Sikhs flock to freezing lake

For Sikhs, meditating on the name of God is an integral part of spiritual life.

Though this is usually done at home and in gurdwaras, there is one place where it is believed Sikhs can go to achieve greater communion with God.

The place is Hemkunt - the Holy Lake of Ice - set in the Himalayas bordering Tibet and Nepal.

The lake is accessible for only four months of the year - and now is the time for the faithful to make their pilgrimage.

They do so for a great number of reasons.

"I have been there before, but the reason I'm going this time is in my sister's memory," Ravinda Khur Clare, from Southall, west London, told the BBC World Service's Reporting Religion programme.

"She suffered from an illness of the mind, and she ended her own life last year.

"In Hemkunt, she found piece of mind, she found tranquillity, and as I'm doing it in her memory I wanted to go somewhere where it was a special place for her."

'Precious place'

Hemkunt is a small, icy lake 18,500 feet above sea level. Between autumn and spring its waters are frozen deep beneath the snow.

But from June to September, the snows clear and thousands of Sikhs from around the world flock there. It one of Sikhism's most important places of worship due to its association with the religion's 10th and final guru, Gobind Singh.

"We say, where I go to, my guru has been," said Mohinda Singh Jaha, general secretary of the Sikh missionary society.

"I'll be going there - that place is precious to me."

Sikhs believe that at Hemkunt Gobind Singh was summoned by God to be reborn into the world to teach people the true path.

A gurdwara temple has now been built on the shores of the lake to commemorate his mission.

"The area is ever so nice, peaceful, all green," Rapinda Kordaliwa, who has been 11 times to Hemkunt and takes groups of pilgrims from the UK to visit, told Reporting Religion.

"If you go at the end of July, you can see lotus flowering on the hills.

"It's a really beautiful place."

Closer to God

She added that surprisingly, the freezing cold water was one of the best features of the lake.

"One dip is enough, but all really love it," she said.

"After having a dip, you'll be surprised - you don't feel the cold at all, you feel nicely warm."

And she described the moment of peace found in completing the pilgrimage.

"You think you have achieved something - a goal of your life," she said.

It is this aspect that many have said allows them to feel closer to God at the site.

Ms Khur Clare said that, following her sister's death, she felt the pilgrimage would restore her faith.

"I know I've had a relapse since losing my sister, because of the anger and having someone to blame, but I know I believe in my faith, and for me I found I got enlightenment there which I've never experienced before," she said.

"I'm hoping that I'll get that again."