Dramatic dham

Dramatic dham

journey of a lifetime

Dramatic dham
The drive to Badrinath, one of the Four Dhams sacred to Hindus, was through forbidding yet stunning terrain. Humped mountains with double chins and fissured folds rose around us like a silent army of stone. Resembling at times the bunched fists of a battle-scarred boxer, they seemed to dwarf the convoy of cars that bumped along the ravine-hugging, filament-thin roads.

Would we attain moksha even before reaching Badrinath, the ultimate dham to which elderly pilgrims trudged in the old days to attain release from an endless cycle of rebirth? We had started out from our base in Joshimath, picturesque tented camp which lassoes views of an amphitheatre of mountains. As our car sped along, the swirling waters of the Alaknanda river kept us company most of the way.

Indeed, the road to Badrinath never lets one forget how powerful and capricious nature can be. The land still bore the wounds and scars of the 2013 disaster — piles of rubble, mountain surfaces with gaping slashes, a few collapsed homes.

And so at the beginning of our journey, we prayed for safe passage at a small wayside shrine, overwhelmed by the larger-than-life scale of it all. We wondered at the impudence of seemingly fragile bridges straddling a mighty river; pine forests clinging desperately to otherwise bare mountain slopes; glaciers tumbling down like icing on a cake; bare rock raked by divine titans; homes clinging for dear life to precarious ridges. Against this primeval backdrop, we saw sadhus in flaming orange walking with just a bundle and a stave, impervious to the midday sun burning their backs. They seemed to have been made from tempered steel, only their weather-beaten faces, with eyes like glowing embers, reflected years of hardship and penance in service of their faith.

As it happened

Finally, we left the gorgeous primeval landscape behind to arrive in Badrinath, a frenetic little town situated at a height of 3,133 m, infused with piety, everydayness and commerce. We plunged into the melee, passing men having their beards shaved, ear cleaners, shops selling the paraphernalia of worship, tea shops, weary holy men waiting for alms, and pilgrims trudging across a bridge to the temple. We were swallowed up by the ebb and flow of humanity seeking answers to the human condition; some were looking for solace, others a boon or two, and many more for moksha.
Behind the clamorous town soared Neelkanth (6,600 m), smothered in cloud, seeming to underscore the presence of the divine.

A long queue of pilgrims snaked away from the tall gateway of the resplendent stone temple with arched windows and a conical gold gilt roof resembling a Buddhist vihara. Devotees generally take a dip in Tapt Kund, the hot springs nearby, and then queue up at the entrance for a darshan from 3 am as May-June is the peak season. (The temple is closed in the beginning of November and rituals continue to be performed at the Narasimha Temple at Joshimath. The shrine re-opens in April-end.)

We managed to have a quick darshan of the one-metre-tall black stone idol of Vishnu, in the form of Lord Badri Narayan, seated in a meditative pose in the sanctum. We tiptoed towards the sanctum via a vast pillared hall. In front of the naturally manifested idol, we prostrated ourselves as a priest blessed us and thrust a coconut into our hands, and soon we were on our way.

We surfaced breathless from the cauldron of devotion and faith that swirled around us and seemed to pull us into the vortex. So powerful were the soothing vibes that emanated from the sanctum that even we, as non-Hindus, felt their embrace and were swept along as though on the tide of a heaving ocean.

Outside, we stopped to chat with Vipul Dimri, who hails from a priestly family and has a shop near the temple. He told us that the priests at the temple are Nambudri Brahmins from South India as the temple was established by Adi Shankaracharya over a 1,000 years ago. The present structure was built by the then maharaja of Tehri Garhwal, whose descendants till today decide on the day on which the temple doors are opened. A ceremony and puja are conducted at the maharaja’s palace near Rishikesh, and the temple doors are opened with much fanfare.

The grounds of the temple and beyond were a sea of people (guess-estimates peg the figure at 25,000 a day) and filled with accents from different parts of India — snatches of Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi. Soon, life sucked us back from the spiritual summit that we had briefly touched.

In search of some peace, we drove to Mana, a village three km away, the last Indian village on the Indo-Tibet/China border. Inhabited by Indo-Mongolian people, it was a one-street village cupped by mountains  where the wizened faces of the locals were generally wreathed in smiles. Tiny cottages, shops and cafes selling tea, coffee and Maggi noodles lined the peaceful little village.

The locals pointed us in the direction of Bhim Pul, where Bhim of the Mahabharata threw a boulder over River Saraswati to help Draupadi cross it. After an uphill walk — in the course of which we passed an ash-smeared sadhu who was performing a puja for some young lads, elderly men knitting sweaters in preparation for winter, a couple of women washing clothes at the community water tap — we felt the ground shake. A roar filled our ears — it was the mighty river gushing through a gorge, creating a mist as it thundered down.

Surreal heights

On the other side in a secluded hollow was one of the most atmospheric cafes that we have seen — it billed itself as India’s last tea and coffee centre. The sign exhorted — ‘Relax, Refresh and Recharge yourself’. We did just that with some steaming hot chai and off-the-griddle bhajias, listening to the roar of the Saraswati as it plunged headlong on her journey.

On the way back to the entrance of the village, we passed the ash-smeared sadhu again. We stopped to take his picture even as he seemed absorbed in the puja. Suddenly, he looked up and indicated that he wished to be paid for the picture. We declined. He smiled and said in Hindi, “You will return one day.”

Was that a prediction, a prophesy? In those rarefied Himalayan heights, reality and the surreal merge and blur.
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