In the “Valley of Gods,” the majesty of Nature and many mysterious myths and popular legends meet. From ancient times, this Valley has offered enduring fascination with its many heralded legends of celebrated Hindu gods and other pious souls and their connection with this area. In this remote and peaceful setting, far removed from the temporal distractions and civilization, many have performed penance, meditated, communed with Nature, and struggled for years in search of Higher Truth. The “Valley of Gods,” is located in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, and is embedded deep in the rugged and formidable Himalayan mountains.
Some of the area legends have origins in the sacred scriptures of major Eastern faiths. Today, there are many ancient landmarks and religious sites scattered throughout this region. Some have taken on major historical, cultural, and religious significance. Popular and colorful mythology and folklore, proclaimed happenings, and miracles associated with these places make them major gathering centers for pilgrims and others seeking to connect with history, legend, or natural beauty of the area.
Our pilgrimage destination, Hemkunt, is located at a height of 15,210 feet and is associated with Sikh history and faith. The Tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Gobind Singh, meditated at this site in a previous life. A detailed account of the meditation site and the circumstances surrounding the Guru’s being at this place on a previous occasion was offered by the Guru himself in his autobiography, Bachittar Natak.
Before its discovery by the Sikhs, the area hill people have been visiting this sacred site for many generations. They called this sacred place as Lok Pal. Reverentially addressed as Sri Hemkunt Sahib by the Sikhs, today, a shrine commemorates the place where the Guru had meditated and received his command from God Almighty for his Divine Mission: “Direct people to the path of righteousness; Teach people the true religion; Proclaim universal equality; Defend human dignity; and Uproot evil.”
Our climb towards Hemkunt begins at Gobind Ghat. This historic town, located at about 5,000 feet above sea level at the confluence of Rivers Hem Ganga and Alaknanda, is readily accessible by bus and car. Some hearty souls, in an act of humility and devotion, arrive here on foot from different directions of the region. From here, Sri Hemkunt Sahib is only approachable on foot and is open a few months during the summer due to unexpected weather changes at this height.
After the morning prayers at the local Sikh Temple, the pilgrims cross a rocking suspension bridge over the roaring and icy Alaknanda, a tributary of River Ganges, and follow a narrow rugged path cut into the side of the mountain. Visitors see before them Nature fold and unfold its many surprises. The eye and the spirit witness the awesome power and majesty of Nature: unusual and spectacular landscape, glistening silvery waterfalls cascading down the mountain, chiseled rocks guarding murky glaciers silently creeping towards the pedestrian pathway.
At places, fresh ice-cold water gushing out of rocks interrupts the pilgrim’s stride for a refreshing drink. Churning streams, fed by melting snow and summer rains, running at times alongside the pilgrim pathway, carve their way down the mountain. It is fascinating to see nature-at-play as the water maneuvers its way around the jagged rocks, scrub brush, and fallen trees. An occasional lone hut or in clusters as mountain villages, religious symbols and shrines, and other distinct markers scattered across the valleys confirm that there is a long history of human habitation even in this lonely environment with sparse modern comforts and contact. The steep path runs through dense jungle and tough terrain. Seasonal tea stalls, pony rental places, and countless boulders painted with sacred hymns along the passageway, are recent additions since the discovery of this site in 1920. Unusual plants and flowers and other natural elements add a colorful interest to our experience. A side trip can take one to the famous Valley of Flowers where one can see the sacred Brahm Kanwal and a rich variety of flowers only found in this area.
The rapid streams dance down the rugged landscape, meandering past the settlements in the valleys, and vanish into the layers of mountain ranges. The late afternoon haze shrouds the mountain on the far side in mystery and silhouette. To our right, the sunlight spreads a golden glow on the snow-covered peaks in the distance and casts long shadows across the vast stretches of the valleys below. The scene, texture, and emotion change with every bend and change of hour. A feeling of reverence, humility, and wonder at God’s great offerings to the human spirit, senses, and imagination grips our soul.
Nearly thirteen hours and several occasional stops for refreshments later, we arrive at a mountain village of Ghagria also known as Gobind Dham at twilight. This place is humming with people and activity. This last and major rest stop, situated at a height of nearly 10,500 feet, has facilities for overnight stay, food stalls, and other amenities for pilgrims and other visitors. The Sikh Temple at this site provides free meals, rest space for the night stay, and assistance for the final stretch to the main pilgrimage destination.
We spent the night at Gobind Dham under a modest tin-roofed structure with several fellow strangers in close quarters. We could hear the pitter patter of the freezing rain outside. Hours before dawn, we are awakened by the melodious recitation of the morning Sikh prayers on loud speakers coming from the Temple next door. Our heart is stirred by this sacred call to our soul and we begin preparations for the journey ahead.
There is a chill in the morning air, but the heart is warm with excitement and anticipation as we begin our final climb towards the sacred destination. Some pilgrims started the journey hours before daylight. A thick fog is covering the tops of the surrounding mountain peaks. It will be many hours before the sun will fully remove this curtain and reveal the true colors and textures of the ever-changing Himalayan landscape.
Throughout the journey, our eye and spirit encounter and feast upon Nature’s mysterious and colorful offerings. We reflect upon matters of life, recite sacred prayers, witness devotion personified in the faces of the faithful, and wonder about what it must have been like to meditate at this secluded site many centuries earlier. Reflections transcend our thoughts into the realms of Faith and Hope as we imagine spiritual dimensions of a place of such historic and unique significance. Our heart and soul bow in deep reverence to the incredible life and spiritual legacy of the Great Guru for all humanity.
Words of Praise and songs of joy and thanksgiving reverberate in the air as fellow pilgrims recite their prayers and offer their salutations. The final climb is an endurance test even for hearty souls, especially the last 1,175 stone steps that lead to the plateau where the shrine is located. The returning pilgrims offer encouragement. The spirit in charged ecstasy senses some invisible energy guiding our steps towards the sacred Temple at the summit. We keep our focus on faith amidst many potential dangers: unprotected treacherous curves, fatigue, high altitude, glaciers, and uncertain weather. Our thoughts rush towards the Lotus Feet of our beloved Guru.
Once we climb the last step and reach the sacred summit a glorious sight enthralls our mind and spirit. Images, sounds, and happenings of centuries past flash across our mind. Our thoughts return to the incredible life and Light of the Guru as the Tenth Master (1666 -1708) and back to Sri Hemkunt Sahib. We witness the serene solitude all around even amidst the throngs of pilgrims. We are in utter disbelief at a promise fulfilled and a blessed rendezvous with the legend and spirit of the sacred place. We witness Nature in all its pristine glory and unimagined beauty paying homage to a past recollection and continuing Divine connection.
The lake in front is mirroring a little of Heaven and is surrounded by seven majestically rising peaks of varying heights forming a “celestial crown.” Known also by its ancient name, Danda Pushpkarni, and fed by natural springs and melted snow, the lake is the source of the River Hem Ganga, a tributary of River Ganges. Each peak of the “seven pointed crown” is adorned with a Sikh bright yellow flag. The tallest peak is nearly 18,000 feet high. Directly behind us in the distance, the top of mighty Sumer Purbat is snow covered and glistening like a mountain of gold.
The new Temple, designed in the shape of an inverted lotus flower, a symbol of spiritual purity, is located at the edge of this large natural lake, almost two miles in circumference, and honors the memory of the Great Guru. The five-faced massive stone, wood, and steel /tin structure faithfully merges into the rugged landscape. Even though it is the end of June, much of the Temple, religious flagpoles, steps leading to the Temple, the sacred lake, and surroundings are under many feet of snow.
There are hundreds of pilgrims in yellow turbans at the site appearing like a field of marigolds against the white snow-covered landscape. Some pilgrims are engaged in the rituals of a holy dip in the frozen lake before going into the Temple. Others are taking in the sights and meditating along the edges of the large lake. There is a celestial aura and enchantment about this place. Imagine the sight looking down at the Temple and the oval lake from the Suppat Sring (seven peaks) of the “crown.” It would have appeared like a jeweled ornament to the “gods” as they descended from their heavenly abodes.
After the ritual bath in the sacred lake, the devotees go inside the Temple, barefoot with their heads covered and hearts wrapped in deep humility to pay homage at the sacred shrine. As you enter the original Temple sanctum, you see directly in front a domed golden planquin on a decked platform. This “throne” is the seat of Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, enshrining the Guru Shabad (Word of God) and is the most exalted element of Sikh worship and devotion.
The scriptures are ceremoniously wrapped in silken brocades and rest on a special bed. Fresh flowers in tall brass vases and the sacred weapons of Guru Gobind Singh are on display in front of the platform. A low brass railing surrounds the space. A brocaded Chandoa (silken canopy) hangs above the sacred “throne.” The room is dimly-lit and has an air thick due to burning of ghee lamps to light the place. There is a haunting aura, a sense of awe, and a Higher Presence within the sacred enclosure.
For an Indian temple, the original building is very modest, but standing inside, one is aware that the new Temple is encasing the original under its massive domed structure. Devotees bow their heads near the platform enclosure. The Sikh Ragis (religious singers) are seated on a low riser to the left of the “throne” and the worshippers and visitors on either side on a carpeted floor. Some people are engaged in traditional religious rituals and services and others in quiet meditation.
The Sikhs walk up to the bedecked sacred altar, the “throne” of the Eternal Guru, in deep humility and bow and touch their forehead to the ground. They carry their concerns and petitions in their heart and on their lips as they do obeisance. For me, this was a moment like none other. I had traveled a long distance from Indianapolis on a wing and prayer and dreamed that such a visit may be possible someday during my lifetime. Now, by the Grace of the Great Guru and the thoughtfulness of my brother, I was here in my fiftieth year of life. My brother made all arrangements and was the inspiration for my journey.
I stood before the Altar with folded hands and made a brief prayer of thanksgiving and all special concerns. As I touched my forehead at the sacred spot, a current of mysterious energy passed through my entire body. Suddenly, I heard the Ragis singing the sacred hymn: “Whatever you shall ask from Your Master, it shall be blessed unto you.” I felt that the Great Guru knew my thoughts and heard my prayers and was blessing me to go in peace. I sat down still shaking from this unexpected and indescribable feeling. Suddenly, I understood this was not just another remote sacred place on the human spiritual landscape. This was an important spiritual “high point” on the blessed earth for all the faiths to witness.
At this height, signs of life abound and intrigue our imagination and spirit. One may hear the magnified echoes of the sounds of the birds and beasts, singing wind and distant thunder, and the silent symphony of one’s own thoughts, songs, and prayers. Adding to the aura and mystique of the place, the eye and mind may wander back and remember images all along the nearly 18 hours of the steady climb from Gobind Ghat. From this height, we see a quilted carpet of clouds thousands of feet below catching the departing rays of the early afternoon sun. Hidden from the sight are the winding path leading up this mountain, passageways cut through massive glaciers, silvery waterfalls, rapid streams, sleepy villages, patches of unique and unusual floral offerings and foliage in the green valleys, and many other spectacular surprises of Nature and memorable adventure.
We see before us deep blue sky, close enough to touch with our raised hands. We know we are witnessing a glimpse of Heaven’s brilliant Light and Sound drama. The night sky offers a higher “window” into the cosmic and celestial realms. The human mind and imagination are not large enough to fully capture the awesome setting of the “crown jewel” of the Valley of Gods: Sri Hemkunt Sahib. The spirit cannot fully fathom, nor describe, the impact and emotion of this timeless moment. The heart simply surrenders in deep reverence and gratitude. Beloved Guru has made this visit possible. We return to our mundane temporal destinations humbled by our own insignificance in the face of what we saw and felt. The power of this image and blessed experience continues to guide my life and spirit.
Editor–There is an ongoing discussion within the Sikh community, whether Guru Gobind Singh is the author of the Dasam Granth in its entirety. Bachittar Natak is part of the Dasam Granth. It is hoped that this lingering issue will be put to rest. On the aforementioned issue, K.P. writes
“Faith is above doubt and proofs. There is enough spiritual evidence and many responsible witness accounts about the presence of the Spirit and Light of Great Guru in this recently discovered spiritual Mecca of the Sikhs. Someone said “Faith is believing things that you have not yet seen and the reward for such faith is seeing things that you believe.” The Universal Message, Light, and Spirit of the Great Gurus is everywhere and in all Realms.
For the faithful, Sri Hemkunt Sahib offers a sacred and idealic setting For such an event as described in Bachittar Natak to have taken place. An insignificant mortal like me is hardly qualified to decipher the authenticity or the truth about the narration and its authorship. In my heart I believe, from the very nature of the composition, that this is the Great Guru’ s own composition to dispel doubts about his commanded mission and to affirm the message of Oneness, Universality, Equality, Human Dignity, and Sanctity of all faiths and the unique place of the Sikh faith and its eternally uplifting and all-embracing message for all mankind.
In my article I am simply sharing my feelings and reflections on a spiritual high point in my life. I hope it offers some inspiration and pray that it does not generate any heat. Ultimately, faith is in the eye of the beholder and the spirit of the person experiencing the moment.”