Every year lacs and lacs of Sikh pilgrims pay their obeisance at Gurdwara Sri Hemkunt Sahib which is situated in the Himalayas in the Chamoli District of Uttarakhand State of India at a height of about 15,210 feet above the sea level. Hemkunt means ‘Receptacle of Ice’. This holy shrine is dedicated to the Tenth Guru of the Sikhs Sri Guru Gobind Singh Sahib who in his autobiographical work Bachitra Natak has stated that in his previous life he meditated the Name of God at a place he has mentioned as ‘HEMKUNT PARVAT’ adorned with seven peaks where earlier King Pandu Raj (a character in the epic Mahabharata) had practiced Yoga. Guru Sahib Says :
Hemkunt Parbat hai Jahaan
Sapt sring sobhit hai tahaan
Saptsring teh naam kahawa
Pand raaj jahan jog kamava
The total Yatra from Rishikesh to Sri Hemkunt Sahib takes at least two days and two nights. The pilgrims come not only from Punjab and other parts of India but also from all over the world.
Guru Sahib says that ‘I was absorbed in deep meditation on Primal Power the Supreme Being’. In his meditation when he became one with the God Almighty, He ordained him to take birth to crush the cruel rulers. He further says that at this time Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib and Mata Gujri Ji who later became his father and mother were also meditating for union with the Incomprehensible Lord. The Service that they rendered the God caused the pleasure of the Supreme Guru (i.e. the Lord). When the Lord ordered me I was born in this Iron age i.e. Kalyug.
Guru Sahib has also mentioned that ‘I had no desire to come to the world because I was totally absorbed in devotion for the Holy Feet of the Lord. But the Lord made me understand His Will and sent me in this world’ to show the world the path of truth, to rid the world of superstition and to teach the people to worship God alone. He says that finally he accepted God’s word humbly by saying, ‘Thy word shall prevail in the world, with Thy support’. Guru Sahib has warned not to worship him by saying that ‘those who call me God shall into the pit of Hell be cast. I am but the slave of the Supreme Being come to watch the world spectacle’.
Hemkunt Parvat, the site of worship by the great Guru remained in oblivion for about a century and a half after compilation of Bachitar Natak. It is generally believed that the composition of Bachitar Natak may have begun in 1688 at Paonta Sahib during the first spurt of Guru Sahib’s literary activity and this autobiographical work must have been completed before 1699 when Guru Sahib formed the ‘Khalsa Panth’ because this work does not refer to this event.
The initial efforts towards finding the location of this Holy site are attributed to Mahakavi Bhai Santokh Singh who in 1843 in his book Gurpartap Suraj Prakash dwelled on the theme that Guru Sahib in his previous birth had worshipped at Hemkunt Parvat. After that in 1844 Pandit Tara Singh Narotam (1822-1891) a well known Nirmala scholar in his book Sri Gur Tirath Sangreh determined its location after referring to the Mahabharat text (1.119). Eighty five years later in 1929 Bhai Vir Singh, a well known Punjabi poet referred to this fact in his book Sri Kalgidhar Chamatkar by mentioning that Guru Sahib in his previous birth had worshiped God at Hemkunt Parvat. It was this book which in fact led to a search for the Holy place where Guru Sahib had worshipped during his previous birth.
A very interesting event in the discovery or re-discovery of Hemkunt Sahib is that in 1932 Sardar Sohan Singh who was working in the Indian regiment as a Granthi posted at Tehri Garhwal came across Bhai Vir Singh’s book Sri Kalgidhar Chamatkar. He was so much impressed by this fact that Sri Guru Gobind Singh Sahib had worshipped at a parvat with seven peeks that he set out on a journey to find this place. He started his journey in 1933 and returned a year later without any success. Next time near Gobind Ghat at a place called Pandukeshwar he asked the local people if they knew of a parvat with seven peaks. Those people told him that there is such a place called Lokpal (literal meaning protector of the world) which is believed to be the site of meditation of Pandavas and that they consider this place a very holy place. They also told Sardar Sohan Singh that they make an annual pilgrimage to the lake which is situated at this place. After this dialogue with the local people Sardar Sohan Singh proceeded further and reached the place which fully resembled the accounts given in Bhai Vir Singh’s book based on the description of the place given in Bachitar Natak. Thus Sardar Sohan Singh had finally found this Holy place – HEMKUNT SAHIB, which is now visited by lacs and lacs of Sikh pilgrims every year between June and October.
Sardar Sohan Singh returned from Hemkunt Sahib and contacted the Gurdwaras in the nearby places such as Mussoorie and also met the common folk, but nobody paid any heed to his finding. He then contacted the Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar but this Committee also did not take any interest. Finally, he visited Bhai Vir Singh in Amritsar, who listened to him carefully and after asking several questions gave him Rs. 2100 and asked him to go back and start the construction of a Gurdwara there. Bhai Vir Singh tried to publicise the location of this Holy spot and also tried to help Sardar Sohan Singh in collecting funds for the construction of the Gurdwara.
One day at Mussoorie when Sardar Sohan Singh was buying material for the construction of Gurdwara Sri Hemkunt Sahib a Sikh ex-army sergeant named Sardar Modan Singh asked him as to what was he doing. When Sardar Sohan Singh told him about his mission Sardar Modan Singh became very much impressed and joined him in his efforts. They both went to Sri Hemkunt Sahib and with the help of local people constructed a Gurdwara 10 feet x 10 feet in size at the site of the Tap Asthan (place of meditation) of Guru Sahib. The Gurdwara was constructed on the bank of the sweet-water lake (circumference roughly 2.5 km) in a narrow valley surrounded by high mountains capped by seven peaks which Sri Guru Gobind Singh Sahib had called ‘Sapt Sring’. In 1936, when Sardar Sohan Singh retired Sardar Modan Singh shifted to Sri Hemkunt Sahib.
In 1937, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the eternal scriptural Guru for the Sikh community was installed in this Gurdwara and the daily tradition of recitation of ‘paath’ was started. It was declared as a Gurdwara at the highest altitude in the world. Soon after the construction of the Gurdwara Sikhs started paying their obeisance at this Holy place every year. On February 13,1939 Sardar Sohan Singh died and after that Sardar Modan Singh assumed the total responsibility. The first Sikh jatha of pilgrims was sent in 1952 by Chief Khalsa Dewan, Amritsar. Since then inspite of some natural calamities which have occurred in this area the Holy place has continued to gain more and more popularity. The weather calamities at times have taken lives of people and animals in this area but it has continued to attract more and more Sikh pilgrims every year who undertake a very strenuous journey to reach this place because of their profound faith.
In the early years, there was no shelter en route to Sri Hemkunt Sahib and Sardar Modan Singh would take shelter from fierce wind and cold weather in a hollowed out tree trunk which stood at the grounds of Gobind Dham. From 1939 Sardar Modan Singh served with devotion for the next 21 years. He not only maintained Gurdwara Sri Hemkunt Sahib but also established Gurdwara Sahib Gobind Ghat (height 6000 feet) and Gurdwara Sahib Gobind Dham (height 10500 feet) to serve as base camps for the pilgrims. Before his death in 1960, he set up Sri Hemkunt Sahib Management Trust with headquarters at Kanpur which has now shifted to Rishikesh. This Trust replaced the previous buildings with new and more spacious buildings and constructed two more Gurdwaras one each at Sri Nagar and Joshi Math. Now for the convenience of the pilgrims Gurdwaras exist at various places on the route which provide accommodation and langar (food) to the pilgrims. In addition to these four Gurdwaras which serve as base camps for the pilgrims Sants of Ber Kalan have constructed a Gurdwara named Gurdwara Sahib Damdama Sahib at Nagrasoo in-between Sri Nagar and Joshi Math.
Before the Sikhs discovered Hemkunt Sahib as having been associated with Sri Guru Gobind Singh Sahib the local people who lived in the valley below considered this place a Holy place and made pilgrimages every year to the lake on the shore of which Gurdwara Sri Hemkunt Sahib is situated. The other persons who helped in the discovery of the site of Sri Hemkunt Sahib include Sardar Thandi Singh and Sant Suraj Singh.
To reach this Holy Shrine there are two routes. The pilgrims from Punjab side pass through Rishikesh, Dev Prayag, Srinagar, Rudra Prayag, Karna Prayag, Nanda Prayag, Joshi Math, Vishnu Prayag, Gobind Ghat, Gobind Dham and finally reach Sri Hemkunt Sahib. The pilgrims from Delhi side pass through Hapur, Rampur, Kichha, Ranikhet, Choukhutia, Nand Prayag, Pipal Koti, Joshi Math, Vishnu Prayag, Gobind Ghat, Gobind Dham and reach Sri Hemkunt Sahib. Thus from Nand Prayag onwards all the pilgrims take the same route. Before reaching Gobind Ghat, in general, pilgrims take rest at Rishikesh or Sri Nagar or Nagrasoo or Joshi Math. The pilgrams can stay at Gurdwara Sahib Rishikesh, Gurdara Sahib Sri Nagar, Gurdwara Sahib Damdama Sahib Nagrasoo, Gurdwara Sahib Joshi Math and Gurdwara Sahib Gobind Ghat. At Gurdwara Sahib Damdama Sahib, Nagrasoo there exists a 5-storey building for accommodating the pilgrims. At Gurdwara Sahib Joshi Math there are 36 small rooms including 20 with attached bathrooms and 7 small halls and one large-sized hall. These rooms can accommodate 1200 – 1300 pilgrims, but at the time of need 3000 pilgrms are accommodated.
From Rishikesh onwards the area is hilly. From Rishikesh after covering a distance of about 200 km in buses, cars, scooters, motor cycles and taking rest in the Gurdwaras on the way the pilgrims reach Gurdwar Sahib Gobind Ghat. At Gurdwara Sahib Gobind Ghat 100 rooms with attached bathrooms, an equal number without attached bathrooms and 30 large-sized halls have been constructed for the pilgrims. In general, 7000-8000 pilgrims are accommodated but if needed 10,000 can be accommodated. In addition to langar the pilgrims are provided bedding as per the need of the climate. At Gurdwara Sahib Gobind Ghat in addition to a large-sized parking place for the Gurdwara there is a 4-storey car parking for the pilgrims. The staff at this Gurdwara includes 30 persons. Earlier no vehicle was allowed to go beyond this place and the remaining distance of 19-20 kms had to be covered on foot or mule riding or kandi or dandi. In kandi or pithoo system a person generally a child is carried on the kand (back) of a porter who charges money for this service. In dandi system the person is carried in an improvised palanquin which is carried by four persons. These three systems facilitate old persons and children to undertake this strenuous yatra.
This year Sri Hemkunt Sahib Management Trust has decided to allow the four-wheeled vehicles only up to Gobind Ghat instead of Pulna and arrange public conveyance round the clock between Gobind Ghat and Pulna at the rates of Rs. 35 per person. However, the scooters and moter cycle will be allowed to go up to Pulna. The 14-km journey from Gurdwara Sahib Gobind Ghat to Gurdwara Sahib Gobind Dham is a very tiresome venture. A vast majority of the pilgrims prefer to walk on foot from Gobind Ghat to Gobind Dham. Only those who cannot walk ride mules or resort to kandi or dandi system. Depending on their health status the pilgrims cover this 14-km hilly track in 6 to 10 hours. At Gobind Dham all the pilgrims take rest for the night. Early in the morning the next day the resume their remaining 5-6 km journey.
From Gobind Dham pilgrims take 5-7 hours to reach Gurdwara Sri Hemkunt Sahib. At the end of this journey the pilgrims have to go up about 1000 stony steps. The 19-20 km journey from Gobind Ghat to Sri Hemkunt Sahib is an ‘up hill’ task in the real sense of the word. But on reaching Sri Hemkunt Sahib, a place of utter beauty and peaceful serenity the pilgrims are so much impressed by the scenic beauty of the surrounding mountains and the lake that they feel that they have gotten closer to their Guru and thereby closer to God Almighty. Some pilgrims are so much engrossed in the charismatic power of Sri Hemkunt Sahib that they go on this pilgrimage every year. The panoramic view from the Gurdwara of the snow covered peaks is just marvellous. The words fail to describe this charismatic power. The sarovar (the holy tank) on the shore of which the Gurdwara is situated gives a very impressive look. All the pilgrims take a dip in the freezing water of this sarovar (holy) tank and this takes away all the tiredness of the strenuous journey.
The pilgrims are not allowed to stay over night at Hemkunt Sahib because of insufficient oxygen. After paying obeisance and taking a dip in the water of the sarovar they resume their return journey. They spend only 1-1½ hours at Sri Hemkunt Sahib and return to Gobind Dham where they have to generally spend another night. Only a few pilgrims reach Gobind Ghat the same day.
At all these Gurdwaras adequate langar facilities are provided. At all the Gurdwaras food provisions are hoarded for atleast 15 days in advance. First aid and medical facilities are also provided at all these Gurdwaras free of cost.
Sri Hemkunt Sahib Management Trust has done laudable work of providing the necessary facilities for the pilgrims. However, at Gobind Ghat and Gobind Dham several hotels have come up which charge exorbitant ratess during the season. It is time that this Trust constructs some more accommodation facilities at these two places to avoid looting of the pilgrims by the hotel owners. Punjab Government can also take necessary steps in this direction. Every year there were several complaints by the pilgrims that the dhabas (eating places) on the way charge exorbitant prices for food including tea and drinking water. To evade exploitation of the pilgrims by the shopkeepers they have been directed to display rates lists. The Trust has also fixed ratess for mule riding, kandi and dandi systems. For the safety of the pilgrims the mule owners has been asked to insure their mules.
This year Yatra of Sri Hemkunt Sahib will start tomorrow I,e. May 25. The registration of the pilgrims was started at Rishikesh on May 21. The helicopter service from Gobind Ghat to Gobind Dham has been started today I,e. May 24 wherein each pilgrim will have to pay Rs. 6400 for the round trip.
The total Yatra from Rishikesh to Sri Hemkunt Sahib takes atleast two days and two nights. The pilgrims come not only from Punjab and other parts of India but also from all over the world. The pilgrimage to Gurdwara Sri Hemkunt Sahib is an act of deep devotion among the Sikhs.
*Dr. Amrit Kaur, Retd. Professor, Punjabi University, Patiala, Punjab