semester break. But with no astonishment he could convince me with his facetious words although what happened next left me in a trauma.
Our stuff was packed and here I was just about to board our bus from Delhi to see approximately 40 geriatric people already fighting with the driver over the seats they wanted. The journey started with a pious chanting and off we were. With my dad lost in his thoughts like a broken soul in rejuvenation. Hence, with no convoy I got lost in my music and dozzed off.
Next morning came with a breeze of relief and freshness with the mountain scenery having started. I was all charged up again and my life wasn’t as horrendous as before. I looked at my dad but he was still revitalizing so I turned on my “social being” and thought of conversing with other co-passengers but I could hear people sitting in front discussing about a story about the lake in front of the gurudwara which they referred to as the ‘place of Gods’.
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 has been derived from its association with tales of the gods. Most notably, 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 to be saved. The monkey-god Hanuman was then able to find him a life-giving herb. When the herb was administered to Lakshman, he was 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 story ended with we having reached our destination “Govind ghat” and my interest to see the place being multiplied triple fold. Govind ghat is the started point to the trek to Hemkund sahib. The entire distance of 19 kms was broadly divided into two parts, the first part being 13 km long from Govind ghat to Ghangaria and the second stretch being from Ghangaria to Hemkunt sahib.
The first part of the trek started at 10 in the morning. The place is filled with palanquin carriers and horse riders for the old and unable who can’t complete the trek by foot. Being a ‘young blood’ I started the journey with ease and swiftly but I was down soon just like a 1980 ambassador on road, looks cool but no power but with the constant assembling of my broken pieces and motivation arose from watching the spirit of the fellow travelers I somehow completed the first part and reached Ghangaria at 6 in eve.
Having started the trek again at 4 next morning, it took me 5 hours to reach the peak. The sheer serenity of the place and paroxysm of the other travelers on having reached the home of their ‘guru’ cannot be described in words but I was constantly looking for the lake and there it was, half frozen and half melted. All the pilgrims were served ‘guru ka langar’(food) and hot tea and even though the motive of my trip was reached but I realized that travelling isn’t just about reaching from point A to B but also about what you incur in between. Having taken the blessings from the calm place I got down the mountain and took my bus and reached home but the emotions that I witnessed are going to stay with me forever.