I suppose I have always been quite interested in pilgrimages, I even found reading Chaucer’s ‘ A Canterbury Tale’ at school worth a read (whereas most of my fellow students were less enthusiastic!)
I don’t belong to an ‘organised’ religion and I don’t class myself as religious but I have always been interested in world religions and pilgrimages: whether it’s a trip to Mecca, walking the Santiago de Compostela, visiting Lumbini or Gangotri - trekking to the Source of the Ganges where I recently had the privilege to visit and partake in this Hindi pilgrimage.
Of course, there are also secular pilgrimages, a few examples spring to mind: Everest Basecamp, Kilimanjaro, the London Marathon and other rites of passages or journeys that us westerners consume like pilgrimages.
Going back to my recent experience at Gangotri, I asked myself the question what does it feel like to be a non-Hindu on a Hindu pilgrimage? Well my experience was hugely enjoyable, and our fellow pilgrims greeted us with both friendliness and at times a sense of curiosity. Particularly to see western women undertaking this ‘tough’ trek and trekking on these ancient paths to the source of the Ganges was a surprise to quite a few people we spoke to and everyone was interested in our story. In return, for this warm welcome and interest as we chatted to fellow pilgrims, we were conscious not to upset local customs and we tried to remain respectful to the culture and religion that had welcomed us in with no judgement.
This pilgrimage is regulated, so only 150 people per day can set off on these mountain paths. There were certainly less people on the trail than this on the days we were there, sometimes we went for a few hours without seeing anyone else and at times we had just our thoughts and the most awesome mountain scenery for company.
Although for us western yoga student trekkers it was a secular experience, we embraced the Hindu tradition of a blessing before we left (well actually we had about three in the end!) To be honest, I was happy to get as many blessings as possible, especially as I knew the trek ahead would be tough as it was all walking at high altitude.
Our yoga teacher Yogi Ji was our guide and he scuttled ahead and forged a path (when the path disappeared) as only someone who has lived in the mountains could do. We found trying to keep up with Yogi Ji made our breathing very challenging (!) and after a while we all found our own pace, walking in smaller groups, looking out for each other.
As we approached the source of the Ganges on the second day the path gave way to a massive boulder field. The four of us left (not everyone wanted to do the final stretch) helped each other over the most challenging sections until we could go no further. We had already reached the final temple and gone beyond but the path beyond this had been washed away during the recent monsoon and it was unsafe to continue to the base of the glacier. We were just under 4,000 metres and in a moon like landscape surrounded by 7,000 metre peaks glistening with snow on their tops, it was breath-taking. We went down to the Ganges and dipped our mala beads and other jewellery in the river, no one was brave enough to go in for a dip – it was freezing and flowing very fast. Traditionally, if you bath in the Ganges you can wash away your sins which seems like a good idea to me! A week before this, after our beautiful yoga class on the beach a number of us went for a dip in the Ganges so we all kind of felt we had done that bit which was so helpful as it was too cold to take any clothes off!
The great thing with travelling with Yogi Ji was there was no sense of rush and we all spent a few moments on our own at this most magical of places, with our own thoughts. I must admit us three girls had a cry together - it was such an emotional experience to have got this far and at this time grief, and a sense of impermanence and a realisation of how small we really are became quite overwhelming.
As tiredness kicked in towards the end of our big day (26km trekking all at altitude, with a 900M change in height) it became a mindful activity to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Our group of four walked together sometimes in silence, sometimes chatting about life, the universe and everything in between and sometimes we even had a sing song to keep our spirits up! As we finished the trek, I was left with not only a sense of achievement but more importantly a real sense of community. The four of us that reached as close to the source as possible had bonded for life and had become a family.
I have done other treks and walking holidays before and met amazing people (and one or two have stayed long term friends) but this was different. Because we had spent a week at the ashram first, our three hours of yoga asana a day plus chanting, pranayama, meditation and Qi Gong meant we had the physical and mental strength to take on this challenge and we had already found a level of trust with each other which is unusual for strangers. I didn’t even ache after the trek, which was so surprising, the yoga was such an amazing way to train for this type of challenge.
I am going to close with a quote from one of my mountain family as I think this sums up what our experience of pilgrimage and our entire journey felt like and I would encourage you if you ever have the opportunity to undertake such a journey go for it!
“It has been a beautiful, emotional and uniting journey, we’ve felt connection with ourselves and each other. Let’s embrace the emotion. It’s what makes us who we are, and why we were able to connect”