The Valley of Flowers

Govindghat is a town about an hour from Badrinath and the departure point for Sikhs pilgrims heading to Hemkund, a high altitude lake (4200m) in the Himalayas. The arduous 19 km climb to Hemkund takes two days with an overnight stop in the small seasonal village established by villagers from Ghangaria who spend the winter at lower altitude but run restaurants and hotels for pilgrims closer to their sacred site.

Thousands of Sikhs were in Govindghat, some arriving exhausted from Hemkund, others happily preparing for the climb. We were among the handful of visitors who were not actually heading to Hemkund. We were actually on our way to the Valley of Flowers, an Indian National Park. The park had a short but inspiring write up in our guidebook and we had been attracted by its secluded location: a 16 hour bus ride from Haridwar and 2 day climb. Most of the Sikh pilgrims we crossed assumed we were heading to Hemkund and admittedly we had been surprised by the thousands of pilgrims who (thankfully) were heading somewhere else. The presence of so many people on the trail created a significant amount of litter, noise and horse excrement but in exchange financed the seasonal hotels and restaurants and the creation of the trail itself. The presence of so many people also attracted Nepalese porters, who spent their summer hiking up and down the mountain. I was grateful for the porter that we hired and found the walk up the steep muddy trail difficult even without my pack. I didn't feel as bad about hiring someone to carry my bag when I saw the first, of many, large men being carried up the hill by a teams of porters. We walked fairly quickly but didn't reach our first night's rest stop until nightfall. Mainly because every time we passed someone on the trail they would stop us to take photos. We had never turned anyone down for a photo before that day, but after 6 or 7 hours, with our legs cramping (maybe just mine) we couldn't bring ourselves to stop anymore. The seasonal camp where we slept is a collection of guesthouses and restaurants, including a large Sikh gurdwara, a temple which acts somewhat like a community centre, serving as a place for prayer and the housing and feeding of pilgrims. Gurdwaras are open to people of all denominations but we found a lovely guesthouse overlooking the village's only trail. The atmosphere was festive as exhausted pilgrims made their way into town either from the starting point at Govindghat or from the descent from Hemkund. All the towns' supplies are carried up to the village on foot or by donkey so prices were expensive. Apparently pilgrims were not expected to have to make too many sacrifices in terms of comfort or food. There was much more than expected: hot showers, comfortable beds and menus with as many options as anywhere else in the country including a large selection of Punjabi dishes. The noise and excitement subsided fairly early, with the generators being shut off and people preparing for their next day's trek. We were happy for the quiet as we had been a little bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of people that had descended onto the otherwise peaceful valley. The temporary town was built right at the fork in the road veering one way to Hemkund and the other to the Valley of Flowers. When we set out from the guesthouse in the morning we were the only two heading down the trail to the valley. According to the park rangers (Ghangaria villagers) who registered us at the entrance, we were the second group to enter the park that day. The valley, although known to locals who used it for grazing livestock in the summer months, is said to have been "discovered" by a British mountaineer who stumbled upon in while lost on the return from a successful summit of a nearby peak. He named it the "Valley of Flowers" after the meadows of alpine flowers that blossom there. For its botanical importance and simply for its natural beauty it has been named is a UNESCO Heritage Site. From the entrance to the national park there is still a 4km climb to actually reach the valley. It took us for ever to actually get there because I was slightly preemptive in my wildflower spotting. I stopped to photograph every single flower on the trail with Yann urging me frustratingly to move on. When we arrived to the actually valley of flowers I regretted every second I had wasted somewhere else. It's hard to express the sense of awe that we felt while wandering alone through the valley. It felt so far from the garbage-strewn tourist mayhem just a few kilometers away. We found it difficult to leave, but had to make it to the gate before sunset (park closing time). We decided to skip the trek to Hemkund the next day and return to the park for another day of peace.

On a Himalayan Pilgrimage

Leaving Kanpur was not easy. And it wasn't because we had gotten used to the air-conditioning and the cable television in our hotel room. We had simply gotten used to spending every day with Jitendra's family and it seemed painful to be saying goodbye. We were now affectionately known as Emilie Bhabi and Yann Bhaya (older sister and older brother) by Jitendra's cousins. We had been so lovingly welcomed by everyone and we got a small glimpse of the closeness of an Indian family.

We were also parting ways with James and Antonia, albeit only for a few weeks. Being their first time in India there were a few “must-sees” that we all agreed they shouldn't miss. But we would wait for them in the coolness of the Himalayas. We decided to head up to the state of Uttarakhand, the location of the Himalayan Char Dam, an important Hindu pilgrimage circuit covering four temples.

One of the main jump off points for the Char Dam is Haridwar, actually one of Hinduism's most sacred cities. The sacred Ganges river enters the North Indian plains for the first time from its origin in the Himalayan glaciers. According to Hindu scripture, Haridwar is one of four places where a drop of the elixir of immortality was accidentally dropped. We only had a day there, which was marred by the fact that I had been stung by an insect in the overnight train and had one eye completely swollen shut. Yann was his usual unsympathetic self and didn't seem to be as concerned as I was about the possibility that I might go blind. It was actually quite painful, especially trying to pry the the contact lens out of my eye. But the worst part was navigating through the hectic streets of Haridwar half blind. Yann did a good job of pulling me around for the morning until the anti-histamines kicked in. In the afternoon, we took the popular cable car trip to the Mansa Devi Temple which was crowded and confusing (The Goddess Mansa Devi is said to grand the wishes of her devotees, which might be an explanation for the the temple's popularity). We just followed the crowd and did what everyone else was doing. When we were in Haridwar, it was the tail end of the pilgrimage season and thousands of mostly young men, covered wearing head-to-toe orange scoured the city. Many of these pilgrims were walking to and from Haridwar from in order to carry back sacred water from the Ganges back to their home villages. They are known as kanwarias, named for the kanwar, the pole that they balance on their shoulders with water jugs hanging on each end. The orange colour represents the God Shiva and the Ganges water will be used to honour Shiva in their home villages. Apparently, at the busiest time of the pilgrimage season, entire swaths of highway are closed off to accommodate the crowds of kanwarias heading to Haridwar. With the rainy season fast approaching, the mountain roads leading to the four Char Dam temples would soon become too treacherous for the buses, so the number of pilgrims seemed to be manageable for the city. Although most tour bus companies offered a 4-day/4-temple Char Dam package, containing some ungodly amount of time on a bus. We decided to focus on only one of the four sacred temples. We picked Badrinath because it seemed to be the most accessible by road, and because the national park a few hours away was actually our main destination. We were able to book a direct bus to Badrinath for the next morning at 5:30am, we had no problem getting seats for the 14-hour trip.

We have taken hundreds of bus trips, and it seems like every one of them is worse than the one before. This ride was no exception, in fact it this one seemed to surpass any of the trips in our recent memory as the most uncomfortable, the most unpleasant and the most dangerous. Although the road winding up and down the mountain is in relatively good condition, what makes it dangerous is the sheer volume of traffic plying the route. Buses speed and pass each other on perilous switchbacks, the one highway leads to the four Hindu holy sites and a Sikh holy site. In terms of comfort, clearly every single seat in the bus had been ripped out and been replaced with tiny ones so as to cram more people in it. Our knees were completely up against the seats in front of us, which seemed ok for the first few hours, but grew more and more awful as the ride continued. When we finally arrived in Badrinath it was already night. We were happy to be alive, but we were even more happy that it was so cold that we needed to pull out our sweaters. It was the first time we had needed to wear them since arriving in Asia. We were so delighted with the weather that we decided to stay for three days. Badrinath itself is a mainly seasonal town. In the winter the road is too perilous to travel and the weather too cold. Hotels and restaurants are open only for the summer pilgrimmage season, only a few villagers remain nearby for the winter. The atmosphere in town is festive with hundreds of saddhus living in the surrounding hills for the summer months and the colourful Badrinath Temple itself (for which the town is named) is overflowing with visitors. We were a big hit at the temple entrance where everyone wanted us to join into their family photos. We spend almost a full day walking into the mountains surrounding Badrinath. Various trails criss-cross the hills and lead to holy caves or worshipping places. We followed a trail that lead us to a small tea shop where we met two sadhhus (wandering Hindu holy men). One of them had a huge walkman that played tapes, he carried two small bags with him, one was entirely filled with tapes. He insisted on having us listen to one of his tapes to prove to us that he only listened to Hindu music. "No Bollywood... no Salman Khan ...!" Another saddhu at the tea shop seemed to be interested in us as well and hovered around us as we set up to keep trekking up the hill. Sensing a request for money we tried to go on alone but we had picked up a new friend and the three of us left together. We wandered along together and everytime we crossed other pilgrims he would make his plea for money. It seemed that he believed that our presence might be increasing the quantity and quality of alms he was receiving and he became increasingly cheerful as we walked up through the mountains. We crossed dozens of pilgrims who keenly inquired about us and requested photos with us. People were incredibly friendly and excited. At some point we decided to head back to town, and the saddhu accompanying us asked for a gift. He didn't want money, he wanted a gift. Luckily I had a bag full of Canadian flag pins and I handed one over. He was quite convinced that it was an earring and despite my attempts to dissuade him, poked one through his ear then asked for another one. In exchange he gave me his Krishna pin. actually he emptied both of his pockets and tried to give us everything he had in them, including his bag of hash. We left with only the pin. The next day we walked to Mana village, the last Indian settlement on the road heading to Tibet. The village was truly lovely albeit slightly overrun with visitors passing through from Badrinath (such as ourselves). The villagers didn't speak much English, nor did they speak much Hindi, and the older women dressed in brown wrap-like coats, adorned with jewelry carved from bone, reminiscent of their Tibetan neighbours. We were an easy 3km away from Badrinath, but we were in a completely new setting, the pace had slowed to a near standstill. Women sat around together knitting hand-spun wool, the village is known for its knitwear, but the wool was so rough, we couldn't bring ourselves to purchase anything (and actually everything also happened to be hideously ugly). While village men sat in their porter's baskets waiting to carry visitors up steep mountain paths (not looking particularly interested in nabbing any customers though). It took about 20 minutes to get a chai because the tea shop owner didn't want to interrupt his card game. It seemed as though the higher the altitude, the slower things moved, which made us perfectly happy.

Lucie Weds Jitendra


The Bharat Nikasi is the groom's wedding procession towards the wedding hall. As guests of the groom, the four of us were instructed to join in the parade. As foreign guests with little Indian wedding experience we had been clothed by Jitendra and his family members. James and Yann had on their 3-piece embroidered and beaded Indian suits. Antonia and I had were wearing rented lehangas (a long beaded skirt with matching shawl and a mid-drift bearing top). We were also wearing about 5 pounds each of rented jewelry. By the time the procession began, it was already dark. But we were surrounded by portable chandeliers being carried alongside us, plugged in to a generator being wheeled along with them. An ornate portable stage held a brass band and a singer and drove ahead of us. At the very end of the procession was Jitendra, still in the car that had driven him away from the temple hours earlier. We paraded for at least half an hour until we finally arrived in front of the hotel where the other guests awaited. Including Lucie's family members who were charged with pulling Jitendra out of the car. We had plugged up most of the traffic on Kanpur's main road, but we didn't notice because we were focusing on our dancing. Jitendra's uncles and male cousins were the most rowdy and led the way, while most of the women walked at the tail end of the parade. If the amount we had perspired was any indication of our dancing skills, then we had done a good job representing Jitendra.

JAIMALA (Garland Ceremony)

While the guests waited in the large hall for the bride and groom to appear a huge buffet of snack food is served. Among them, the ultimate in culinary perfection: Indian Chinese food. This had become our favourite treat since being introduced to the popular Kanpur restaurant "Talk of the Town", specializing in this amazing Indian take on Chinese food. Some of the dishes we savored were Veg Manchurian and Chili Paneer which, if their were Chinese equivalents (which there aren't) might be known as fried noodles with tofu and General Tao's cheese. While we pigged out, poor Lucie waited upstairs in a hotel room awaiting instructions. Jitendra had been formally invited into the wedding hall by Lucie's oldest brother. He sat waiting on stage as the well-fed crowd of family and friends started jockeying for position to be the first to get a glimpse of Lucie when she entered. Lucie's entrance was brilliant! Many of the younger male family members had continued outdoor procession onto the fluorescent tiled dance floor. They danced in the background to the classic "Tomber la Chemise" by French group Zebda as Lucie made her appearance alongside her bridesmaids. When they appeared at the entrance to the hall way all the guests stood up and rushed towards them cheering and taking photos. If ever there was a photo perfectly capturing a moment, it has to be the one below: Once Lucie arrives on stage, she and Jitendra exchange fresh flower garlands in a ceremony called Jaimala. They then spend the next few hours posing for photos on stage with every single wedding guest. For most of the attendees, once they have been snapped with the bride and groom their duties as guest are complete. They finish the evening with dinner served in a separate hall. The close friends and family members are the last to be photographed and the last to eat (they just stay on the dance floor waiting their turn). We had dinner in the last shift, at about midnight. An elaborate feast served by attentive waiters who never let our plate stay empty. We do not appear to have any photos of the dinner, we were too busy eating.

CHAADI (Traditional Vedic Marriage Ceremony)

After dinner, we returned to the main wedding hall where a four-pillared canopy called a mandap had been set up to under which the religious ceremony would take place. The ceremony would last about 5 hours, and we didn't begin until after midnight. We had been instructed to change into comfortable clothes and matresses had been set up around the mandap. Jitendra had informed us that having a nap during the ceremony was perfectly acceptable. Waiters had also been instructed to keep the espresso machines up and running. We watched the ceremony as intently as possible and I summarize its main aspects below, not because I was clever enough to note them at the time but because Lucie was good enough to do it for us.

Durga Janu:
A white chord is placed around the groom's chest by male family members. The white chord is a symbol that the groom has attained the maturity to marry. Chadhawa:
The bride receives clothing, gold and jewelry that she will wear upon entering the groom's home. Kanyadan:
Kanyadan is the union of the two families. This union is symbolised by a paste made of flour and water. At this point in the ceremony the bride's parents confirm the confidence that they have in their future son-in-law. Vivan Havan:
Small offerings are thrown into the holy fire called the Havan and the bride and groom say prayers to various gods. Saptapadi:
Seven vows are taken in front of the sacred fire, they are thus considered to be unbreakable. At each vow, the bride and groom circumambulate the fire. There seem to be many different versions of the seven vows, in Lucie and Jitendra's case, Jitendra made 6 promises to Lucie and Lucie one promise to Jitendra. Sindur Daan:
The groom applies red vermilion powder along the part of the bride's hair. Red is a colour worn only by married women in India and supposedly brings good health. Bichiya:
The bride receives silver rings on all five of her toes (Bichiya is the word for toe ring). The wife an older brother or cousin of the bride is the one to place the rings on her toys.


Exchange of Wedding Bands:
Lucie and Jitendra exchanged wedding bands and even had a best man (James) and maid of honour to present them. No kissing on the lips though. Wedding Cake:
A multi-tiered cake with icing flowers flown in from Mumbai was served at the end of the night. The Indian twist is that the bride and groom feed each of their guests individually! First Dance:
Lucie and Jitendra showed off their lessons with a swing dance (minimal closeness between bride and groom). By the time they hit the dance floor it was about 6am, its amazing that they were able to even keep their eyes open. Despite Yann's pleas to continue dancing, the guests finally started to leave a little bit past sunset. We had been celebrating for close to 24 hours. As we left, Jitendra gave us instructions to be ready for the afternoon ceremonies!


That the wedding wasn't actually over was news to us, but not entirely a surprise. Every day since we had arrived in Kanpur there was something wedding-related to do. The first ceremony was to begin shortly after we left the wedding, but Jitendra kindly "forgot" to call the hotel to wake us up.

On the Banks of the Ganga:
In the afternoon, cars were ready at the hotel to escort us to a small village along the Ganga River, not far outside the city. Here, more prayers and blessings were recited with the help of a priest hired on site, one of many priests stationed along the banks of the river waiting for customers. Among many rituals, Jitendra tossed his tinsel wedding hat into the river. The Center of the World:
Lucie and Jitendra were blessed by the priest guarding the "Centre of the World". Apparently located right there in the village! Shirdi Sai Baba Temple: Sai Baba of Shirdi is a (now deceased) much revered Indian guru. We visited a temple dedicated to his teachings right outside Kanpur in order to have the new couple blessed. Lucie and Jitendra, as well as all the guests were given offerings of a yellow stole and a coconut. Puja and Decoration of the Matrimonial Bed:
A small puja was held at the Bajpai residence in order to welcome Lucie in to the home. The evening's last event was to decorate the matrimonial bedroom. Actually, Jitendra's mother arranged to have it decorated. Thousands of fresh flowers were strung together and draped from the bed frame and pink flower petals were scattered on the bed itself. Other than the fact it was being supervised by her mother-in-law I can't imagine that Lucie could hope for anything more delightful. After a week in Kanpur, the wedding had finally come to an end.