A Saint’s search for the Ganga’s birth

The epic journey of Nilkanth Varni across a hostile Himalayan landscape was the precursor to the founding of a faith.

Published: 10th February 2013 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th February 2013 09:30 AM   |  A+A-


One of the greatest pilgrimages in history was undertaken by Lord Swaminarayan, head of the Swaminarayan faith, exactly four centuries ago. When he was only 11 years old, he assumed the name of Nilkanth Varni and travelled alone to Kailash Mansarovar from Rishikesh. His journey, undertaken barefoot and wearing only a loincloth, with no possessions whatsoever, is an epic journey of courage, faith and divine grace. After meditating in Mansarovar for six months, Nilkanth returned to Badrinath from where he embarked on another pilgrimage to Gangotri—the source of Mother Ganga—which lies at 10,000 ft in the Himalayas.

Nilkanth left Rishikesh on September 16, 1792 and passed Devprayag, Rudraprayag, Gupta Kashi, Triyuginarayan and

Gaurikund until he reached Kedarnath. The Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar records Nilkanth’s journey. Though the route to Kedarnath is the same today, in Nilkanth’s time, it was a brutal odyssey, taken under extremely harsh conditions.

Nilkanth avoided the two existing routes and chartered one of his own. 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.” He avoided Ukhimath, Gopeshwar and Joshimath and instead went around the mountain behind Kedarnath towards Badrinath.

Mt. Kedarnath is north of Kedarnath and Nilkanth had circumnavigated the mountain to reach his destination. He would have crossed the Chhodabari and Dudhganga glaciers, then passing through the Kirti glacier ahead and another glacier in a valley between Mt. Kedarnath and Mt. Meru. The Gangotri glacier comes after these. Nilkanth would have crossed it and reached the valley of the Bhagirath mountain range to reach Nandanvan. Then he would have crossed the Chaturangi glacier and the subsequent Kalindi Ghat and reached the valley where the Arva river flows on the Arva glacier. The Arva merges into the Alaknanda river, and 11.5 km south lies Badrinath. So perilous was the terrain that it took Nilkanth nine days to travel 125 km over seven glaciers—around nine to 12 kilometres a day.

After Nilkanth returned to Badrinath from Mansarovar on May 13, 1793, his next pilgrimage was to Gangotri. Reaching the Gangotri glacier, he travelled towards the source of the river Ganga at Gaumukh and then on to Gangotri. Crossing the Kalindi Ghat at 19,567 ft is one of the most dangerous of Himalayan endeavours. The Ganga’s mystique has challenged explorers and pilgrims who made it their mission to reach its source. Four centuries ago, the Emperor Akbar sent out a team of explorers to Gangotri. Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, author of Trans-Himalaya, 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 who followed supported this information as correct.” The famous 19th century writer T N Colebrook writes in his 1812 research paper ‘On the Sources of the Ganges in the Himadri or Emodus’ that the source of the river Ganga was an obsession with explorers, many of whom died trying to reach it. Until the beginning of the 19th century, not one of them was successful.

The modern mountaineer with all the equipment and medicines at his disposal finds the 21-kilometre journey from Gaumukh to Gangotri a trial in courage. The Ganga is believed to emerge from Lord Shiva’s head. The Matsya Puran says, “Bhagirathi Ganga flows from Lake Mandod which lies in the valley of Mt. Kailas” (Ch. 214). In Kalidas’s Meghdoot (Purva Megh, 65), it is written that the Ganga surges forth from Mt. Kailas. This is the reason many Hindu pilgrims travel to Mt. Kailas or Mansarovar braving nature’s obstacles. Even the map of Tibet, made by French traveller D’Anville in 1733, called ‘Carte Générale Du Tibet’, shows that “...the Ganges issues from

Mansarovar.” The renowned monk Purangir went to Gangotri in his search for the source of Ganga, believing that Ganges was born in Kailas and flowed from there to Mansarovar.” Hedin notes: “the source of the Ganges was discovered in 1808 by an expedition led by Lieutenant Webb and the captains Raper and Hearsey. They crossed over Mana pass to Tsaparang but did not know they had passed the source of the Ganges.”

“The instructions given to Lieutenant Webb by the supreme Government of Bengal say: ‘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.’”

Fifteen years before Webb, the child-monk Nilkanth had reached the source of the Ganga alone. His path from Badrinath to Gangotri is the path to the source of the river Ganga—Gaumukh (a gorge shaped like a ‘cow’s mouth’), 21 km east of Gangotri. But the 18th century Jesuit Joseph Tieffenthaler “wrote that the source will never be discovered because the way beyond the gorge of the Gaumukh is impassable.” But Nilkanth, wearing only a loincloth, had crossed Gaumukh and walked back from the Ganga’s source, all the way along its banks to Haridwar. The journey was the first step that forged the mystical spirit of Swaminarayan. It was undertaken to discover the answers to the following questions:

What is Jiva?

What is Ishwara?

What is Maya?

What is Brahman?

What is Para Brahman?

On this journey, Nilkanth was taught the eightfold Astanga yoga by Gopal Yogi, working miracles on the way. In 1799, Nilkanth ended his trip at Loj, a village in Gujarat. It was here that his questions were answered by Muktanand Swami, a disciple of Ramanand Swami, who he met a few months later. Ramanand initiated Nilkanth and renamed him as Sahajanand Swami and Narayan Muni. He was made Ramanand’s successor after the master’s death and gave his followers the Swaminarayan mantra for their rituals which even had the power to send many devotees into samadhi. The essence of his teaching is practiced by his followers still: that anyone can attain moksha and that the soul has no gender and all are equal in the eyes of God.

(Information sourced from Swaminarayan Sanstha)

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