Millennium Post

Charting Char Dham

Charting Char Dham
A devout Hindu on pilgrimage to Uttarakhand can often be heard saying that he is on Yatra to Badri-Kedar which should have been a contradiction in terms. The existence of the two shrines together in the same geographical region of Uttarakhand is unique as the two deities at these temples represent two different godheads, who have been put on an equal pedestal by devotees. While Badrinath is dedicated to Vishnu, the preserver, Kedarnath has Shiva, the destroyer, as the presiding deity. And, despite the debacle in June that saw much of Kedarnath submerge in the wake of excessive rains resulting in landslides, the shrine has reopened with all its glory, a testimony of India’s unending devotion to the holy sites.

The credit for bringing the Vaishnavites (followers of Vishnu) and Shaivites (followers of Shiva) together, goes to Shankaracharya, the medieval reformer saint. To him also goes the credit of  establishing the four Dhams – the cardinal centres of Hindu religion – in the four corners of Bharatvarsha – Badrinath in the North, Jagannath Puri (Odisha), in the East, Rameshwaram (Tamil Nadu), in  the South and Dwarakadhish (Gujarat), in the West.

To integrate Hindu religion further, Sankara appointed his followers from one part of the country in the dhams established in a different part. By this tradition, the Namboodris of Kerala were appointed  priests at Badrinath in the Himalayas. The descendants of Mandan Mishra of Mithalanchal in Bihar, who entered into a debate with Sankara, hold fort at Dwarka.

After a trailblazing journey, Sankara won a large number of followers who were convinced of the futility of sectarian conflict between the followers of Shiv and Vishnu and sought a dialogue with the Almighty within the Sanatan Dharma. Sankara took samadhi at Kedarnath, in the lap of the snowclad Himalayas, underlining his commitment to the unity of godhead.

The travel to the Valley of Alaknanda for reaching Badrinath, and the valley of Mandakini for making it to the shrine of Kedarnath, is essentially by road, with National Highway 58 starting from Delhi, which is a lifeline for the border areas of Uttarkhand where  these shrines exist.

As one leaves the national Capital from Ghaziabad border on NH 58, the milestone mentions Mana – 500 kilometres. Mana is the last point on the road to the China border, about 10 kilometers ahead of Badrinath shrine. Mana is visited by pilgrims to see the rise of river Saraswati, which after flowing for a few meters here goes subterranean, believed to join Ganga and Yamuna over a thousand kilometer downstream at Prayag in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh.

Haridwar, Dehradun and other important hill stations in the Garhwal and Kumaon regions of Uttarakhand are all launchpads for the char dham yatra. The network of tourist bungalows and hotels run by the GMVN are most reliable. Though not luxurious, they are relatively comfortable. There are good private hotels available in Haridwar and Rishikesh. A few resorts have been developed in the upper reaches, especially at the skiing resort of Auli. Food served in the GMVN properties on this route is largely vegetarian but eggs are served in some of the tourist bungalows. Those travelling by road should plan their journey in such a way that they reach Rishikesh in the foothills of the grand Garhwal Himalyas for the first night’s rest and start early morning for onward journey in the hills. From Rishikesh, NH 58 moves uphill with steep mountains on one side and deep gorges on the other. During the drive, one gets to see Ganga at its pristine best. Passing through Deoprayag, where Alaknanada meets Bhagirathi to flow on as the Ganga, to Shrinagar, the seat of Garhwal University, and onwards to Rudraprayag, is about six hours journey.

 Rudraprayag is at the confluence of the Mandakini river, which flows from the mountains behind Kedarnath shrine and the Alaknanda river, which comes from the mountains ahead of Mana, flowing out at the foot of the Badrinath shrine. From Rudraparayag, which is now a district town, the road to Kedarnath along the Mandakini valley branches out. About three hours from Rudraprayag is the town of Guptkashi.

The second night’s rest can be had at Guptakashi for those who desire to take the chopper ride to Kedarnath shrine or take the road to the hilltop. The helipad of Fata is less than an hour’s journey from Guptkashi. From Fata, there are two chopper ferry services. The first is operated by government-run Pawan Hans and the other by a private carrier. Those wanting to visit the temple by chopper are advised to book their seats through the internet as booking locally is next to impossible and also very costly.

For others, the journey by road from Rishikesh takes a day to Gaurikund, from where the trek to Kedarnath shrine is about 13 kilometers through a hilly track. There are also horses and kandi (chair palanquin) carriers available in plenty. If the journey is planned well and there are no hassles created by weather and traffic jams, the journey to the shrine from the base camp and back could be made the same day. For night stay, there is accommodation available at Kedarnath shrine too, but there it becomes very cold at night and there also is the problem of oxygen not being available in sufficient supply. It’s advised that you spend the third night too at Guptakashi.

 There are a few small places en route from Gaurikund to Kedarnath, like Janglechatti, Rambara and Garurchatti, where you can rest a while or spend the night if the travel becomes too tiring, or if you wish to take it a bit slower and enjoy the magnificent surroundings. Just one kilometer before Rambara there is a high and beautiful cascading waterfall which crashes down from the heights.

Kedarnath: Kedarnath hosts one of the holiest Shaivite shrines and situated as it is at the head of the Mandakini river nearby, its veneration is enhanced among the devotees. Kedarnath is about 3584 meters above sea-level and is very scenic, surrounded by lofty, snow-covered Himalayas, and during the summer, grassy meadows cover the valleys. Close to the temple is the high Kedardome peak, which can be sighted from afar. The sight of the temple and the peak with its perpetual snows is simply enthralling. In the early and latter parts of the season, the path to Kedarnath is often frozen or slippery. During the winters, the temple and houses are all under snow cover.

The temple is magnificent in its style and architecture. It is built on a ridge jutting out at right angles from the snowy range. The present temple, built in the 9th century AD  by Adi Shankaracharya, stands adjacent to the site of an earlier temple built by the Pandavas.

The inner walls of the assembly hall are decorated with figures of various deities and scenes from Indian mythology. Outside the temple door, a large statue of the Nandi Bull stands  guard. Built from extremely large, heavy and evenly cut grey slabs of stones, it evokes wonder as to how these heavy slabs had been handled in those days.
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