Long before Sikhs began coming to Hemkunt, the lake was known to the people who lived in the nearby valleys as a place of pilgrimage. Its name was Lokpal, and its sanctity derived from its association with tales of the gods. Most notably, the god Lakshman, the younger brother of Ram, is said to have meditated or done punishmenrt at Lokpal. In a popular story told by local people and visitors alike, Lakshman was brought to the shore of Lokpal after being mortally wounded in a battle with the son of Ravana. Lakshman’s wife wept and prayed that her husband be saved. The monkey god Hanuman was then able to find a life-giving herb. When the herb was administered to Lakshman, he miraculously revived. In celebration, God showered flowers from heaven, which fell to the earth and took root in the Valley of Flowers.
Hemkunt: The Place of Guru
In the late nineteenth century, Sikhs began to search for Hemkunt: a place, high in the Himalayan mountains, which their tenth Guru alluded to in the autobiographical Bachitra Natak. The title of this work roughly translates as the ‘wonderful drama’. It is included in a compilation of writings attributed to Guru Gobind Singh, known as the Dasam Granth. In poetic language, the following story about the Guru’s previous birth is recounted in chapter six of Bachitra Natak.
He describes the place Hemkunt Parbat Sapat Sring, the “lake of ice” “mountain” adorned with “seven peaks”, as the same place where King Pandu, the forefather of the five Pandava brothers of Mahabharata fame, practiced yoga. There, the Guru did intense meditation and austerities until he merged with God. Because his earthly parents had served God, God was pleased with them and gave a commandment that the Guru to be born to them. In the world he would carry out a mission to teach the true religion and rid people of evil ways. He was reluctant to leave his state of union with the creator, but God compelled him. In this way the Guru took birth into the world. The first Sikh to pen his speculations about the nature and location of the Guru’s tap asthan was hagiographical writer Bhai Santokh Singh. In his fourteen volume Sri Gur Pratap Suraj [Prakash] Granth(originally published in 1843), Santokh Singh elaborated on the story of the Guru’s previous life as told in the above passage from the Dasam Granth.
Santokh Singh narrated a mythical tale of a powerful youth who was called into existence during Sat Yug, the ‘age of truth’ (the first of four ages according to Hindu mythology) to do battle with fierce demons that terrorized mortals and gods. When they had been destroyed, the youth, known as Dusht Daman, the ‘destroyer of evil’, was instructed to go to Hemkunt Sapatsring to meditate until he was called upon by God. Guru Gobind Singh’s own account in Bachitra Natak completes this story. After realizing his oneness with God through meditation and austere discipline, he was reborn in Kal Yug, the ‘age of darkness’, as the son of the ninth Guru and his wife. Later, after his father’s martyrdom, he became the tenth and final living Guru of the Sikhs.
In the end, a new gurdwara was built. The plans for it were made in 1964, but work could not begin until 1968 when the motorable road was extended to Gobind Ghat. The new gurdwara was designed with the image of an upside down lotus flower in mind. The roof of the structure is able to withstand the weight of heavy winter snowfall, and doors on all five sides welcome visitors from every direction and every faith. The lower storey was completed first. In a room in its centre the Guru Granth Sahib was installed beneath a brass canopy. In June of 1988 the Lakshman temple was enlarged still further with the help of the military. The upper storey of the gurdwara was completed at the end of the 1993 season, and the Guru Granth Sahib was installed in June of 1994. Work still continues at the site to improve paths and facilities. The numbers of pilgrims to Hemkunt Sahib have been steadily multiplying from the time of Hemkunt’s discovery in the 1930’s until today. In 1977, the first year for which data is available, there were 516 Sikh visitors. By 1980 there were 6,050. And by 1990 there were 189,340.