Satopanth Lake is an untouched glacier lake at an altitude of 15,100 ft. in the shape of a triangle, it is hidden amidst the majestic Garhwal region. It is believed that the trimurthis (triple deity of the divinity in Hinduism) Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswara meditated on its three corners and takes bath in its water on the occasion of Ekadashi.
Also, according to Hindu Mythology, at the end of the Mahabharata, Pandavas took the same route from Mana village to reach the steps to heaven which is on the Swargarohini glacier via Satopanth Tal. Of the five Pandavas and Draupadi, only Yudishter was able to complete this journey along with a dog who was no other than the Yamraj himself accompanying them. Therefore, referred to as the Satopanth or the path of truth.
The lake is surrounded by Mount Chaukhamba, Mount Neelkantha, Mount Swargarohini and Mount Balakun. This journey through the remote rough trails is one in a life time experience.
The trail to Satopanth lake is one of the beautiful trails in the Garhwal region. After crossing Mana, India’s last village, and the famous Vasundhara waterfall. The mountains tower to gigantic heights. Starting out in the evening at around 4 pm from Badrinath-the famous Hindu Shrine, our destination for the night was Chamtoli bugyal. It is a small field opposite to the Vashudhara fall and 5 kms distant from Mana village. The trek start walking past the Mata Mutri Mandir at Mana. Leaving behind the farms of the Mana village along the banks of Alaknanda river. This part of the trail is well marked with a steep ascent just before the camp site. Since, we were attempting this trek in an alpine DIY (Do it Yourself) style which we usually prefer, the progress becomes relatively slow. Post-monsoon which is one of the best seasons do this trek and by the time we reached the camp site, the day light was already gone. In the light of our torches we pitched our tents, gathered the wood for a little bonfire and put on the stoves for preparing the dinner. The weather was cold and cloudy. Although full moon was a week away but the moon light lit the nearby peaks beautifully. The food was prepared and the fire was lit, we sat around talking and enjoying the night, food and warmth. Yes, somewhere deep was a doubt of fear, exploring in these unknowns always bring a sense of doubt. What this wilderness would hold for us, the possibility of the unknown, the well-being of everyone in the group. But never these thoughts obstruct us from pushing forward. We called in for the night after dinner. The night was calm and peaceful. The sound of Vashudhara, at times, woke us with its sound of water hitting the ground.
The day broke bright and sunny. None of us being the morning person,the day never started for us till the sunlight warmed us. After preparing and having breakfast, packing all our luggage, we began for the longest day of our trek.
3 km from our first campsite is ‘Laxmi van’, a small Bhojpatra (Himalayan Birch) forest at the banks of Alaknanda. These white, paper-like bark was used in ancient times for writing Sanskrit scriptures and texts. It is still used as paper for the writing of sacred mantras, with the bark placed in an amulet and worn for protection. Selected varieties are used for landscaping throughout the world, even while some areas of its native habitat are being lost due to overuse of the tree for firewood. ‘Sahadeva’ the youngest of the Pandvas died here.
The route now starts to gain altitude and glaciers underneath. loose moraines come in sight with Balakun peak towering straight ahead. One could also see the Alkapuri or the glacier which is the source of river Alaknanda, one of the major rivers forming the Holy Ganges at Devprayag. A rough trail ascent brings us to ‘Sahastradhara’ means ‘thousand-fold spring’. This place falls just underneath the glacier ridge of Neelkanth mountain. These white glacial streams fall from high rock in the form of countless number of waterfalls making this other wise barren landscape captive. Walking through boulders and loose rock and gaining altitude, we reach the upper flat planes before the final stiff climb for Chakerteerath.
As we were getting the strength to upscale this, the weather started turning grey and within no time, we were marching under the light snowfall. Although the snowfall was not accumulative but the intensity increased and decreased as the winds blew around.
After a tough climb of around 7 hours, we reached Chakerteerath. This is a wide clearing in the mountain surrounded by high mountain on one side and a ridge to glaciers on its other side. Winds are strong at this reach of the mountain and the snow was still playing around. Finding a suitable place to camp in this high wind and dicey weather place is a challenge in itself especially if its snowy and windy weather after a breath-taking climb with our heavy packs. As we erected the tent and other arrangement were made, the weather took a complete U-turn and the winds took the clouds away. With not much time left before the dark and the water sources freezing at night, we made an early start preparing our dinner for the night. The Swargarohini, Chaukambha and the Balakun made their presence and appearance grand in this isolated place. The night was cold and long. The clear weather made the night colder. Chakerteerath was where Arjun died on this way to heaven.
We were woken up by the first rays of sun kissing the high surrounding peaks. It was still cold outside and the sun was yet to bless us with its warmth. The ground around us with its little vegetation had frozen dew on it. We waited till the sun brought us its warmth. After breakfast and loading our rucksacks again, the march began for the day. The first problem for the day was the first major steep ascent just after the campsite. These heights have grueling effect on one’s body and getting tired quickly is one of its effects. The top is the highest point of this entire journey.
A gateway to the entirely different world. The sharp contract between the green patches and a dry barren landscape with mountains looming with thick glaciers, stuck as if it may fall any time. The route from here is completely over glacier which has layers of loose boulders and moraines over them. This 5 km stretch is quite risky and had to be navigated carefully but it is also at times painfully slow to walk on. Also, the route had to be navigated with the help of cairns kept at regular intervals requiring one to keep the eyes open for the nearby surroundings otherwise getting lost in this vast expanse of glacier can put one’s life in danger. These glaciers have cracks hidden below the boulders and therefore a sure foot is must without twisting ankles. The sooner we entered this patch, the weather again turned grey quickly and within no time we were in the middle of a snow storm. Although weak and no where to hide or take shelter we marched on till our final destination after a final climb and under showers of heavy snowfall. The first view of the lake and destination was a sight to behold. The grass around was starting to settle under a thin layer of snow. We took a quick look around and found a small rock cave to settle down to take shelter from the weather.
Luckily, after half an hour the weather started getting better. We came out of the shelter to have a look around this place. The triangular lake under the shadow of Chaumkambha was magnificent in this quite place. The clouds went and brought out the sun and also the sound of avalanche falling down the steep ridges of the mountains around.
We found a descent campsite and the sun came out in the late afternoon. We had a late lunch of Chausa (a famous Garhwali pulse dish) and Rice, and enjoyed the leisure in the evening. As the sun went down, the winds grew colder and temperature dropped significantly, we found few dry leaves and roots for a small bonfire which was a relief. After the dinner, we called it a day. The night wasn’t one of the comfortable, could also be due to its height at 15,100 ft above mean Sea Level. The sound of glaciers falling down made scary noises at times when in deep sleep. Two of our five-member team were also trying to cope up with this altitude and its effect. We woke up early in the cold frozen morning. We lazed around in the warmth of our sleeping bags till the sun was out and were out in the sun taking sun bath soaking in all the warmth as the sun was out completely. The grand views of Neelkanth summit, the Chaukambha ridge with thick layer of fragmented glaciers. The Swargarohini and Balakun peak stands tall and firm as if touching the sky above. One feels humble and blessed in life to experience these raw beauties up so close. The solitude here is quite filling. Leaving behind the hustle of everyday life and a morning among these giants of the Garhwal Himalayas was one unforgettable experience.
After soaking in the sun, we took a quick bath in the cold water of the Satopanth lake. Packing up and having a quick meal of late breakfast we adieu to this wonderful place. Negotiating the boulders back and forth and then the down hill climbs all the way from Chakerteerath to Shastradhara, we kept on pushing the entire day without a proper meal. The progress was slow, going down is yet another task in boulder filled route. We somehow kept pushing and gathering the last bit of energy. We trekked for 12 kms downhill in 6 hrs till we reached the Laxmi Van campsite. Since the start was late, at around 12 pm from Satopanth, by the time we reached our campsite it started getting dark. Everyone quickly took on his responsibilities from getting up camp to cooking dinner.
Here comes the importance of a good team in such crucial situations. We all trekked 12 kms without eating much due to two major reasons, the food didn’t taste well at 15,100 feet and the supply was less. Keeping in mind the rations for the night and the next day, was to be kept as well although our bag packs more or less weighted the same. We were motivated, encouraged and endured by the up and down of the route. Even after reaching the campsite, everyone took on their responsibilities quickly from lighting up stove, preparing dinner or setting up tents & fetching out water. The night was clear and calm. We carried good amount of wood pile which we found on our way down. Sitting around fire we had dinner and talked. There was a sense of comfort in the silence of the night and a sense of accomplishment. After dinner we went to sleep early, everyone had a sound sleep.
The next morning the sunrays were out even before we woke up. We weren’t in a hurry to pack up and lazed around packing and preparing breakfast. After a healthy breakfast of Oats, we started our march back to civilization. It was 7 km trek back to mana village. This place and valley tested every one of us on a different level. Our endurance was put to test many times. The physical and mental fitness shaped us on a different set. Back to Badrinath in the afternoon, we finally encountered the luxury of instant food when hungry. Hitting back home and the journey ended with millions of memories and thousands of experiences.
Mahaprasthanika Parva or the “Book of the Great Journey”
Mahaprasthanika Parva or the “Book of the Great Journey”, is the seventeenth of eighteen books of the Indian epic Mahabharata. It traditionally has three chapters, as does the critical edition. It is the shortest book in the Epic. Mahaprasthanika Parva recites the journey of Pandavas across India and finally their ascent towards Himalayas, as they climb their way to heaven. As they leave their kingdom, a dog befriends them and joins their long journey. Their conversations, and reasons for not reaching heaven are described in Mahaprasthanika Parva.
As they crossed the Himalayas, Yajnaseni was the first person to die. Bhima asked Yudhishthira why Draupadi died early and couldn’t continue the journey to heaven. Yudhishthira claimed that though they all were equal unto her she had great partiality for Dhananjaya, so she obtained the fruit of that conduct today. The remaining Pandavas continued their journey. Next, Sahadeva died on the way. Yudhishthira explained, Sahadeva like his other brothers was virtuous in every respect, except for, he suffered from the vice of pride and vanity, though none was equal to him in wisdom. The brothers continued on their way to Mount Meru. Nakula died next. Yudhishthira explained that Nakula also suffered from the vice of pride and vanity, thinking he was the most handsome person in the world. Arjuna was the next person to die without completing the journey. Yudhishthira explained to Bhima, Arjuna too suffered from the vice of pride and vanity, thinking he was the most skilled, most powerful hero in the world, disregarding others. Yudhishthira, Bhima and the dog continued forward.
Bhima gets tired and fell down. He asked his elder brother why he, Bhima, was unable to complete the journey to heaven. Yudhishthira explained his brother’s vice of gluttony, who used to eat too much without thinking about the hunger of others and also used to boast of his strength. It is for that he fell down. Yudhishthira and the dog continued their journey. In Chapter 3 of Mahaprasthanika Parva, as the dog and Yudhishthira continued their walk ,up Mount Meru, Indra appeared in his chariot with a loud sound, suggesting he doesn’t need to walk all the way, he could jump in and together they could go to heaven. Yudhishthira refused and said, he could not go to heaven with Indra without his brothers and Draupadi. Indra told Yudhishthira, all of them after their death, entered heaven. Yudhishthira asked if his friend, the dog, could jump into the car first. Indra replies that the dog cannot enter his chariot, only Yudhishthira can.
Yudhishthira refused to leave the dog. He claimed the dog as his friend, and for him to betray his friend during his life’s journey would be a great sin. Indra said, that after abandoning his brothers and wife, he had acquired great merit, then why be stupefied by a dog, he was renouncing everything. Yudhishthira told that there is neither friendship nor enemity with those that are dead. When his brothers and Draupadi died, he was unable to revive them, hence he abandoned them. However, he cannot abandon the one who is alive beside him. Indra urged him to consider his own happiness, abandon the dog and hop into his chariot. Yudhishthira refused to go into the chariot, explaining he cannot abandon the dog who is his companion, for his own happiness, while he is alive. The dog, watching Yudhishthira’s commitment for his friend, transforms and reappears as deity Dharma. The deity Dharma then praises Yudhishthira for his virtues. Dharma tells him that formerly, during their exile in the woods, where his brothers of great pride met with death, disregarding his love for his brothers, he asked him to revive Nakula, and passed his trial. Again, on this occasion, thinking the dog to be devoted to him, he had renounced the very chariot of the celestials instead of renouncing him. Hence, there is no one in heaven equal to him, and had earned regions of great felicity. Then they all proceeded to heaven. On their way, they met Narada who told them that Yudhishthira had transcended the achievements of even the royal sages. He had heard none other than him, to achieve this, attaining to heaven with a human body. The righteous-souled king, saluting the deities, proceeded forward. And hence,Yudhishthira entered heaven on Indra’s chariot.