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