It is said that the skeleton of an entire city — a school, the clock tower, complete markets and houses — lies submerged under the Tehri reservoir in Uttarakhand. The road from new Tehri runs along the lake for quite some distance, giving you ample time to imagine what it would be like to take a dive and explore the lost city. Old Tehri was a small town at the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Bhilangna rivers, which was submerged to accommodate the Tehri Dam, a project that stirred environmental debates across the country. Along with the city, the course of Bhilangna river also got lost. The river now assumes an imaginary path under the waters.
Several mythological stories flow along the rivers of Uttarakhand, especially the seven streams that are said to have emerged from Shiva’s matted locks. My driver tells me the secret of Bhilangna through a story of King Sagar and his 60,000 sons.
The king once wanted to stage a yagya to declare his supremacy after he had defeated all the asuras. To spread the message, he sent his horse round the earth, accompanied by all his sons. Threatened by him, Lord Indra stole the horse and tied it behind sage Kapil’s ashram. When the sons found the horse, they launched an attack on the hermitage. Disturbed by the commotion, the sage woke up from deep meditation, only to reduce all the 60,000 sons to ashes. Distressed by the turn of events, the king sent his grandson to the sage to ask for forgiveness. The sage declared that the sons could only be brought to life if Ganga was brought down from heaven. The king’s great great grandson, Bhagirath, started meditating to please Ganga. When she finally descended, Lord Shiva received her in his matted locks to prevent the earth from flooding. Bhagirath then prayed to Shiva, who released the river in the form of seven streams. Their waters touched the ashes of King Sagar’s sons, whose souls could finally rest in heaven after that. The seven streams were Bhagirathi, Janhvi, Bhilangna, Mandakini, Rishiganga, Saraswati and Alaknanda.
By the time the story gets over, we enter the Alaknanda valley. Of all the rivers, I am most interested in the Alaknanda, which is a part of all the five major sacred confluences in Uttarakhand, called the panch prayags. The magnificent bluish Alaknanda first appears in snatches along the Maletha-Pepaldali road. Along the stretch from Maletha junction towards Jayalgarh, it becomes more prominent.
The river has made a tumultuous journey from the base of Satopanth and Bhagirath glaciers in the northeast of the state, having completed its tryst with four other rivers over 190 km, and emerges as Ganga with Bhagirathi at Dev Prayag. The Alaknanda meets Dhauli Ganga at Vishnu Prayag, Mandakini at Nand Prayag, Pindar at Karna Prayag, Mandakini again at Rudra Prayag and finally Bhagirathi at Dev Prayag, where I am headed. Within the short distance of 3 km from Malethi to Jayalgarh, I can see the river relaxing in the wider basin. As I take a short break at Jayalgarh, delaying my journey on purpose, bright green onion fields and drying haystacks on top of huts spread as far as I can see.
Though this village is fairly tranquil, most of Alaknanda’s path is marked by Hindu fervour, especially at Badrinath. Local activities come to a halt between June and September, the time when the char dham yatra is undertaken. The Badrinath temple draws lakhs of people every year. Until the disaster of June 2013, when the river took its most ferocious form, the Alaknanda valley was abuzz with pilgrims each year. Residents of nearby villages, who had always seen the river in its calm avatar, are still to overcome the grief and loss that the devastation caused.
However, lower Himalayan regions have resumed their earlier relationship with the river. Campsites along the Alaknanda have been renovated, and the river adventure industry is back on its feet. Pilgrims have already started descending to the small town of Dev Prayag, where the Alaknanda meets Bhagirathi, to become the popular Ganga river. But I find the Alaknanda more accommodating and intriguing than the most popular river in our country. It traverses a perilous path, is more whimsical, but is extremely generous to those living around it.
Getting to Jayalgarh: Jayalgarh is 111 km from Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun and 110 km from Haridwar railway head.
Stay in Jayalgarh: Luxury campsite by Himalayan Eco Lodges is perfect to spend some time along the Alaknanda. Rafting and other river activities apart, trips through villages and mountain biking can be arranged.
Supriya Sehgal is a Bangalore-based freelance travel writer, who also does scripts for documentaries and TV shows.