Sacred Waters A Pilgrimage up the Ganges River to the Source of Hindu Culture Stephen Alter Harcourt, $25, 368 pp.
A Review by Anita Mathias
Sacred Waters is a lovely, tranquil account of a spiritual journey undertaken by a third-generation missionary kid, born and raised in the Garwhal foothills of the Himalayas, where his parents and grandparents ran Woodstock, the American missionary boarding school. An atheist and a seeker now, Stephen Alter embarks on foot, over ten months, on the traditional Hindu pilgrimage, the Char Dham Yatra, to the four main sources of the Ganges, Yamnotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath in the high Himalayas, a path, according to popular Hindu belief, to moksha or salvation.
Alter’s fellow pilgrims are as diverse as those in The Canterbury Tales. Some are dressed in robes of saffron and ocher, others in jeans or loincloths. There are toddlers, feeble octogenarians walking while reading a prayer book, and even a pilgrim with a brass trumpet who is eager to serenade the company. Alter’s fluency in Hindi allows him to converse with the unusual people he meets: migrant Muslim dairymen, goatherds, grass cutters (gujjars), Nepalese watchmen guarding potato fields, villagers spinning wool as they walk along, an ascetic Dutch holy man (sadhu), a Belgian artist who shoots arrows into the landscape to photograph them later, rabid Hindu fundamentalists, the wildly popular film star Amitabh Bachan carried on the shoulders of Nepalese porters, women planting rice in paddies to the rhythm of a drum. He camps, “the roar of the Ganga as loud as a hurricane,” to listen to a sadhu blow away the darkness, chanting “om” on his conch shell, “clear, musical, like a trombone or a French horn.”
This dense, multilayered narrative especially fascinated me because I, too, went to boarding school in the Himalayas. Alter interweaves loving accounts of the unique, endangered flora and fauna with tales of swashbuckling figures from colonial history like Frederick Wilson (the inspiration for Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”), who built the first precarious bridges over Himalayan rivers, and the hunter and naturalist, Jim Corbett, still famous in my girlhood for his books on hunting man-eating leopards and tigers. Garhwal is called Dev Bhoomi, land of the gods, for “every snow peak and glacier, every confluence and village temple is invested with mythology.” Alter enriches the landscape for his readers by narrating the legends associated with each spot he visits, from the Vedas, the Puranas, and the great epics, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. At the same time he meets contemporary activists fighting the indiscriminate logging, motor roads, and dams that threaten the livelihood of the indigenous people, and, sadly, the mountains themselves.
Embarking on his journey as a traditional pilgrim on foot, renouncing tobacco, alcohol, sex, and meat, Alter leaves both maps and camera behind, believing the slow imprinting of experience on memory will be more effective than photographs. Detailed maps, though, would have helped readers track his progress, and photographs would certainly have enhanced his descriptions of historic temples and gorgeous vistas. Nevertheless, Sacred Waters is full of the serendipity and the peace of the wilderness. “I saw an egret flying low above the river, its white wings in sharp contrast to the gathering darkness. A peacock blundered out of a nearby tree, then glided into the valley, its long tail streaming behind it like an iridescent comet.” He wakes to find a multitude of moths cover his tent, “like delicate hand-block images pressed against the light”; he blunders into a black bear, shy barking deer, troops of rhesus and langur monkeys, and even a leopard.
The variety of Hindu worship is very much on display: a drive-by shrine to Hanuman, worshiped from the windows of a bus; a temple (nag mandir), where a cobra was worshiped; and darshan, or homage, paid at the high-altitude temples to the reclusive god Shiva. Alter is sarcastic about the lines of pilgrims five to six hours long. After walking 600 kilometers, they are efficiently herded through the sanctuary in mere seconds by venal, pushy pandits. Still, he provides sensitive and poetic descriptions of evening worship, the temple bells and the moaning of a conch, an oil lamp waved in front of the deities, while sadhus sing Sanskrit hymns, their voices harmonized into a moving tenor chorus. They then clap their hands in unison, and prostrate themselves in front of the idol, kissing the cold stone floor. A sadhu dances in rhythm with his prayers, his right hand holding an oil lamp, his left, a pair of tiny brass cymbals.
Alter, somewhat irritatingly, decries the motor roads, which provide the only way for those who lack his stamina, adventurousness, and leisure to enjoy the remote, beautiful, high mountains. He alerts us, however, to an alarmingly threatened Himalayas: landslides, precipitated by erosion and dynamiting for the motor roads, burying entire villages; and the destruction on a monumental scale of towns and hillsides to build the massive Tehri dam. Leopards are slaughtered for their skins; endangered musk deer for the six-ounce musk gland, used for perfume and medicine. Botanical poachers plunder rare herbs and flowers nearing extinction. Police are rarely seen and susceptible to bribes.
In a coda, our pilgrim visits the magical Valley of Flowers accidentally “discovered” by British mountaineers in 1931, though described in The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. In this natural wonder, like an alpine rock garden, “waterfalls spilled down cliffs, tiny springs seeped out of the ground, water so clear that it was invisible except for the wavering reflection of a profusion of flowers as in an ornate tapestry”–blue irises, primulas, dark purple lupine, fritillaria, delphinium, and columbine. Alter’s spiritual experience here is akin to Wordsworth’s pantheistic vision in his “Lines” composed near Tintern Abbey: “And I have felt / A presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts… / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, / …and the living air / And the blue sky, and in the mind of man….” This fascinating book concludes on an updraft
of tranquility. “The surrounding aura of sanctity made me bow my head. I was overcome with a sense of wonder and discovery. I felt completely at peace.” One believes him.