As we reached Badrinath, ominous black cloud conversed in. Soon it started raining. The rain started with few drops but in no time turned into a full-scale hailstorm. Heavy drops of rain with hails hurtling down the sky is not exactly my idea of fun. We scurried for shelter and found it in the ashram of Balananda on the eastern side of Alakananda. Evening closed in. We were tired of the long journey and went to bed immediately. No body was interested in dinner.
It is very early morning. My friend nudged me awake and dragged me to the wide window. The tower of the temple with the gold pitcher can be seen in the low light. Behind the temple the Nilkantha peak, the ‘Queen of Garhwal’, with its scimitar like sharp ridge was reflecting the moon light as if in sleep. Suddenly the dawn broke through. The first rays of the sun set the peak aflame. It took a golden hue resplendent in colour, lighting the valley with its reflection. Without any warning whatsoever, we were transported into a mystic world full of legend.
The Legend: Himalayas is the abode of Lord Shiva. But down the ages Lord Vishnu captured Badrinath. The legend has it, in the ‘Satya Juga’ Lord Vishnu meditated here for thousands of years when Lakshmi, the ever-dutiful wife, provided shadow over her husband in the form of a Badri tree. So the place came to be known as Badrinath. Also, since Badrinath (Vishnu), the husband (Nath) of Lakshmi- the goddess in the form of a Badri tree is believed to reside here, the valley is named after him.
Actually, the whole valley encompassing Kedar-Badri was the home of Lord Shiva. But probably during the later Puranic ages the Vaisnavites manage to edge-out the Shaivites from the valley and installed Vishnu as the presiding deity. This change of guard was vividly described in the Puranic tale – ‘The battle of Kirat and Arjun’. Arjun though defeated, managed to propitiate Shiva who took the guise of a hunter (kirat) and induced him to leave the valley and settle in Kedarnath. Thus Badrinath came under the domain of Lord Vishnu.
Modern day Badrinath: In Badri, the first task of any visitor, without any exception, is to go for a ‘Darshan’ of the Lord. So we also went to see the Idol of Lord Vishnu. Legend apart, Badrinath is the most important religious center of Vaisnavism in India. Perched at a height of 10300feet, the scenic beauty of the place is simply breathtaking. Surrounded by lofty mountains, the wide valley is bisected by the mighty-holy river Alakananda. The fiercely flowing Alakananda just below the temple, its swirling water dancing over rocks, is in complete contrast to the age-old immobility around.
Till the middle of the 21st century, Badrinath could be reached only by a long, hard and arduous trek over mountain ranges that crested to a height of 10000ft plus. But thanks to the modern age, now Badrinath is accessible directly by road from Hardwar/ Hrishikesh. The journey is long and tiresome but the scenic beauty on the road is worth the trouble. Better still; take a night-halt either in Rudraprayag or in Joshimath.
Our bus Started very early in the morning from Hrishikesh. It was still dark. We took this bus because it is the only bus that reached Badrinath in a day. Its headlights blazing, breaking the darkness, our bus started to climb the mountain-road towards Devaprayag- the confluence of Bhagirathi & Alakananda. These two rivers merged here to form ‘The Ganges’- the holiest river of India. By noon we reached Srinagar, the most populous town in this route and took our lunch. Through the soft light of the afternoon our bus reached Joshimath. Throughout, baring a few patches, the road was good. But after Joshimath, the road is one way, operating through ‘gate system’, and the condition was bad; landslides at several points made the journey nerve racking. By evening, somehow managing to avoid disaster, we reached Badrinath. It was a bone shattering journey but the spellbinding scenic beauty all around made it worth every dime.
BadrinathTemple: Two avalanches in 1948 & 1950 coupled with the devastating flood of Alkananda in 1958 ruined the old Badrinath settlement, which then had to be reconstructed. Most of the new settlement was built on the eastern bank of Alakananda facing the temple and the Nilkantha peak.
Beside the stunning beauty all around, the main attraction of Badrinath is the temple of Lord Vishnu. The existing structure is not that old. The original built by the great Sankaracharjya long destroyed. This modern structure built by the king of ‘Garhwal’ in the fifteenth century consists of an outer and an inner segment. We approached the main gate, about 50ft high, that sports a flag. The pitcher of the tower is gold plated. Two sides of the entrance have false stone windows with curving. The dominant bright colours- blue, green and yellow-on the outer walls do not go with the religious serenity. The dome shaped tower shows the influence of Muslim architecture. The Maharaja of Jaipur built that during the Mogul rule. Statues of Kuber and Narayan stand guard on two sides of the richly curved wooden main-door. As we stepped on the wide stone paved courtyard, an arch of black stone with two images of Vishnu in full splendor, on either, sides greet us.
The sanctum sanctorum, build of stone, has rich curving all around. Every body was to stand on the doorway to have a ‘Darshan’. The image of Lord Badrinath made of black stone, is fully covered with jewellery & flowers. So we could only just make out the outline of the idol. Except the ‘Rawal’- the chief priest, nobody is allowed to touch the idol. A replica in the courtyard shows the details. The image is that of Vishnu in the posture of meditation, holding Shankha, Chakra, Gada& Pamda. A sacred thread dangling over the wide chest that shows the kick mark of the sage Vrigu. The eyes are shut firmly; locks have come down on the wide shoulders. It is an exquisitely beautiful and awesome statue that is revered by all, the believer & the non-believer, alike. The images of Kuber, Shridevi, Bhudevi, Ganesh & Naranarayan stand on the two sides of Badrinath. A statue of Uddhab, friend and the most ardent follower of Krishna, kneels in front of the image. During winter when the temple is closed, the image of Uddhab is brought down to Joshimath and is worshipped as the representative of Lord Badrinath.
Around the temple: Images of lesser gods viz. Hanuman, Lakhsmi etc & the office of the temple are located in the temple complex in separate buildings. Around the temple complex, we visited Pancha shila (five sacred stones)- Narad, Baraha, Nrisingha, Markandeya & Garudah and the Pancha Tirtha (five sacred center)-Hrishiganga, Kurmadhara, Prahladdhara, Naradkunda & Taptakunda. We took a dip in the hot water of the ‘Tapta Kunda’. The water is said to have curing power! Well, I don’t have any disease. As for my friend, I don’t know. If you are game for a little adventure, then go for a trek to see the Charan Paduka- an impression of a foot on a stone, believed to be that of the Lord Vishnu himself. A breathtaking view of the Nilkantha peak from this spot gives the non-believer the reward worth the trouble. Mana (3kms), the last village on this side of the border with Tibet, on the confluence of the rivers Saraswati and Alakananda is also worth a visit. The confluence, ‘Keshabprayag’, is said to be very sacred. A natural stone bridge over Saraswati known as ‘Bhimpul’ and a fall on the course of the river are a must see. Legend has it that ‘Bhim’, the second brother of the ‘Pandavas’, put up a huge stone over the river so that ‘Draupadi’ can cross the river. So the bridge was named after him. A bit tougher treks to ‘Basudhara’ (8kms), waterfall of breath-taking beauty, for the adventurous type, is worth the trouble. The fall, coming down from a height of 145meters, is sure to spellbind you. At least, it did so to me!
As the sun sets behind the ‘Nilkantha’ peak, the lights around the temple are switched on. Religious songs from the temple wafted towards us. As the moon came out, its silvery light cascaded down the sharp ridges of ‘Nilkantha’. The picture-perfect scene was spellbinding. The atmosphere in the entire valley changed subtly bringing in a new dimension and transporting us into a world of mysticism and hope. Tomorrow is an another day and we will leave for Kedarnath.
On way to Kedarnath: The bus we took is called ‘Bhukh-Hartal’. Since the locals had to resort to a hunger strike (Bhukh-Hartal) to get its route sanctioned, the name stuck. It starts from Badrinath at around 7-30 in the morning and reaches Gourikunda, the road-head, in the evening via Chamoli and Chopta. There is an alternative route via Rudraprayag. But the former goes through a reserved forest amidst spellbinding scenic beauty under the watchful eyes of snow crested peaks of the Choukhamba range. So we took this route.
On the way, visitors can break journey to visit Rudranath or Tunganath from Mandal and Chopta respectively. The Musk deer breeding center at Pangerbasa is worth a visit. A beautiful bungalow at Dogolvitta, half an hour’s journey from the breeding center can be a splendid place for a night-halt. But we had a tight schedule and simply could not afford to break journey. We reached Gourikunda in the evening. Spending the night in one of the numerous ‘Dharmasala’ of Gourikunda, we intend to tackle the 14kms trek to Kedarnath early in the morning.
Gourikunda (6500fts): ‘Devi Gouri’, the daughter of the ‘Himalaya’, sat here on a long meditation to propitiate Lord Shiva and forced the grand ascetic to marry her. A temple in Trijuginarayan, a hamlet nearby, stands witness to that grand marriage. The sacred sacrificial fire in the temple before which the marriage was solemnized is said to be burning till date. Gourikunda, a well shaped narrow valley, also boast of an ancient temple of ‘Gouri’ and a hot spring. The hot water is a sure cure of aching limbs and after a dip in that hot pool, our tired- aching limbs from the long bus journey, got a new lease of life.
The trek: In the early morning, we were on the trail. The path is stone paved and wide enough for comfortable walking but “plundering” horses and ‘Dandis’ (an easy chair carried by four carriers) that carries the pilgrims to the temple neither allow the trekkers to walk in peace nor one can avoid them. The trekkers find it difficult to walk through this confusion. So as they say, it is better to join them when you can’t beat them. I mean, it is better to ride a horse. It will be a life time experience! But if you are stubborn enough to take the challenge head-on, then the splendor of the route is compensation enough. We took a tea- break at Jangalchati 4kms ahead. The place with a few teashops is perched precariously amidst the Kedarnath reserved forest. A fall of exquisite beauty on the true left side of ‘Mandakini’, across the gorge, gave us company. Ramwara, a small valley that boast of the only tourist bungalow on the way, is another 4kms away. The aged and the infirm can break their journey here. We took our launch here. The steepest part of the trek is from Ramwara to Garudachati, a distance of 3kms. Fully fueled it took us one and half-hour only to cross Garuda. Another 3kms of walking through a green carpeted valley interspersed with small blue, yellow and red flowers and we reached Kedarnath valley.
Kedarnath (3584mts): The first sighting of the temple from ‘Deo Dekhani’ (place from where the god is first seen) with its gold pitcher on the tower, the snowy peak of Kedarnath (22770ft) in the background and the wide green valley watered by the dancing ‘Mandakini’ river is so spellbinding that most of the pilgrims broke down into tears. The saucer shaped valley is 2kms long and 1/2kms wide. The temple and the hamlet are on the eastern side of the river. The cold here is biting, as the snow line is very near. No other temple in India is as close to the snowline as the Kedarnath. We are in another land of legend.
The legend: In Kedarnath, hearsay, history & legend are inextricably mixed. It is simple impossible to separate them now. According to the ‘Puranas’, in this valley ‘Upamanyu’ propitiated Lord Shiva, the god of death &destruction, by a long meditation and compelled him to stay in the valley forever. Mahabharat has another story. The Pancha Pandavas after the ‘Great War’ of ‘Kuruskhetra’ came in the Himalayas to wash off their sin of killing their own kith & kin by having a ‘Darshan’ (sighting) of Shiva. But Shiva was reluctant to appear before the sinners. So he fled in the guise of a bull. The Pandavas pursued him and here Bhim was able to catch hold of the back of the bull that then entered the earth leaving behind its back. The Pandavas built a grand temple over the left-off back that by then has turned into stone. This is the popular belief. But, the Mahabharat though mentions Badrikashram, does not mention Kedarnath. So the name of the builder of the temple is shrouded in mystery that has defied numerous attempt of cracking.
Another popular belief, Sankaracharjya-the great reformer & ascetic-had built the temple also appears not to be true. It is certain that Sankar visited Kedarnath. He stayed there till his death. But Sankaracharjya died at the tender age of thirty-two and most probably came to Kedar in his thirties. So it seems simply impossible that even an active man like him was able to build such a grand temple at a height of 11745ft in those days of grass-root technology in such a short time.
According to Rahul Sankrityayana, the great Sanskrit scholar who visited Kedar in 1951, there was a temple in the 4th century. This time frame is much before the time of Sankaracharjya. He also said, the popular belief that the figurines in the shelf of the inner walls of the temple were that of the Pandavas is not true. Mainly these figurines prompted the belief that the temple was built by the Pandavs.
The Temple: In early afternoon we approached the temple. The architecture of Kedarnath temple is unique as no other Himalayan temple shows a Grecian influence. The Grecian influence can be seen, most vividly, on the tympanum of the temple. The tower shows Tibetan influence. Some experts think that before Sankaracharjya turned the temple into a Shaiva center, it was a Buddhist temple, which explain the Tibetan influence.
The temple stands on an elevated square stone courtyard, an image of a bull sat relaxed, facing the main door. The kitchen and a small temple of Ishaneswar, another form of Shiva, are located behind the main temple.
The temple has two segments. The outer part is called ‘Natmandir’ where devotees stand to see the idol and the inner part or the ‘Garvagriha’ is the Sanctum Sanctorum where the idol is lodged. Two ‘Dwarpals’ (guards) stand erect on two sides of the curved wooden door of the ‘Natmandir’. An image of Ganesh greets the pilgrims at the door. The outer segment has four columns on four sides, shelves on the walls contains figurines which are believed to be that of the Pandavas, Kunti and Draupadi and also an image of Laxmi-Narayan. Here, a brass image of a bull facing the Shiva is worth a look. A curved lotus looks exquisite on the roof of the ‘Natmandir’.
The wooden door of the sanctum is richly curved with figures and sketches. Two exquisite images of Laxmi & Parvati add to the splendor. Experts believe that these images are later additions. The walls of the sanctum are covered with several coats of ‘ghee’ and soot. Shelves on the walls contain figurines smeared with soot. So I failed to identify them. The roof is adorned with lotus curved on stone. A black stone with a striking similarity to the back of a bull is worshipped as the image of the Lord. The stone ‘Lingam’ is naked, devoid of any jewellery, a compliment to the Lord who renounced everything. However, in the evening during the ‘Aarati’- worship with lamp- the naked image is decked with a silver crown and ‘Bramhakamal’- an exotic flower found only in the higher riches of the Himalaya.
Around the temple: Next morning, we explored around the temple. ‘Vrigujhampa’, a great black stone on the mountain behind the temple, from the top of which ascetics and pilgrims used to jump to their death to earn a direct entry into the haven is worth a visit. The practice was stopped during the British rule. The five Ganges believed to originate from the heaven, Alakananda (invisible), Mandakini, Dudhaganga, Khirganga & Mauganga flow through the valley. The three Ganges that are visible, merge with Mandakini. Five holy ‘Kundas’ (small puddles)- Udak, Retas, Amrita, Eshan & Hansa Kunda- are a must see for the pilgrims. A short trek (2kms) to ‘Chorabali Tal’- the source of river Mandakini- is worth a visit. On 4th June 1948, the ashes of Gandhiji were sprinkled on the water of the lake and renamed ‘Gandhi Sarobar’. A bit tougher trek to ‘Basuki Tal’ (8kms, 4135mts)- the abode of the great serpent ‘Basuki’ and a high altitude lake of great beauty, can resurrect you. It is a hard one day trek but worth the trouble.
It is time to leave this heaven. A cool breeze was blowing. The scattered small red, blue and brown flowers in the valley were swinging. The green-carpeted valley on the backdrop of the snowy mountain was resplendent with colour. The gold pitcher on the tower of the temple was shining against the snow-covered Kedarnath peak. This serene picture with a touch of mystic left an ever-lasting impression as we left the ‘Valley of Gods’.