Upriver, a monsoon love affair with the Ganga

It's easy to see why Lord Shiva fell in love with the Ganga. Mere mortals can be hopelessly smitten

Bhageeratha watched with terror in his eyes as a miffed Ganga hurtled towards Earth from the heavens. His penance to bring Ganga down to earth to cleanse his ancestors' souls had succeeded; but in the process, did he bring forth the doom of all mankind? For Ganga, it was too much of an insult to be asked to descend from her abode among the gods and flow on earth among the mortals. She would show them her wrath; her immense force would flood the entire earth in the blink of a mortal eye.... But she was bridled, by none other than Mahadev Shiva, who stood in her path and let his matted locks intercept her flow. She entered his locks, and emerged in a placid and smooth flow, tamed. And her soothing touch on his temples even changed Mahadev's life. He fell in love... 

My much-awaited tryst with Ganga started at Haridwar, the gateway to the Himalayas, on our trip to Madmaheshwar. All along our flight from Chennai to Delhi, the skies were choppy, and it was no different in the Himalayas. Under a sky threatening to brim over, I saw her first, flowing with effortless ease, murky and swift under a bridge on the Haridwar-Rishikesh highway. Like a blue-blooded maiden, carrying herself with a dignity that evoked sighs of admiration, but from a respectful distance. The volume of water that flows along the river supports a big percentage of the world’s second largest population, and just a glance was enough to see how… We drove upriver for many kilometers. Past Rishikesh the Shivaliks rose up from the plains. The roads were built as ledges along the mountains, in whose gorges the Ganga flowed, keeping us company all the way. Signs screaming to beware of landslide/rockfall were everywhere along the road. But so captivated were my eyes that the fact that landslides could hold us up, delay us, or even doom our trip didn’t register in my brain. The mists seemed to rise upwards like an inverted curtain from the surface of the river. The skies were overcast and saturated, and a downpour seemed imminent. It seemed as if Mahadev had spread his locks a tad to allow more water to gush towards the Earth, perhaps to cleanse many more souls! The higher we went the river became more turbulent. At Devprayag, the Ganga splits into Bhagirathi and Alaknanda -- rather, the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi merge at Devprayag. From here, we followed the Alaknanda. Landslides littered our way, which was being cleared by bulldozers as we watched. The mud that the mountains shook up was pushed over the ledge, into the hungry river, which looked as if it could swallow entire roads, if not the mountains themselves. A few hours of driving upriver took us to Rudraprayag, where the Mandakini meets the Alaknanda. The waters were still turbid, but looked much more menacing. In the planes the flow was smoother but here the rivers dashed against rocks, around curves, churning and frothing. Here she resembled a young woman, hasty and headstrong, hissing and winding like an angry snake. Part of her vehement aspect, before she entered Mahadev's locks, seemed to have resurfaced.We followed Mandakini, which originates near Kedarnath, towards the Kedarnath/Ukhimath route. However next morning we parted company and met one of it’s most beautiful tributaries – the Madhyamaheshwar Ganga, which originates in the galciers of the massive Chakhamba. Past Ukhimath, Uniana and Ransi villages our drive ended, and we moved upriver of Madhyamaheshwar Ganga, a lovely jade green river, on foot, climbing the steep hills towards Madmaheshwar. Alaknanda never left our side, always flowing with a distinct rushing noise. On days that it didn’t rain, she sounded more like a girlfriend who doesn’t stop chattering, and on the days when it rained cats and dogs, she was a nagging wife. When we would return, the rains would let up in patches, and from the color of the water at the various confluences of streams, we saw where it had rained and where it hadn’t. The water in the streams flowing from areas of higher rainfall (and soil erosion) were a murky brown while others were a rich marble green! And soon we saw where all the water came from. There were numerous waterfalls streaking the landscape, and this in addition to the snowmelt from the extensive glaciers from the Chaukhamba massif. Like a few runaway streams caressing the temples of Mahadev, these streams slid down the ridges of the mountains... We drank from waterfalls far from habitation during our treks to Madmaheshwar and back, crossed rivulets flowing over the road (letting water and an occasional leech into our shoes), and lost count of the waterfalls which joined Madhyamaheshwar ganga. Some gushed, some giggled and some roared as we walked past them. Maybe due to the therapeutic powers of the waters, not once did any of us fall ill or face a bout of indigestion. The sun, when it chose to make an appearance, presented us with amazing spectacles -- causing rainbows in the spray that rose from the rocks, pounded by the the streams that would later join the Madhyamaheshwar ganga and then Mandakini, Alaknanda and finally the Ganga itself. And here, she looked like an innocent girl with rainbows and stars in her eyes. By the end of the trip, I could see why Lord Shiva supposedly made Ganga his wife. It was hard not to fall in love with her.