Char Dham Yatra (a name that denotes pilgrimage to Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath ) is a holy pilgrimage undertaken by Hindus. When I was planning a vacation to India in summer, my sister said all places will be so hot, the only place that you could possibly go is the Himalayas. That set my mind thinking and we decided on Char Dham – a little bit of sight-seeing, some Himalayan trekking along with darshan of beautiful temples seemed like a good vacation plan. Later on, during the Yatra I understood the actual significance of the Yatra.
Char Dham starts with Yamunotri – A dip in the Yamuna and offering prayers to Yamuna Devi at Yamunotri is said to remove our biggest fear, the fear of Death. Yamuna being the sister of Yama, the God of Death, removes our fear of death. Next stop is Gangotri – A dip in the Ganga at Gangotri, washes away all our sins and purifies us. From there we make our way to Kedarnathji, where Lord Shiva removes all our bondages. The last stop is Badrinath, the Moksha Dham – the holy abode of Lord Badri Narayan whose grace leads us to the final liberation.
Our yatra for the char dham started on June 15 2015 and ended on June 26 2015.
June 15 – Haridwar
We took the Shatabdi from Delhi and reached Haridwar at noon. The major surprise of the trip was the sudden change in decision of my dad to accompany us on the tour. He joined us in the last minute at Delhi and managed to get the same train accommodation to Haridwar with us!
We had booked a car and driver thru a travel agent and he was there to receive us at Haridwar station. On the way to our hotel we got the first glimpse of River Ganga. This was my first encounter with Mother Ganga. The river was flowing so fast, it was fascinating to see. It was already lunch time and I wasn’t sure if I would get a chance to dip in the river the same day. But after we passed the main ghats and started moving out of the main town area, my dad (my parents were travelling with me on the yatra) got restless and insisted that we stop and have a dip in the Ganges before we go anywhere else. The driver got a little irritated and kept telling us that we were getting late for lunch. But my dad’s persistence won. The driver took us to a fairly neat and less crowded ghat outside the main town. None of us were prepared with the right clothes for a river dip. But we somehow managed. Once it was decided that we were going to dip in the Ganga, the excitement in meeting Her, grew in me. I quickly fished out my black tights, changed in the car, and walked towards the water. I stepped into her cool waters step by step till I was knee deep. It was such an emotional moment for me. I never even knew that I had this urge to see her, till I met her. I closed my eyes, chanted “Jay jay Gange”, and dipped my head in. That feeling will stay with me forever.
We reached the hotel, had lunch, and left again around 3:30 to Chandi Devi and Mansa Devi temple. Both temples are accessible by cable cars only. The cable car rides were good but both temples were crowded. At Mansa Devi temple, people were pushing each other so much that we all just wanted to get out of there in one piece. The kids were crushed and could not understand what was going on. They did not like the experience at all. By the time we got out of Mansa Devi temple, it was already late for Ganga Aarti. The kids refused to come so Hari stayed with them. My parents and I got down and started walking towards the Ganga aarti location. No one gave us any information. We got different timings for aarti, and different locations. Some said 6:30, some said 7, some 7:30 and some even said that it was only at 8. But by the time we reached the spot, the aarti was over and we had missed it. After this long walk, it was pretty disappointing to have missed the Ganga Aarati at Haridwar. I knew I would not get another chance in this trip, but it was ok. Maybe I will come back someday and get to witness the beautiful aarati of Mother Ganga.
June 16 – Rishikesh and drive to Barkot
After another morning dip in the Ganges, we started our drive to Rishikesh to get our photometrics done for the yatra. Once that was over, we were handed over to a guide (who only guided us to an expensive rudraksha shop). Next time, you get a free guide who you did not ask for, find out what his intentions are and if he is really going to show you anything. We did end up buying spatika mala and rudraksha mala, but this detour could have been avoided.
We then began our long drive of 196 kms to Barkot where we stayed at Camp River View Resort for the night.
June 17 – Yamunotri
We started at 7 am on our drive to the base of Yamunotri. We reached Janki Chatti and started our trek at 9:30. My mother took the palki (4 young men bring a wooden structure with a seat where older people can sit, and carry the structure on their shoulders along the trail to the top). The trek path was very well paved, and had the right number of tea and refreshment stalls. It did not feel over-commercialized. The views were amazing. We could see the Yamuna stream starting from the top of the peak and making its way down. The one way hike of 5.5 kms took me about 2 ½ hours to complete.
Once we reached the top, I asked around and found that we should first bathe in the hot pool, have darshan at the small mandir, cook our little rice potlis at the Surya kund and take darshan of the point where the stream originates.
There are 2 hot pools, one for the women and one for men. The women pool is at the lower level and is covered within a room to give privacy. It also has 4-5 changing rooms beside it. The men pool is on the top and is open, no changing area. Mom and I entered the women pool area. The covered area was private but the musty smell and smell of wet clothes was so overpowering that even after multiple dips in the hot water pool, it did not feel good. The changing areas were all wet and musty. I immediately decided that I wanted to bathe in the Yamuna river as well. Everyone warned me that the river would be freezing cold at this altitude, but that did not deter me. I was already fully wet anyway, so I made my way out. There was no ghat here, the river was just flowing over rocks. The water was freezing. My feet were freezing as I made my way thru the rocks to an area with waist deep water. I dipped my head in 3 times and it felt amazing. It was so refreshing, the water was crystal clear, and I felt a tremendous happiness inside me. I sipped the clear water 3 times and made my way out.
After changing, we went to the mandir, and to the Surya kund. The Surya kund was an amazing sight. The water was boiling, it felt like super-heated water. We gave our rice potlis to the lads there and they placed it in the kund. We waited and lo and behold, in less than 10 minutes , we had cooked rice that we could actually eat as Prasad!! We took darshan of the hot stream origin and made our way back to the trail. None of us felt like having lunch there (there are a few dhabas, but none looked inviting), so we made our way down. The return trek was easy. The path is filled with horse-dung, but there are men who are constantly clearing it out. The kids did not mind it and thought the horse-dung smell was much much better than the trash and pollution smell of the cities!!
We rested the night in Camp River View.
June 18 – Uttarkashi
Camp River View is situated next to Ganga Kund. In those days, Rishi Jamadagni and his disciples used to walk across the mountains, collect Ganga water for abhishekam and come back to his ashram to do puja. But as his disciples grew older, they could no longer make the trip to the other side of the mountain. So Jamadagni prayed to Mother Ganga and Ganga poured out of the earth in this place which is very close to Rishi Jamadagni’s ashram. A small pool has been built around the gushing water to contain it to a waist deep level, which is easy for dipping. We bathed in this Ganga Kund in the morning – Three consecutive days of Ganga Snanam!! Even in Yamunotri, Mother Ganga made herself available to us!! River Yamuna flows beside Camp River View, so after Ganga dip, we also went to the Yamuna and had a final dip in the Yamuna too before heading out towards Uttarkashi for our second dham.
On the way to Uttarkashi, we stopped at Shiv Gufa. This is a cave inside which there are some natural rock formations that look like Shiva and Ganesha etc. Kids liked that we had to crawl in and stand in a cave with a foot of water.
In Uttarkashi we stayed at Chinmaya Tapovan Kuti. The Tapovan Kuti ashram has been built around the original Kutiya where Swami Tapovanam lived. The kutiya still has an amazing aura, and the brahmacharis there still feel Swamiji’s presence in the kutiya.
Uttarkashi is home to Kashi Vishwanath temple. The lingam in this temple is tilted towards the south. They say Sage Markandeya caught hold of this lingam and the yama dhootas threw their noose around Sage Markandeya and the lingam and pulled both together causing the tilt towards the south. The temple is very old but has a very peaceful aura around it. Next to it, in the same compound is a Shakti temple. We entered and saw a dhwaja stambha, we did pradakshina and were about to leave when we heard a priest saying – “This is Ma Shakti’s trishul” and he pointed up. We looked at the ceiling to see a hole thru which the stambha stood. When we went closer to the hole in the ceiling and looked up, we realized that it was not a dhwaja stambha but a huge Trishulam. They say that Devi Ma killed Mahishasur with this Trishulam and when she stretched her arms after the long fight, the trishul dropped from her hands and fell here, next to Lord Shiva. The Trishul is an unbelievable sight. Both the Shiva and Shakti temple are a must-see in Uttarkashi. Hari and I had the honor to come again on June 20 early morning before we left Uttarkashi and chant Rudram in the temple when abhishekam and alankaram was being done to Lord Vishwanath.
In the evening, we attended Swami Tapovanam Aarti and satsang at the ashram.
June 19 – Gangotri
Gangotri is a good 4 hour drive from Uttarkashi. Add bad and non-existent roads to it and it will easily take you 5 hours to reach. We left at 5:30 am, had a flat tire on the way, so reached Gangotri at around 11. We avoided the crowded ghats and took a dip in the freezing waters of the Bhageerathi. The current was very intense, so we had to hold on to the chains and venture only 2 steps down. My dad and I dunked fully whereas others just did a sprinkle bath. We filled up 6 1 liter bottles of Ganga water. The water was very muddy, but we were told that it will all settle and the water will become very clear. We then walked ahead to sit near the river for some time. The scene was beautiful with snow capped mountains at the far end, with green mountains in front, and the rushing waters of the Bhageerathi in the foreground.
We then visited the Bhageerath shila, the rock where Bhageerath did his penance, then visited the Ganga temple, and made our way back. On the way back we visited Gangnani which is a hot spring in Sage Parashar Muni’s ashram. We spent some time there relaxing our feet in the hot spring. I wanted to see the origin of the spring, but was told that it is guarded by 2 snakes at the back of the temple. So I did not venture there. We reached ashram back around 6:45pm.
June 20 – Uttarkashi to Guptkashi
We woke up around 5am and Hari, my mother and I went to visit Kashi Vishwanath temple again. We chanted Rudram there and saw the morning puja and aarti. It was a wonderful experience.
We left Uttarkashi ashram at around 8:30 am towards Kedarnath. On the way we stopped at Agastya Ashram. This place is where Agastya muni did his tapasya in the Himalayas before he moved to the south.
We also stopped briefly at a place from where we could get a beautiful view of Rudraprayag. The drive to Kedarnathji was breathtakingly beautiful. We drove to almost the top of a very high mountain and the view was amazing. There are no words to describe the beauty of the Himalayas. Range after range of mountains, with valleys, waterfalls, and river flowing down below, and little Himalayan villages here and there. The step farming on the mountain slopes give the mountains a very unique look. We have seen a lot of mountain ranges in the United States, but they are all untouched mountains, no one lives there. What makes the Himalayas different is the life all around. These mountains are home to a lot of people. Small villages, some only have 2-3 homes, can be spotted all around. There are cows and goats everywhere. Mountain people carrying leaves, tilling their land, living their simple life!
We reached Guptkashi at around 7:30, and confirmed our helicopter arrangements for next day’s trip to Kedarnathji.
June 21 – Kedarnath
We were up at 4 am and drove to the helipad at around 5:15am. The minimum wait was 2 hours, so we got to get into the Helicopter only by 7:30am. The Helicopter ride was awesome. I got to sit in the front seat and had a full frontal view including view straight below! The chopper rode in the valley above the Mandakini river. The view was breathtaking! I couldn’t believe I was riding through the Himalayas! It felt so close and personal, like the Lord was fulfilling my dream of seeing the Himalayas. The short ride of 7 minutes was over so soon as the snow capped peak of Kedar mountain loomed up straight ahead. It was a very amazing and emotional experience for me.
We got down from the chopper and made our way to the temple. We took a lot of pictures of the peaks behind the temple on our walk, and I’m glad we did that, because the peaks were all covered by fog on our way back. We stopped at the Mandakini river, dipped our feet, and sprinkled water on our heads. There were no ghats, we had to walk over stones to reach the water.
There was very little queue at the temple, and we stood in line. All along the way multiple priests were hounding us for puja but we only wanted darshan so did not encourage anyone. There was a lot of pushing inside the temple and the whole atmosphere felt very hostile. The kids were manhandled and did not like it one bit. Once we saw the lingam (triangle shaped rock), I don’t know how, but we were made to sit right in front of it, and someone made us do all the puja and abhishek for the lingam. We did not encourage any priest, and inspite of that some priest got us to do all puja to the lingam. We were glad for that, and we got to spend a lot of time sitting in front of the lord. All the shoves and pushes outside were forgotten, and the over-whelming feeling of surrender took over. We were there because of Him, He made us come on this yatra, He gave us darshan, and He made us do puja. We left with a very satisfactory feeling. We paid the priest and went around the temple.
At the back of the temple, we took darshan of the Bheem shila, the rock that protected the temple during the 2013 floods. It was an amazing sight. The locals call it the Bheem shila because they believe Bheem stood there in the form of the rock as a protection for the temple. We chanted rudram outside the temple and slowly made our way back to the helipad. We rested at Himlayan Comforts for the rest of the day.
June 22 – Guptkashi to Pipalkoti
The plan was to leave after breakfast but we had another flat tire causing a further delay. We finally left Guptkashi at 11 am. On the way we stopped at Ukhimath, where Kedarnathji is brought and worshipped in the winter months. This place is also home to Chandi Devi and Varahi Devi temples, and the ancient place where Krishna’s grandson Aniruddha married Banasur’s daughter Usha.
We reached Pipalkoti at around 4pm and rested for the day.
One thing we missed seeing and could have accomplished on this day, was a trip to Tri-Yugi Narayan temple. This temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and it is said that this is where Lord Shiva married Goddess Parvati, in the presence of Lord Vishnu. There is an eternal flame in the temple which is said to be burning since 3 yugas, hence the name Tri-Yugi Narayan temple.
June 23 – Pipalkoti to Badrinath via Joshimath
We left at 8 am for Joshimath. It is about an hour’s drive from Pipalkoti. Joshimath is actually “Jyotirmath”. Adi Sankara established 4 Mutts in the 4 corners of India – Jyotir Mutt in the North, Puri in the East, Sringeri in the South and Dwaraka in the West. When the driver told me we are going to Sankaracharya’s ashram in Joshimath, I did not realize that we were actually going to see Adi Sankara’s meditation cave and the North Mutt established by him. This place is a must-see.
We first visited the cave where Totakacharya was in meditation for years. We took darshan of the Sphatika lingam that Sr Adi Sankara did puja to. The cave is very peaceful and everyone is encouraged to sit quietly and meditate for a few minutes. We then walked a little more ahead to see the Kalpavriksha and the cave where Sri Adi Sankara himself meditated. There is a Siva temple beneath the Kalpavruksha where we did abhishekam. The kalpa vruksha is more than 2000 years old. It is a wonderful spot to just sit and be quiet. Adi Sankaracharya’s cave is also beneath the kalpa vruksha. We then visited the Jyotir Mutt itself where the current Sankaracharya resides.
We then proceeded towards Badrinath. The roads were bad but we could see ice melting on the side of the roads. The weather got cooler and the scenery was beautiful. We even drove thru a path where there were ice walls on both sides. The machines had cut thru the ice to make a path for the vehicles. We reached Badrinath at around 1:30, had lunch, checked into the hotel, and around 3pm we left for Vyas Gufa.
Mana village is the last Indian village before the border with China. Though the border is far away, this village is the last village this side of the border. It is a nice walk to Ganesh gufa and Vyas gufa. It was here that Vyasji prayed to Lord Ganesha , when he wanted to write the Mahabharata. Vyasji wrote Bhagavatham and other texts also in the Vyas gufa. The Vyas gufa is more than 5000 years old.
After coming down from Vyas gufa, we have to turn on another path to go see the Saraswati river. It is only here that we get a view of the Saraswati river before she goes underground and surfaces again in Allahabad Sangam. It is a beautiful sight to see Saraswati river rushing down from above. At a short distance is Keshavprayag which is the confluence between Saraswati and Alakananda.
It was already past 5pm by the time we left Mana village, and drove towards the Badrinath temple. The temple looks beautiful in a golden color with the majestic Himalayas in the background. Alakananda flows beside the temple. She flows with such a speed as though she can’t wait to get to the plains! It is hard to even go down one step in the bathing ghats of Alakananda, and the waters are super cold. There is a Tapt Kund, a hot spring right in front of the temple. It is said that the water is very hot in the kund.
Badri in Sanskrit means “berry”. The story goes that Lord Vishnu came to this spot to do Atma Chintan for Loka Kalyan, and Mother Lakshmi took the form of a berry tree to shield Him from rain and sun. So the Lord is called BadriNarayan or BadriNath.
There wasn’t much queue at Badrinath temple, but we could only get darshan from outside at 6:30 pm. Between 6-7pm, there are vishesh pujas going on, so we can get close darshan only if we buy tickets to the vishesh puja. At 7pm gates open for darshan from inside the temple. We waited for 7pm and were able to get a very good darshan of the Lord. The alankaaram for Badri Narayan is beautiful. The Lord with his grand mukut and lotus and tulsi haar was looking resplendent. After such a good darshan, we went back to our hotel with intentions to come again the next morning for a darshan before we left Badrinath.
June 24 – Badrinath to Rudraprayag
Badri Dham is also a place where many people do special rites for their forefathers. There is a special place along the river Alakananda called Brahma Kapaal where priests help people perform pinda daanam for their ancestors. Hari and my father both performed this in the morning, so we reached the temple by 7 am and finished the rites by 8:30 am. By this time the queue for the temple had grown quite a bit and it did not look like we would get darshan for another 2 hours. The kids had been left at the hotel, so we were getting quite anxious as we stood in the line. Hari and my Dad went to the ticket counter to see if we could get some priority tickets to a shorter line but there was nothing of the sort. The only available ticket was for the last morning vishesh puja – Ved Paath. Dad took the tickets for that, but they would let only 3 people in, and we were 4. Thinking that we will manage something, we entered the temple thru the side gate and stood at the side entrance where they let in the vishesh puja ticket holders. To our luck, or call it Badri Vishaalji’s Mahima, there was another family that had taken the Ved Paath tickets, but they were only 2 of them! The guy took 2 tickets, and allowed 6 people to enter!
The priest at Brahma Kapaal had told us – It is He who brought you here, He will not let you go without His Darshan! So true! The moment we got inside the temple, we were made to sit right in front of the murtis. The priest doing the path left to go out at that precise time, so Ved Paath was delayed, giving us an extra 10 minutes to enjoy the darshan of the Lord!! What great fortune! The saaligram murthi was so beautifully decorated – the mukut, the haar, the tilak… so beautiful.. a sight to behold in our hearts forever!! Badri Narayan is surrounded on both sides by Kuber, Garud on one side and Narada and Uddhava on the other side. Nar and Narayan murtis are also placed to the left of the Lord.
We missed seeing a couple things in Badrinath – Adi Sankara’s temple is near the main temple, we came to know about this later. Also, next to the Tapt Kund are the panch shila – Garud shila, Narad shila, Narsimha shila, Varaha shila, Markandeya shila. It is said that the 3 devotees Garud, Narad and Markandeya meditated here for a long time. Lord Narsimha came here to cool down his ugra avatar, and the Lord in Varaha avatar also came here after rescuing the earth from Hiranyaksha.
We left Badrinath around noon on our way back down, where we spent the night at Rudraprayag. We had completed the Chaar Dham!
June 25 – Rudraprayag to Rishikesh
Just 3 kms from Rudraprayag is a place called Koteeshwar. It is a cave in which there are numerous lingams. The place is about 150 meters walk down to the Alakananda river. Near the river is the cave. The river is very ferocious here. We stood one step above and were contemplating whether to go a step down or not, and whoa, She herself came with such a gush and wet us till the knees! The scene was breathtaking. Cliffs on all sides and the river flowing in the middle. We entered the cave and saw chandan tika and flowers and bilva leaves all around us. Every hump in the cave is considered as a lingam!! It was very beautiful. My mother said every stone in the river bed is a lingam, that is why the name Koti Eeshwar. We all collected our lingams from the river steps.
This is also the place where my mother’s Guru attained Jala Samadhi, so there is a platform constructed there for him. We visited the cave, the temple and made our way back. My dad found some curry leaf plants and plucked a lot of them to take home.
It had started raining by then, it had rained the whole of the previous night as well. The driver was very nervous about us getting back to Rishikesh. He said the rain would have caused a lot of road blocks. He was right. Our drive back was super scary. We could see rocks falling from the mountain sides on to the roads, as we were passing thru them. A couple small rocks hit our windows as well, but the impact was not much, so we were ok. One big rock hit our wheel and the wheel cap broke. We could see road crews coming and clearing the roads everywhere, but they could not keep up. Somehow without much incident, we reached Rishikesh by around 5pm. When we saw the river, we could see that She had risen, and the water was very very muddy. The rains had washed off the hills and brought the soil down to the plains. We had plans to do river rafting in the morning but they told us that the river is very fierce, so all rafting has been cancelled. We also heard the news that Char Dham yatra has been temporarily suspended as roads have been blocked by falling rocks. Everyone in Kedarnath and Badrinath, were being held there and not allowed to come back. We all felt so grateful that our Yatra had completed successfully and we were safe back in the plains.
June 26 – Rishikesh to Dehradun
We packed our stuff in the morning, kept them ready and went to visit Swami Shivananda’s ashram. The ashram is so peaceful and beautiful. We attended the puja in the Samadhi Temple and visited the book stall and the Shiv Mandir. We met some Swamijis at the book stall, talked to them and bought a couple books. A visit to the ashram is a must in Rishikesh.
We then had lunch, drove to the airport, to catch our flight to Chennai!!