For nearly 55 years, tourists, both Indian and foreign, have had to procure permission, ‘inner line permit’ to be specific, from the local administration for visiting Harsil town in Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand. Even with the permit, foreigners were not allowed a night halt in the strategically sensitive town that is close to China border and houses Army units. These curbs, put in place immediately after the India-China 1962 War, have finally been waived, with the picturesque town now poised to be explored for tourism.
The Union Home Ministry, in a welcome move, recently opened Harsil to both Indian and foreign tourists alike, scrapping the ‘permit system’ in entirety. The development follows relentless efforts of the people from Uttarkashi for years who wanted to increase the footfall of tourists to Harsil so as to improve their economic situation.
At 8,600 feet, the Harsil valley is blessed with 100 small or big Himalayan peaks, dense forests of Deodar trees, breathtaking snow-clad mountains and lush apple orchards. Not only this, the place is also attractive as it falls along the way of the most revered Hindu pilgrimage, Gangotri, which is merely 22 km away. Gangotri, a town on the banks of river Bhagirathi and from where Ganga originates, is one of the ‘chaar dhams’ in Uttarakhand, the other three being Yamnotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath.
A small population of around 2,000 in Harsil welcomes about two lakh tourists every year, though only in the months of May and June every year, a majority of whom are headed to Gangotri.
A local BJP leader from Uttarkashi, Lokendra Singh Bisht, who led the team that interacted with the central and Uttarakhand governments, said, “Our consistent efforts finally made the central government understand that the decision taken 55 years ago is causing hurdles in the development of Harsil that has huge tourism potential. The Ministry of Home Affairs ordered withdrawal of ‘inner-line permit for entering Harshil on June 18 this year.”
The Ministry, in another good news for tourists and trekkers, has lifted the ban imposed on visiting Nelong valley. Unlike Harsil that could boast of some relaxations, Nelong Valley, which is only 30 km from Harshil, was strictly out of bounds for tourists after the 1962 India-China war. Tourists can now visit the valley after procuring permission from the local administration.
Nelong, too, has have cantonment areas with establishments of the ITBP. The Chinese border is at a distance of about 100 km from Harsil town and 60 km from Nelong valley.
During the war, the government had got Nelong and neighbouring Jadung villages vacated and shifted locals to other villages in Harsil area. Chamoli and Pithoragarh are the other two districts of Uttarakhand which border China and have ‘inner-line areas’.
Gangotri, a municipal town situated on the banks of Bhagirathi river and on the origin of river Ganga, also has a temple known as Gangotri temple. Tourists visiting Gangotri have another reason to visit the place — the Gangotri National Park spread over 2,390 sq kms of dense forest area.
Of around 16 lakh tourists who visited various places of Uttarakhand this season, two lakh went to Gangotri this summer.
After the doors of Gangotri temple are closed on the next day of ‘Deepawali’, when doors of other pilgrimages like Kedarnath, Badrinath and Yamunotri too are closed, all rituals carried out here traditionally move to the Ganga temple at Mukhba village — which is 20 km from Gangotri and two km from Harsil.
For the next six months, all rituals, including ‘pooja’ and ‘aarti’, are held at Mukhba Ganga temple that is frequented by tourists.
The rituals return to the main Gangotri temple when the ‘Mandir kapaat’ or temple doors are opened on the day of ‘Akshay Tritiya’ that falls on April-end or beginning of May every year.