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The call of the divine

Immerse yourself in the divine powers of age-old temples and sacred towns through Chota Char Dham Yatra, writes Shalini Mitra

Kedarnath Temple

A spiritual journey can begin anywhere, but if it begins in Uttarakhand, ‘moksha’ or liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth, and an immersive experience are guaranteed for the spiritual seekers. Nestled amidst the lofty Himalayas, the state of Uttarakhand seemed to have found favour with the divine. No wonder, the state is known as ‘devbhumi’ or the ‘land of gods’ where four sacred shrines, namely Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath, exist. These four holy sites are the epicentre of religious activity in North India. Also, these four shrines, termed as ‘abodes of gods’, form a sacred pilgrimage tour which is popularly known as Chota Char Dham Yatra or ‘the four abodes tour’.

From the beginning

Traditionally, Chota Char Dham Yatra is undertaken from the west to the east or from left to the right. Thus, the pilgrimage starts from Yamunotri Temple, the source of Yamuna river, which is the westernmost shrine in the Garhwal region, then proceeding to Gangotri Temple, the source of revered Ganga river, then Kedarnath where a form of Lord Shiva is venerated as one of the 12 jyotirlingas, and finally culminating at Badrinath Temple where resides the Hindu lord Vishnu in his avatar of Badrinarayan. Besides the holy shrines, the yatra is also about bathing and washing away the sins of many births in the holy waters of Yamuna, Ganga, Mandakini and Alaknanda — the four rivers that flow along the four shrines.

What one finds truly amazing about this yatra is the accomplishment of the exhausting treks to the sacred temples which do not deter millions of Hindus thronging them annually as soon as the door to the shrines open in the month of April. The peak months for the yatra are May-June and September-October. Chitkul trek, in particular, leading to Yamunotri, is a less frequented one but one of the most scenic ones in the whole of Uttarakhand. It starts from Chitkul which is the last village on the Indo-China Border. The trek is quite arduous as it passes through dense forests and lush meadows, but you will be stunned by the extensive views of the surrounding Himalayas from here.

The trail traverses through remote areas and also through Har ki Doon, which is one of the most beautiful valleys of Garhwal region. Some say that the trail was taken by the Pandavas as mentioned in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, and is about 3,000 years old. The 14-km stone-paved trek to Kedarnath starts from Gaurikund. The gradient is steep, but one can do it in seven to eight hours with short breaks. For those who are unable to trek, ponies and palkis (palanquins for carrying children and old people) are available. The devout in search of God, peace, or freedom from the life cycle or all three endure all the hardships and untiringly trek the rugged trails to the sacred shrines. Such is the sustaining power of faith.

Badrinath Temple
Badrinath Temple

For the faithful

Ideally, Chota Char Dham Yatra is done, as the name suggests, by visiting all the four shrines, but some pilgrims choose to visit just Kedarnath and Badrinath — the two most important holy places. Well, whether you visit two or four shrines, the holy journey by road starts from Haridwar, literally meaning ‘entrance to God’s realm’. The holy city of Haridwar is located at the feet of the splendid Shivalik Hills, and is a wonderful gateway to the majestic Ganges as well.

Attending the evening Ganga aarti by the river bank is an integral part of the yatra. Hundreds of floating earthen lamps in the river is a sight to behold. The route map from Haridwar will follow the course of Haridwar-Barkot-Yamunotri-Uttarkashi-Gangotri-Guptakashi-Kedarnath-Badrinath-Rishikesh-Haridwar.Through this holy journey, you also have a great chance to visit other sanctified places such as Guptkashi, Karnaprayag and Rudraprayag. For an unhurried and relaxed tour, a minimum of seven days are required with a halt of one day at each spot. The month of September is considered to be ideal (though May & June are also good) to embark upon the holy journey because, after the rains, the beauty of the region amplifies manifold with breathtaking and scenic views of the mountains and verdant landscapes. Sometimes, pilgrims are so mesmerised by the enthralling views that the duration of the yatra simply doubles.

Despite the fact that Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam has taken every step to provide budget-friendly and top-notch facilities to the devotees to reach the abode of gods with ease, pilgrims must prepare themselves to conquer many challenges like walking in high altitudes, rugged terrains, riding on bumpy mountain roads, crossing rivers, and drastic and sudden changes in the temperature. The months of July and August must be avoided, as the Garhwal region witnesses heavy rains, and the threat of landslide looms large.

Since Chota Char Dham is the most popular pilgrimage circuit for devotees, several tour packages are available. Choosing from among them could be a daunting task. If you are a first-time visitor, you must do proper research and ensure that your package includes decent accommodation with all amenities, all meals, transportation, basic medical aid, and other necessary facilities. Choose a hotel which is in the vicinity of the temple so that you don’t have to walk a long distance for an early morning (around 4.30 am) puja. Taking into consideration these important things, you can turn the holy journey into a memorable and immersive experience.

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