The First of the Char Dhams
Visiting Char Dham or the ‘four holy pilgrimages’ - Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri is every devout Hindu’s dream.
When I was very small, my grandmother went on a pilgrimage to Yamunotri, Gangotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath.
The journey was really tedious, involving walking long distances.
The roads, where they existed, were very bad.
There were no proper hotels or eateries on the way.
I don’t remember the exact duration, but it took her almost three months.
The Original Char Dhams (Four Holy Pilgrimages)
Char Dham originally refered to the four holy places, or dhams, established by Adi Shankaracharya in the 8th century.
These places are located in four far-flung corners of India.
Badrinath nestles amidst the Himalayas in the North.
Rameshwaram overlooks the Bay of Bengal in the extreme South.
Jagannath Puri is again located on the Bay of Bengal in the East.
Dwarka floats on the Arabian Sea in the West.
A visit to the Char Dhams used to be a lifelong ambition of every devout Hindu.
It was my mother’s wish, and my readiness to fulfill her wishes, that I visited Adi Shankaracharya’s Char Dhams.
The Chota Char Dhams
Somewhere down the line, Badrinath became the centre of what came to be known as Chota Char Dham - the lesser four dhams.
The original Char Dhams established by Adi Shankaracharya are too far flung.
So the Chota Char Dhams in Uttarakhand in the Himalayas - Yamunotri, Gangotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath - became increasingly popular.
The 1962 Indo China war forced India to improve the border roads.
More and more tourists and pilgrims started travelling to these places.
Around that time, the word Chota dropped out somewhere, and the Chota Char Dham became Char Dham.
Today Char Dham is used for Yamunotri, Gangotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath.
There are two routes to visit the Char Dham - one is via Mussourie and the other via Haridwar and Rishikesh.
The latter route is far more picturesque.
The Ganges river enters the plains at Haridwar.
And Rishikesh is the undisputed gate way to the Abode of Gods.
Haridwar and Rishikesh are favourite pilgrimage and tourist places, on their own right.
Get hold of a map of India or use the one on this blog.
Open your right palm wide and place it on the map (palm down).
Put your right thumb on Rishikesh .
The four fingers will point at Yamunotri, Gangotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath.
You can see their exact locations and the routes in the map.
The first of the Char Dham is Yamunotri.
Incidentally, it is also highest of the four.
Yamunotri is the source of the river Yamuna which originates from a frozen lake of ice and the Champasar Glacier 1 km above the temple at an altitude of 4,321 metres.
Champasar Glacier is located on the Kalind Mountain at a height of 4421 metres above sea level.
Access to Champasar Glacier is extremely difficult and normal pilgrims cannot reach it.
This is the reason, Yamunotri temple was built at the present location.
The temple is accessible only by a six kilometres walk from Hanuman Chatti and a four kilometres walk from Janki Chatti.
Of course, you can hire ponies and palanquins.
The trek from Hanuman Chetty to Yamunotri is exceedingly picturesque with beautiful views of the snow covered mountains, deep valleys and a number of water falls.
The temple of Goddess Yamuna is perched on top of a flank of the Bandar Poonchh peak (3,165 metres above sea level).
The original temple was built by Maharani Gularia of Jaipur in the 19th century, but it was destroyed by the weather and natural elements.
The present temple on the left bank of the Yamuna was constructed by Maharaja Pratap Shah of Tehri Garhwal.
The deity is made of black marble.
Places to see
The chief attraction at Yamunotri is the temple of Goddess Yamuna.
Close by the temple are hot water springs (kunds) gushing out from mountain cavities.
The most important spring is Suryakund.
Devotees boil rice and potatoes by tying them in a piece of muslin cloth and dipping them in these hot water springs.
The cooked rice and potatoes are eaten as ‘prasad’.
Near the Suryakund there is a shila (stone) called Divya Shila, which is worshipped before puja is offered to the deity.
There are a number of thermal springs at Jankichatti (7 kms away).
Adi Shankaracharya’s original Char Dhams are all Vaishnava shrines.
The Himalayan Char Dhams are a mix of three sects - Vaishnava at Badrinath; Shaiva at Kedarnath; and Devi at Yamunotri and Gangotri.
Today, the Char Dham are extremely popular religious and tourist places with all modern amenities.
All the four Dhams become inaccessible during the winter.
Therefore, they are closed down from Diwali (sometime in November) to15 April.
The mountain roads become wet and treacherous during the rainy season.
But the mist and dense swirling clouds only add to the mystic charm.
Spend your next vacation in these places.
You will definitely thank me.