Garhwal, boasting the four sources of the Ganges River in northern India, must qualify as one of the most sacred stretches of land in the world, and novelist Stephen Alter transports us there in his travelogue Sacred Waters.
Countless pilgrims make the same trip every year, but whereas they now travel by bus, Alter does it the old-fashioned way, trekking to each of the headwaters on foot. Since this is also Alter's birthplace and childhood stomping grounds, we couldn't ask for a better guide. He knows each species of plant, bird, and beast by name and tells the grand tales of Hindu mythology associated with the ancient terrain. Fluent in the local languages, he also makes us privy to his chats with pot-smoking sadhus, greedy Brahmins, simple nomads, and pilgrims that he meets along the way.
Although Alter has the tendency to slip into the emotionless detachment of a journalist in his descriptions, there remains enough wonder at the power of the natural landscape and color in the fantastic myths to make Sacred Waters a trek worth taking.
Review from Publishers Weekly:
In his latest travel memoir, Alter (Amritsar to Lahore) tracks the inexorable path of "progress" and various human responses to it. Progress is embodied in the roads and new dams that exist where before there were only footpaths for Hindus traveling to the "four main sources of the Ganga a journey known as the Char Dham Yatra."
The once arduous mountain pilgrimage used to take devout Hindus up to four months, but now, in public buses or air-conditioned coaches, it might take a couple of weeks. Alter begins his journey on foot, traveling through the Himalayas, in whose foothills he was born. Seeing himself not as a mountaineer but as a pilgrim who "becomes one with this terrain," undertaking "tapasya," Hindu for surviving on "whatever the forest provides," Alter, writer-in-residence at MIT, describes political, socioeconomic and ecological changes in the terrain and people he encounters. One man calls a series of dams in Tehri "temples of the future," while another describes the same as "sacrilege, modern technology obstructing the inexorable current of a holy river." Well-versed in Hindu mythology, Alter (an atheist, himself) infuses the book with spiritual tales.
It was the author's goal to evoke a fast disappearing way of life and topography, to show spiritual interests eclipsed by material ones. With vivid descriptions of the many people, villages, dharamshalas, shrines, ashrams and Indian customs so foreign and seemingly inaccessible to most Westerners, Alter achieves this end, portraying a landscape before it is effectively trampled by what is called "progress."