Sacred Waters

A Pilgrimage to the Many Sources of the Ganga

The watershed of the Ganga, or Ganges, lies in the central Himalayas of Garhwal. Hindu tradition identifies the sources of this river as sacred sites. Every year, millions of pilgrims travel to shrines at Yamnotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. Stephen Alter retraces the original Char Dham Yatra on foot, following ancient routes that crossed the mountains before motor roads were built. At the same time, he navigates the mythology and lore of this natural and spiritual realm, where every tributary and confluence is invested with seminal stories.


Alter’s book is a milestone in adventure writing and will lighten the path of many an armchair traveller.

Namita Gokhale, India Today

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.

Brian Bruya,

Alter invites readers to join him on a double journey, deep into the Indian subcontinent and deep into the Hindu faith. Simply as a travel chronicle, the narrative sparkles, every episode rich with sharp detail and piquant incidents….Respectful but unsentimental, Alter highlights inspiring truths recorded in Vedic scripture but also exposes the increasing commercialism of the religion. Surprisingly, the spiritual culmination of the pilgrimage comes neither in the waters of the Ganges nor in a Hindu shrine. Rather, it comes high in the Himalayas, in the Valley of Flowers, where the author finds himself enveloped in solitary but transcendent peace.

Bryce Christensen Booklist