Devout Hindus believe that when the sacred Ganga came down to earth, she broke in such a deluge that the Lord Shiva had to temper her force by splitting her into twelve channels- the tributaries of the river. Alaknanda, Bhagirathi, Mandakini, Dhauli Ganga, Pindar are the main tributaries, and their five confluences, the `Panch Prayag' of the Ganga, are an important pilgrimage route for those in search of salvation.
Arising in the towering mountains of Uttaranchal, the Gangotri glacier emerges in a cavernous opening known as Gomukh, the actual source of the Ganga. Known at this point as the Bhagirathi, the river meanders its way downhill past dense forests of pine, oak and deodar, past temples and towns, ashrams and riverside camps, and down into the plains of northern India. On the way it divides into a number of streams, which, further along the way, join up with each other to re-emerge in the form of the broad, beautiful river which is the very basis of spiritual life for millions of India.
The five sacred confluences of the river- the `Panch Prayag'- occur at intervals along the course of the river. All five lie within the state of Uttaranchal, the first three- Vishnuprayag, Nandprayag and Karnaprayag being in Chamoli district; Rudraprayag in the district of the same name, and Devprayag in Pauri Garhwal, on the border with Tehri Garhwal. As the crow flies, the distance between the spot where the Alaknanda arises and its final merging with the Bhagirathi at Devprayag, is just about 229 km- a distance easily covered either in your own vehicle, or by state transport. The area throughout is one of small but well-equipped towns where you won't usually have much trouble finding a place to stay. Stop for a day or so along the way; admire the awesome scenery, spend a while meditating, take a dip in the river and offer prayers at the local temple.
The main tributary of the Ganga, the Alaknanda is the river whose course is marked by the Panch Prayag. If you want to follow the Alaknanda right from the place it arises, you'll have to head towards Badrinath. 16 km beyond this town lies the Balakun Peak, where, at a height of 3,641 mt, the melting ice of the Bhagirath Kharak and the Satopanth glacier give rise to the Alaknanda river. Flowing south, this river makes its way to Vishnuprayag, the first of the five sacred `prayags'. Vishnuprayag, approximately 10 km from Joshimath, is where the Alaknanda meets the Dhauli Ganga. The waters of the two streams meet in a deep, dark gorge tucked away in the shadows of the surrounding mountains.
Downhill, to the south-west of Vishnuprayag, is the second of the Panch Prayag, the spot where the Alaknanda joins the Mandakini. The confluence, at Nandprayag, is marked by a temple dedicated to Gopalji, a form of Lord Krishna.
Just 21 km further downstream and going further to the south-west is the third prayag- Karnaprayag, where the Pindar river, emerging from the Nanda Devi glacier, flows into the Alaknanda. Karnaprayag is marked by two temples- one dedicated to the goddess Uma and the other to Karna, the tragic hero of the Mahabharat after whom the town is named.
The fourth of the confluences is the town of Rudraprayag, 137 km short of Rishikesh, where the Alaknanda once again meets the Mandakini. An important commercial center, Rudraprayag is home to two temples, one dedicated to Chamunda Devi and the other to Rudranath.
From Rudraprayag, take a bus to 68 km beyond Rishikesh to the fifth, and last, of the confluences: the town of Devprayag, where the Alaknanda finally merges with the mighty Bhagirathi to form the Ganga. From here onwards, the river flows in a steady, unbroken stream southwards, holy and life-giving.
The Panch Prayag is, to a devout Hindu, one of the most important pilgrimages anywhere in India. To travel down the course of this sacred river, to take a dip at each of its five confluences- is guaranteed to wash off the sins of a lifetime, to bring salvation and moksha.
Published in MSN