Hindus consider Gangotri the source of the Ganges, although the actual source is the glacier at Gaumukh, another 12 miles upstream. The town has two important ritual centers. The first is the Ganges itself, which is considered the Goddess Ganga in material form. Pilgrims bathe in it, and perform rituals beside it. The other important center is the temple to the goddess Ganga, first built about 250 years ago by the Gurkha monarch Amar Singh Thapa, and restored in the late 19th century by the royal house of Jaipur.
Gangotri's history is inextricably tied to the Ganges, for whose holiness there are several charter myths. Of all three sites, Gangotri has been the most affected by recent development.
(Click on the thumbnails for larger images)
There have been several clear changes between 1990 (left) and 2002--the roof color is different, a building from the foreground has been removed to make a larger temple square, accordion gates have been installed at the main entrance, and the entrance pattern for pilgrims is far more structured (with the barrier in the courtyard). The retaining wall on the right side has been rebuilt and moved back, giving a little more space around the temple. Finally, the entry part of the Shiva temple to the left has clearly been rebuilt to make it higher.
Gangotri is unusual in that the local pilgrimage priests have retained control over the offerings there--according to Fonia (1998: 48), a different group gets the rights to this every year. What this means is that these priests have the money to undertake such changes, and they also have the incentive to do so, since better facilities may well bring better patronage. This is very different from Kedarnath and Badrinath, in which the shrines are administered by a Temple Committee, which also has control over the offerings made there.
These two photos clearly show the differences in building styles between 1990 and 2002. Note the wooden and tin construction in the left side--all single story buildings--and the preponderance of brick and stone in the other. These two shots were taken at about the same place, but from different sides of the river.
Economics and Religion
Religion and economics are clearly linked at Gangotri, as at all Hindu pilgrimage sites. The left hand picture shows pandas (hereditary pilgrimage priests) meeting their pilgrim clients besides the Ganges. In the past, at least in theory, pandas had a family-type relationship with their clients. The panda would care for his client's needs--food, lodging, transportation, and rituals--whereas the client would pay fees and give gifts these services. Gangotri's development has largely undercut this model, and made the pandas' position more marginal--when people have other lodging options, this essentially reduces the pandas to ritual brokers, who can be consulted and hired as needed. Many panda families are also involved in business (shops, hotels, etc.) but on the whole their economic position has been rendered more precarious.
As with all of three of these places, Gangotri has a seasonal economy--people move up from April to October for the pilgrimage "season," then move back down to lower altitudes for the winter. Some of these business people come from Panda families, and are brahmins, but many of the others are Rajputs. Family ties run very deep here, and a relatively small number of people are in control of the site.
The right-hand photo shows a young girl dressed as Kali, who sat motionless to take offerings from passersby. Gangotri has a very high beggar population, as do all Hindu pilgrimage places. This is because one of the acts that pious Hindus perform in these places is to give alms (dan), and this practice--when multiplied by thousands of people a day) ensures people at least a marginal living. In Gangotri, beggars would collect along the road leading to the temple, since this was the primary path that people would travel.
These shots clearly show how built up the primary bathing place has become between 1990 and 2002--from a sandbank in the picture on the left, to a completely fixed structure on the right. A similar pattern of greater and greater development can be seen in the buildings on the other side of the river.
These show ongoing construction in Gangotri in 2002. At left, is construction of an entranceway to the temple. The brick will eventually be faced with white marble; there are slabs visible at the left of the man in the gateway. This serves to demarcate the temple space even more strongly from the rest of the town. On the right is an example of the ongoing construction found throughout the town, building up the sides of the steep hills. Many of these buildings--such as the one on the right--are supported by very tall, thin pillars--and it is an open question whether they could stand up to an earthquake in this seismically active zone.
Far Side Construction
The riverside on the other side from the temple has been heavily developed since 1990, including the construction of a new Tourist Bungalow (not visible here). Not only has much of the open space in the left-hand picture disappeared, but the newer buildings are are both larger (in footprint) and higher (multi-storied). Since buildable land is limited in these narrow valleys, the land on the other side of the Ganges from the temple has been more heavily developed.
Gangotri had clear signs of environmental stress and population pressure. The most visible token of this was the trash, of which a few examples are shown here. The photos above were taken off the hotel's back balcony (l), and on the side of our hotel. In the top left in the left-hand picture (more visible in the larger version), the guy ropes and back edge of a tent are clearly visible--other people are living right next to the trash pile. There was trash everywhere in Gangotri, and most people seemed content to simply heave it off the balcony--as we saw on more than one occasion.
Another sign of population pressure can be seen in the photo of the tree above, which has had most of its branches removed for animal fodder. Although the hill areas have strict laws protecting trees, people's immediate needs (feeding their goat or their cow) often take priority over longer-term considerations. In talking with the officials at the G.B. Pant Institute, one of the comments was that many of the hill people are operating very close to the bone--they can't wait for years (or even a year) to get results; their circumstances are so straightened that they need results in days or weeks. One result of this was deforestation above Gangotri--the two little towns on the way to Gaumukh are named Chirbasa ("Pine-tree place") and Bhojvasa ("Birch-tree place"), but in both places most of the trees have been cut down. (Some people are trying to remedy this; see the panel below).
Another strong sign of environmental degradation was Gangotri's water quality. The Ganges had significant levels of coliform bacteria, both above and below Gangotri. The contamination in the Ganges above Gangotri is probably caused by the large numbers of people who trek to Gaumukh, and poor sanitation practices. Bhojvasa (4 km below Gaumukh) had pit toilets, and signs asking people to use them, but most people simply went "out back." The number of people is simply more than this fragile ecosystem can absorb.
The picture at right shows the Gangotri glacier, with the Ganges emerging at the lower left. One significant ecological worry is that for the past few decades the glacier has been receding about 30 meters per year. As the glacier melts, one concern is that melt water lakes could create disastrous floods, a more serious worry is that the Ganges itself could disappear, or become a seasonal river (which would turn parts of north India into a dust bowl). For further perspective on this, here's a link to a site provided by Svaccha Ganga, an organization dedicated to cleaning up the Ganges.
|The clear signs for a nascent environmental consciousness
bear witness to hard-working and dedicated people. One of the big
environmental concerns is plastic, particularly polythene carry bags, which have many
negative consequences. The left hand sign is at the market entrance in
Gangotri, and was posted by the Second Batallion of the
Indo-Tibetan Border Patrol--here the military was extending its protective
role from the borders to the environment. Although the sentiments
are laudable, there was a great deal of plastic in the town itself (in the
same way, a gateway on the path to Kedarnath proclaimed that one was
entering a polythene-free zone, with similar effects).
The sign in the middle, posted on the path near Gaumukh, exploits a very different sentiment--seeking to extend traditional reverence for the Ganges to include conserving the natural environment around it. The woman mentioned in this sign, Prof. Harshvanti Bisht, has initiated an experimental reforestation project in the Bhojvasa region between Gangotri and Gaumukh (picture, far right). As mentioned above, "Bhojvasa" means "birch-tree place," but at present there are no trees there--they have all been cut down. Prof. Bisht's project has planted thousands of saplings of various kinds, and she reports a survival rate of about 70%. More information about her work can be found at her website, www.harshu.freeservers.com.
Another important organization working in this region is the G.B. Pant Institute for Himalayan Environment and Development, which funds a variety of innovative projects designed to conserve the environment and to improve people's earning power. The two are closely connected, since many of the people in the hills are so poor that they simply cannot wait for months or years for a project to bear fruit.
Finally, there is an incinerator at Gangotri for more efficient burning of different sorts of waste. On the path to Gaumukh, when one passes through the barrier whose essential function is passport control, one are given a handout telling about this, and asking people to bring their trash back for incineration. A lot of the trash never makes it to the incinerator, but people are clearly trying to do something with this.
Click here for more photos of Gangotri.
These pages are in progress.
Page maintained by James G. Lochtefeld.
Last modified 17 March 2003