The most enchanting high altitude trek in entire Kashmir valley is the one leading to the famous Lake of Gangabal situated at the foot of Mount Haramukh. This Lake is approachable either from Sonamarg involving a 3 to 4 day trek or directly through Chatargul along Bramahsar or via Naranag up the steep slope of Buth-Sher which takes a day or two. The trek from Sonamarg across Nichnai pass is out of this world. There are more than a dozen Lakes on this trek. Kishensar, Vishensar, Yemsar, Gadsar, Satsar, and finally the Gangabal and Nundkol Lakes. After crossing Nichnai pass, one can either go through the valleys or cross some more passes to go along the Lakes directly. Each Lake has its own peculiarity and the bigger ones, Kishensar, Vishensar, Gangabal, and Nundkol are stocked with trout fish. There are excellent camping sites all along the trek. The mountainsides are full of varied flora. Some places one finds mind boggling variety of plants and flowers especially while climbing the pass near Gadsar to reach Satsar. First time I went on this trek in 1970 as part of a team from the Jammu & Kashmir Mountaineering & Hiking Club. At that time the trek was still more or less unknown. One of the members who is a botanist was stunned to see the variety of plants and flowers on different mountain spurs. The atmosphere was absolutely clean and pure and the entire trek was serene and calm, extremely soothing to the nerves. Subsequently this became the most frequented trek for foreign tourists. Once an American tourist who had undertaken the trek remarked, “I have been living in New York for 30 years and it was first time on the Gangabal trek I saw how Sun rises and sets!” In fact I too was bitten by the mountain bug after undertaking this most lovely trek in this part of the world. After that first visit I had the opportunity of going there a number of times both in winter as well as in summer and that too in a helicopter. Each time I found the place very satisfying and soothing. It had some sort of a spiritual aura and rejuvenation qualities. After the eruption of turmoil in 1990, the trek was closed for mountain lovers as it became a popular trail for ex-filtration and infiltration. Ironically as mentioned by Kalhana in Rajatarangini, the trail had been used in ancient times by many Kashmiri rebels including famous King Bhoja to take shelter in Dard area of Gurez and Tilel. The Gangabal trek has been the most sacred pilgrimage of Kashmiri Hindus since ancient times. Sir Aurel Stein, the translator of Rajatarangini, in his Memoir on the Ancient Geography of Kashmir has given the most absorbing historical perspective of Harmukh and Gangabal. The relevant passages reproduced here make very fascinating reading, “To the east of Dud-Khut Pass the summits of the range gradually rise higher and higher until we reach the great mountain-mass of Haramukh Peaks. Rising to close on 17,000 feet and surrounded by glaciers of considerable size these peaks dominate the view towards the north from a great part of the Kasmir Valley. Sacred legends have clustered around them from the early times, and the lakes below their glaciers belong still to the holiest of Kasmirian Tirthas. The ancient name of the Peaks is HARAMUKUTA, “S’iva’s diadem”. This is explained by a legend which is related at length in the Haracaritacintamani. Their height is supposed to be S’iva’s favourite residence. Hence , Kasmirian tradition stoutly maintains that human feet cannot reach the Peaks’ summit.” Stein relates an interesting episode about his climb to the Haramukh Peaks. He says that owing to this superstition he had great difficulty in inducing his Muslim Kasmirian coolies to accompany him on the ascent he made during his visit in 1894. On his telling his Brahman friends that he had reached the summit, they told him that his having reached a summit was a sufficient proof that it was not Haramukuta. An argument as simple as incontrovertible to the orthodox mind! A couple of teams from our Club climbed the summit in seventies and eighties. The team members did relate about getting confused on reaching the top. There are many similar summits and it is difficult to tell which one is the real top? Stein narrating the story of these Peaks further states, “The lake which lies at the foot of the north-eastern glacier, at a level of over 13,000 feet, is looked upon as the true source of Kasmir Ganga or Sind River, and is hence known as UTTARAGANGA, or popularly Gangabal. It is the final goal of the great “Haramukutaganga” pilgrimage which takes place annually in the month of Bhadrapada and is attended by thousands of pilgrims. The bones of those who have died during the year, are on that occasion deposited in the sacred waters. A short distance below this lake is another also fed by a glacier, and now known as Nundkol. Its old name, KALODAKA, or Nandisaras, is derived from a legend which makes the lake the joint habitation of both Kala, i.e. S’iva, and of his faithful attendant Nandin. From the latter the whole collection of sacred sites takes the name of NANDIKSETRA by which Kalhana usually designates it.”
The final stage of the Haramukutaganga pilgrimage is the Naran Nag spring with a temple complex. There used to be seventeen temples of various ages and dimensions here which had been built by different Kings of ancient Kashmir from time to time in honour of S’iva who according to legend, had taken residence here as Bhutesa. The pilgrim route comes down a very steep spur which is even now known as Bhut-Sher. There used to be some more temples along the spur but these are now hidden under thick vegetation. The worship of S’iva Bhutesa, “the lord of the beings”, localised near the sacred sites of Mount Haramukuta, has played an important part in the ancient religion of Kashmir. According to Kalhana, the earlier name of Naran Nag spring has been the Tirtha of Sodara which is mentioned in Nilmatpurana wherein ablutions are recommended to pilgrims visiting the Tirthas of Bhutesvara, Jyesthesa, and Nandin. Stein describes the Bhutesa as, “In the valley of the Kanknai stream, Skr. Kanakavahini, which issues from these lakes, there lies the sacred site of S’iva-Bhutesvara, now Buth’ser. It is closely connected with the legends of Mount Haramukuta, and often mentioned in the Rajatarangini. A series of interesting temple ruins marks the importance of this Tirtha and that of the ancient Jyesthesvara shrine which immediately adjoins it. Bhutesvara is passed by the pilgrims on their way back from the sacred lakes, while on their way up they reach the latter by another route, passing the high ridge as BHARATAGIRI and the smaller lake of BRAHMASARAS.” It seems that in modern times this holiest of the holy Tirthas has been completely forgotten and the Pilgrimage has been totally abandoned. It has suffered the same fate as the sacred Shrine of Sarada. One of the causes of losing one’s identity is the abandoning the study of history which has unfortunately happened in Kashmir during last half century or so. During the first tenure of Sheikh Abdullah, study of Kashmir history as well as Kashmiri language had been introduced as part of the curriculum but after his deposition in 1953 it was completely abandoned. To understand one’s present one has to delve in the past. The sooner it is done, better it would be for our future generations who are feeling depressed and lost because of the lack of knowledge about the glorious past we have had. It is something which one needs psychologically to hold on to and have faith in regaining someday. Nevertheless, undertaking this trek after knowing its historical background is indeed a rewarding and a fascinating experience. It is hoped that more and more of our young boys and girls will not only study the history but someday undertake this spiritually rewarding adventurous trek!