Thursday, June 30, 2011

Harsil - Paradise on the Bhagirathi, Gangotri

The month of May burns hot in the plains of India's North. So we head further North into the cooler high Himalayas. Abhimanyu and I tossed a couple of backpacks into the trusted old Suzuki Vitatra. Mom threw in some packed lunch and fruit and off we were on a journey of treks and explorations around the hamlet of Harsil in Uttarakhand. Little did we know that the journey would be made memorable by some unexpected events. Having started from Gurgaon early, we were already beyond Rishikesh by the time I normally stumble to the dining table for breakfast. The drive through Narendra Nagar, Chamba and New Tehri was smooth. A.R Rehman had been singing his 'Salaam' to mother India for the umpteenth time when we ground to a halt at the end of an endless queue of traffic trying to approach a single petrol station outside Uttarkashi. If it had been only for the petrol station, it would still be fine but that was not to be. We moved slower than a snail, covering barely a kilometer in over an hour. Our plans of hitting Harsil by late afternoon went for a toss. Darkness had shrouded everything by the time we finally covered the 3 Kms length of Uttarkashi, one inch at a time. Now we were desperate for a place to hit the bed as much out of exhaustion as out of the fear of driving over a curve and into the depths of the mighty Bhagirathi.

The next morning , after a breakfast of allu paranthas we started the short drive to Harsil, enjoying the company of the rocks, river, forest and meadows. A kilometer beyond Harsil and an equal distance before Dharali we found a beautifully situated 'Springdales' overlooking the Bhagirathi where it spreads and slows down for a breather in its run from the glacier to plains in the North. Here we made our camp in a first floor room.


  • Trek to Sat Tal
  • Walk to Mukhba
  • Experience Harsil and the Tibetan village of Bagori
  • Join Clean Gangotri action campaign
The SAT TAL trek starts amongst the ferns behind the Springdales and also from several points on the Harsil to Dharali road. It is steep, or so it feels to our unaccustomed oxygen starved lungs. Sweating and panting, we climb past an apple orchard over the mud path wet by the light drizzle. A forest of tall Deodars shades us from rain. An hour later, we have passed by the last of the tall trees. Fallen logs herald the beginning of a green meadow and the first of the seven pools that the Pandavas stopped by. The five brothers seem to have preceded us to every heavenly place on the subcontinent that we have ever touched!! Another climb and we are at the floating meadow. The grass grows on little deceptive floating mud islands that could give way under foot. Horses and cows are said to sink in the grass regularly. No wonder there is a Tantric baba's hut next to the mystery meadow. He lives there with his consort, an appretice Sadhu and a motley crowd of skulls, bones, honey bees, scorpions and an occasional cobra. The Baba was out on his annual pilgrim trail. The junior Sadhu explained to us the tantric practices in a slow monotone chatter designed to delay our departure. Of course he was pretty lonely at the top!
Beyond the floating meadow and more pools at higher levels, we entered the dense shrubs of rhododendron with not a path in sight. We had to create our own way, slipping on wet soil and rocks, hanging by the branches, ducking under foliage, wet from rain and sweating inside. The promise of the mountain top view and a glacier in its crevasse prodded us till the bushes became too dense, the slope too steep and the fear of a sleeping bear too intense. If rising up in the thicket was tough, descending was tougher. We slipped, got pricked by thorns and impaled on dry branches but high on adrenaline we barely felt anything. Next time we shall carry a sickle, a rope and a big stick but we shall do this again....soon!!

MUKHBA is the village up the ridge on the other side of the river from Dharali. This is the winter abode of the Goddess Ganga from the temple at Gangotri. A village of stone and rock huts with old grannys in doorways, children playing in streets and women working on woodfires in their kitchen. I found the men at the village grocery cum tea shop outside the Ganga temple watching a cricket match in the grey stone courtyard. Walk across the ridge to arrive at Harsil. Descend through the military camp to the Harsil market.

HARSIL is a fairytale village across the bridge from the highway. This is also a military garrison so watch out lest you tresspass. The once quiet market place now buzzes with Tata sumos reversing into each other, trying to enter or exit the space they share with shoppers and travellers. A narrow street winds without logic to the GMVN rest house, descending to the river across the hotel lobby and dining hall. The main village road climbs up beyond the market to a fork. The right is military zone. The left reaches the 'Wilson Cottage' of the Raja Wilson, the 1857 British Army deserter, entrepreneur, timber merchant, mercenary who even minted his own coins! The original cottage turned to ashes in a fire, a poor replica is now a government house. Beyond Wilson cottage cross the bridge on the stream to romantic meadows and apple trees. The stream branches out into narrow rivulets dividing the meadow into green islands covered with soft moss. The valley descends from a distant mountain in a massive cascade of rocks, logs and rivulets ending with a reunited rocky stream gushing to the Bhagirathi below. A second bridge takes us across the Bhottiya and Tibetan village of Bagori.

  • Money
  • Walking Shoes
  • Raincoat and Umbrella
  • Camera, Battery, Charger, Adapter
  • Spare shoes
  • First aid box
  • Flashlight
  • Warm jacket, wind cheater, thermals

  • Delhi to Rishikesh(227 km)
  • Rishikesh to Uttarkashi(71 km)
  • Uttarkashi to Harsil(72 km)
  • Harsil to Gangotri(18 km)
  • Rishikesh - 356 m
  • Uttarkashi- 1158 m
  • Harsil- 2620 m
  • Gangotri- 3048 m
  • Gaumukh- 4350 m

View Larger Map

  • Evening arti at Har Ki Pauri, Haridwar
  • Evening arti at Sivananda ashram, Rishikesh
  • Engage and photograph Rajasthani pilgrims enroute Gangotri
  • At Uttarkashi traffic jam, lecture pilgrims against littering banana peels and plastic bags
  • Mingle with locals at Mukhba and Bagori
  • Discuss the supernatural with the Tantric baba at Sattal amongst scorpions at his hut
  • Join Bhagirathi Vahini 'Clean Ganga' initiative at Gangotri

Hotel Springdales is beautifully located midway between Harsil and Dharali (1km from each), overlooking the Bhagirathi at its loveliest stretch. Basic rooms. Good food particularly if you take charge of the kitchen with some tips thrown around. First floor has good views and less disturbance from stragglers racing to catch sleeping space as darkness sets in the valleys. Opposite it is the Shiv Den which is a cheaper second option!
GMVN tourist bungalow, Harsil is at a lovely location approached from the Harsil village market. The Bhagirathi flows literally in its backyard. However it lacks in any mesmerising views from the rooms which were damp when we visited. The dining hall too is, less talked about the better.
Leisure hotels has expensive but basic tents in an apple orchard on the river bank in Dharali. No river view from the tents. No direct path to the river that flows a few meters away. Walk a hundred meters to reach the river from across the orchard.
Several small hotels and room rentals exist in both Harsil and Dharali.

Traffic jams
Garbage/polythene/bottles. When shall we learn???


  1. It was lovely reading your blog post :)
    I've been to Uttarkashi but never had a chance to travel 90 km further to reach Gangotri. However, if anyone plans to visit the holy state of Uttarkashi, there are various hotels in Uttarkashi available for accommodation.

  2. Good one. A Hindu pilgrimage town in Uttarkashi district in the state of Uttarakhand, Gangotri is situated on the banks of river Bhagirathi. Deeply associated with Goddess Ganga and Lord Shiva, the town is part of the Char Dham. Check out all bets hotels in Gangotri also.