The Himalayas with its glorious peaks, crystal clear mountain streams and dense forests has been known as Dev Bhoomi, the land of the Gods. The four shrines of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath – known as the Char Dham - were established in Garhwal and Kumaon as the holiest Hindu shrines, whose tour would bring instant salvation to devotees. Yamunotri and Gangotri are revered as the sources of the two most holy rivers in India, the Yamuna and the Ganga. Kedarnath and Badrinath have shrines dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu, two of the gods in the Hindu trinity.
High up in a deep cleft on the western face of the Banderpunch peak is the Yamunotri shrine, worshipped as the source of the holy Yamuna River. 223 kms from Rishikesh, this mountain shrine is one of the most difficult to access at 3,235 meters. Technically the source of the river is on the Champasar glacier at Saptarishi Kund (12 kms further up), but it is at Yamunotri that pilgrims come to worship the goddess Yamuna and bathe in its chilled waters. According to Hindu mythology, Yamuna, the twin sister of Yama, descended from the mountains at this point.
The temple at Yamunotri sits next to the river, around the hot sulphur springs of the Surya Kund. After worshipping a rock pillar known as Divya Shila, pilgrims enter the main temple and follow it up with a bath in the holy waters of the river.
From the main temple, at a distance of about 29 kms, is the ancient temple site of Barkot.
Nestling amidst deodar forests is the shrine of Gangotri, worshipped by Hindus as the source of their most sacred river Ganga. At a distance of 105 kms. from the town of Uttarkashi, Gangotri is the spiritual source of the river, while its actual source is the ice cave of Gomukh, 18 kms up the Gangotri glacier. Here, Ganga is known as Bhagirathi, named after the ancient king Bhagirath who prayed to bring her down from the heavens. The other major tributary, the Alaknanda emerges from glacial waters near Badrinath and joins the Bhagirathi further down at Devprayag to become the magnificent Ganga. Considered the most sacred of all rivers, this great life-giver of India continues to be worshipped as a goddess. Bathing in her waters brings deliverance from sins committed in the present and all past births.
The shrine of Gangotri is set amidst rugged mountains and overlooks the thundering river at 3,048 metres. Made of white stone, the temple is decorated with a gilded roof crowned with a central spire. Near the temple is the Bhagirath shila, a stone slab where king Bhagirath sat to meditate. On reaching the shrine pilgrims offer prayers at the temple and go down to the main bathing ghat next to the river. Dev ghat, down below and set amidst tall trees, is the confluence of Bhagirathi with the Kedar Ganga. At Gaurikund magnificent waterfalls create a pool, which is reached through forest paths along the Gangotri gorge and over a rope bridge across the mighty river.
Steps lead up from the temple to join the trail leading to the Gangotri glacier and the ice cave of Gomukh. Passing through grand mountain vistas, you reach a forest checkpost where a refundable charge of hundred rupees has to be deposited. Further on, the 24 km. long glacier spreads out in front and the Bhagirathi peaks stand majestically above.
Before proceeding on the last leg to Gomukh, you can rest for the night at the picturesque hamlet of Bhojbasa, from where a 5 km. trail leads up to the source of the Bhagirathi at Gomukh. Literally meaning `mouth of the cow’, Gomukh reflects the shape of the glacier. The river comes out of a cavernous opening in the glacier, with large chunks of ice crashing down into the waters.
6 kms ahead of Gomukh a side trail leads to the meadows of Tapovan and Nandanvan, both surrounded by a line of majestic peaks, including Bhagirathi, Shivling and the Kedar Dome (6,831 metres).
17 kms. from Gangotri is the celestial emerald lake of Kedar Tal. Situated at a height of 5,000 meters, this is where the Kedar Ganga originates. The crystal waters of the lake reflect a line of Himalayan peaks, including the Thalesagar (6,904 metres), Bhrigupanth (6,772 metres) and the Jogin group. Travelling along the Kedar Ganga for about 8 kms you reach the pastures of Bhoj Kharak. From here, pine forests give way to birch trees, the bark of which was used in ancient times to write on.
Kedarnath, at a distance of 223 kms from Rishikesh, is one of the most sacred mountain shrines of Lord Shiva. At a height of 3,581 metres, this ancient site nestles close to the source of the Mandakini, one of the tributaries of the Ganga. Amidst a stunning landscape of stark mountain faces, deep gorges and snow peaks, the Kedarnath shrine is amongst the most important in the Himalayas.
According to Hindu mythology, when the Pandavas reached the Himalayas, they searched for Shiva to bless them. The lord tried to escape by disguising himself as a bull and mixing with a grazing herd. Bhima, one of the Pandava brothers, straddled the valley and let the herd pass through his legs. When he saw one bull refusing to pass through, he recognised it as Shiva. On being spotted, Shiva dived into the ground at Kedarnath, with Bhima holding onto his back. While Shiva’s hindquarters remained at Kedarnath, the other parts of his body emerged in four locations, thus giving rise to the Panch Kedar or five Kedars. The lingam remained at Kedarnath, while the arms appeared at Tunganath (3,680 metres) with the highest temple in India, the face at Rudranath, the navel at Madhmaheshwar in northwest Garhwal and the hair at Kalpeshwar, over the Alaknanda valley.
The trek to Kedarnath begins at the small village of Gauri Kund with its Gauri temple and hot sulphur springs or Tapt Kund. From Gauri Kund a pony trail leads up through pine forests to Rambara, beyond which the road gets steeper and more difficult. After a very tough climb the track eases out a kilometre short of Kedarnath at Garur Chatti. Beyond, as you round a corner on the trail, you suddenly come upon the southern face of the grand Kedarnath peak (6,940 metres) at the end of the Mandakini valley.
The Kedarnath temple, dating back to the 8th century, nestles in the shadow of this great mountain. Built of grey stone, the temple stands at the head of a small settlement. Outside the main sanctum stands a massive stone image of Shiva’s Nandi bull. Behind the temple is the memorial of the saint-philosopher Shankara who died at this spot.
To the south of Kedarnath a path leads up the hillside to the ancient temple of Bhairav Nath, a fearsome embodiment of the lord of destruction. Till the 19th century fanatic devotees jumped to death from a cliff near the temple in the hope of attaining salvation.
Crossing the Mandakini over the main bridge, a trek leads up the valley to the far edge of the glacier at Chorabari Tal, now known as Gandhi Sarovar. About 800 metres short of the lake lies the source of the Mandakini. According to mythological tales, the eldest Pandava Yudhishthir left for heaven near the lake.
6 kms up from Kedarnath is another lake, the Vasuki Tal, at a height of 4,135 metres. Surrounded by snow mountains, the placid lake offers good views of the Chaukhamba peaks. 20 kms from Kedarnath is another trek route leading to Sonprayag, the confluence of the Son Ganga with Mandakini. 5 kms beyond Sonprayag is the ancient temple of Triyuginarayan. Believed to be the spot where Lord Shiva married Parvati, the temple has an undying flame that is said to be the marriage fire of the divine couple.
Amongst other sites around Kedarnath is Gupt Kashi, 45 kms away, with its temples of Ardhnarishwar (half male-half female form – a unification of Shiva and Shakti) and Vishwanathji. Ukhimath, 60 kms below, is the winter shrine of the deity at Kedarnath. It is also home to the Rawal or head priest for the winter months.
The Vishnu temple of Badrinath is located 298 kms from Rishikesh and 48 km from Joshimath . This holy town nestles at a height of 3,133 metres, at the site where a forest of Badri (berry) trees, known as the mythical Badrivan, once covered the area.
The great Nilkantha peak (6,558 metres) towers over the temple set deep down in the Alaknanda valley. The rulers of Garhwal built the present temple of Badrinarayan some two hundred years ago.
The original Badrinath shrine, built by the 9th century saint Shankara, has been re-built several times over due to damage from avalanches and snowfall. Made of wood, the temple stands 15 metres high, topped with a gilded cupola. The exteriors are painted in bright colours every year before the temple gates open. Standing in sharp contrast to the grey concrete buildings around it and the stark mountain slopes behind, the temple resembles a Tibetan gompa from a distance. The head priest of Badrinath is also that of Kedarnath, hailing from the Namboodiri Brahmin caste of Kerala in southern India.
Below the temple are the Tapt Kund and Surya Kund, hot sulphur springs where pilgrims take a ritual dip before entering the temple. The ancient village of Badrinath is to the south of the temple.
24 kms from Badrinath is the famous site of Govindghat, the confluence of the Alaknanda with the Lakshmanganga. This is also the entry point for the mystical Valley of Flowers and the Sikh shrine of Hemkund Sahib. The Vasuki Tal at a height of 4,135 metres is 8 kms from Badrinath.
Besides the main shrine of Badrinath, there are four other shrines that together form the Panch Badri or five Badris. Bhavishya Badri is believed to be the future Badrinath shrine, which will be used once the present shrine site is blocked when the twin peaks of Jay and Vijay join together. The other Badris are Yoga Badri at Pandukeshwar where the idol resides in winter, Adi Badri with its ancient Gupta age temples near Karnaprayag and Vridha Badri at Animath near Joshimath where Badrinath was originally worshipped.