Char Dham is a rejuvenating spiritual experience in the misty heights of the majestic Garhwal Himalayas of Uttarakhand state in India. The name Char Dham literally means "four pilgrimages" and refers to the group of four of the holiest Hindu sites located in this region. These are Gangotri and Gaumukh, the source of the River Ganges (called Bhagirathi here), Yamnotri, the source of the River Yamuna, and the celebrated temples of Badrinath (the northernmost major pilgrimage site for Vaishnavas or worshippers of Vishnu), and Kedarnath (the northernmost Jyotirlinga or the northernmost site where Lord Shiva manifests himself as a "Lingam of light"). The region is also one of the most popular trekking destinations in India.
Garhwal is right in the middle of the Himalayas, with Himachal in the West and North-West; Tibet in the North; the plains of Western Uttar Pradesh in the South and the Kumaon hills of Uttarakhand in the East. Historically, it has been described as Kedarkhand, extending from Gangadwar (modern day Haridwar) in the South to the high mountains in the North, and from the Tamsa (Tons) river in the West to Buddhachal (the Nanda Devi group of peaks between Garhwal and Kumaon) in the East.
Perched at an altitude of 3293 meters above sea level, Yamunotri is located in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand. It is very close to the Indo-Chinese border and is surrounded by the Himalayan offshoots on all sides. Yamunotri, lies near the Bandarpunch Mountain, which is 6315 m high and lies to the north. The glacial lake of Saptarishi Kund (Champassar Glacier), on the Kalind Parbat, at an altitude of 4421 m, about 1 km upstream. Pilgrims do not frequently visit the source of the river as it is not easily accessible. Among the major attractions of Yamunotri are hot water springs nearby. Devotees prepare rice and potatoes to offer at the shrine, by dipping them in these hot water springs, tied in muslin cloth.
Along the right bank of Bhagirathi (Mother Ganga or Ganges) stands the shrine of Gangotri dedicated to the Goddess, one of the most revered places of Hinduism. Perched at a height of 3042 meters above sea level, it was constructed in the early 18th century by a Gorkha Commander, Amar Singh Thapa. The physical source of the holy river is at Gaumukh, 18 km further uphill, along the Gangotri Glacier(4238.6 m), which extends from Chaukhamba cluster of snowpeaks to Gaumukh. Several pilgrims trek upto the source to offer prayers either on foot or on ponies. Further dowstream in Tehri, Bhagirathi offers river-rafting adventures. For a large number of tourists, Gangotri town serves as the starting point of the Gangotri-Gaumukh-Tapovan and Gangotri-Kedartal trekking routes.
In a scenic spot, at an altitude of 3584 m and at the origin of the river Mandakini, the temple of Kedarnath is amongst the most venerated by Hindu pilgrims, as it is considered as the northernmost shrine where Lord Shiva resides in the form of a "Lingam of Light". Geographically, Kedarnath is the closest Jyotirlinga to Mansarovar, the eternal abode of Lord Shiva. With the stunning background of towering white Kedarnath dome mantled with snow, the temple, magnificent in its style and architecture, presents an enchanting sight. It is built on a morainic ridge jutting out at right angles from the snowy range. All around it is an aura of peace and purity. Here, the unholy are said to become holy and the holy, holier still. The present temple, most likely built in 8th century by Adi Shankaracharya, stands adjacent to the site of an earlier temple built by the Pandavas. Only a kilometer trek away from Kedarnath, the crystal clear waters of the Gandhi Sarovar lake present a fascinating sight.
The temple of Shri Badrinathji, on the banks of Alaknanda river, is flanked by two mountain ranges known as Nar and Narayan, with the towering Neelkanth peak providing a splendid backdrop. The original temple that was here is said to have been of very great antiquity, dating back to the times when the Vedas were written. It was destroyed by avalanches or by Buddhists. It is said that the image of Badrinath had been thrown into the Alaknanda during the Buddhist era and was later retrieved and reinstalled by Adi Shankara during the following Hindu revival. The present temple is believed to have been established by him. Others say the present temple was built about 400 years ago by the king of Garhwal. This spot was once carpeted with wild berries which gave it the name ‘Badri Van’,meaning ‘forest of berries’. Facing the temple at the bank of Alaknanda river is a hot water spring known as ‘Tapt Kund’. A bath in this spring is very refreshing.
Prepare and Go
Uttarakhand is a dry state. No alcohol or non-vegetarian food is permitted in the Char Dham region. Natives of the region are very friendly. Some claim "pure Indo-Aryan" heritage, and others a Rajput heritage. The major languages are Pahadi (Garhwali) and Hindi. English is also well-understood by some. There are lots of inexpensive hotels and ashrams. Money is not a problem here. You will fit in even if you are broke.
According to Hindu scriptures, the sites of Char Dham should be visited from left to right - beginning with Yamnotri, going on to Gangotri, Kedarnath and culminating the journey at Badrinath. This route follows the Hindu tradition of parikrama or clockwise circumambulation.
Char Dham is accesible only 6 months of the year, May through October. During the winter months, the region is snowed in and cannot be accessed.
Kedarnath is accessible after a steep 13 km trek over a paved path from Gaurikund. Untrained persons are likely to take all day for the walk, and spend lunch halfway. There are places en route like Janglechatti, Rambara and Garurchatti where you can rest a while or spend the night. Just one kilometer before Rambara is a high and beautiful cascading waterfall.
The journey to Badrinath is through Rudra Prayag. From Rudra Prayag the road to Badrinath is a single way route, passing through mountainous ranges with ever changing vieuws of the snow-clad peaks. The meandering River Alaknanda and the innumerable milky water falls adds to the scenic beauty of the entire route. The distance from Rudra Prayag to Badrinath is 160 km. The travel time depends greatly on weather conditions and number of passengers enroute.