At the tender age of eleven Nilkanth Varni travelled alone in the northern region of India (Uttarakhand). He started his upward pilgrimage to Kedarnath from Rishikesh and then went to Badrinath. From Badrinath he embarked upon an extremely arduous and difficult journey to Badrivan in the beginning of winter. Nilkanth stayed there for three months and then travelled through the most dangerous and frigid terrains of the world to Kailas and Manasarovar. From Manasarovar Nilkanth Varni returned to Badrinath after six months. From here he started another challenging pilgrimage to Gangotri (10,000 ft.).
In this article we shall look at the conditions and hardships Nilkanth must have faced through the experiences of other explorers.
Nilkanth's trek route in the Himalayan pilgrim places (Uttarakhand) was different from today's roads and trekking pathways. The route of his journey by foot was extremely difficult and unimaginable.
When Nilkanth left Rishikesh on 16 September 1792 towards Kedarnath, he travelled through the towns and villages of Devprayag, Rudraprayag, Gupta Kashi, Triyuginarayan and Gaurikund. The Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar describes Nilkanth's journey with all the names and the number of days he stayed at the pilgrim places he passed on his way to Kedarnath (as mentioned above). Today's route from Rishikesh to Kedarnath is the same as it was in Nilkanth Varni's time. But Nilkanth had two options for his journey from Kedarnath to Badrinath. (See above map.)
Route 1: Kedarnath, Gaurikund, Triyuginarayan, Gupta Kashi, Rudraprayag Chamoli, Joshimath, Vishnuprayag and Badrinath.
Route 2: This narrow path by foot was used less by pilgrims: Kedarnath, Gaurikund, Gupta Kashi, Ukhimath, Chopta, Gopeshwar, Chamoli, Joshimath and Badrinath.106
Nilkanth, instead of choosing from one of the above two routes, blazed a new trail altogether. Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar notes, "In the Himalayas at Kedarnath there is a big mandir of Mahadev. Brahmachari (Nilkanth) took the direction behind Kedarnath towards Badrinath. He reached Badrinath after nine days."107
So, Nilkanth, instead of taking the two familiar and popular routes one and two (as mentioned above, where one passes through the pilgrim places of Ukhimath, Gopeshwar, Joshimath, etc., went around the mountain behind Kedarnath towards Badrinath.
Now let us look at the geography of this region.
The description in Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar is very clear. It says that to the north of Kedarnath lies Mt. Kedarnath. It seems that Nilkanth had trekked around Mt. Kedarnath towards Badrinath. But is there such a path or way? And to circle around Mt. Kedarnath Nilkanth would have to cross the Chhodabari and Dudhganga glaciers. Further ahead he would have to pass through the Kirti glacier and a clear yellow glacier that lies in a valley between Mt. Kedarnath (22,769 ft.) and Mt. Meru (21,919 ft.). After traversing these glaciers one reaches the Gangotri glacier. After crossing it one has to walk in the valley of the Bhagirath mountain range to reach Nandanvan. Then by crossing the Chaturangi glacier and the subsequent Kalindi Ghat (19,567 ft.) one arrives in the valley where the river Arva flows on the Arva glacier. On walking along the banks of river Arva the latter merges into the river Alaknanda near Gastoli. Then on walking 11.5 km south from here one arrives at Badrinath.
It seems that Nilkanth travelled on this route. Despite the simple description of the route, in reality, it is nothing but full of harsh terrains and insurmountable difficulties. Any adventurous and enterprising traveller or pilgrim would never be able to source enough courage to do it alone. Such are the perils and impossibilities of this land. It took Nilkanth nine days to travel a distance of 125 km over seven glaciers. This means that Nilkanth could barely cover nine to twelve kilometres everyday.
When Nilkanth first arrived at Badrinath he stayed there for twenty days. Then he stayed at Joshimath for a few days before embarking upon his pilgrimage to Manasarovar on 17 October 1792. After six months he returned to Badrinath (as described in previous articles). But his return to Badrinath was not the end of his pilgrimage.
When Nilkanth returned to Badrinath it was 13 May 1793, Akha Trij. From here Nilkanth decided to go to Gangotri. And the only one known path was to descend to Joshimath again and go to Chamoli, Gupta Kashi, Triyuginarayan, Buddha Kedar and finally Gangotri. But the Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar describes and points to something different altogether.
When Nilkanth returned to Badrinath after his pilgrimage to Manasarovar he met Maharaja Ranjitsinh of Punjab. The king was captivated by the divine personality of Nilkanth. Out of adulation for Nilkanth he requested him to come to his kingdom. But Nilkanth refused. When the king and his party were about to leave for Joshimath and travel to Haridwar he asked Nilkanth again to come with him. But Nilkanth wanted to go to Gangotri. If Nilkanth had wanted to take the known path to Gangotri then he would have descended with Maharaja Ranjitsinh to Joshimath. But Nilkanth, instead, decided to take a different route to Gangotri.108
Now the question is which different route did Nilkanth take?
Nilkanth took the same route he had taken while coming from Kedarnath to Badrinath. The path was geographically familiar to him because he had travelled on it during his journey from Kedarnath to Badrinath. Then on reaching the Gangotri glacier he travelled towards the source of river Ganga at Gaumukh and then to Gangotri. (See map on p. 30.)
The path from Badrinath to Gangotri is extremely challenging and deadly. On the way, it is very hazardous to cross the Kalindi Ghat at 19,567 ft.109 About 125 years after Nilkanth's journey, when a European traveller called Bernie had travelled on the same route from Badrinath to Gangotri with guides and necessary paraphernalia the local people of the Garhwal region were amazed. In comparison it is intensely fascinating as to how Nilkanth, who at the age of only twelve, wearing a loincloth, barefooted and with no materials or means whatsoever, pilgrimaged alone to Gangotri. His is an unparalleled story of courage, confidence, determination and divinity.
To understand the depth of Nilkanth's pilgrimage it would suffice to read the experiences of Swami Prabodhanand.110 We have quoted the experiences of Swami Prabodhanand in the previous articles of this issue (p. 14). The description of his experiences of the entire pilgrimage is awe-inspiring.
A Unique Pilgrim to The Source of Ganga
For millennia mother Ganga has been nourishing India with her pristine, divine waters. The holy river is central to the faith of all Hindus. It is worshipped by thousands with arti everyday; its waters are sprinkled to drive away evil spirits and all that is inauspicious and impure; and millions of Hindus vest their faith in its redemptory powers. It is difficult to evaluate the glory that mother Ganga has for all Hindus.
Out of a challenging curiosity and glory for Ganga were born many explorers and pilgrims. They endeavoured to the source of the boisterous river Ganga. But their odysseys through the soaring Himalayan peaks and valleys were stories of human courage and tragedy. Despite the adversities and challenges, the mission of discovering the source of river Ganga four centuries ago was so important that the then Mughal ruler, King Akbar, at the end of the 16th century, commissioned a team.111 Then with the advent of the British, who came under the pretext of trade and then ruled India, many Europeans trekked in the Himalayan mountains to find the river's origin. In the 17th and 18th centuries many explorers lost their lives. Then history remains mute till the 19th century as to how many and who had reached the source of river Ganga. The renowned 19th century writer T.N. Colebrook writes in his 1812 research paper 'On the Source of the Ganges in the Himadri or Emodus' that the source of river Ganga was a burning issue.112 So many explorers had died or were proved wrong in finding the source of the mighty Ganga. Historians testify that till the beginning of the 19th century no one was successful in finding the source of Ganga. The reason being that the path from Gaumukh to Gangotri (21 km) was extremely difficult and dangerous. Even today, with all the required equipment and arrangements for the journey one experiences, to some extent, the challenges it poses. Another reason in not finding the source was due to Pauranic beliefs. According to tradition Hindus believe that Ganga flows from Lord Shiv's head. The Matsya Puran says, "Bhagirathi Ganga flows from Lake Mandod which lies in the valley of Mt. Kailas." (Matsya Puran, Ch. 214.) The great poet Kalidas writes in Meghdut (Purva Megh, 65) that Ganga flows from Mt. Kailas. Hence the Hindus have come to believe that the source of river Ganga lies on Mt. Kailas or Manasarovar. Hence, many Hindus, regardless of the hardships, dangers and possibilities of death, pilgrimaged to Manasarovar to find the source of Ganga. Even foreign traders and rulers, too, travelled to find the source of Ganga. The map of Tibet, by French traveller, D'Anville, in 1733, called, 'Carte Générale Du THIBET', shows that "...the Ganges issues from Manasarovar."113
Two hundred years ago, sannyasi Purangir went to Gangotri in his search for the source of Ganga. "Purangir believed that the Ganges had its source on Kailas and flowed thence to Manasarovar."114
Sven Hedin, the Swedish explorer, writes in his book Trans-Himalaya, "The source of the Ganges was discovered in 1808... The expedition was accomplished by Lieutenant Webb and the captains Raper and Hearsey. It followed the track of Antonio de Andrade. Two hundred years earlier this trekker on his way over Mana pass to Tsaparang had, without knowing it, passed by the source of the Ganges. The source of the Indus, Sutlej, and Brahmaputra neither Catholic missionaries nor any one else had passed before the year 1907.
"The instructions given to Lieutenant Webb by the supreme Government of Bengal contain the following paragraph: 'To ascertain whether this (i.e. the cascade or subterraneous passage at Gangotri) be the ultimate source of the Ganges; and in case it should prove otherwise, to trace the river, by survey, as far towards its genuine source as possible. To learn, in particular, whether, as stated by Major Rennell, it arises from the Lake Manasarobar; and, should evidence be obtained confirming his account, to get, as nearly as practicable, the bearing and distance of that lake.' "116
At this point it is necessary to mention again that history should note that fifteen years earlier than Lieutenant Webb and his party 12-year-old Nilkanth had reached the source of river Ganga alone and without any means and wearing only a loincloth. The path that Nilkanth had taken on his journey from Badrinath to Gangotri is the path to the source of river Ganga.
The river Ganga's source lies at Gaumukh (a gorge shaped like a 'cow's mouth'), that is 21 km east of Gangotri. But the 18th century Jesuit father Joseph Tieffenthaler "...affirms that it (the source) will never be discovered because the way beyond the gorge of the 'cow's mouth' (gaumukh) is impassable."117 Nilkanth had travelled from beyond the gorge and reached Gaumukh. Then he walked from its source, along its banks to Haridwar.
Sven Hedin writes, "The envoys (sent by King Akbar at the end of the 16th century) saw the water of the river (Ganga) gush out in great abundance in a ravine under a mountain which resembled a cow's head... English explorers, however were soon to establish the fact that the information which Akbar's envoys brought to their master was correct."118
No British and European historians and writers have noted as to whether any sannyasi or sadhu had reached the source of the Ganga at Gaumukh. There is a possibility that Nilkanth's pilgrimage to the source of Ganga, as a 12-year-old child yogi, could well be the first in the records of history.
The seven year sojourn of Nilkanth throughout India is full of unknown facts and revelations of the challenges he faced. When his other journeys will be presented in future in context with the records of those who have endeavoured we hope to get further perspectives and insights into Nilkanth's divine personality!
106. Poddar, Hanumanprasad. Kalyan (Tirthank). Gorakhpur: Gita Press, 1957: 53-60.
107. Swami Shri Siddhanandmuni (also known as Swami Adharanandmuni). Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar. Varanasi: Swami Hariprakash, Pundit Shrinarmadeshwar Chaturvedi, 1972: 2-15-18-19.
108. Swami Adharanandmuni. Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar, Pt. 1. p. 122-124.
109. Swami, Anand. Baraf Raste Badarinath. Amdavad: Balgovind Prakashak, 1970: 67- 72.
110. Swami, Anand. Baraf Raste Badarinath. p. 67-72.
113. Hedin, Sven. Trans-Himalaya, Vol. 3. p. 209.
114. Hedin, Sven. Trans-Himalaya, Vol. 3. p. 208.
115. Hedin, Sven. Trans-Himalaya, Vol. 3. p. 211.
116. Hedin, Sven. Trans-Himalaya, Vol. 3. p. 211.
117. Hedin, Sven. Trans-Himalaya, Vol. 3. p. 199.
118. Hedin, Sven. Trans-Himalaya, Vol. 3. p. 200.
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Translation: Sadhu Vivekjivandas