At the tender age of eleven Nilkanth Varni
travelled alone in the northern region of India (Uttarakhand). He
started his upward pilgrimage to Kedarnath from Rishikesh and then
went to Badrinath. From Badrinath he embarked upon an extremely arduous
and difficult journey to Badrivan in the beginning of winter. Nilkanth
stayed there for three months and then travelled through the most
dangerous and frigid terrains of the world to Kailas and Manasarovar.
From Manasarovar Nilkanth Varni returned to Badrinath after six months.
From here he started another challenging pilgrimage to Gangotri (10,000
In this article we shall look at the conditions and hardships Nilkanth
must have faced through the experiences of other explorers.
trek route in the Himalayan pilgrim places (Uttarakhand) was different
from today's roads and trekking pathways. The route of his journey
by foot was extremely difficult and unimaginable.
When Nilkanth left Rishikesh on 16 September 1792 towards Kedarnath,
he travelled through the towns and villages of Devprayag, Rudraprayag,
Gupta Kashi, Triyuginarayan and Gaurikund. The Shri Haricharitramrut
Sagar describes Nilkanth's journey with all the names and the number
of days he stayed at the pilgrim places he passed on his way to Kedarnath
(as mentioned above). Today's route from Rishikesh to Kedarnath is
the same as it was in Nilkanth Varni's time. But Nilkanth had two
options for his journey from Kedarnath to Badrinath. (See above map.)
1: Kedarnath, Gaurikund, Triyuginarayan, Gupta Kashi, Rudraprayag
Chamoli, Joshimath, Vishnuprayag and Badrinath.
Route 2: This narrow path by foot was used less by pilgrims: Kedarnath,
Gaurikund, Gupta Kashi, Ukhimath, Chopta, Gopeshwar, Chamoli, Joshimath
Nilkanth, instead of choosing from one of the above two routes, blazed
a new trail altogether. Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar notes, "In
the Himalayas at Kedarnath there is a big mandir of Mahadev. Brahmachari
(Nilkanth) took the direction behind Kedarnath towards Badrinath.
He reached Badrinath after nine days."107
So, Nilkanth, instead of taking the two familiar and popular routes
one and two (as mentioned above, where one passes through the pilgrim
places of Ukhimath, Gopeshwar, Joshimath, etc., went around the mountain
behind Kedarnath towards Badrinath.
Now let us look at the geography of this region.
The description in Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar is very clear. It says
that to the north of Kedarnath lies Mt. Kedarnath. It seems that Nilkanth
had trekked around Mt. Kedarnath towards Badrinath. But is there such
a path or way? And to circle around Mt. Kedarnath Nilkanth would have
to cross the Chhodabari and Dudhganga glaciers. Further ahead he would
have to pass through the Kirti glacier and a clear yellow glacier
that lies in a valley between Mt. Kedarnath (22,769 ft.) and Mt. Meru
(21,919 ft.). After traversing these glaciers one reaches the Gangotri
glacier. After crossing it one has to walk in the valley of the Bhagirath
mountain range to reach Nandanvan. Then by crossing the Chaturangi
glacier and the subsequent Kalindi Ghat (19,567 ft.) one arrives in
the valley where the river Arva flows on the Arva glacier. On walking
along the banks of river Arva the latter merges into the river Alaknanda
near Gastoli. Then on walking 11.5 km south from here one arrives
It seems that Nilkanth travelled on this route. Despite the simple
description of the route, in reality, it is nothing but full of harsh
terrains and insurmountable difficulties. Any adventurous and enterprising
traveller or pilgrim would never be able to source enough courage
to do it alone. Such are the perils and impossibilities of this land.
It took Nilkanth nine days to travel a distance of 125 km over seven
glaciers. This means that Nilkanth could barely cover nine to twelve
When Nilkanth first arrived at Badrinath he stayed there for twenty
days. Then he stayed at Joshimath for a few days before embarking
upon his pilgrimage to Manasarovar on 17 October 1792. After six months
he returned to Badrinath (as described in previous articles). But
his return to Badrinath was not the end of his pilgrimage.
When Nilkanth returned to Badrinath it was 13 May 1793, Akha Trij.
From here Nilkanth decided to go to Gangotri. And the only one known
path was to descend to Joshimath again and go to Chamoli, Gupta Kashi,
Triyuginarayan, Buddha Kedar and finally Gangotri. But the Shri Haricharitramrut
Sagar describes and points to something different altogether.
When Nilkanth returned to Badrinath after his pilgrimage to Manasarovar
he met Maharaja Ranjitsinh of Punjab. The king was captivated by the
divine personality of Nilkanth. Out of adulation for Nilkanth he requested
him to come to his kingdom. But Nilkanth refused. When the king and
his party were about to leave for Joshimath and travel to Haridwar
he asked Nilkanth again to come with him. But Nilkanth wanted to go
to Gangotri. If Nilkanth had wanted to take the known path to Gangotri
then he would have descended with Maharaja Ranjitsinh to Joshimath.
But Nilkanth, instead, decided to take a different route to Gangotri.108
Now the question is which different route did Nilkanth take?
Nilkanth took the same route he had taken while coming from Kedarnath
to Badrinath. The path was geographically familiar to him because
he had travelled on it during his journey from Kedarnath to Badrinath.
Then on reaching the Gangotri glacier he travelled towards the source
of river Ganga at Gaumukh and then to Gangotri. (See map on p. 30.)
The path from Badrinath to Gangotri is extremely challenging and deadly.
On the way, it is very hazardous to cross the Kalindi Ghat at 19,567
ft.109 About 125 years after Nilkanth's journey, when a European traveller
called Bernie had travelled on the same route from Badrinath to Gangotri
with guides and necessary paraphernalia the local people of the Garhwal
region were amazed. In comparison it is intensely fascinating as to
how Nilkanth, who at the age of only twelve, wearing a loincloth,
barefooted and with no materials or means whatsoever, pilgrimaged
alone to Gangotri. His is an unparalleled story of courage, confidence,
determination and divinity.
To understand the depth of Nilkanth's pilgrimage it would suffice
to read the experiences of Swami Prabodhanand.110 We have quoted the
experiences of Swami Prabodhanand in the previous articles of this
issue (p. 14). The description of his experiences of the entire pilgrimage
Pilgrim to The Source of Ganga
For millennia mother Ganga has been nourishing India with her pristine,
divine waters. The holy river is central to the faith of all Hindus.
It is worshipped by thousands with arti everyday; its waters are sprinkled
to drive away evil spirits and all that is inauspicious and impure;
and millions of Hindus vest their faith in its redemptory powers.
It is difficult to evaluate the glory that mother Ganga has for all
Out of a challenging curiosity and glory for Ganga were born many
explorers and pilgrims. They endeavoured to the source of the boisterous
river Ganga. But their odysseys through the soaring Himalayan peaks
and valleys were stories of human courage and tragedy. Despite the
adversities and challenges, the mission of discovering the source
of river Ganga four centuries ago was so important that the then Mughal
ruler, King Akbar, at the end of the 16th century, commissioned a
team.111 Then with the advent of the British, who came under the pretext
of trade and then ruled India, many Europeans trekked in the Himalayan
mountains to find the river's origin. In the 17th and 18th centuries
many explorers lost their lives. Then history remains mute till the
19th century as to how many and who had reached the source of river
Ganga. The renowned 19th century writer T.N. Colebrook writes in his
1812 research paper 'On the Source of the Ganges in the Himadri or
Emodus' that the source of river Ganga was a burning issue.112 So
many explorers had died or were proved wrong in finding the source
of the mighty Ganga. Historians testify that till the beginning of
the 19th century no one was successful in finding the source of Ganga.
The reason being that the path from Gaumukh to Gangotri (21 km) was
extremely difficult and dangerous. Even today, with all the required
equipment and arrangements for the journey one experiences, to some
extent, the challenges it poses. Another reason in not finding the
source was due to Pauranic beliefs. According to tradition Hindus
believe that Ganga flows from Lord Shiv's head. The Matsya Puran says,
"Bhagirathi Ganga flows from Lake Mandod which lies in the valley
of Mt. Kailas." (Matsya Puran, Ch. 214.) The great poet Kalidas
writes in Meghdut (Purva Megh, 65) that Ganga flows from Mt. Kailas.
Hence the Hindus have come to believe that the source of river Ganga
lies on Mt. Kailas or Manasarovar. Hence, many Hindus, regardless
of the hardships, dangers and possibilities of death, pilgrimaged
to Manasarovar to find the source of Ganga. Even foreign traders and
rulers, too, travelled to find the source of Ganga. The map of Tibet,
by French traveller, D'Anville, in 1733, called, 'Carte Générale
Du THIBET', shows that "...the Ganges issues from Manasarovar."113
Two hundred years ago, sannyasi Purangir went to Gangotri in his search
for the source of Ganga. "Purangir believed that the Ganges had
its source on Kailas and flowed thence to Manasarovar."114
Sven Hedin, the Swedish explorer, writes in his book Trans-Himalaya,
"The source of the Ganges was discovered in 1808... The expedition
was accomplished by Lieutenant Webb and the captains Raper and Hearsey.
It followed the track of Antonio de Andrade. Two hundred years earlier
this trekker on his way over Mana pass to Tsaparang had, without knowing
it, passed by the source of the Ganges. The source of the Indus, Sutlej,
and Brahmaputra neither Catholic missionaries nor any one else had
passed before the year 1907.
"The instructions given to Lieutenant Webb by the supreme Government
of Bengal contain the following paragraph: 'To ascertain whether this
(i.e. the cascade or subterraneous passage at Gangotri) be the ultimate
source of the Ganges; and in case it should prove otherwise, to trace
the river, by survey, as far towards its genuine source as possible.
To learn, in particular, whether, as stated by Major Rennell, it arises
from the Lake Manasarobar; and, should evidence be obtained confirming
his account, to get, as nearly as practicable, the bearing and distance
of that lake.' "116
At this point it is necessary to mention again that history should
note that fifteen years earlier than Lieutenant Webb and his party
12-year-old Nilkanth had reached the source of river Ganga alone and
without any means and wearing only a loincloth. The path that Nilkanth
had taken on his journey from Badrinath to Gangotri is the path to
the source of river Ganga.
The river Ganga's source lies at Gaumukh (a gorge shaped like a 'cow's
mouth'), that is 21 km east of Gangotri. But the 18th century Jesuit
father Joseph Tieffenthaler "...affirms that it (the source)
will never be discovered because the way beyond the gorge of the 'cow's
mouth' (gaumukh) is impassable."117 Nilkanth had travelled from
beyond the gorge and reached Gaumukh. Then he walked from its source,
along its banks to Haridwar.
Sven Hedin writes, "The envoys (sent by King Akbar at the end
of the 16th century) saw the water of the river (Ganga) gush out in
great abundance in a ravine under a mountain which resembled a cow's
head... English explorers, however were soon to establish the fact
that the information which Akbar's envoys brought to their master
No British and European historians and writers have noted as to whether
any sannyasi or sadhu had reached the source of the Ganga at Gaumukh.
There is a possibility that Nilkanth's pilgrimage to the source of
Ganga, as a 12-year-old child yogi, could well be the first in the
records of history.
The seven year sojourn of Nilkanth throughout India is full of unknown
facts and revelations of the challenges he faced. When his other journeys
will be presented in future in context with the records of those who
have endeavoured we hope to get further perspectives and insights
into Nilkanth's divine personality!
106. Poddar, Hanumanprasad. Kalyan (Tirthank).
Gorakhpur: Gita Press, 1957: 53-60.
107. Swami Shri Siddhanandmuni (also known as Swami Adharanandmuni).
Sagar. Varanasi: Swami Hariprakash, Pundit Shrinarmadeshwar Chaturvedi,
108. Swami Adharanandmuni. Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar, Pt. 1. p.
109. Swami, Anand. Baraf Raste Badarinath. Amdavad: Balgovind Prakashak,
1970: 67- 72.
110. Swami, Anand. Baraf Raste Badarinath. p. 67-72.
113. Hedin, Sven. Trans-Himalaya, Vol. 3. p. 209.
114. Hedin, Sven. Trans-Himalaya, Vol. 3. p. 208.
115. Hedin, Sven. Trans-Himalaya, Vol. 3. p. 211.
116. Hedin, Sven. Trans-Himalaya, Vol. 3. p. 211.
117. Hedin, Sven. Trans-Himalaya, Vol. 3. p. 199.
118. Hedin, Sven. Trans-Himalaya, Vol. 3. p. 200.
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& Gujarati text: Sadhu Aksharvatsaldas
articles will be placed on the set dates in this section