Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
How a trek to holy Gomukh, the source of the mystical waters of the Ganges, deepened one writer’s understanding of yoga’s teachings.
We started up the steep, rocky path from the village of Gangotri to the headwaters of the holy river Ganges after a big breakfast of rice, beans, and Nutella on toast. A minute in, I regretted my decision to heap seconds of everything onto my tin plate. At 1o,ooo-plus feet, I’d felt winded simply walking to the trailhead. Now, stuffed and fighting for air, I was attempting a 28-mile trek that gained another 2,5oo feet of elevation in three days.
I glanced nervously at our guide, Sandesh Singh. The lithe 42-year-old shot me a wide smile that put me, an experienced hiker yet India first-timer, at ease. Singh is a native of Haridwar, considered one of the most sacred cities in India because it’s lodged where the Ganges emerges from the Himalayas and starts flowing through the plains. He has walked this path with pilgrims from around the world nearly two dozen times, and his gratitude for getting to show it to tourists like us—six American yogis on a spiritual journey through North India—felt profound.
We walked silently, choosing to conserve our energy rather than expend it by chatting—except for Singh, who excitedly told us why so many Hindus make this pilgrimage.
“The Ganges isn’t just a river—she is a goddess, Ma Ganga,” said Singh, who went on to explain why she is the most revered and sacred river in Hindu lore. When Ma Ganga was asked to descend to Earth from the heavens, she was insulted, so she decided to sweep away everything in her path with her waters once she reached the terrestrial plain. In order to protect the Earth from Ma Ganga’s force, Lord Shiva sat in Gangotri and caught the powerful river in his hair, saving the Earth from cracking open. Thanks to Shiva, Ma Ganga’s purifying waters could then flow without being destructive, and for centuries the devout have traveled to her banks to wash away sins and find salvation. The water is considered so sacred, Hindus will have it sprinkled on their bodies if they can’t die on the banks of the Ganges. And the ultimate pilgrimage, for those who are able, is a journey to Gomukh, the Gangotri Glacier where Ma Ganga’s headwaters start flowing. “You can feel the energy there,” Singh said.
About a mile into the hike, we took a water break in a shady spot at the first of countless mini-peaks. “Oh, Shiva!” said a breathless Carol Dimopoulos, a yoga teacher and president of Learning Journeys at Perillo Tours, who had organized the trip. We laughed, and the phrase became a refrain when one or more of us was struggling.
It had been a year of “Oh, Shiva!” moments for me, big life changes that were as emotionally challenging as the physically demanding trail I was on: a bad breakup, a big move, a new job. This opportunity to trek to Gomukh and also see some of North India’s holiest cities and temples felt like an ideal way to take stock and start fresh.
Onward and Inward
The trail to Gomukh was surprisingly uncrowded given the hike’s spiritual significance. However, the 1o-hour drive from Rishikesh to Gangotri we’d made the day before explained why so few undertake the journey. Unlike the well-paved highways leading to the national parks in the United States, we encountered nothing but single-lane, pothole-filled mountain passes. The higher our van climbed, the more nailbiting—though majestic—the views. The roads were so narrow that our driver had no choice but to hug the abyss, a guardrail-free plunge into increasingly deeper ravines. The common experience of chaos in India that had struck me just a few days earlier in Delhi—the sea of rickshaws, three-wheeled tuk-tuk taxis, and forlorn cows walking through it all—felt far away as I traveled into a somewhat more peaceful, inner chaos high in the Himalayas.
As we approached 11,ooo feet, the strong sun made the wild Himalayan roses lining our path glitter, yet it wilted our energy. Altitude sickness set in for a few members of the group, who slowed down due to headache and nausea. And none of us was immune to the surge in emotional rumblings as we walked along the quiet trail—something my friend Elizabeth, who’d gone on this pilgrimage herself when she lived in India years ago, mentioned might happen. “As much as India is about an outer pilgrimage, pay close attention to the invisible stirrings inside you, what seems familiar and what seems so amazingly sacred,” she wrote in an e-mail to me before my trip. “May you have the ability to be totally present with whatever arises and be able to surrender to the grace of what is.”
In a place where nothing seemed familiar—the language, the elaborate Sanskrit lettering on boulders along the trail, the devotion woven into every interaction, and the imposing peaks on the horizon that made me feel like I was approaching the edge of the world—I felt a surprising sense of ease. My sadness and uncertainty about the turns my life had taken over the previous year were tempered by the happiness, gratitude, and trust I was feeling on this path in the high Himalayas.
I found myself leaning in to my emotions as they surfaced and staying present with them, experiencing what’s arguably the real purpose of yoga—a tradition that has deep spiritual roots in this place.
Just beyond the halfway mark for the day, I walked ahead of Singh and the others, though I still trailed far behind the Sherpas from neighboring Nepal whom Singh had hired to carry our bags, tents, and food. I felt content alone on the trail, and the only people I encountered were fellow pilgrims descending from Gomukh, mostly older Indian men wearing tattered lungis (traditional sarongs) and plastic sandals, and carrying jugs of silty, sacred Ganges water. I stuck out in my REI pants and trail-running shoes, but it didn’t seem to matter. Every person I passed greeted me with a friendly nod and said “Sita Ram,” the spiritual version of “Hi” or “Howdy.”
One barefoot man in a saffron lungi that symbolized he was a sadhu, an ascetic who’d chosen to live on the fringes of society to focus on his own spiritual practices, held my gaze as he approached.
“Sita Ram,” he said, and then stopped. “Sita Ram,” I replied, stopping as well.
Though he said something else in Hindi that I couldn’t understand, his raised eyebrows telegraphed a question: Why was I hiking to Gomukh?
When it was clear we wouldn’t be able to chat, we went our separate ways. As I hiked on, I considered the sadhu’s unspoken question, one I’m not sure I could’ve answered in that moment even if I were fluent in Hindi.
The path got rockier, and I wondered how the sadhu had traversed this ground without shoes. It reminded me of my Irish grandmother, who often told my sister and me the story of how she’d hiked Croagh Patrick—a Catholic pilgrimage up a 2,ooo-foot mountain in County Mayo—barefoot, which got dicey at a steep pitch near the top covered in loose shale. “We took three steps forward and 1o back, it was so slippery,” she’d say in her sweet Irish accent. “It’s like life itself: When you fall back, you try again. And you have faith that you will make it.”
Thoughts of my grandmother took my mind off my fatigue as I pushed up the final rocky hills to our campsite for the night. We’d pause here to sleep and refuel before the final four-mile push to Gomukh the following day.
See also10 Spa Vacations for Yogis
Tapping the Source
The Sherpas had arrived hours before us to set up our tents and cook a vegetarian feast: vegetable biryani, saag paneer, and aloo gobi, with stacks of freshly made chapati—pan-fried, unleavened flatbread we used to sop up every last bit of sauce on our plates and in the serving dishes. After sipping masala tea, we wandered around the campsite and into a cave where a baba (considered even holier than a sadhu for his commitment to a life of meditation and living in a state of samadhi, or bliss) was playing his harmonium. We sat cross-legged in a circle around him and chanted Hare Krishna in a call-and-response—a scene that’s remarkably normal on this pilgrimage.
The next day, I woke up early and wandered back to the cave, where the baba hosts a daily morning meditation. I settled onto a stack of blankets and closed my eyes, and before I knew it, almost an hour had passed and it was time to head back to camp for breakfast. If only meditating always felt so lovely at home, I thought, before remembering the energy Singh had told us we’d feel near the source.
Bellies full—though not too full, having learned from the previous morning’s mistake—we set out for our final destination. While still uphill, the last leg of the trek was considerably easier than the ground we’d covered the day before, giving my mind the chance to wander. And there in the high Himalayas, after sharing the trail with sadhus and chanting and meditating in a cave with a baba, my thoughts returned again to my Irish-Catholic grandmother. What would she have thought of my Indian pilgrimage? Would she have balked at the Hindu mythology, or urged me to say a few Hail Marys at the summit? And what I most wanted to know: What invisible stirrings had my grandmother faced as she walked barefoot up Croagh Patrick, and were they similar to my own as I made my way toward Gomukh? My grandmother died 1o years ago, so I’ll never know the answers to my questions. But I do know that shortly after she made her own pilgrimage, she left her family and all that she knew in her tiny village in Ireland and emigrated to New York.
At the top of Croagh Patrick, there is a little white church where pilgrims say their prayers before heading back down the mountain. I imagined my young grandmother walking into that church and lighting a candle, praying for strength as she prepared to leave her homeland and asking for blessings in the unknown future she’d have in America.
At Gomukh, there is a small stone temple nestled among mountain peaks that seem to protect the big ice cave from which the river flows. When I got there, I slipped off my shoes, knelt before a statue of Lord Shiva, and held my hands at my heart. Then I walked over to the bank of Ma Ganga mere feet from where she starts flowing and bowed, silently wishing for clarity and comfort as I moved on from the heartache and lessons of my past and toward my own unknown future. The few people around me seemed to be just as reflective as I was, basking in the peaceful, comforting energy that crystallized—both around and within us—here at the source.
As I cupped my hands in the icy river and drank from it, I held the feelings of loss and hope my grandmother surely experienced as a young woman about to leave Ireland, as well as my own past hurt and optimism for what’s to come. And then I opened my palms and let it all go, watching the clear droplets merge with the flow. This, I thought, is why people of all faiths go on pilgrimages, and why I was on this one now. These journeys are like life itself, filled with setbacks and struggles as well as victories and beauty, just as my grandmother had told me. And no matter what you believe in—a whole posse of Hindu gods like the sadhus and babas worship, the holy Trinity like my grandmother did, or no higher being at all—the journey serves as a reminder that we’re all on our own path, facing our fears, feeling our sadness, and trusting in the unknowable gifts of the future.
Want to go on a retreat in India or lead one for your students? Visit learningjourneys.com to find out how.
2 Weeks in North India
Most experts recommend spending at least 14 days to see some of the holiest cities and temples in North India. To make the most of your time, here’s a suggested itinerary:
Day 1: Arrive in Delhi and take in the bustling metropolis on a bicycle rickshaw; attend an aarti ceremony (a spiritual ritual) at ISKCON temple.
Day 2: Travel to Agra (a 2-hour train ride from Delhi) to visit the Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Day 3: From Delhi, take the train to Haridwar (a 6-hour journey). The city’s name means “Gateway to God,” and it is one of the most accessible pilgrimage sites in India. Attend the aarti ceremony at Har-ki-Pauri and visit the Jain Temple.
Day 4: Drive to Rishikesh, commonly referred to as the birthplace of yoga. Visit the “Beatles Ashram,” where the band reportedly wrote 40 songs while learning meditation from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1968; shop in the open-air markets; and attend the Maha Aarti ceremony at Triveni Ghat, where the purifying waters from three holy rivers come together and you can drop an offering into Ma Ganga and make a wish.
Day 5: Drive to Uttarkashi (approximately 6 hours from Rishikesh) and stay overnight en route to Gangotri.
Day 6: Drive to Gangotri (approximately 4 hours from Uttarkashi), stopping at Gangnani for a dip in the village’s hot sulphur springs. Visit Gangotri Temple for evening prayer dedicated to Ma Ganga, and participate in a puja ceremony, a ritual performed by Gangotri Temple’s priest to keep those hiking to Gomukh safe on their journey.
Day 7: Begin hiking to Gomukh and stay the night at the campsite in Bhojwasa.
Day 8: Walk to Gomukh and spend time on the banks of Ma Ganga. Fill a vessel with the holy water to take home with you. Walk back to Bhojwasa for another night at camp.
Day 9: Return to Gangotri, then drive to Uttarkashi.
Day 10: From Uttarkashi, drive to Rudarparyag (approximately 7 hours) for an overnight respite en route to Badrinath, one of the most sacred and respected shrines in India and one of the four pilgrimage sites collectively called Char Dham (the “four abodes/seats”), which every Hindu is supposed to visit to attain salvation.
Day 11: Drive from Rudarparyag to Badrinath (approximately 7 hours) to visit the Badrinath Temple, take a bath in the thermal hot springs (where pilgrims bathe before entering the temple), and visit Mana, India’s last civilian village before the
Day 12 and 13: From Badrinath, drive back to Rishikesh (approximately 9 hours) for a 2-day stay at NaturOvillé Ayurvedic Spa.
Day 14: Drive to Haridwar (approximately 1 hour) and take the train back to Delhi.