Gurdwara Sri Hemkunt Sahib is situated at a beautiful location in the Himalayan ranges of northern India.
The Gurdwara is at a height of 15,197 feet above the sea level and the second highest Gurdwara in the world.
Hemkunt is a Sanskrit name derived from Hem ('Snow') and Kund ('bowl').
According to chapter six of Bachitra Natak, the autobiographical account of Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji, it was at Hemkunt 'adorned with seven snow peaks' that Guru Gobind Singh meditated in his previous birth.
Sikhs started to search for Hemkunt sahib, the 'Tap Asthan' (the place of meditation) of Guru Gobind Singh, in the late nineteenth century, even though the site is mentioned in the Dasam Granth which was finalised in the 1730's.
The first Sikh to trace the geographical location of Hemkunt was Pandit Tara Singh Narotam in 1884. He was a nineteenth century Nirmila scholar. His findings were published by the renowned exponent of Sikh history and scholar, Bhai Vir Singh in 1929 in his book called 'Sri Kalgidhar Chamatkar'.
This book was then read by Bhai Sohan Singh, who was a retired Granthi from the Indian army working voluntarily at a gurdwara in Tehri Garhwal. Having read the description of where the 'Tap Asthan' was, he set out to find the physical spot in 1933.
Unfortunately he had no luck that year and so he attempted his search again the following year. His enquiries led him to the place known as Lokpal to the local folk.
The description matched that of the place described by the Guru as 'Sapat Sring' and the place where King Pandu was believed to have meditated. Sohan Singh believed that Hemkunt had been found.
However Sohan Singh's discovery was met with much scepticism, so he approached Bhai Vir Singh (1872-1957) whose work had inspired him to search for the Tap Asthan. Both Sohan Singh and Bhai Vir Singh met, and visited the site, and both were then convinced that the Guru's description of Tap Asthan matched the site found.
Bhai Vir Singh committed himself to developing Hemkunt Sahib. He gave Sohan Singh some money, believed to be an amount of 2,100 rupees, with which to buy some supplies and materials to start construction of a small gurdwara on the shore of the lake.
Sohan Singh publicized the cause and was able to collect further funds. In early 1935 whilst purchasing materials in Mussoorie, Sohan Singh met Modan Singh a Havaldar from the survey department who later accompanied him to the site of construction, then joined forces with him. After obtaining permission from the local people, they hired a contractor and started work on the construction of a ten foot by ten foot stone Gurdwara. Construction of this Gurdwara was completed in 1936. At the same time, they also enlarged the ancient hindu mandir that stood on the lake shore as a symbol of respect.
On retirement from the military, Havaldar Modan Singh dedicated the rest of his life to the service of Sri Hemkunt Sahib. Before Sohan Singh died he entrusted Modan Singh with the duty to continue with the mission of developing Sri Hemkunt Sahib. One of the first structures at Gobind Dham was a tin shed built by Modan Singh. Prior to this construction he took refuge from the cold and the rain in the hollow of a tree trunk; such was the dedication and sacrifice of this man. Incidentally the tree still stands in the courtyard of Gurdwara Gobind Dham. Shortly before his death in 1960, Modan Singh established a seven member trust to oversee the further growth and operation of the pilgrimages.
Inspiration for building a larger Gurdwara emanated from a house-wife in Punjab called Mata Ram Kaur. She had a vision of Guru Gobind Singh who had given the mission to lay its foundation stone. She was able to convince the management of her sincerity by describing details of Hemkunt that she could not have known as she had never been there before. Plans for a new Gurdwara were made in 1964, and construction was underway in 1968 once an accessible road was extended to Gobind Ghat.
The new Gurdwara was to take the image of an upside-down lotus flower. The roof structure was built to withstand heavy snowfalls and the doors on all five sides depict a Sikh belief that all people are welcome to praise God in a Gurdwara from all faiths and from all directions because God is all around. The Sikh faith is all about tolerance and not prejudice towards all religions and faiths. It is also a belief that if one reaches out to God in prayer blessing may come from any direction, north, east, west, or south.
Finally, construction of the upper storey of the gurdwara was completed in 1993. The Guru Granth Sahib (the religious scriptures of the Sikhs, and the last and living Guru) was installed in 1994. There is continuous Seva (religious voluntary work encouraged in the Sikh religion) by Sikhs and non-Sikhs to make sure the route to Hemkunt is accessible. One such project called 'Safai Seva'(cleaning-up) was started by a young Canadian woman called Heather Michaud, who was then a university under-graduate.
She encouraged other university students and visitors to participate in cleaning up the environment and to stop littering along the route to Hemkunt Sahib. The project set up dustbins and posters along the way to encourage people to dispose of their rubbish in an environmentally- friendly manner. The Sri Hemkunt Sahib Management Trust has continued this work and the State Government have contributed further by banning the use of polythene bags.
Safai Seva has certainly drawn public awareness to keep the Guru's Asthan litter-free. Gurdwara Hemkunt has special significance to the Sikhs as it commemorates the Guru's mission and the need for a physical remembrance is beautifully described by the words of Bhai Vir Singh as: 'The traveler passes by leaving behind his footprints. These footprints vanish with the passage of time. But some foot prints are so important that people worship them and make monuments there, which keep conveying their historical importance from generation to generation. These footprints become imperishable.'
The first Sikhs travelling to Henkumt set off from Amritsar on the 23rd of August 1952, passing through Hardwar, Rishikesh, Srinagar, Gobind Ghat, Gobind Dham, reaching Sri Hemkunt sahib on the 31st August at 2.30 pm. Their sacred journey complete, the Sikhs cherished Darshan (sight) of the sacred place. They all had Ishnan (holy bath) in the sacred waters of the Sarovar. During the next few days Congregational prayers, which included the singing of devotional Shabads (hymns) and verses were recited throughout the day and night.
Having accomplished their first pilgrimage, they arrived at Amritsar on 16th September 1952 and were given a rousing welcome. The numbers of Sikhs to Hemkunt Sahib have been multiplying from the time of discovery until the present day. In 1977, the first year for which data is available, there were 516 Sikh visitors and by 1990 there were 189,340 and the numbers keep growing.
A yatra or pilgrimage to Sri Hemkunt Sahib is only possible during the months of June to October every year due to severe weather conditions in the Himalayas. From the plains at the foothills of the Uttrakand Himalayas there are several stopping points on the way to Hemkunt Sahib where Sikhs can find accommodation. Of these there are two important stops that shall be described. These stopping points can be accessed from the towns of Hardwar or from Rishikesh.
The first stop is called Gobind Ghat (approx. altitude 6,000 feet) and the second is Gobind Dham (approx. altitude 10,500 feet). Hemkunt is approximately 7 kilometers away from Gobind Dham. A typical Yatra can take up to forty days if one does the whole journey solely by foot. However if one combines a foot Yatra with other modes of transport available like motor vehicles, scooter, mules, or horses, then the journey takes 3 days from Rishikesh.
For those Sikhs going to Hemkunt Sahib, the journey is not just a physical one, for most it is an emotional experience. Every step is a step closer to a spiritual awakening or goal. For many the personal significance of the toil to reach the top is an indescribable devotional achievement, for others it is a step closer to prayers being answered and for most, a step closer to God.
The beautiful scenery, the historical sites along the way, the mythological significance and the physical challenge to reach Hemkunt Sahib are aspects of the Yatra all visitors, believers or not, share. The mystical and spiritual ambience of the whole journey starts at either Hardwar or Rishikesh. Both these towns lie on the banks of the holy River Ganges where the plains meet the foothills. Sikh Gurdwaras managed by the Trust to oversee the operations of pilgrimages to Hemkunt Sahib offer free food and lodging in Rishikesh, Gobind Ghat and Gobind Dham.
Before making the journey to Hemkunt Sahib it is highly recommended that you conduct proper research, plan your journey and increase physical fitness. We have provided the following plan based on experience;
Whether travelling from Punjab or Delhi it is recommended that you allow 1 full day to arrive and spend the night in Rishikesh. The journey from Ludhiana via Paonta Sahib (known for its Historic Sikh Gurdwara where Guru Gobind Singh lived) to Rishikesh is 300 km's. Allowing for Indian roads and rest breaks, a one day journey will allow you to arrive at Rishikesh Gurdwara (at lat/ long coordinates 30.112588, 78.303240).
The Rishikesh Gurdwara is run by the Gurdwara Sri Hemkunt Sahib Trust and has good accomodation, langar and a sarovar. Aim to arrive in the late afternoon so an early start can be made on the following day. Donations for accomodation are accepted (which are cheaper than nearby hotels).
Leave early and allow at least 12 hours to travel from Rishikesh Gurdwara to Gobind Ghat Gurdwara (at lat/ long coordinates 30.624728, 79.557549). The journey from Rishikesh to Gobind Ghat is 268 km's. Mountain roads mean a average speed of 20-25 km's per hour. It is important to instruct the driver to drive slowly as tight and twisty mountain roads (even at 25 km's per hour) will make an uncomfortable journey and may bring on travel sickness and nausea. It is better to drive slowly and safely, enjoy the view and enjoy the journey.
Between June and October, visitors to Hemkunt and the Valley of Flowers travel from the plains into the mounatins by bus, by car, by truck, by scooter, by bicycle, even by foot. Rishikesh Gurdwara provides an excellent bus service from Rishikesh Gurdwara to Gobind Ghat Gurdwara (please contact them for further info). A few visitors make the journey individually, and more come in small groups with friends and family. The majority of Sikh visitors, however, come as members of large groups known as jathas. They are comprised of related families, of club members, of people from the same neighbourhood or from the Sangat of Gurdwaras.
A large Sikh Gurdwara complex is situated at Gobind Ghat to accommodate visitors of all casts, creeds, races, and colours. The facilities are simple, and there is Langar (free community Kitchen serving vegetarian food) for all. The Sikh faith does not condone discrimination.
The journey from Gobind Ghat to Gobind Dham (at lat/ long coordinates 30.701879, 79.594260) is about 12-13 km's. The first 2.5 km's (a steep 2 hour climb by foot) can be completed using a government run taxi (4x4) service at 35 Rupees per person (at 2015 prices). The taxi takes 10 people per journey and operates when there is a full vehicle or if you pay for the remaining empty seats. The remaining 10 km's will take most walkers about 7 hours to complete, walking in this region takes an average of 1.5 km (or 1 mile) per hour.
The actual path towards Hemkunt Sahib starts near the suspension bridge crossing the river Alaknanda from Gobind Ghat. Gobind Ghat, the 'riverbank of Gobind', built on the west bank of the Alaknanda river, is not a permanent village. Rather, it is a cluster of buildings housing hotels, tea shops, and stalls which sell running shoes, plastic raincoats, walking sticks, and souvenirs. They are open seasonally, when the weather is warm and the path to Hemkunt is clear of snow.
The sense of community among Sikhs is apparent everywhere along the route. When Sikhs pass each other they say "Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!". Many also encourage one another as they walk, saying that God will give them strength; they cannot feel weary because with every step they are getting nearer to the Guru's Tap Asthan (place of meditation). Sikhs descending commonly distribute glucose powder, sweets, cardamom, sugar crystals, nuts, and dried fruit to those climbing upward. These are given to Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike.
Three kilometres above Gobind Ghat, the trail passes Phulna (2,104 m), the winter village of the local people. Bhyudar (2,592 m), their summer village, is passed after another five kilometres. There, the first snow covered peaks come into view. One kilometre above Bhyudar, visitors cross a bridge over the stream and begin the final three kilometre ascent to Gobind Dham. There the path becomes difficult: steep and rocky. Many visitors report being warned before coming that as soon as they cross the bridge they should rest and prepare themselves mentally for the climb. Accordingly, the tea shops clustered just after the bridge do very good business.
About 3 km from Gobind Dham is the 8 km long Valley of Flowers. The valley of flowers is an alpine valley, and has been formed by retreating glaciers whose periodic advances and retreat pulverized hard rocks, resulting in a smooth u-shaped valley. This modern day Garden of Eden was introduced to the outside world in 1938 by the famous mountaineer, explorer, botanist Frank S. Smythe and later author of the book 'The Valley of Flowers' through which he 'threw open the doors of this verdant jewel to nature.'
The Valley is a protected National Park, a wildlife guard in the employ of the Forest Department issues entry permits to the park at a fee. From this check point the 'entrance' to the Valley is a further 3 km (2-3 hours) walk. Camping, picking flowers and littering are prohibited in the Valley. There are myths that fairies inhabit the areas of this Valley and those who wander deep into their domain can be carried off. In 1939 Joan Margaret Legge, a botanist from Kew Botanical Gardens in London, fell to her death whilst collecting floral specimens. Hers is the only grave that lies in the valley. Allow for 12 hours treking (6 hours there and 6 hours back) and take all waterproof clothing, food and water with you.
It is well worth visiting the Valley of Flowers before visiting Hemkunt Sahib. The trek to the valley is a popular second destination for Sikhs visiting Hemkunt Sahib. The trek to the Valley of Flowers is hard and very 'scenic' but well worth it and highly recommended whether there are flowers or not. The steep narrow paths and trees mean mules cannot go here.
Flora and Fauna Amidst the many species of flora, roam species of animals unique to this meadow namely; Himalayan Birds, Phigents, Butterflies, Tendulas, Musk Deer, Bharal – Blue Sheep, Himalayan Black Bears, Thar, Snow Leopards and Tale-less Rats. The valley hosts over 300 species of flora, including a variety of herbal plants such as Bergenias, Wood Lilies, Trillium Govanianums and Marsh Orchids to name but a few. Exclusive to the Valley are breathtakingly beautiful plants such as the Arisaema Costatum also known as Arum which resembles the head of a cobra, the Unique Blue Poppy and the Saussurea obvallata known as the Brahma Kamal the Lotus referred to as the King of the Valley.
The early rains in June add the shades of rosy pinks and reds as the Balsam, Geraniums, Pedicularis, Cyprip Edium Himalaicums – Lady's slippers, Androsaces and Marsh Orchids come in to bloom, contrasting with the yellow, purple and white; Primulas, Anemenoes, Anaphalles and Potentillas. From late July to August, the colour yellow dominates as Pedicularis Grandiflora, Ligularias and Saxifragas dominate. The variety of colours is vibrant to match their hues that fill the landscape. From September, the “sun kissed” valley takes rest and, as October approaches, Mother Nature falls into deeper slumber awaiting her blanket of crisp white snow. And so the cycle of life continues!
The final ascent from Gobind Dham to Hemkunt Sahib is about 6 km's and takes about 4 hours (1.5 km's or 1 mile per hour). In the final two kilometers of the path, there is snow, and in the final steps to Hemkunt Sahib, the Nishan Sahib, silver roof of the Gurdwara and holy lake with it's surrounding seven peaks all marked with Nishan Sahibs are the first Darshan (sight) the Sikhs get of the sacred place. After Sukhmani Sahib path and kirtan, the Gurdwara usually closes at 1300hrs each day. So, it is best to arrive as early as possible.
Most Sikhs, while warm from the climbing, proceed to have Ishnan immeadiately (a holy bath) in the holy lake in which the waters are believed to wash away the sins and even heal. The men bathe outside and the women bathe in a separate enclosure inside the Gurdwara itself. The holy water can also be collected in bottles that Sikhs carry back for their friends and relatives.
After Ishnan, the Sikhs may have hot tea served in the Gurdwara langar hall, after which they proceed to the inside of the Gurdwara where the Guru Granth Sahib is kept. Apart from some plain rice, there is no langar served here, nor is anyone permitted to spend the night except for the Granthis and some workers.
The congregational prayers include the singing of devotional hymns and verses from the scriptures. The Granthi welcomes all the Sikhs and explains the significance of Darshan, Ishnan, and relates the story of Hemkunt as told by Guru Gobind Singh. Then an Ardas (the standard Sikh prayer), is recited and a Hukamnama (the verse from the top of the left hand side page of the Guru Granth Sahib when it is randomly opened, the verse is the Guru's command) is read. Karah Prashad (consecrated food in the temple made of ghee, sugar and flour) is distributed to the Sikhs. Most will begin their departure soon after the last service so that they may make it down to Gobind Dham before sunset.
There are few garbage disposal facilities along the route. Avoid throwing sweet wrappers, juice boxes, plastic raincoats, and other garbage on or beside the path. If you see a garbage can, use it! To keep the natural environment clean, you are asked to carry out with you the wrappers, containers, and bottles for all food and drink you consume.
There are no bathroom facilities between Gobind Ghat and Gobind Dham, and between Gobind Dham and Hemkund. At Hemkund the facilities are very limited. They are located down a staircase from the lake. You are asked to use these facilities so that you do not to pollute the holy lake.
The return journey, while done in reverse, should not be rushed. Altitude sickness is a very serious risk along the journey to Hemkund Sahib. Here are a few tips for keeping yourself healthy: Spend as much time as possible in the hills before going all the way up to Hemkund. Your body adjusts to the altitude slowly. Don't let yourself become chilled or dehydrated. Dress in warm, dry clothes and drink plenty of tea, water, juice, or soft drinks.
Try not to become over-tired. Watch for the following symptoms of altitude sickness: headaches, difficulty breathing, cold extremities, dizziness, disorientation, vomiting. If you or members of your group have these symptoms, go back down. Altitude sickness can be life-threatening. Once a lower altitude is reached where more oxygen is available in the air, the symptoms will be alleviated in a short time.
Overnight camping is not permitted in the Valley of Flowers National Park, nor are there facilities for Sikhs to stay at Hemkunt Sahib. Therefore, travellers rest for the night in Gobind Dham, the 'abode of Gobind', before beginning their final ascent. The small village is a seasonal business district; there are no homes in Gobind Dham, only lodges and shops. When the Hemkunt Sahib Gurdwara opens on or around June first, Gobind Dham opens for business. After the closing ceremonies are performed during the first week of October, Gobind Dham, too, closes for the season.
The accommodation in Gobind Dham is very basic. In the gurdwara, guests sleep on the cement floors of large, crowded halls or in smaller rooms (which are very basic and can have dampness). The gurdwara can sleep several thousand. Each person is allotted five woolen blankets if there are enough to go around. In June, when Indian students have school holidays and when the weather is clear, the rush to Hemkunt is so great that the gurdwara in Gobind Dham becomes full and staff members shut its gates. The remaining Sikhs are accommodated in shops or on the porches of the hotels and restaurants.
On an average day, around 1,000 people arrive in Gobind Dham. Many, particularly those from the Indian cities and from abroad, stay in hotels. Hotel accommodation is extremely basic, there are no kitchen facilities, no desks or cupboards, no heating (it gets cold), very cold tap water (so limited washing brushing of teeth) and limited electricity (enough to charge mobiles).
The hotels have beds and supply heavy cotton quilts, necessary in the minds of most visitors toward of the unaccustomed chill and dampness of the Himalayan air. With the exception of the dormitories and tents at the government rest houses, most rooms have bathrooms attached. There are no showers. Taps have cold stream water piped to them and hot water has to be purchased in buckets for washing (so learn how to wash with a bucket of water first).
The price of any one hotel room varies from 1500 rupees to 3000 rupees depending on the rush. Rooms usually have two large beds which can sleep 4-6 people, there is no limit to people per room. Since the village is only occupied during the summer months, all buildings are unheated. Intermittent electricity is supplied by a turbine which, when the ice and snow have melted by mid- or late-June, is turned by the stream which cascades down from Hemkunt.
Even if poeple do not stay in the gurdwara, opting instead for 'relatively' more comfortable hotel rooms, many Sikh visitors eat in the langar (free community kitchen) within the gurdwara compound. Rice, flour, and lentils used to prepare the langar, along with cash to purchase other supplies, are donated by Sikhs. As is common at gurdwaras everywhere, Sikh visitors to Gobind Dham, those who still have enough energy after the journey, take some time to do sea. Usually, that community service takes the form of serving food or cleaning utensils in the langar.
Bring good footwear for walking. Waterproof hiking boots with ankle supports are best. At times it is necessary to walk across snow. There may also be muddy or washed-out sections of the path. Be prepared for bad weather. The temperatures at Gobind Dham and Hemkund can be very cold. You are advised to dress in layers which can be added or removed depending on conditions. Train to walk with a backpack and/ or water.
Bring more clothes than you think you will need, including some woollen, a waterproof jacket, and even rain pants if possible, a hat, gloves, and warm socks. Dress lightly when you begin the trek at Gobind Ghat. Change to warm, dry clothes as soon as you arrive in Gobind Dham. When you go up to Hemkund, bring an extra sweater or shawl to put on after you reach the top. Do not be fooled by the warm weather in Punjab, it is colder than you think in the mornings and evenings and at Hemkumt Sahib (all without heating).
A Raincoat is also recommended. During July and August it rains every day, sometimes all day. Expect rain in June and September as well. At the beginning and end of the visitor season, snowfall is a possibility at high altitudes.
There is limited electricity at Gobind Ghat and Gobind Dham (mornings and evenings), but it is not reliable. Always carry a torch or flashlight if you are out walking after sunset or before sunrise. Also carry one when you go up to Hemkund. You may need it on the way back down. For many people, the journey takes much longer than they expect, and they end up walking after dark.
Carry Glucose, sweets, dried fruits and nuts for when you need energy on the trek. And do not forget to carry water or you can purchase from small shops on the way. It is easy to become dehydrated during strenuous exercise.
Bring first aid supplies and medicines like paracetamol or other pain killers, some antibiotic; cough medicine, breathing appratus (if somebody using it), remedy for upset stomach, gauze, tape, and bandages. There are government appointed doctors in Gobind Ghat and Gobind Dham, army dispensaries in the Gurdwaras, and an army hospital in Joshimath, but be aware that medical care in the region is very basic and limited.
There are tea stalls all along the path where visitors can rest. Tea, coffee, cold drinks, bottled water, biscuits, sweets, Maggi noodles, and paranthas are available at most shops. Note that the prices of all items increase the farther away from the motor road they are sold. It is best to carry in your own water and fruits.
For most people, it is essential to use walking sticks, one in each hand (which takes pressure off the knees and legs). Also, purchase and use knee support braces in advance to avoid knee injuries.
In Gobind Ghat and in Gobind Dham, travellers can hire mules, porters, and sedan chairs. The porters come from Nepal each visitor season to work along pilgrimage routes in the Indian Himalayas. If there is insufficient work carrying loads, they are hired by local contractors to do other types labour: breaking rocks, building walls, and mending paths. Kandi wallahs are porters who carry baskets woven from bamboo and supported by straps across their foreheads and ropes over their shoulders. A kandi basket can be laden with backpacks, suitcases, bags, children, and aged or unwell visitors. For those visitors unable to sit on a mule or in a basket, dandi wallahs, in groups of four, bear them up the slope in wooden sedan chairs supported by poles.
If, as an adult, you need to use these services you should think twice about your reasons for going to Hemkumt Sahib. To arrive through the services, pain or suffering of others will result in extremely bad karma from Waheguru. The mules are badly treated and unless you have children or are injured along the route we do not recommend you use them. If you haven't trained or are not fit enough to make the journey then you should not travel!
A recent study examining altitude sickness at Hemkund Sahib found that almost one-third of Sikhs who traveled to Hemkund suffered from Acute Mountain Sickness (a form of altitude sickness). As approximately 150,000 Sikhs are believed to travel to Hemkund Sahib each trekking season, almost 50,000 people are at risk of developing Acute Mountain Sickness each year. The authors stated the difficult nature of the trek, limited water consumption and lack of awareness regarding altitude sickness as the main contributory factors.
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