At 3,000-odd metres above sea level, Kheerganga is the site of a natural hot spring deep in the Parvati Valley of Himachal Pradesh. The Parvati is a short but incredibly vigorous river that feeds into the Beas near Kullu’s Bhuntar Airport.
The Kheerganga myth is a skein of many colours: some say this where Lord Shiva meditated for 3,000 years; others say it was his son Kartikeya who meditated and the spring emerged when the Lord struck the ground with his trident to command the forest and its denizens into silence for his child; residents of the nearest villages believe the spring is the kheer Parvati made for her son, presumably to feed him after his millennia-long samadhi. A local guide said that generations ago, people from his village would come and take away the kheer—delicious as well as divine—by the bucket. Asked what kheer it was, he was taken aback for only for a moment before saying ‘chawal ki kheer’.
The white sulphur that the hot spring carries must be getting added somewhere near the source, thus making the water look like hot kheer there. Or even if the sulphur comes from deeper down, it may have been reduced to more or less uniform granules by natural processes at the point of origin. The kheer cannot have been edible in any case. But such is the power of myth.
The water that emerges at Kheerganga spring is milky. In any case, visitors are not permitted to go to the source of the spring, which is somewhere in a cleft of the forested mountain wall that provides a dramatic backdrop to Shiva temple here. Even if they were, the climb is daunting enough to put off all but the craziest.
The trek to Kheerganga is about 10 km long. It starts from the upstream side of a dam under construction at the mountain town of Bershaini. To get to Bershaini one has to go to Kasol first, perhaps the only town outside Israel where Israeli backpackers outnumber the natives. The road to Kasol is just about a decade old, with one branch taking off roughly halfway from Bhuntar in the direction of the ancient Greek village of Malana, where the children have blond hair and green eyes and must marry within the village to retain their pure bloodline.
Malana, reachable after a short but hard walk from yet another dam project at a place called Jari, is the epicentre of the greatest cannabis growth in the world. This is where the Malana Cream that features so prominently on Amsterdam cafe menus comes from. It’s the Lord’s plant, Shankar ji ki booti, and the valley belongs to the Lord’s wife. So there. It all makes perfect sense, but nowadays, sadly only in dollars, euros and shekels. From being the localised stuff of a socially endured habit, Parvati Valley has gone international, and a deadly drug mafia is now entrenched in this otherwise peaceful part of the Indian Himalayas.
Back to Bershaini, reached by a 45-minute bus ride from Kasol. The preferred mode of tourist travel is on the roof of a bus, holding on to the bars of its luggage carrier as it bucks and barrels up the steep road. The valley is supremely beautiful; the Parvati storming ceaselessly through pine-draped mountains that have very little human habitation.
From Bershaini, one descends to the Tosh Nullah on the other side of the dam. The Tosh Nullah is best described as fearsome, such is the ferocity of the water that comes down like some CGI-crafted special effect from a science fiction movie. A narrow cement bridge crosses the nullah, and a short, sharp climb gives way to an undulating walk through pristine Himalayan terrain, all along the right bank of the Parvati. Midway is the waterfall—Rudra Nag, the scooped rock terminus of a long and near-vertical rivulet from where the water leaps up much like the cobra’s hood.
Just after Rudra Nag, one has to cross the Parvati at its narrowest, across a bamboo bridge resplendent with slippery moss. And no handrail. Looking upstream from the middle of the bridge, the river is at eye level only 100 yards away. It’s a wall of frothing water coming at you with a sound that fills the valley as well as every corner of your consciousness. Crossing this 50-foot bridge is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and one learns that the heart can be accommodated in the mouth for short periods without any adverse effect.
It’s a stiff climb along a rocky path then through dense Himalayan forest to the mountaintop meadow of Kheerganga. The hillside is alive with little waterfalls and streams at every turn. The temple sits at one end of the meadow, which is hemmed in by mountains all around.
The hot spring has been channelled through a man-made tank just below the temple, and soaking in the hot water removes every trace of exhaustion in a matter of minutes. The bearably hot water doesn’t dry the skin; it leaves one moisturised.
It’s so quiet at Kheerganga that ordinary eardrums zing in protest. But as night falls, it becomes easier to understand why this Himalayan amphitheatre where trillions of stars are a hand-length away was chosen by Lord Shiva’s son as a meditation spot, and why the valley is named for his mother.