In the folds of the scenic upper snow covered reaches of the lofty Garwhal Himalayas in Uttarakhand are the sacred Hindu shrines of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri together known as Char Dham or the Four Holy Shrines. The region referred to in the ancient Puranas as the ‘Land of the Gods’ beckons thousands of pilgrims every year to the shrines, who trek arduous mountain paths for a communion with the Divine.
From time immemorial Uttarakhand has been the refuge of sages and saints, offering a sublime retreat for meditation in the isolated, snow-covered caves. Over the centuries these sites were immortalized in sacred scriptures as places where devotees could earn the merits of all the pilgrimages put together and temples were built at these sanctified sites. Located in areas where nature’s forms, colour and wild beauty are a wonder to town dwellers along with their isolated splendour, pilgrims realize an elevated, spiritual experience even as they make their way to the shrines, For Hindus, mountains associated with tranquility, isolation and inaccessibility (offering a test for the devout) have always been regarded as the abode of Gods. The exhilarating sight of thickly forested mountains, range after range of summits cased with snow or lost behind mist. Below stretch green fields and streams, urging pilgrims on the path ahead.
Each of the four holy shrines of the Char Dham Yatra or pilgrimage is located
at a height above 3,000 meters and they make a very fulfilling pilgrim circuit.
These four temples in a geographical context form two natural groups, that
is BADRINATH-KEDARNATH and GANGOTRI-YAMNOTRI
, with the common
starting point at Rishikesh. They can be covered in one large circuit or two
smaller circuits. Badrinath Kedarnath lie towards the north east from Rishikesh
on the Alaknanda’s tributaries that, after being joined by the Bhagirathi
near Devprayag, flow Chardham Yatra as the holy Ganges. Gangotri and Yamunotri
are up north from Rishikesh–Gangotri lies on the river Bhagirathi that later
forms the holy Ganges; and Yamunotri lies near the source of the river Yamuna.
Of these sites Badrinath and Gangotri are directly accessible by road, while
Kedarnath is reached by road followed by a short trek of 15 kilometres from
the Gaurikund roadhead and Yamunotri by a 13 kilometre trek from Hanuman Chatti.
The mountain roads have made the pilgrim centres more accessible and for those
unable to trek the last section there are different modes of transport available
such as mules, horses, dandis carried by porters from the starting points
till the shrines.
As a source of water and means of communications the Ganges played a paramount part in India’s history by inducing people to settle on her banks; nourishing civilizations for centuries, as the river’s waters laden with alluvial soil layered the plains sustaining and nurturing people and the plough. The river is regarded as India’s holiest river. Devout Hindus take a dip in the Ganges believing that the pure, holy waters would wash away their sins and immerse the ashes of their dead to offer peace to the soul.
The Ganges originates high in the Himalayas and is fed by tributaries as she flows down the mountains to the plains below. Being snow-fed, the river has a continuous flow throughout the year. The river gushes along with chunks of ice from the Gangotri glacier at Gaumukh, out of a large hollow in the Garwhal Himalayas at a height of 3,892 metres. Here the river is called the Bhagirathi. Hindu mythology sketches the sacred river gushing from the heavens, as a boon granted to King Bhagirathi for his severe penance to Lord Shiva. She fell with such great force that might have caused much destruction on the earth, but Lord Shiva received the waters in his locks, whereupon they fell calmly on the earth. The mighty Ganges is thus called the Bhagirathi here.
Eighteen kilometres downstream from Gaumukh is Gangotri, an important pilgrim site at 3,048 metres. Gangotri was originally the source of the river, forthe glacier has melted and gradually retreated over the centuries to its present site. Gangotri is surrounded by peaks — the Shivling, Satopanth and Bhagirathi sisters. There is a temple dedicated to Goddess Gangs and the sacred stone where Raja Bhagirath is believed to have worshipped Lord Shiva. It is also believed that the legendary Pandavas performed the great’ DevaYagna’ hereto atone the death of their kinsmen in the Mahabharata battle. Submerged in the river here is the natural rock Shivling where Lord Shiva is believed to have received the Ganges (called Bhagirathi here) in his locks. It is visible in the winter months when the water level recedes. The Bhagirathi flows swiftly flanked by forests of deodar, oak and pine till it is joined by the Alakananda river at Devprayag, from where the rivers flow together as the Ganges.
The shrine of Yamunotri, at a height of 3,235 metres is dedicated to the river Goddess Yamuna. The temple of Goddess Yamuna is the main pilgrim site and there are many thermal springs in the temple vicinity as well as Divya Shila, a rock pillar that is worshipped before entering the Yamunotri temple. A dip in the hot springs and cooking rice in its waters are part of the rituals.
Kedarnath at a height of 3,581 metres is one of the 12 jyotirlingas, revered abodes of Lord Shiva in the country. The temple built of solid grey stone stands on a wide plateau against the backdrop of the chisel textured, snow covered, majestic Kedarnath range. According to legend the Pandavas came here to pray to Lord Shiva after their victory in the great battle of Kurukshetra to atone for killing their own kin in the course of the war.
But Lord Shiva kept eluding them and fit refuge at Kedarnath in the form at a bull. On being trailed he plunged VW te ground, leaving only the hump exposed on the earth which is shipped at the shrine. His arms are believed to have surfaced at Tungnath, his face at Rudranath, belly at maheshwar, his locks and head at Kakmshwar. These spots where he reappeared are worshipped as his manifestations and together with Kedarnath form the Parch Kedar— all mated in the Garhwal Himalayas —and can be visited from Kedarnath by road and subsequent trekking.
The present temple at Kedarnath races its origins to the 8th century, having been resurrected by Adi Guru Shankaracharya, a great philosopher who established a shrine and died here at the age of 32. It stands adjacent to the site of an ancient temple built by the Pandavas. The inner walls of the temple are embellished with figures of deities and scenes from Hindu mythology. The samadhior final resting place of Adi Guru Shankaracharya is behind the temple.
Badrinath, at a height of 3,133 metres and one of the most revered shrines
in India, is said to be unequalled in its sanctity when compared to other
pilgrimages. Badrinath is located in the Nar-Narayan range against the imposing
Neelkanth peak ( 6,597 metres). It is understood that to revive Hinduism and
provide a unifying bond in the country Adi Guru Sri Shankaracharya built four
major pilgrimage centres in the four corners of India of which Badrikashram
was the one built in the north. The Badrinath temple stands in a beautiful
valley on the bank of the Alaknanda river and is dedicated to Shri Badrinathji,
that is Lord Vishnu—the Preserver. It traces its origins to Adi Shankaracharya
in the 8th century though legends state that the temple stands on the site
of an earlier temple. The present temple was built about two centuries ago
by the Garhwal kings.
The main idol in the temple is of black stone and represents Vishnu seated
in a meditative pose. The temple is divided into three parts — the garbha
griha or sanctum sanctorum, the darshan mandap where the prayers are held
and the Sabha mandapa where devotees assemble. The head priest of the temple
is a Namboodripad Brahmin from Kerala. Below the temple are the hot springs
Tapt Kund and Surya Kund with waters at a temperature of 55 degrees Celsius.
A dip in these waters is considered holy for the body and soul before offering
prayers at the temple. There are four other Badris or temples dedicated to
Lord Vishnu that can be visited from Badrinath. They are Yogad hyan Badri,
Bhavishya Badri, Bridha Badri and Adi Badri. Forty two kilometres from Badrinath
is Joshimath, the winter home of Shri Badrinathji.
East of Badrinath is the beautiful Valley of Flowers with the river Pushpawati flowing through it. At a height of 4,329 metres near the Valley of Flowers is the holy lake of Hemkund on whose banks — according to the Guru Granth Saheb, the holy book of the Sikhs — Guru Govind Singh, the tenth Guru of the Sikhs meditated. The lake is about two kilometres in circumference and is surrounded by the beautiful Saptashringa mountains whose reflection is seen in the still waters of the lake. The Hemkund Sahib Gurudwara and a Lakshmana temple stand on the bank of the lake. It is believed that Lakshmana, Rama’s brother was brought here after he fell unconscious during the war with Ravana. The holy lake of Hemkund is an important pilgrim centre for Sikhs and Hindus. The best season to visit Hemkund is between July and October when the rocks by the lake are covered with moss and flowers.
Every year thousands of pilgrims visit these shrines in the Garwhal Himalayas braving the vagaries of the weather and landscape, for a darshan or communion with the deities who dwell in the mountains. The snowy-peaks towering above inspire and guide seekers to the sacred temples in their folds. And these age-old shrines continue to be a source of tradition and worship for the pilgrims from different parts of India.
Rishikesh, a convenient base for visiting these pilgrim centres is connected
by air through services of Vayudoot to Jolly Grant Airport, 18 kms. on the
road to Dehradun. Rishikesh is also connected by train services with Haridwar,
the nearest broad gauge section railway station and regular bus services operate
to the city from all the important centres in the northern region.
The four shrines and the pilgrim towns are open from May to November and closed
from November to April due to severe winter conditions. A suggested circuit
by U.P. Tourist is - Day One - Rishikesh to Joshimath ( 252 kms) via Devprayag
( 69 kms), Shrinagar (36 kms), Rudraprayag ( 34 kms), Karnprayag (32 kms),
Nandprayag (21 kms), Pipalkoti 28 kms), Joshimath (32 kms; Day Two - Joshimath
to Badrinath ( .42 kms); Day Three - Badrinath to Kedarnath (242 kms) via
Rudraprayag ( 155 kms), Agastmuni (18 kms), Guptkashi (24 kms), Sonprayag
(26 kms), Gaurikund (5 kms), Rambara Chatti ( 8 kms), Kedarnath ( 6 kms),
Day Four Kedarnath to Gaurikund (15 kms); Day Five Gaurikund to Uttarkashi
(232 kms) via Tilwar road junction (64 kms) Tehri (97 kms), Dharasu (41 kms),
Uttarkashi (30 kms); Day Six Uttarkashi to Gangotri (100 kms); Day Seven Gangotri
and Gaumukh 22 kms away; Day Eight Gangotri to Hanuman Chatti (218 kms); Day
Nine Hanuman Chanel to Yamnotri and return 26 kms; Day Ten return to Rishikesh
(201 kms) via Kempty Falls (81 kms), Mussoorie (14 kms), Dehradun (43 kms),
Rishikesh (42 kms), Rishikesh (42 kms). Shorter circuits can also be conveniently
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