The Kali Gandaki river is one of the main sources of water in Nepal and is also a tributary to Ganga when it joins the latter in Bihar in India. The river, also called Narayani, has been mentioned in many puranas. But in India, one is most likely to have heard of the name Gandaki with reference to Shaligrams. Shaligrams, which when scientifically defined are but fossilised stones and remains from a million years ago, are worshipped as the very representation of Vishnu and considered highly sacred and revered by Vaishnavaites. They are to be found only in the Kali Gandaki river, specifically where the Gandaki is accessible at Kagbeni and further upstream in the forbidden kingdom of Upper Mustang (where the other sacred place of Damodar Kund is also present along with thousands of years old cave temples and palace/forts of kings of yesteryears). The Gandaki is supposed to originate from a glacier at the outer borders of Upper Mustang where the Himalayas lead to the Tibet. Some even speculate that the great Manasarovar at Tibet may be one of the sources of the river. And the Shaligrams themselves originate somewhere near Damodar Kund and get washed downstream. I also heard from a trekker I met at Ekalabhatti (where we stopped for lunch on way up to Kagbeni) that Shaligrams are found in abundance near Yara, another place at Upper Mustang. Well, tempting though it is to imagine going there, the permit required to go to Upper Mustang costs about 500 USD per person and involves getting permission from the immigration department as well. And it's tough terrain, very tough that requires at least 5-6 porters to accompany a troupe to carry tents, cooking essentials, etc. So perhaps another year in the future!
Coming back to Shaligrams, there's a nice story or Purana on how they came about and what they mean - do check it out on Google. And while at that, do read about the River too - I find it extremely fascinating.
My early growing years have been witness to the worship of Shaligrams almost everyday by my grandfather. A very pious and religious man, he never skipped a single day to take care of the Shaligrams (which he had got by himself when he went to the Nepal yatra in early 1980's; am not sure if he already had some through inheritance from his father) - he took care of them as if they were a living breathing mini incarnation of the very God he worshipped. His morning rituals started with an elaborate procedure (after bath) of wearing the 12 thirumans across his body including the forehead while repeating mantras and the 24 names of Vishnu followed by Sandhyavandanam (recitation of Gayatri Mantra) and Surya Namaskaram. He then entered the Kitchen (which is where we almost always had our place of worship at home) and started his daily Pooja to the Shaligrams - with an offering of Tulasi water and a complex ritualistic bathing of the Shaligrams. Unfortunately I never observed what he did exactly. I just remember his fast hand movements and lip movements as he lost himself in the worship/procedure. During this entire time (perhaps of about 45 to 60 minutes), one must never disturb him or even touch or brush against him. Even if one were to do so by accident, I remember days when he used to take bath again and repeat the entire procedure! The worship ended when he came out of the room and gave us the prasad of Tulasi water which has been offered to Shaligrams (i.e. Only if one has taken bath). One could then breath easy and start making noises, run around the house, climb over her grandpa, pull his ears, tickle his tummy and make all kind of merry. Till then, one must remain a silent and quiet child. I guess I was to most extent :)
Well, the past few months, especially the weeks ahead of my trip, I have been constantly thinking of the Kali Gandaki and her gifts of Shaligrams. I have been imagining myself by her side, looking for the mini incarnations of Vishnu myself - as in a far off corner of mind, I feel they will bring me closer to my grandfather. Well that's another direction I don't want to go to now. However, suffice it to say that it is something that I consider very dear though I know not how to take care of the Shaligrams by myself. One can learn though, yes? But then one must find them first at Gandaki! And today it came to be.
Here, take a look at the short video I shot during the three or so odd hours that I spent on the Gandaki bed at Kagbeni. As she rushed past fast and furious, mysterious of her depths owing to the dark grey/black color, I spent what I think will be one of the most memorable time of my life. Loads of excitement, a bit of fear, fast blowing wind, and an one track mind to spot the dark black stones amidst the million strewn on the bed....indeed makes for the best time of one life :)