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garhwal pilgrimage

Where Believers Go Marching In!

The four pilgrim centres, the char dhams of the Garhwal Himalayas, have always been coveted as the ultimate destination

The term yatra is one of those un-translatable words. It is specific to a culture. Words like ‘journey’ or even ‘pilgrimage’ don’t measure up to it. While it combines both, its connotation goes much beyond. It is more like an irreversible onward journey usually, but not necessarily, in large groups. In earlier times, devout Hindus in their old age undertook these arduous journeys to visit and experience the various religious places strewn all over India. There was a sense of finality in the manner in which the family members saw the yatris off since there was a lot of uncertainty about their coming back. It was not only because the journeys were hazardous but also because in Hinduism old age is the time to take leave of your worldly engagements and to get completely immersed in the act of seeking the Divine. The sense of purpose, therefore, was much more. We decided to go on a yatra. During the entire journey we were struck by the power of the stories that live on in people’s minds in their collective memory. Each of these places revealed a different facet of the Hindu spirituality in our country.

Badrinath: Where Buddha became Vishnu

We were on our way in a rickety old-fashioned bus carrying intrepid pilgrims on a very narrow and precipitous road that clung to the barren stone cliffs. Most of these pilgrims were sixty-plus and they were all bound for Badrinath. Buses and trucks carried huge hoardings like paintings of Shri Badri Vishal ; large calendar cut-outs adorned the walls of wayside tea-stalls. Everywhere these inescapable images assaulted our eyes. One such image travelled astride our bus providing a mantle of protection to the inmates on this perilous journey. Almost everyone inside was occupied in singing bhajans (devotional songs) or reciting religious hymns; some loudly, some by moving their lips silently. They were all in high spirits in anticipation of the darshan (worship) of Shri Badri Vishalji at the end of the day.

Suddenly they stopped singing and praying and diverted their attention to a more immediate problem. An army truck had come up from the opposite side, and where our bus stood now, the road was not broad enough to allow another vehicle to pass through. Therefore it had to reverse several yards to be able to find a suitably broad patch, which it did, but not before a few hair-raising manoeuvres. As I peered out of my window my eyes rested on a sheer drop and I hastily looking away. Looking around I found the others quite relaxed. Although they were following the proceedings keenly I did not sense any fear in them. While I was trying to pin my hopes on the presumption that the driver had a lot of experience on these treacherous roads, they had simply left it to God Almighty. That was the first time I had a glimpse of the great reservoir of spirituality that Indians draw upon on such occasions.

Badrinath is one of the most revered shrines of India. It is situated on the Nar-Narayan Parvat with the towering Neelkanth Peak in the background. On the banks of the wild and turbulent river Alakananda is the temple of Badrinath. Adi Guru Sri Shankaracharya installed an idol of Vishnu here. The four-handed figure bears an uncanny resemblance to a seated figure of Buddha. In fact, a whole lot of controversy surrounds this place. The idol was found in the Brahmakund, a hot water well nearby. At a time when Hinduism was in a state of decadence and confusion and Buddhism was gaining ground, Sri Shankaracharya took up the challenge of reinstating it to its former glory. He delved into every aspect of the religion, wrote profusely and travelled through the length and breadth of India setting up temples and Maths, (monasteries where sanyasis could carry out their enquiries in seclusion uninterrupted by worldly worries). Was the idol at Badrinath temple an original Buddha figure reincarnated as Hindu Vishnu? And even so, was it all that relevant I wondered. After all, Buddha has been incorporated in the dasavatars (ten incarnations) as a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu. No such thoughts seemed to fester the hundreds of devotees all around us. Their minds were too full of devotion to bother with such questions.

Kedarnath: The secret Hideout of Shiva

The heroes of the legend here are the Pandavas. Driven by the guilt of having killed their own kith and kin in the Kurukshetra war they sought the blessings of Lord Shiva for redemption. He eluded them repeatedly and while fleeing he took refuge at Kedarnath in the form of a bull. On being followed he dived into the ground, leaving his hump on the surface; Bhima held on to the hump and pulled him out.

We reached Kedarnath after a nearly level, uneventful trek of 14 kilometres from Gaurikund. The manner in which the temple of Kedarnath comes into view is dramatic. Because of elevation factors, it is not seen till you are nearly right in front of it when suddenly it emerges out of the untidy sprawl of rocks and mountains in all its glory. It is a magnificent stone edifice dating back to the 8th century, against a breathtaking backdrop of the Kedarnath range. Taking a few steps I was at another important shrine here — Sri Shankaracharya’s samadhi. At the age of 33 he passed away while still in meditation at this spot. There is a simple stone figure of this sagacious young philosopher of Hinduism who was from a small village in Kerala. He preached ‘Adwaitaism’ (the doctrine that dictates that there is only one God) and whose contribution in the revival movement for Hinduism is unparalleled. I glanced back at the imposing Kedarnath temple. The carvings on its surface looked unreal and strange from this perspective. The top was reminiscent of a Buddhist pagoda. Once again I lapsed into surmising that this was once a Buddhist shrine. Suddenly the bells at the Kedarnath temple started ringing. The reverberations spread through the valley, breaking the silence, drowning my misgivings and instantly lifting my senses into another realm far more refined and satisfying.

Gangotri: Unbelievers in a Land of Magic

Travelling up the Ganga, the most re-vered river in India, we encountered the several tributaries and their confluences, each with its own composition of Gods, Godesses, temples, priests legends and worshipers. The innumerable tales intertwine to form a confusing picture for anyone trying to explain things here by looking at it in a linear two dimensional manner. For example, at Gangotri, the temple is dedicated to the river Ganga but the river flowing right next to it is called Bhagirathi. In Hindu mythology, Ganga did not flow here, till Bhagirath performed severe tapasyas (penance) in order to absolve his family of an old curse. Fearing that the impact of this mighty river as it emerged out of the Himalayas would be too much, Lord Shiva offered to take her fall on his head. The real hero is Bhagirath who also worshipped in a small shrine dedicated to him next to the Ganga temple.

We trekked from Gangotri to Gaumukh, the actual source of the river Ganga. The Gangotri glacier is nearly 24 kilometres long and 2-4 kilometres wide. The glacier has receded over the centuries but during the Vedic period it is said to have extended as far as Gangotri. The 18-odd kilometres took us over loose moraine and huge boulders. Mighty snow peaks like Shivling, Gangotri, Bhagirathi I and II overlooked the route. The land was extremely barren with hardly any vegetation except some pines at Chirbasa and a patch of birch at Bhujbasa. At Bhujbasa we entered the realm of ‘Lal Baba’ who is a cross between a God, a sadhu and a social worker. A remarkable ashram where weary travellers like us get shelter. The accommodation, if it could be termed that, is spartan. We found the single dormitory-like room already full of travellers who had reached before us. But no one is denied shelter here. After a hot meal of khichri (rice cooked with lentils) we set out to complete the final 4 kilometres to the mouth of the glacier. The glacier is so named because it resembles the mouth of a cow. The comparison eluded me but what I did get to see was this awesome landscape strangely derelict. Not a warm and welcoming sight at all. In fact, the temperature was very low. I knew I would never be pardoned back home if I did not carry back some Gangajal from the source! A cutting sensation gripped me as I tried to put my hand in the water. I was stunned to see an old sadhu (mendicant) plunge into the waters completely ignoring its chilling effect. I remembered that it was an excellent technique of purgation.

Back at Lal Baba’s Ashram we found this group of overweight, aged women all of whom seemed to be groaning and panting in the rarefied air. I quickly reached into my rucksack for the medicines we always carried, capable of handling everything from loose motions, headaches right down to altitude sickness, in quantities that could treat an army. An elderly lady of the group placed her hand on me urging me to stop. “Beti, there is no dearth of medicines here.” She said. “You see we are all nurses from Howrah Hospital. We are simply too old for such places.” At this, the other members joined in and a hot debate ensued about the basic rationale of their trip. Working on a hunch, I distributed liberal doses of Gangajal that I had carried back from the source. Within half an hour they had revived and were marvelling at the magical properties of Gangajal. You can imagine their embarrassment when I revealed that it had less to do with the healing properties of Gangajal and more with their having denied themselves sufficient quantities of water during the walk — water that is so essential in countering altitude sickness. A counterpoise to the blind faith of the common man?

Yamunotri: Where a Lost Soul Shows us the Way

We encountered here neither the awesome beauty of the Himalayas nor any spectacular temple architecture. What struck us were these rows and rows of men and women snailing their way up the steep slopes. Their frail bodies wrapped in simple cotton worn out thin with use. Looking at their dusty legs and forlorn expressions, my heart grew heavy with compassion. They had come all the way from their villages in North India, miles away, walking through the day and halting for the night wherever dusk fell. Their travel expenses were modest and they lived very frugally, carrying grains like rice and lentils in little bundles and cooking their meals on open fires. They often slept in the open or in dharamshalas (inns). By way of clothing they were carrying only what they wore, and a shawl or blanket thrown over whenever necessitated by the cold. They did their bathing in these clothes, letting them dry on themselves. Their whole attitude was totally resigned, never complaining. I will never fully understand what draws them out of their homes to brave all the hardships on the roads.

The trek to Yamunotri is difficult and comparatively uninteresting. Exhausted by the rigours of the trek we were resting by the wayside leaning against a rock, when along came this old lady. A diminutive figure against the mighty Himalayas. Obviously she was part of a big group but had fallen way behind. But she hardly saw herself in any kind of trouble and instead thought we were the ones who needed help! Digging her thin, fragile hand into her small string bag she pulled out a handful of raisins and misri (sugar candy) and urged us to refresh our fagging energy levels. Then asking us to take things easy she carried on up the slope in the most carefree manner and was gone like an apparition. Just one of those many extraordinary men and women we had come across on our journey who displayed mettle that we seldom encounter anywhere else. The tenacity of their faith and inner goodness never failed to amaze us. It was as though the dehumanizing effects of modern society had not touched them. I realized they were neither poor nor did they need our pity. They derived their strength from the great wealth of spirituality within them.


The yatra usually begins at Rishikesh. Various operators run bus services covering all four places including the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam. Bus services also exist in the individual sectors although they are often too full.

Cheap-to-moderate accommodation is available all along the route but during peak season (May-June), prior booking is advisable.

Yamunotri Gangotri

3,235 metres 3,200 metres

Kedarnath Badrinath

3,581 metres 3,133 metres

Best season May -October

¤ Ajmer Sharif ¤ Amarkantak ¤ Amritsar
¤ Bodhgaya ¤ Chidambaram ¤ Chitrakoot
¤ Dargahkaliyarsharif ¤ Dharamsala ¤ Dilwaratemples
¤ Dwarka ¤ Gangasagarmela ¤ Garhwal
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¤ Kailashmansarovar ¤ Kamakhya ¤ Maheshwaromkareshwar
¤ Mathura ¤ Parashuramkund ¤ Pilgrimagecenters
¤ Pilgrimagesofsikhs ¤ Rameshwaram ¤ Rishikesh
¤ Sabarimala ¤ Shatrunjayahill ¤ Shivapur
¤ Tawangmonastery ¤ Thirukalikundrum ¤ Tirupati
¤ Travelofgods ¤ Trichur ¤ Tripureshwari
¤ Tungnath ¤ Vaishnodevi ¤ Varanasi
¤ Vrindavan ¤ Yamnotri