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A tale of two rivers
The Indus behaved like a beautiful woman who knew that her good looks gave her the licence to change moods at will, while the Ganga changed from maiden to ma.
Up in the mountains they were playful young maidens who frolicked across the landscape with a sense of abandon and constantly threatened to tip our frisky rubber dinghy into their ample embrace. Yet the two great Indian rivers - the Indus and the Ganga - were so very unlike each other in almost every way.
The playground of the Indus is the stark high-altitude desert of Ladakh;the Ganga's backdrop is the thickly forested foothills of the Himalayas in Uttaranchal.
Indeed, the Indus seemed a little grim at first as she sliced through a bleak mountainous landscape. The driver of the vehicle ferrying us to the 'point in' of our river rafting adventure pulled up on the kerb of the road that overlooked the sangam of the
Indus and Zanskar. The two rivers initially refused to surrender their identity, bands of waters in two distinct shades flowing together before they merged into one. As we gazed at the monochrome land below us, it started to bristle with subtle hues, colours and textures: reds, yellows, bluishblacks, whites, rocks like liberal smudges of pigment, slopes caressed with brushstrokes of powdered sand.
Kitted out in wetsuits and helmets, we climbed into inflated boats waiting for us upstream. After being briefed about the safety routine, we pushed off onto the silvery-grey waters of the glacier-fed river. Soon we were the relief - adventurers in bobbing rubber rafts - in this vast and desolate canvas of ever-changing moods. The Indus welcomed us with a rollicking ride right away, as around the first bend, we found ourselves careening down the mouth of a frothing rapid. We paddled hard as we rode the torrent like cowboys in a wild and wet rodeo show. At times, the tempestuous waters hurled our dingy into the air and our paddles stroked empty space instead of stabbing molten water.
Beyond the rapids, the river showed us her gentler side and wooed us into a false sense of security. It was time to relax and marvel at nature's handiwork as we floated down an avenue lined with craggy snow-streaked mountain peaks, clawing at a deep blue sky.
A patch of startling green, wedged in the folds of a barren valley downstream, took us by surprise: cultivation on a river bank. But isn't that a given? Yes, Ladakh, the womb of the Indus, has a desolate beauty.
And then we heard the rumbling of an angry rapid ahead of us. We steeled ourselves as we set off to do battle with the swirling white water once more. Flirting with danger had become addictive. Yes, over a stretch of seven kilometres, the Indus behaved like a beautiful woman who knew that her good looks gave her the licence to switch moods at will: loving one moment and temperamental the next.
The Ganga was equally unpredictable. She, however, wielded her beauty far more blatantly. Subtlety was not her style. Her canvas, spread across the foothills of the Himalayas, was a riot of colours: slopes swathed in every imaginable shade of green vegetation, bare-faced cliffs which seemed to rake the blue sky and golden river beaches dotted with tented camps. Indeed, one of these canvas resorts, snuggled in a cove of rugged hills, would be our base for the rafting adventure. To reach it, we had to cross a suspension bridge that arched across the jade-green waters.
And she planted us with a welcoming kiss - a liberal splash of icy water - as our inflated rubber raft hurtled towards a frothing rapid. Then she lifted our boat in a surging current and hurled it in the air and for a brief moment, we were suspended in heart-stopping eternity. Screams of delighted panic mingled with the roar of the river.
Yes, we were on nature's own roller coaster where seat belts were replaced with life jackets, helmets... and pre-launch instructions. "Do not remove your life jacket and helmets under any circumstances. If you should fall over, float on your back till you reach the shore or till you are picked up by one of the other rafts. The important thing to remember at all times: don't panic !" Our rafting guide did not believe in pulling his punches. Over a stretch of 8 km, we sliced through spectacular gorges and torpedoed through a series of angry rapids.
The first strains of the evening chorus of insects welcomed us as we returned to our eco-friendly resort. With dusk, hurried on by a thin veil of mist, a peaceful calm settled on the camp. The setting: the warm glow of a bonfire on the banks of a river surrounded by mountains draped in virgin forest was sheer magic. An aspiring poet drifted off to jot down his outpouring of shairies. Others sang old lilting Hindi film songs that joined the murmur of the river and the amorous calls of insects.
Gently, we drifted off, with only the canvas separating us from a million stars and a crescent moon.
We awoke the next day, eager to take on the river once more and whatever it had to throw at us. But first, we drove to the pilgrim town of Devprayag where the two rivers Bhagirathi and Alaknanda merged, reluctantly at first as they retained their identities, to become the Ganga.
At the fag end of the second leg of our rafting adventure, we floated into the holy town of Rishikesh. Spires of temples soared up to the heavens as we glided past the innumerable shrines and ashrams that lined the banks. Pilgrims splashed around in the shallow waters;sadhus spread out orange robes on the rocks to dry;the gentle peal of temple bells wafted across the water.
That evening we attended a Ganga aarti at one of the ashrams along the river bank. We sat in a sea of devotees;eyes shut, lips moving in prayer, each one tuned into his or her spiritual frequency. Instant India. Instant nirvana. The playful and mischievous Ganga who delighted in splashing us with holy water in the mountains had donned a brand new avatar - of Ma Ganga - now that she was about to enter the plains and bless them with her bounty.
AT A GLANCE
How to Reach | There are a number flights from Delhi to Leh. Leh is accessible by road from Srinagar (434 km) and Manali (474 km). Travel Advisory | Leh is located at 11, 500 ft and it is important to rest for the first 24 hours so as to avoid altitude sickness. Where to Stay | Leh has a range of accommodation from clean guest houses to four-star hotels. For more information visit J&K Tourism at: www. jktourism. org
How to Reach |Rishikesh is well connected by rail and road with the rest of the country. The most convenient airport is at Delhi. Where to Stay |The temple town has a number of hotels, lodges and ashrams. Rafting camps are located on river beaches upstream. For more information visit Uttarakhand Tourism at: www. uttaranchaltourism. in
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