Harsil – a mystical gateway to other world

Harsil is a land of mystique. Although it still doesn’t have that tourist rush but it has already collected many adjectives, more than many other places in the region. It is often dubbed as mini Switzerland of India. But it indeed is more than that. It is surely one of the most beautiful places in whole of Uttarakhand, but it is actually a gateway to something more beautiful than what we see at Harsil. It opens to some uncharted territories, yet to be explored- some spiritual and some natural.

View through the Harsil valley

I had heard and read lot about Harsil. But never had been able to go towards Gangotri valley, until in summers this year riding the first ever Bloggers Bus of Uttarakhand Tourism. It could have seemed like a mission accomplished but actually it left me wanting for more. Its not a place to be seen in hurry, but it is a place where you need to come to spend some time to relax your mind and body, to detox yourself.

View of Himalayan peaks fro Harsil

When Raj Kapoor got hooked to Harsil

It actually seems strange that Harsil remained relatively unknown and unspoiled even after all the eyes it was able to capture in legendary Raj Kapoor’s superhit film Ram Teri Ganga Maili (राम तेरी गंगा मैली). Perhaps Raj Kapoor has earlier visited this place and he was so mesmerised that he decided to shoot his next film here. Film was extensively shot in Bagori and Harsil (हर्षिल) and there are a few spots around that got there name as well as fame for some famous scenes of the film, such as Mandakini Falls. To a lay man, Mandakini Falls would have got its name because of river Ganges, which is also known as Mandakini, and Harsil is in Gangotri valley. But this waterfall is named after the iconic bathing scene of the lead actress Mandakini in the film.

Harsil post office that got featured in Ram Teri Ganga Maili

Even the Harsil post office got a fair deal of exposure on silver screen as Mandakini will be regularly going there to enquire whether there is any letter in her name. You can find many posts on social media of travellers posing in the front of that post office. But interestingly you don’t find many authentic pic of Mandakini falls. 

Beauty of all seasons

View from GMVN TRH at Harsil. You can see the helicopter flying

Nevertheless, nothing can undermine the beauty of this tiny hamlet which has go different charm for different seasons. Winters are pretty white here, its so cold and taxing that you will hardly find anybody here in the village. But those who are courageous enough to brave the cold and rich there in winters vouch for its unparalleled beauty. But than you have to face the dreadful situation of being all alone to manage yourself. But actually, we found out that the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) Tourist Rest House at Harsil remains functional even in the harsh winters. So, you can find solace here.

Unspoiled beauty of Harsil

A Britisher who turned king here

Credit of bringing Harsil to fore actually goes to Frederik E Wilson who was supposedly a sepoy in East India Company. It is said that after the mutiny of 1857, he deserted Company and settled in Harsil. In some accounts it is said that he left Army even earlier in 1841 at the time of the First Afghan war. He is said to have spent some time in Mussoorie before moving further up and following the course of the Ganges, till he reached Harsil. He is said to have introduced apple seed, potatoes and green bean to this region. You can still find apple orchards everywhere in the region. There is said to be a local apple variety in his name. He also cashed on abundance of Deodar trees here. Wilson sold the Deodar logs to Britishers who turned them into sleepers for expansion of railways in India. It is said that he brought richness for the local people of Taknaur valley. But he was also fond of hunting and it is claimed that he alone was responsible for introducing large scale hunting in the region and make money out of it. He will trade in fur, skin and bones. He married a local girl (Gulabi as per some stories) from village Mukhba. Mukhba is the winter abode of goddess Ganges and is just a few kilometres from Harsil. 

Wilson cottage at Harsil as it was before getting burnt

There are numerous stories, folklores, legends about Wilson, his struggles, his skills, his richness, his love & hate story with rulers of Tehri-Garhwal and hostilities that he later developed, incurring even a curse from local deities. That apart, locally he was also referred to as Raja Wilson or Pahadi Wilson. Wilson had constructed a huge mansion for himself at Harsil. It was known as Wilson cottage. It was built in 1864. It remained an attraction for visitors until decades after his death. But the cottage got burnt in a fire sometime back. The place is now under the forest department, which has built a Forest rest house here. 

What now we see in place of Wilson cottage
Lama Tekri. Wilson cottage was built right on the base of this hill.

Away from spoils

Harsil is now a cantonment town. Way back in May 1973 a detachment of the Defence Agricultural Research Laboratory run by DRDO was established here. It is also a base for army unit. Currently a battalion of Mahar Regiment is stationed here. Proximity to China border has made it strategically very important place. Being a cantonment area, it is governed by cantonment board rules. Hence Harsil has been prevented from being turning into a mess of regular hill stations. This is the place where valley has bit widened up, which makes it favourable location. It also has a helipad nearby on the way to Dharali. This helipad is used for helicopter services for Chardham Yatra. Due to being a border area, earlier foreigners were not allowed to stay overnight here. Even Indian tourists needed a permit to visit he area. These curbs were placed immediately after the 1962 China war. But last year all these restrictions were lifted. No permits needed and even foreigners can stay overnight at Harsil.

Vishnuganga flowing down towards Bhagirathi

The legend of Hari Shila

Harsil or Harshil, as it is pronounced in Hindi is also a mythological town. It is also said to have a confluence of three rivers- Bhagirathi (Ganges coming from Gangotri), Vishnuganga and Jalandhari. Hence it is said to have a similar religious importance as of sangam. Harsil derives its name from two words- Hari (हरि means Lord) and shila (शिला meaning rock). It is said that here Lord Vishnu is in rock form in the river. He became rock because of a curse of the wife of a local demon king Jalandhar.

Jalandhari river coming down from Tankaur valley

Actually there are many mythological stories about Jalandhar. Most common one is his being a son of Lord Shiva and then becoming so powerful that Gods started fearing him. Only way to kill him was to weaken him by making his wife submitting to somebody else since his biggest strength was chastity of his wife Vrinda. To play a trick, Lord Vishnu disguised himself as Jalandhar and reached in front of his wife. She believed him to be her husband and lost her chastity. When resultantly Jalandhar was killed and his wife came to know of the truth, she cursed Lord Vishnu to turn into a rock. That happened here at Harsil and hence it got its name. Harsil also has a Laxmi Narayan temple built in 1818 at the banks of the Bhagirathi river.

Laxmi narayan temple at Harsil
Blackish rock in the centre is the one known as Hari Shila

Gateway to Kinnaur

But to me, Harsil is more importantly a gateway to another beautiful world which is largely unexplored. Harsil is actually an important transit point. Along the Jalandhari river goes a trek to Kinnaur via Kyarkoti in Tankaur valley. This trek goes to Chitkul in Kinnaur, which is last village in the Baspa valley. This is said to be the classic route from Gangotri to Kinnaur, which was reportedly first crossed by Marco Pallis in 1933. This is said to be one of the most remote areas of Uttarakhand and arguably one of the most beautiful as well. One has to cross Lamkhaga Pass (5282 metres) to go to the either side. Actually, there are routes connecting both the Yamunotri valley as well as Gangotri valley to Kinnaur. Another trekking route from Chitkul via Borasu Pass (5360 metres) takes to Har-Ki-Dun valley and Sankri. Or you can trek further till Yamunotri from Har-Ki-Dun via Ruinsara Tal and Bali Pass (4900 metres). Well, though feeling tempted to write more about that, will do it sometime later. 

Route that goes towards Kyarkoti
Views from Kyarkoti. Photo credit: anvancy.com

An unending charisma 

While coming from Uttarkashi as soon as we turn towards Bhagirathi valley from Jhala-Purali (where Sian Gad meets Bhagirathi river), we feel like entering into a new world. Going back is always tough as you feel like leaving a part of you here. But that perhaps is the motivation to be back, so shall be.

View on way to Sukki Top

Attractions close by

Apart from treks, Harsil can also be base for all excursions around, and there are plenty to keep you busy for long. Harsil itself is located at an altitude of 2620 metres, higher than many other popular hill stations of Uttarakhand and Himachal.

Gangotri: Source to river Ganges is just 20 kilometres from here. So even if Gangotri is important part of itinerary, you can plan it as a day visit from Harsil.

Jag Ganga gorge in Nelong valley. Photo credit: Pallavi Sharma Duffy

Nelong: Nelong valley is 30 kilometres from Harsil towards the Tibbet border. It was a prohibited area until sometime back. But now tourists can visit this amazing valley after taking due permission from (Uttarkashi) district administration. That can also be planned as a day visit from Harsil.

Mukhba: This is just a kilometre or so from Harsil. You can even walk down to this village. This is winter abode of Ganges and every year when the Gangotri temple is closed, the idol of Ganges is brought down in a procession at Ganges temple in Mukhba, only to be taken again in similar procession in next summer.

Ganga temple at Mukhba

Sat Taal: A chain of seven unexplored lakes just five kilometres from Dharali at altitudes raging from 9000 to 10,000 feet. A beautiful half day trek can be done to these lakes and come back. Each lake has a story. (Read: Exploring the unexplored Sat taal near Harsil)

Kyarkoti: Even if you don’t go for the trek to Chitkul, you can go on a short trek upto Kyarkoti lake which is just 14 kms from Harsil. Have a night camp in the lap of majestic Himalayan ranges around and come back to Harsil the next day. It would be a great adventure.

trekking route to Kyarkoti. Photo credit: anvancy.com

This autumn, Harsil can be your dream destination. What are you waiting for!

Have you ever been to Harsil? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

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