You’d be hard pressed to find a river more revered than Holy Ganga, known abroad as The Ganges. While not as long as the Nile or as mighty as the Amazon, Ganga possesses a spirituality and character unmatched by the other great rivers of the world. Honestly. Name another river that is actually a goddess descended to earth to cleanse humanity of its sins and illnesses. See?

River worship is quite a practical phenomenon. Rivers are life givers, supporting permanent communities through droughts and dry seasons. A standard monsoon in northeast India lasts only four months, so the river is the sole source of drinking water and irrigation for eight months a year. In such a climate, it’s only natural that the biggest river around would develop into something worthy of  religious devotion (there are many holy rivers in Hinduism, Ganga being the most important).

It begins on the roof of the world, under a glacier high on the India-Tibet border. Sapphire blue and ice cold at first, it mixes with white foam as it crashes over rocks and boulders. Picking up green as it descends, it becomes a brilliant turquoise, slowing as the valleys widen and the altitude softens (hydro dams do their part, as well). Soon it finds the frying pan mud of the Indian plains, turning a warm soupy brown and, having lost its urgency, slowly wanders its way east. Eventually it forms the massive delta in Bangladesh – where it floods often as it meets the rising sea.

Ganga is central to the life of Hindus. Bathing in the river cleanses sins, and many families return home from pilgrimages to her banks with vials and bottles of the holy water. Perhaps more famously, however, Ganga is central to Hindus at the time of death. The greatest pilgrimage in the life of a devout Hindu is to make it to the shores of the holy river in time to die and be cremated on the banks. The body, once burned to cinders, is dumped into the river to be carried away. This is extremely beneficial for future lives, helping to cleanse the soul of sins and aid in its quest for reincarnation on a higher level. Varanasi is perhaps the holiest city in Hinduism, and has developed into the premiere death tourism centre. I’ll be there in a few weeks.

But for now, I’m still in the mountains. The holy city of Rishikesh, where the Beatles lived and got high and wrote the White Album, is low in the foothills. Here the river is quick and cold and wonderful. It probably isn’t as clean as we’d like to think, but compared to its condition down on the plains it is positively pure. So we swim in it. The locals bathe in the holy waters to receive the blessings of the goddess, but we swim to cool off from the heat. I’m not Hindu, but there is a sense of renewal from these waters. The undeniable spirituality of India rears its head again.

But it isn’t enough for us. With Naomi from Sydney and Alon from the Tel Aviv suburbs, I spend twelve hours on buses and jeep taxis and make my way back into the Himalaya. At over 3000m and in freezing temperatures, we spend the night in the small town of Gangotri, which owes almost all of its economic success to religious tourism. Nearly as important as the death pilgrimage to Varanasi is the personal mission to the glacier from which Ganga springs forth.

Called Gamukh, or the Head of the Cow, the mass of ice is known to Hindus as the place where Ganga first descended to earth. The blessings bestowed upon a Hindu for bathing in the river are multiplied greatly if done at the river’s birthplace. I still haven’t quite figured out what draws so many foreign, non-Hindus to the spot, but we nevertheless felt the need to go.

After a night in Gangotri, we walk fourteen slightly inclined kilometers to Bhojbasa, a mountain camp of low stone buildings with corrugated tin roofs. We spend the cold, dark night in an ashram, a combination Hindu temple/guesthouse, eating simple dhal and rice on the floor with the pilgrims. Our room, shared between the three of us, is a stone box with blankets on the floor and a single naked (energy saving) light bulb dangling on a wire. All around us are jagged snowy peaks towering over barren, rocky scrub. The chai is excellent. So are the stars.

At seven the next morning we clamber over boulders and rocky streams toward the glacier. Four kilometers later, a 15m tall jagged wall of dripping ice looms over us. From a dark cave rushes forth the holy water. I had expected, thanks in part to the Lonely Planet’s use of the word embryonic, for it to be an icy creek or brook. Not a trickle, surely, but at most a fast stream. Wrong. A full fledged river courses out of the ice with a flow of surprising intensity. It is at least five or six meters wide, not deep but moving quickly. And it is icy, icy cold.

But we wash in it. Alon strips down to his skivvies and goes in fully, while Naomi and I just wash our face, neck and hair. Some of the pilgrims go in all the way as well, though not all of them. The sun is bright and strong but the air is cold at almost 4000m in mid October. We drink our fill, as well. I’ve never tasted such clean, cold, delicious water. Bottle that stuff and you’d make a fortune. But the negative karma would be astronomical, I’m sure. Still, we fill a plastic water bottle so we can ship home a little glacial Ganga water. I hear drinking it can cure serious diseases. Get your own.

We watch a BBC documentary team film some footage of the glacier. They interview a local glaciologist who explains how much the wall of ice has receded even in the last six months. A very up close look at climate change. During the filming, a local guide arrives and grows angry with all the tourists standing too close. Apparently two foreigners died last year when a chunk of the wall broke free and crushed them. The BBC crew calms him enough to get their footage, but he manages to get everyone else to move a safe distance away.

We sit and enjoy the energy of the place. Alon and Naomi write in their journals. I join a few pilgrims and meditate next to the river for a few minutes. The sun is getting hotter as it climbs, the thin atmosphere doing little to calm its blaze. We walk the four kilometers back to the ashram for more dhal and rice before packing up and walking the rest of the way back to Gangotri. Early the next morning, we’re in a jeep taxi for the nine hour ride back to Rishikesh with two ladies from Pune (near Bombay) who now live in San Francisco.

Now it’s Diwali, the biggest festival in the Hindu calendar. I’m still in Rishikesh for it. Will post on it soon, in all it’s fire and noise and madness.