Set amid tall deodar and pine forests at the head of the Bhagirathi gorge, 248km north of Rishikesh at 3140m, Gangotri is the most remote of the four dhams (pilgrimage sites) of Garhwal, and is closed from early November till mid-April. Although the wide Alaknanda, which flows past Badrinath, has in some ways a better claim to be considered the main channel of the Ganges, Gangotri is for Hindus the spiritual source of the great river, while its physical source is the ice cave of Gomukh on the Gangotri Glacier, 14km further up the valley. From here, the River Bhagirathi begins its tempestuous descent through a series of mighty gorges, carving great channels and cauldrons in the rock and foaming in white-water pools.

From Uttarkashi, frequent buses, taxis and jeeps head up to Gangotri. A shared jeep is the most enjoyable way of making the journey; buses stop frequently and can take more than five hours to make the trip.

Although most of the nearby snow peaks are obscured by the desolate craggy mountains looming immediately above GANGOTRI, the town itself is redolent of the atmosphere of the high Himalayas, populated by a mixed cast of Hindu pilgrims and foreign trekkers. Its unassuming temple, overlooking the river just beyond a small market on the left bank, was built early in the eighteenth century by the Gurkha general Amar Singh Thapa. Capped with a gilded roof, consisting of a squat shikhara surrounded by four smaller replicas, it commemorates the legend that the goddess Ganga was enticed to earth by acts of penance performed by King Bhagirath, who wanted her to revitalize the ashes of his people. Inside the temple is a silver image of the goddess, while a slab of stone adjacent to the temple is venerated as Bhagirath Shila, the spot where the king meditated. Steps lead down to the main riverside ghat, where the devout bathe in the freezing waters of the river to cleanse their bodies and souls of sin.

Across the river, a loose development of ashrams and guesthouses dwarfed by great rocky outcrops and huge trees leads down to Dev Ghat, overlooking the confluence with the Kedar Ganga. Not far beyond, at the impressive waterfall-fed pool of Gaurikund, the twenty-kilometre-long gorge starts to get into its stride. Beautiful forest paths lead through the dark deodar woods and past a bridge along the edge of the gorge to a flimsy rope-bridge, commanding great views of the ferocious torrent below.

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