The Ganges River, Jawaharlal Nehru once said, is the soul of India. As it wends its way from high in the Himalayas across the parched Indian heartland and into the Bay of Bengal, 1,557 miles to the east, the Ganges is a wellspring of spiritual nourishment to three-quarters of a billion Indians.

Every day they come by the hundreds of thousands, from across the subcontinent, to seek religious sustenance from their holy river. Peasants and potentates. The stout and the lame, the decrepit and the robust. In rags and bejeweled. By foot, by elephant, by ramshackle bus. To bathe in the Ganga -- as the Indians call the river -- or to drink of its holy waters is akin to attaining salvation. Indians long to die by the banks of the Ganges, to have their ashes lapped up by its current. The Ganga is the great purger of sins to the Hindu world, the purest of all waters.

Yet it is difficult for a westerner to comprehend all this reverence. The Ganges, after all, does not even rank among the world's lengthiest rivers. More than 30 others -- including two in India -- are longer. And a river that is described by Indians as eternally pure looks to visitors from the West like a filthy cesspool. Flecks of human ash and excrement can be seen floating by. Raw sewage and industrial and chemical waste pollute the Ganges. Cattle wallow in the river. Even the Indian government concedes that the Ganges has become one of the world's dirtiest waterways.

But the Hindu faithful do not see it that way. They flock to the river to reap its tangible and supernatural offerings. A Hindu writer once wrote, "The qualities of the Ganges are: coolness, sweetness, transparency, high tonic property, wholesomeness, potability, ability to remove evils, ability to resuscitate from swoon caused by dehydration, digestive property and ability to help retain wisdom."

Intrigued by these paradoxes of perception -- after living in India for more than a year -- I decided to embark on a pilgrimage of my own to the Ganges. I wanted to watch how the Indians related to their river, to get a feel for the significance it has in their lives. And I wanted to escape the sweltering, pre-monsoon heat of New Delhi.

Heading east on the river would mean encountering the popular tourist mecca of Varanasi, as well as the congestion of Calcutta, both of which sizzle in the spring heat as intensely as Delhi. So instead I chose to head north and discover the Ganges at its source -- a huge glacier 15,000 feet up in the Himalayas above the holy village of Gangotri, where the goddess Ganga is said to have descended to earth.

This region of India, about 350 miles northeast of Delhi and contiguous to the Tibetan border, is filled with Hindu pilgrimage sites and attracts millions of worshippers annually.

To reach the Gangotri Glacier, as it is called, I would have to take a train to the sacred city of Hardwar and then travel by bus another 200 miles up into the mountains, to Gangotri. From Gangotri the glacier would be about a 12-mile trek.

The trip was a long and arduous one. But it also was filled with adventures and surprises: meetings with Indian mystics and holy men; a dip in a delicious mountain hot spring; a visit to a Himalayan mountaineering school; an overnight stay in a simple but cozy mountain ashram during an unexpected Himalayan snow storm; and, throughout the trip, a steady view of the Hindu faithful, trudging up mountain roads and trails like the ancient crusaders. Ablutions in the River

The overnight train ride to Hardwar was steamy and sluggish. I went straight from the bustling railroad depot, just after dawn, to the Har Ki Pairy ghat, a series of wide, concrete steps leading down to the Ganges. Here I had my first glimpse of Hindu worshippers bathing and performing ritualistic ablutions in the river.

Thousands of people were already at the ghat, tossing flower petals and religious objects and money into the Ganges, bobbing in the water, seeking the ultimate purification. A group of Rajasthani women, clad in brilliant red saris, carried brass bowls full of holy Ganga water upon their heads. Dozens of men, squatting on the steps, were having their heads shaved. Incense was being burned. People sat in groups around pundits -- or Hindu priests. They filled bowls forged of leaves with balls of dough -- a religious offering -- and dabbed the balls with powders and dyes. The dough was then offered to the river. Sadhus -- wandering Indian holy men who looked to be the prototype of the early American hippie -- played instruments and begged. Most of them were garbed in pale orange gowns. The Indians call this color saffron, and maintain that it helps a person transcend carnal desires, unfavorable vibrations and evil thoughts.

In the river people swam playfully, splashed about, dunked their heads beneath the surface and coaxed timid relatives to immerse themselves. Men sifted the river with thatched plates, hoping to snare rupees or jewels that worshippers had sacrificed to the Ganges.

As the morning progressed, more and more worshippers arrived at the Har Ki Pairy ghat. The scene was one of subdued festiveness -- vibrant, colorful, hectic, yet not rambunctuous. It was something like a carnival, but nothing compared with what it will be like next spring when more than 5 million Hindus are expected to gather at the same ghat for the Khumba Mela, a spiritual celebration of gargantuan proportions that takes place in Hardwar every 12 years. Rituals & a Dip at Rishikesh

From Hardwar, where the Ganges bids adieu to the mountains and embarks on its serpentine course across the plains of central India, I took an hour bus ride north to Rishikesh, another important pilgrimage city bisected by the Ganges.

Rishikesh enjoyed fleeting celebrity in the West two decades ago when the Beatles settled there briefly to study meditation under the master guru of transcendental meditation, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The maharishi still has an ashram here (although he spends most of his time abroad), as well as a Transcendental Meditation Centre and Institute for Creative Intelligence.

Rishikesh still attracts hundreds of western truth seekers, as well as thousands of Indian students and practitioners of Hinduism. The banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh are lined with ashrams and temples and centers for instruction in meditation, yoga and Hinduism. Looking across the river at the far shore, I was reminded of an American beach resort. With ghats leading down to the sandy beach, the pastel painted buildings of the ashrams and people splashing about in the water, it seemed like a shabby Ocean City.

Rishikesh was incredibly hot, as I had yet to begin my ascent into the mountains. The daytime temperature stabilized at 105 degrees. It was time for my first dip in the Ganges. Downstream from the ghats, beyond eyeshot of the serious worshippers, I stripped down to shorts -- as the Indians do -- and plunged into the river. I was hoping for a catharsis, to attain some sort of spiritual intimacy with the river. But I found the water more refreshing to the body than to the soul. Mountaineers & the Ashram Life

Eager to abandon the prohibitive heat, I set out by bus for Gangotri.

The lower mountains were blanketed with birches and pines. And some thoughtful Lady Bird Johnson of the Himalayas had planted lovely jacaranda trees along the entire route to Gangotri, gracing us with a pale lavender canopy through the ride.

The bus trip up the mountains was not a speedy one. Delays were the rule of the road. The bus had a flat tire. Monkeys scampered across our path. Herds of goats clogged the narrow route, ceding nary an inch to the bus. Our driver was fond of snacking and jabbering with the local populace in almost every village along the way.

We passed through vast stretches of terraced rice paddies, climbing the mountains like steps. And everywhere along the way we saw pilgrims and sadhus, trudging like bindlestiffs up the mountains. Many were barefoot. They carried brass bowls, tiny bundles of clothes and wooden staffs and tridents. Many had walked hundreds of miles. Most were elderly.

On the bus I was befriended by five young mountaineers from the west Indian state of Gujarat. They were on their way to scale a 22,000-foot peak above Gangotri and persuaded me to spend a day or two with them in Uttarkashi, a delightful town, snuggled in between high, heavily forested mountains and divided in two by the Ganges (which from here on north to the glacier is known as Bhagirath).

With my five new friends I climbed the lower slope of a mountain above Uttarkashi to visit the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. We were greeted by the principal, a 35-year-old Bengali, who spent several hours giving us a tour of the institute and fascinating me with tales of mountaineering in the Himalayas. Then we went to the ashram where my friends shared a tiny, unfurnished room. The ashram was filled with hundreds of poor pilgrims. They each had paid one rupee -- eight cents -- for a parcel of floor or bare ground to bed down on for the night. Many of these elderly pilgrims had sacrificed their entire, meager savings to make this odyssey from their native villages to the source of the Ganges. They crammed by the dozen into 12-by-12-foot rooms. Hundreds of others clustered together along a concrete walkway that ringed the rooms, or on tiny patches of hard earth in a small courtyard.

Dozens of women had set up small wood fires. They made dough from flour wrapped in their cloth bundles, rolled it out with sticks and made chapatis -- flat Indian bread -- over the flames.

The ashram had been converted to a mobile village, hundreds of miles from home. Bodies were sprawled everywhere. Despite the general din, many slept, even as others walked over them. And despite the congestion and the insecurity of being away from their villages, often for the first and only time in their lives, the pilgrims appeared content and tranquil. As the soft smoke curled upward into the black sky over Uttarkashi, the ashram looked almost holy. A Soothing Hindu Spa

After two days of rest and Ashram life, I departed Uttarkashi for Gangotri on a pre-dawn bus. The ride north became increasingly beautiful. Trees shared the terrain with massive rocks. The first towering snow peaks began to pierce the sky, their 21,000-foot summits illuminated by the dawn's rising sun. And stunning waterfalls splashed down the mountains into the Ganges.

The river here took on a clearer, almost sparkling look. Still, I could not perceive of the Ganges in the way the Indians did. For them, the Ganges is not merely a river, it is human. They have given it dozens of names over the years, among them: Cow That Gives Much Milk, Taking Pride in the Broken Egg of Brahma, Flowing Like a Staircase to Heaven, Born From the Lotus-like Foot of Vishnu, Dwelling in the Matted Locks of Shiva. Surely, one must have a Hindu sensibility to grasp such nomenclatures.

Three hours later, before reaching Gangotri, we came to the barely extant village of Gangnani in the Garwahl Himal section of the Himalayas. Here there were hot springs just above the road, several hundred feet above the Ganges.

The springs were divided into two pools, one for women, the other for men. Indians are a modest people, and even though they go into the pools clothed, they had erected a tin fence to prevent the males and females from watching one another bathe.

The Himalayan air, early in the morning, was decidedly cold; but the springs were hot and soothing. From a corner of the pool I could luxuriate in the steaming water, look up at the snowy peak of an imposing mountain and listen to the river rushing down below me. Two pundits sat beside the pool performing rituals and reading verses from Hindu epics in Sanskrit.

After basking in this sublime Hindu spa for about an hour, I sipped hot tea sold at a little wooden tea stall by the road and awaited the mid-morning bus to Gangotri. Surprisingly, it arrived right on schedule. The 100-Year-Old Swami

About 10 miles south of Gangotri, in the makeshift village of Lanka, there is a modern steel bridge not yet opened to vehicular traffic. So passengers must debark and cross the bridge by foot. Hundreds of feet above the Ganges, the bridge straddles a deep, rocky gorge. Then about a mile beyond the bridge, two dilapidated buses and three old jeeps pick up pilgrims and other visitors and carry them to Gangotri.

But how did these five vehicles traverse the Ganges? Gangotri is a village so remote it lacks electricity and has no other approachable roadway.

Ah, the ingenuity of the Indian mind. The buses and jeeps, it turns out, were disassembled years ago on the Lankan side of the river. Porters hauled the sundry parts across the water, over an old swinging foot bridge, and then meticulously reassembled them on the Gangotri side.

Gangotri is splendidly situated on the banks of the Ganges, surrounded on all sides by soaring mountains. In the center of the village, just above the river, sits a very sacred red-roofed temple that draws thousands of visitors to the village every spring and summer. The temple is located on the spot where, legend has it, the Hindu god Bhagirath meditated for 1,000 years to convince Shiva to allow the goddess Ganga to come down to Earth. She had resisted such a descent, and there had been great fear that if she did fall from the heavens, she would flood the land with her vast waters. But the catastrophe was averted when Shiva allowed her to come to Earth and caught the plummeting Ganga in the strands of his hair, spreading her waters gingerly upon the Earth.

Many sadhus, swamis, sanyasis, mendicants and other types of Hindu holy men and ascetics live in and outside of Gangotri. One of the most interesting, I had been told, was Dandi Swami Hansanand Dirth.

The swami lives just north of Gangotri, 50 feet from the Ganges, with a single disciple. One day I went to visit him.

For the first 50 years of his life he had engaged in a number of careers -- landlord, professor, businessman, naval officer. He was married and had children. But then he decided to pursue the spiritual life. He left the Bombay area and moved to Gangotri. He is now 100 years old, and has never turned back.

During the winter months, when most ascetics move down from the mountains (Gangotri is about 14,000 feet above sea level), Dandi Swami Hansanand Dirth and his disciple go farther up to seek "absolute solitude." They live in a little ashram, where they are snowed in until spring. The swami was bearded and bespectacled, had ruddy cheeks and a large belly, and was clad in saffron robes that made him look something like an orange Santa Claus. For an hour he talked to me about Hinduism and his monastic life in the mountains of the Himalayas. Before departing, I asked whether he had any words of wisdom for a wandering western heathen. "Try to meditate," he said, with a chuckle. A Mystical Experience

I spent several days in Gangotri walking along the river, talking with pilgrims and holy men. The water here was too cold for a nonbeliever like me to attempt a dip, although the frigidity did not seem to deter frail-looking worshippers and sadhus from making their ablutions.

One day, just outside Gangotri, I saw a group of sadhus sitting in a cave up on a mountainside. They signaled for me to join them. These half-dozen sadhus, each from a different region of India, were passing a small wooden pipe among themselves. They had beards, were dressed in scraggily but colorful gowns, and had an assortment of brightly hued little bags from which they extracted an assortment of strange herbs, spices and ointments.

One pulled out a vial with a green liquid in it. None of these men spoke English, but they gestured to me that the liquid was to be spread across the eyeball. They urged me to try it. I (foolishly?) consented, figuring it was the type of mystical experience that had lured me to the upper Ganges. The sadhu on my right held my eyes open. The sadhu on my left dipped a tiny metallic rod into the vial and spread the green liquid across my eye. It stung at first, and tears came to my eye, but soon it enabled me to look across the river with unusual clarity. I didn't know exactly what I had done, or why, but for the first time I felt some affinity for my strange companions and surroundings. To the Glacier

The time had come to begin the final leg of my trip, the visit to the Gangotri glacier, 12 miles up the river. I left early in the morning, just after the break of dawn. The walk was stunning. Snowcapped mountains, some reaching 22,000 feet, stood like sentinels high above the river. Birches and pines covered the lower slopes. And all the while, the Ganges plummeted down a boulder-filled valley, its icy waters sparkling in vivid contrast to the filth and murkiness that plagues the river for most of its journey across India. As I walked I could see no sign of humanity -- just mountains, trees, river and sky.

One need not be a mountaineer to reach the glacier. The journey is more an upward walk than a climb, and a well-marked trail leads the way. The principal obstacle is the altitude, whose thin air slows down even some of the more robust of climbers. Generally those who venture to the glacier are the hardiest of Hindu pilgrims and serious mountain climbers, who set up their base camps not far from the glacier. Sir Edmund Hillary, the conquerer of Mount Everest, made his first Himalayan assault in the Garwhal Himal Range.

About four-fifths of the way from Gangotri to the glacier I came upon an ashram used as a way station of sorts by pilgrims. Few people make the Gangotri-glacier-Gangotri trip in a single day, so the ashram makes a convenient overnight resting spot. The ashram became, for me, much more than a mere way station on my trip, thanks to the extraordinary conviviality and eccentricity of its proprietor and host, Swami Gopal Baba of Gomukh.

Gopal Baba was not exactly the type of Hindu holy man I was expecting to run into some 15,000 up in the Himalayas. This eminently engaging swami spoke in what was almost a perfect Brooklyn accent. And he looked more like a Coney Island hot dog vendor than a bonafide Indian swami.

As I arrived at the ashram, in the early afternoon, the sun was blazing overhead and Gopal Baba was bustling about with a few disciples. He wore what looked to be a pale brown dressing gown over a brown turtleneck sweater. He sported dark sunglasses and a long black beard, and his hair was knotted atop his head in a bun. Orange paint was dabbed across his forehead -- a Hindu insignia of good fortune.

He bounded up to me (Gopal Baba was the most hyper Hindu holy man I have ever met) and offered me tea and something to eat. He never stopped talking. He was from Calcutta and could speak Bengali, Hindi and English -- all fluently. For the past dozen years he had lived at the Gomukh Ashram, a series of simple, low buildings and a courtyard set in a boulder field by the river.

I was enchanted by Gopal Baba, and told him I would return and spend the night. But first I wanted to see the glacier. I made the final two-mile charge across rocks and boulders until I saw a huge wall of blue-white ice looming directly ahead of me.

By the time I arrived at the glacier, whose 150-foot-high ice wall had a concave bend to it, the day's pilgrims had all departed. The temperature had dropped appreciably, and the bright sky of the morning had clouded over. The magnificent Himalayan peaks could no longer be seen.

The glacier looked something like a monster peering out of the late afternoon grayness. It was lodged so tightly into the couloir of the mountains that I could not distinguish where it began and the mountains ended.

Water dripped and oozed from the glacier, the same water that eventually would sweep across the arid Gangetic basin of central India, providing fertility to land that is home to one-third of the nation's 800 million people.

Here, I thought, must be the only spot along its entire course that the Ganges River was truly pure. I dipped a plastic bottle into the large, icy pool beneath the glacier; one of the goals of my trip was to bring home a container of water from the upper reaches of the Ganges to a friend in New Delhi.

As I stood by the river and beneath the glacier, I tried to think about all the superlative virtues the Indians ascribed to the Ganges. I thought of the beauty of the river as it flowed forth from the ice wall and began its long descent.

Suddenly I heard a tremendous roar from within the glacier. An unseen boulder or chunk of ice must have dislodged itself. I shuddered as I thought what might happen if this ancient mass of ice decided to rumble down the valley, with me standing beneath it. Almost involuntarily, I moved a bit to the side as if I might somehow elude the glacial slide.

But then I noticed a more immediate natural phenomenon. It had begun to snow. And snow hard. Only a few days after broiling in 100-plus temperatures in Rishikesh, I now found myself caught in a surprise Himalayan snowstorm, clad in tennis shoes and a light jacket. It was time to return to Gopal Baba's ashram. Hot Tea & Potato Curry

The snow began to accumulate. At the ashram Gopal Baba was cracking joke after joke, doling out tea and making certain everyone was comfortable and well cared for.

He greeted me like a long lost brother, then escorted me and a cluster of newly arrived pilgrims into empty rooms where we would sleep. I was lodged in a dark chamber (the ashram had no heat or electricity) with 20 pilgrims. There was barely enough room for us all to lie down, but the proximity of 20 bodies helped generate heat.

Baba handed out floor mats and, gabbing furiously, instructed everyone which parcel of floor to occupy. He brought in two oil lamps and quickly darted away. Soon he was back with platters of hot tea. Baba served us individually, still joking -- sometimes in English, sometimes in Bengali, sometimes in Hindi. He seemed to know each of us well, although none of us had met him before the day had begun.

Following tea Baba returned to hand out heavy blankets. Fifteen minutes later he ushered us into a narrow room nearby and gave us each a plate, then walked from one person to the next, doling out heaps of potato curry, rice and chapatis. And, of course, hot tea.

After dinner Baba and a few pilgrims opened a door to what appeared to be a large closet on the courtyard. It turned out to be a miniscule temple. Baba and the others chanted and prayed, lit incense and oil lamps and hopped about waving their arms. It looked like a parody of Hindu worship, but it was real. And the snow kept falling.

Later Baba, as jaunty as ever, came inside with an armful of extra blankets. Chattering nonstop, he tucked us each snuggly in, snuffed out the oil lamps and bid us a good night.

By morning almost a foot of snow had fallen. I talked with Baba, who told me of his plan for the coming winter: to spend three months walking down the left bank of the Ganges, the ensuing three months walking up the river's right bank.

My trip to Gangotri had taught me something about this strange and sacred river. My two weeks on the Ganges had been eventful and illuminating. But as I headed back to Gangotri, and thought of Gopal Baba and his six-month odyssey, I realized that the Ganges was still a mystery to me, and would always remain one.