Travel

A Journey to the Center of the Universe: An Expedition to the Sacred Mount Meru

Mount Meru, a peak in the Himalayas, is the center of the universe in Hindu Cosmology.
IMAGE Javier Cang
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The sound was silent yet eerie; a slow cracking vibration, followed by a deep bellow. Every step we made was with intent. “We must keep moving” whispered Ashik, our alpine guide. “Glaciers are not a place you want to be in for long.” The sound we heard was the ice shifting below our feet. Our breaths were labored, which is natural at high elevations, but the uncertainty of glacier travel forced us to move swiftly.

We were negotiating our way through the Gaumukh Glacier, deep in the Garwhal Himalayas in Northern India. The frozen wasteland that our feet were planted on creates the very source of the sacred river Ganges. We journeyed to this distant land to trace the Ganges to its headwaters and to reach the fabled Mount Meru, a 6,600-meter peak regarded as the center of the universe.

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Photo by Javier Cang.

Our expedition began in the capital city of New Delhi. The bustling streets and incessant honking were a surprise even for our Manila-trained senses. Paharganj, a backpacker’s district just south of Delhi’s Central Park, was our home for the night. We fueled up on curries and daals of all colors for the long journey ahead. The spices on our palates were an immediate, but delightful welcome to this dynamic country.

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Photo by Javier Cang.

South of Paharganj is the Lotus Temple, a contemporary place of worship depicting a lotus flower in bloom. Flocks of people visit this temple daily, making it one of the most visited buildings in the world. We made a brief stop at the temple just before nightfall and we were fortunate enough to catch the sun dipping beneath the tip of the temple. It was as if the petals of a lotus flower were unfolding to cradle the setting sun.  

We spent less than 24 hours in Delhi before our journey advanced north toward Dehradun, a university-town in the Uttarkashi region of India. It was an eight-hour drive from Delhi, and the drastic changes from the capital city was felt every kilometer of the way. The air was less hazy, the temperature was cooler, and the mountains were increasingly more apparent. Dehradun is a common staging point for adventurers making their way to the Himalayas. From here, formidable peaks, such as Mount Meru and India’s second-highest mountain, Nanda Devi, are a stone’s throw away, metaphorically speaking. Reaching the heart of the Himalayas needs another day of driving.

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Mount Meru is situated in Gangotri National Park, a highland region characterized by lofty alpine peaks, immense glaciers, coniferous forests, and lush meadows. The park is roughly 150km north of Dehradun and forms the upper border of India and China, with close proximity to India’s northwest border with Pakistan. Because of this, tensions in this part of the Himalayas have historically been strained.

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Photo by Javier Cang.

In Hindu cosmology, Mount Meru is believed to be the center of the universe, a nexus where heaven and hell come together. Mount Shivling, Meru’s neighboring peak, is likewise a religiously significant mountain. It is believed that on this peak, Shiva sent down Ganga to quench the thirst of all humanity and create the sacred source of the River Ganges: the Gaumukh glacier. Saddhus, or holy men, seek pilgrimage in these mountains, with a few completely isolating themselves in alpine caves.

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Photo by Javier Cang.

From Dehradun, we drove north toward Gangotri and picked up the rest of the team along the way. Expeditions are a logistical production: There is a head cook with his staff, a lead guide with his team, and a group of capable porters. Ashik, our lead guide, is a local of Uttarkashi and has been climbing in the Himalayas almost his entire life. He told stories of his climbing expeditions as a young teen, including a successful summit of Bhagirathi, a 6,600-meter ice giant near Mount Meru.

The drive to Gangotri involved snaking through the foothills of the Himalayas and a seemingly endless ascent toward higher elevations. Gradually, the environment around us changed: Subtropical evergreen trees transformed into alpine coniferous forests. As we got closer to Gangotri, we beheld familiar sights of the lofty Himalayas piercing through the clouds.

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Photo by Paolo Cuarteron.

Gangotri, at 3,200-meters, is already higher than anything in the Philippines. But here, it was merely our starting point. After nearly 12 hours of mountain driving, we arrived in Gangotri late in the evening. As anyone can imagine, this made our stomachs queasy and our heads dizzy. We quickly got comfortable in our ashram-turned-homestay, had a hot bowl of daal, and discussed our plans for the coming days. We would hike up the valley to the base of Gaumukh, ascend the glacier toward Shivling, acclimatize, and, finally, attempt the summit of Baby Shivling, a 5,600-meter peak between Shivling and Meru.

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Photo by Javier Cang.

We arose early the next morning to crisp blue skies. The frosted windows were a foretelling of the colder days ahead. After a lengthy and detailed gear inspection, we began the trek just before nine in the morning. Almost immediately, we caught our first glimpse of the snow-clad mountain peaks in the distance.

Permits in Gangotri National Parks are heavily limited, and for good reason. The national park is home to a number of endangered species, and is sensitive to climate change. Less than 50 years ago, the Gaumukh Glacier extended all the way from Gangotri to Shivling. Today, it takes climbers three days of trekking from Gangotri just to reach the terminal end of the glacier.

Our first day was mostly gradual as we set up camp in a coniferous forest by the upper Ganges River. Near the banks, we spotted a few paw prints which, after later confirmation from our guides, was said to belong to the extremely elusive snow leopard, a true testament to the wildness of the place we were venturing into.

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Photo by Gab Mejia.

Over the course of the next few days, we trekked to a barren valley called Bojwasa and adapted to the higher elevations by going on walks toward the terminal end of the Gaumukh Glacier. Throughout each day, Ashik repeated the dangers of glacier travel. “Early morning is best, while the glacier is cold and intact,” he said. Even from afar, in our camp in Bojwasa, the constant sound of rock and ice falls kept us on our toes.

Evenings in the camp were one of the more enjoyable parts of our days. We rested our weary bodies with laughter and hearty meals. Since meat is not allowed in the mountains for religious reasons, our meals consisted mostly of spiced lentils, bread, and potatoes. As plain as it sounds, the adage is true: Food always tastes better in the mountains.

When the team was sufficiently acclimatized, we began the march toward the Gaumukh Glacier. The past week had us following the upper Ganges until it steadily narrowed. As we neared the glacier, the river turned icy while its streams split into hundreds of tiny tributaries. We followed these streams until there was no water left, and only a massive wall of ice stood in front of us. We were now at the Gaumukh Glacier; the very source of River Ganges. Ashik reminded us of the importance of where we were standing: Nearly a billion people rely on this glacier for fresh water, spiritual worship, and daily needs.

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Photo by Javier Cang.

To get to the base of Shivling and Meru, we needed to traverse the glacier and climb up a moraine to a flat meadow called Tapovan. Glacier travel is extremely precarious because of the nature of frozen ice. As temperatures warm up during the day, glacial ice moves and shifts drastically. Because of this, routes across a glacier are rarely ever the same.

We followed Ashik’s lead like ducklings tailing their mother. We silently, but swiftly, moved across the rubble atop the Gaumukh. The atmosphere was tense. Adjacent to our route was a deep ravine where rock falling from nearby peaks created an ominous dust cloud. At certain points, visibility was reduced to only seeing the person ahead of you.

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Photo by Javier Cang.

In less than four hours, we made the final steps to Tapovan, an uncanny flat meadow at the base of Mounts Meru and Shivling. It had already been a week when we reached this point, but it was only here that we got our first complete view of these two mythical mountains.

Mount Meru is an icy-massif consisting of three distinct peaks. Its center peak, the Sharks Fin, is considered as one of the most difficult climbs on the planetso difficult that only one climbing team has ever successfully ascended it.

Shivling, on the other hand, can be likened to the Matterhorn; it is a triangular peak from base to summit with only an outcrop on its right shoulder keeping it from being perfectly symmetrical. This outcrop, we later learned, is Baby Shivling. At a still incredibly lofty 5,600-meters, the outcrop certainly did not look like a baby from where we were standing.  

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Both Meru and Shivling reach heights of over 6,600-meters. For perspective, they easily dwarf 99 percent of the mountains outside of the Himalayas.

Photo by Javier Cang.

Tapovan is known to house Saddhus who seek a life of spiritual recluse. Near our campsite, our guides pointed to an alpine cave where a Saddhu has been reportedly living for over 70 years. The religious significance of both Shivling and Meru cannot be understated. In many ways, these two peaks form the very base of Hindu culture.

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After settling into camp, we received the disheartening news from Ashik that avalanches made the climbing route to Baby Shivling virtually impassable. As an alternative, we could instead climb a portion of the Mount Shivling summit route. The following day, we geared up with harnesses, alpine-grade rope, ice axes, and ascenders. We hiked across Tapovan to Shivling and began our climb. Ashik, as usual, led the way with his calm confidence despite the volatile environment around us.

Once we reached the snow-line, Ashik taught us the fundamentals of alpine ropemanship and the basics of using an ascender and an ice ax. We didn’t get up to 5,600-meters as we had expected, but we did break the 5000-meter mark, a first for most of us. At this height, we saw the hundreds of distant Himalayan peaks surrounding us. These were sights our tropical eyes could only dream of.

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Photo by Javier Cang.

We spent one last day in Tapovan before backtracking our entire journey back to Delhi. Not having anything to do for the day meant we could fully take in our surroundings: the sounds, the vistas, the smells, and the feelings. Long expeditions can sometimes make you numb to the beauty around you. Oftentimes, our eyes were fixated on objectives rather than the grandeur around us.

We watched the sun dip beneath the mountains as the frigidness of the evening began to blanket the meadow. A light orange hue unfurled at the very tip of the snow-clad mountaintops, a sign that the sun was already setting on the distant horizon. The Himalayas is humbling: It does not boast, yet its beauty is magical.

I took a walk with Ashik as he named the different peaks towering above us. Despite the silence, we could almost hear the mountains through the void. Each mountain had a story to tell. Shivling and Meru told stories of the intricate connections between humans and mountains—connections that create bonds between people of all walks of life; connections that forge cultures; and connections that provide life. Perhaps, it is in these connections that we constantly find ourselves going back to the mountains.

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Photo by Javier Cang.

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