Char Dham

Vedic World, May 2010

This article is based on researched material both printed and electronic and also on inputs given by our panel of research associates.

The Char Dham are often considered the most revered sites for Hindus that have to be visited in one’s lifetime. Char Dham (meaning: ‘the four abodes/seats’) are the four abodes of God in the four directions of India – Puri in the east, Rameshwaram in the south, Dwarka in the west, and Badrinath in the north.

This all-India pilgrimage circuit to the four cardinal points of the subcontinent was grouped together as a singularly pious pilgrimage for all Hindus by the 8th century reformer and philosopher Adi Shankaracharya (see box Jagatguru Adi Shankaracharya). He traveled throughout the country and grouped the four sacred places as the Char Dham which are dedicated to the Vishnu Avatars (incarnations).


Geographically speaking the char dham make a perfect square with Badrinath and Rameswaram falling on the same longitude and Dwarka (old) and Puri on the same latitude, representing the farthest north, east, west, and south points of India (at that time, before coastlines changed).

Over the years, the term “Char Dham” has lent itself to the other Char Dham pilgrimages in the Garhwal Himalayas. Earlier, this circuit was known as Chota Char Dham  (Short Char Dham) to differentiate it from the bigger circuit of Shankaracharya s Char Dham sites, but after the mid – 20th century the Chota Char Dham   began to be called the Char Dhams.

As opposed to the predominantly Vaishnavite Char Dham, the Chhota Char Dham represents all three major Hindu denominations and consists of four sites-Yamunotri and Gangotri representing Shaktism, Kedarnath   representing Shaivism, and Badrinath   representing Vaishnavism.

While each of these sites is unique in its own fashion, inclusion in the Char Dham circuit has, over time, caused them to be viewed together in popular imagination and in pilgrimage practice. Today, the term Char Dham  usually refers to the Himalayan Char Dham and it is this Himalayan Char Dham that this article discusses.

Until recent times the Chardham was long dominated by wandering ascetics and religious professionals, along with a handful of devoted retirees and wealthy patrons who could afford an entourage. While the individual sites and the circuit as a whole were important to Hindus on the plains below, they were not a particularly visible aspect of yearly religious culture.

After the 1962 war between India and China, however, accessibility to the Char Dham has   improved and in fact after the creation of the state of Uttarakhand the Char Dham is today the most visited of the pilgrim sites of India particularly by Bengalis, Marwaris, Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, and people from U.P, Delhi and Uttarakhand.

The major attraction of the   Char Dham yatra is that it is woven around the headwaters of the river Ganga, the most secular and abiding icon of Hindutva. Irrespective of caste, creed or region the Ganges is universally referred to as mother Ganga.

Further, it is said that the incredible mountain scenery that surrounds the sites is most vivid and matching it are the picturesque rivers   and streams that abound in the area.

The Char Dham yatra begins from Haridwar (gateway to God) one of the most importatnt pilgrim centers of the Hindus.

Yamunotri
Yamunotri, the source of the Yamuna River and the seat of the goddess Yamuna, is a full day’s journey from Rishikesh, Haridwar or Dehradun.

The actual temple is only accessible by a six km walk from the town of Hanuman Chatti (horses or palanquins are available for rent). The current temple is of recent origin, as past iterations have been destroyed by the weather and elements. Ritual duties such as the making and distribution of prasad and the supervision of pujas are performed by the Uniyal family of pujaris. Unique aspects of ritual practice at the site include hot springs where raw rice is cooked and made into prasad.

Usually, Yamunotri temple opens on Akshay Tritiya day. The pundits in the temple close the Yamunotri temple on Bhai Dhuj after performing some special pujas. Yamunotri temple is situated at a height of over 10,000 feet in Garhwal Himalayas in Uttarakshi district in Uttarakhand state.

Gangotri
Gangotri, the source of the Ganga River and seat of the goddess Ganga, can be reached in one day’s travel from Rishikesh, Haridwar or Dehradun.

More popular and important than Yamunotri, Gangotri is also accessible directly by car and bus, resulting in the fact that it sees many more pilgrims. Ritual duties are supervised by the Semwal family of pujaris. The aarti ceremony at the Gangotri is especially impressive, as is the temple, a stately affair that sits on the banks of the rushing Ganga. The more devout pilgrims make the overnight 17 km trek to Gaumukh, the actual current source of the Ganga.

Usually, Gangotri temple opens on Akshay Tritiya day. The pundits in the temple close Gangotri temple on Diwali after performing some special pujas. Apart from special pujas on the opening and closing dates of the temple several rituals are performed on Janmashtami and Vijaydasami..

Kedarnath
Kedarnath, where Shiva is venerated as one of the twelve jyotirling, is a two-day’s journey from Rishikesh, Haridwar or Dehradun. The actual temple, an impressive stone edifice of unknown date, is accessible only after a steep 13 km walk. The most remote of the four Chota Char Dham sites, Kedarnath is flanked by breathtaking snow-capped peaks.

No specific family of pujaris supervise rituals at Kedarnath, which focus around veneration of the stone lingam that rests in the inner sanctum of the temple. Besides its affiliation with Siva, Kedarnath is also believed to be the site of Shankaracharya’s samadhi (place of interment).

Badrinath

The Badrinath temple opening date in 2010   is 19th May.

Usually, the temple closes during the third week of November due to harsh winter and remains closed till May in next year.

Badrinath, the seat of the Hindu god Vishnu in his aspect of Badrinarayan, is generally a two-day’s journey from either Kedarnath or from Rishikesh, Haridwar or Dehradun.

By far the most important of the four sites, as part of the larger Char Dham, Badrinath receives many more visitors than the other three sites. The temple is located in the lofty Himalayan heights in the Garhwal Hill tracks in Uttarakhand at an altitude of 10,248 feet above sea level.

As the route to Badrinath is for much of the way also the route to Hemkund Sahib, an important Sikh pilgrimage site, the road to Badrinath is especially crowded. The actual temple is a striking building whose bright colors evoke the painted Buddhist ghompas of the region; rumor has it that the temple was originally controlled by Buddhists.

Badrinath Temple – similar to all the four temples of the Char Dham – remains closed during winter season from October to April due to heavy snowfall. During the winter period the Murtis of Lord Badrinath are housed at the Narsimha Mandir in Joshimath area for the wintry sojourn.

The Panch Prayag

Prayag in Hindu tradition signifies confluence of two or more rivers where ablutions (bathing) before worship, religious rites called the Shraddha (the last rites) for the departed and worship of the river itself as manifestation of God are a prevalent practice. While the Prayag at Allahabad, where the three rivers namely, the Ganga, the Yamuna and the Saraswati confluence, is considered the holiest, the Panch Prayag of Garhwal Himalayas are the next in the order of piety. The Prayags are rich not only in mythological folk lore and legend but also in scenic beauty of the Himalayan snow covered peaks and enchanting valleys. It is also deduced that the Panch Prayag located on the road to Badrinath refer to the Svargarohana (ascend to heaven) route followed by the Pandavas to attain salvation after they completed circumambulation of the earth.

The Panchprayag Route

The Panch Prayag   is an expression in Hindu religious ethos, specifically used to connote the five sacred river confluences in the Garhwal Himalayas. These five river confluences, are Vishnu Prayag, Nand Prayag, Karn prayag, Rudra Prayag and Dev Prayag, in the descending flow sequence of their occurrence. It starts with the Vishnu Prayag on the Alaknanda River, which is one of the two source streams of the sacred river Ganga in the Garhwal Himalayas; the other streams are the Dhauliganga, Mandakini, Pindar and the Bhagirathi – the head stream of the Ganga.

Vishnuprayag Located at an altitude of 1,372 m above sea level, Vishnu Prayag is the confluence of rivers Vishnu Ganga and Dhauli Ganga. After Vishnu Ganga leaves Vishnu Prayag and advances its course, it is known as river Alaknanda. Legend narrates the worship offered by sage Narada to god Vishnu at this confluence.

Nandaprayag is where the river Alaknanda meets the Nandakini River. According to one tale, a noble King Nanda performed Yagnya (fire-sacrifice) and sought blessings of God. Hence, the confluence is named after him. The other version of the legend states that the confluence derives its name from the Yadava king Nanda, the foster-father of god Krishna. According to the legend, Vishnu granted a boon of the birth of a son to Nanda and his wife Yashoda and also the same boon to Devaki, wife of Vasudeva. Placed in a dilemma, since both were his disciples, he ensured that Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, was born to Devaki and Vasudeva but was fostered by Yashoda and Nanda.

Karnaprayag is where the river Alaknanda meets the Pindar River that originates from the Pindar glacier. Karna Prayag is located at an elevation of 788 m above sea level. It is surrounded by dense woods, the one time meeting ground of Shakuntala and Raja Dushyanta, immortalised in the classic by Kalidasa. Also, the epic Mahabharata legend narrates that Karna did penance here and earned the protective Kavacha (armour) and Kundala (ear rings) from his father, the Sun god, which gave him indestructible powers.

Rudraprayag is where the river Alaknanda meets the Mandakini River. The confluence is named after god Shiva, who is also known as Rudra. According to a widely narrated legend, Shiva performed the Tandava dance here, which is the source of the cycle of creation, preservation and destruction.

Devprayag is where the river Alaknanda meets the Bhagirathi River and officially becomes the Ganges River. Held in no less reverence than the Sangam at Allahabad, the DevPrayag lies at a distance of just 70 km from the pilgrimage town of Rishikesh. The many legendary kings who did penance here were, Rama – to atone his sin of killing the demon-king Ravana, a Brahmin – as well as his father Dasaratha. Legend also states that Vishnu entreated the demon-king Bali for 3 steps of land here. Legend also states that Rama, before attaining salvation, vanished from here. Vaishnavites consider it as one of the 108 Divya Desams (sacred abodes of Vishnu) for undertaking a pilgrimage during their life time.