The Gangotri region constitutes amongst the most important spiritual and ecological landscapes of India, giving its name to the glacier that feeds the source of the Ganges at Gaumukh and the temple that honours the life-giving waters.
The region lies between 78°55’E & 79°10’E and 30°51’N & 31°1′ in the Uttarkashi district of the Indian Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. Towards the north of Gangotri-Gaumukh, lies the villages of Nelong and Jadung in the Jadh watershed, as well as the Chinese Tibetan border. On the east can be found the holy sites of Kedarnath and Badrinath, on the south is Tehri district, and the western boundary comprises the Yamuna valley where the source of the Yamuna at Yamunotri can be found. The four together comprise the famous “Char Dham” of Uttarakhand, one of the holiest of Hindu pilgrimage circuits.
As a small seasonal township, Gangotri is located 525km from India’s capital Delhi by road. Gangotri was declared a revenue village in 1960 by the Uttar Pradesh government. Construction of a giant iron bridge over the Jadh river at Bhaironghati in 1985 resulted in a large influx of pilgrims and tourists to Gangotri. Shortly after, a “Special Area Development Plan” was formed by the state government for the “balanced development” of Gangotri. Despite initial steps to establish the Gangotri National Park coming in 1989, earlier measures has accelerated illegal building construction in Gangotri.
The Way to Gaumukh
Dharali is the last migratory village of the area 25 km before Gangotri and includes modest tourist accommodation facilities. Nine kilometres beyond Gangotri, Chirbasa (3606m) is located within a forest of Blue pine (chir) on the way to Gaumukh. Another halting place, Bhojbasa (3792m), is named after birch (Bhojpatra) forests in the area, and located 14 km from Gangotri. It is presently totally denuded of the Bhojpatra trees. Today, the dead woods of Birch remind us of the past glory of the Birch forest. Moreover, the trek is poorly maintained and difficult to walk. From here onwards one has to walk mostly over the boulders. Gradually the tree line ends and alpine flora becomes visible.
There are no tea stalls after Gangotri township to Gaumukh. All the tea stalls have been removed, and only the GMVN Tourist bungalow at Bhojbasa remains to take care of the needs of the tourists/pilgrims. Still, careless visitors leave their garbage heaps behind.
Gaumukh is located 4 km further up river from Bhojbasa. The snout of the 26 km-long Gangotri glacier from where the main tributary of river Ganga (Bhagirathi) emerges is located at an altitude of 3892m. Gaumukh itself is 18 km from Gangotri. One can walk or take a pony ride over this distance.
The glaciers of this area come under the Gangotri glacier system. Its ice surface occupies slightly over 200 sq. km and total volume is 20 cubic km. Locally, the glaciers are known as the bamak. The Gangotri glacier is one of the biggest glaciers in the world outside the Karakoram group. It has many tributary glaciers such as Raktavarna bamak (14km), Kirti bamak (5km), Meru bamak (5.5km), and Nilamber, etc. The snow-covered peaks of this area are a great attraction for mountaineers throughout the world. Prominent among them are Shivling (6543m), Bhagirathi Group (I-6596m, II-6512m, III-6454m.), Meru East (6261m), Gangotri Group (I-6672m, II-6590m, III-6577m), Bhrigupanth (6770m), Satopanth (7070m) and Rudugaira (5619m).
Impact of Pilgrimage & Tourism
Pilgrimage to Gangotri is an age-old tradition, but tourism as a modern phenomenon was introduced in the seventh decade of the last century. Unfortunately, tourism has developed in an unplanned manner, resulting in haphazard building construction, drainage systems, and garbage heaps in Gangotri region. There is no infrastructure in place except for a single tourist bungalow situated at Bhojbasa. The unavailability of any alternative fuel source has resulted in the destruction of Birch forests and Juniper bushes. In fact, this beautiful Himalayan region has been ruined in the name of tourism and pilgrimage with more than a hundred thousand individuals visiting Gaumukh annually. In only a few short years of unplanned development, Gangotri itself has become yet another congested Himalayan town and Bhojbasa and Gaumukh into a cold desert.
Thus in reality, this area which was described as one of the best high altitude tourism destinations for tourists and pilgrims has become one of the most exploited by senseless mass tourism. Indeed, modern day consumerism is devouring the ecology of the region and ravaging the landscape. Juniper and Bhojpatra have been and continue to be cut for fuel and energy and garbage litters the path all the way to Gaumukh. Even the areas around the tea stalls are surrounded by rubbish heaps which create a distraction for the eye and soul. However most importantly, the destruction of the slow growing high altitude Birch forest and Juniper bushes in the Bhojbasa area is inflicting long term ecological damage to the otherwise arid heights.
Moreover, the number of pilgrims and tourists to Gaumukh is increasing every year yet guest facilities remain slim. This is creating chaos during the tourist / pilgrimage season. The emerging middle class trend to avail of summer holidays and go to the Himalayas en masse is emerging as another new threat. This is forcing huge crowds to the Himalayan heights in general and Gaumukh in particular. These huge crowds and their use-and-abuse mentality are killing the very essence of ancient Hindu pilgrimage. Recently however, the forest department has decided to limit entrance to the Gangotri National Park to 150 tourists/pilgrims per day.