October 2008 | India , Uttarakhand

Char Dham

Legacy Gallery with Captions

Having escaped the snows of Spiti, I headed for the neighboring Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, formally known as Uttaranchal.  The state’s most famous destination for foreigners is the Meditation/Yoga/Asram/neo-Hippi meca of Rishikesh made famous by the Beatles’ stay in 1968.  For Indians the state derives its fame as the source of the holy Ganges.  There are four pilgrimage temples built high up in the mountains near the sources of the four principal tributaries that join to form the Ganga.  These holy sites known as the Char Dham draw the normally sedentary and heat loving people of the plains up into the high altitude crisp cold air of the Himalayas.  As a result of the massive flow of pilgrims, who generally prefer not to walk, this region has roads which penetrate into the very heart of the Himalayas, making it possible in short day hikes to reach glaciers and high altitude terrain that may take as much as a week of trekking to reach elsewhere in the Himalayas.   It was this mix of accessible trekking and pilgrims that drew me to the state rather than a need to live out my hippie fantasies in Rishikesh.  I did pass though Rishikesh on a couple occasions en route to and from the mountains as it does have cheap good lodging, decent western food, and good transportation connections, but despite its popularity, or perhaps because of it, I’d call it one of the least interesting places in the state.

Traditionally, the Char Dham temples are suppose to be visited from west to east starting with Yamunotri and ending at the most revered of the four sites at Badrinath.  I ended up skipping around a bit on a schedule that was dictated, not by Hindu lore, but rather by other treks I was doing in the region and reuniting with Robin, for a trek to Roop Kund which I shall describe in a subsequent entry.  I’ll fall out of chronology for a bit in an effort to group my visits to the primary pilgrimage destinations in Uttarakhand together.

After meeting up with Robin in Rishikesh who had traveled via Delhi from Manali, while I had gone via Shimla and Derha Dun, we took the long bus ride to the service town of Kedernath, Gaurikund.  From Gaurikund the temple town of Kedernath is a 14 km hike, or horse back ride if you are a wealthy Bengali.  The temple at Kedernath at the source of the Mandakini River sits in the most impressive setting of any of the Char Dham temples, backed by a wall of rocky glaciated peaks.  An auspicious cliff near the temple was so holy that some pilgrims in the past would throw themselves to their deaths in belief they would attain instant liberation, I resisted the temptation.  While the pilgrimages season was drawing to a close there were still a significant amount of pilgrims, and a handful of Sadhus adding color to the place.

A couple treks later I made my way, this time on my own, to my second, and the most revered of the Char Dham temples, Badrinath.  The bustling sadhu ridden temple town of Badrinath can be reached entirely by road but while most pilgrims end there pilgrimage at the temple, a hike further up the valley leads to Vasudhara and the waterfall that is said to be the source of the Alaknanda river where it falls from the heavens.  Set in a glacial valley surrounded by snow clad peaks the site of the falls was deserted and peaceful inhabited only by a couple of friendly chai making Sadhus.

It was three days of buses through winding steep sided valleys to get from Badrinath to Gangotri, my third Char Dham temple, and starting point for the hike to Gomukh, the glacial source of the sacred Ganges.  It’s about 20 km from Gangotri to Gomukh, and a further 7 km across the Gangotri Glacier to the meadow of Tapovan, my destination, beneath the impressive 6543 m pyramidal peak of Shivling.  Of course that is 7 km if you take the correct path, my route finding skills are generally pretty good but I managed to miss the turn off towards Tapovan on the rock covered moonscape of the Gangotri Glacier.  After 2 hours of trying to follow a path, wandering further up the glacier, I decided to make my own way across the glacier heading for the base of Shivling.  Three hours later I arrived at Tapovan just as the sun was setting.   I was putting up my tarp in the bitter cold when a group of porters from a package French tour group took pity on me and asked me if I would like to sleep in there tent which offered far superior shelter to my tarp.  It was now late into October and the temperatures at high altitude seem to drop ever colder by the day, this day was exceptionally cold as my water bottle was already frozen after filling it a mere hour earlier.  I graciously accepted there offer and was given plenty of hot tea and even a hot meal of rice and dal, as I was trekking with only dry fruit, nuts, and biscuits.  I enjoyed a pleasant if still cold night with the servants of the “French Aristocrats.”

Before leaving Gangotri there was one more trek I wanted to do, the high glacial lake of Kedar Tal.  Group treks often take three days to do this trek, I decided I could make a day hike out of it not wanting to spend another night out in the cold.  The 46 km (29 mile) route turned out to be very steep and quite strenuous as well as long.  I left at dawn a bit past five in the morning and didn’t make it back until just before sunset, with only a couple hours of not hiking, which included short rests and a hike around the lake of Kedar Tal.  It was a tough but very beautiful hike, and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect as I was blessed with rare afternoon clear skys.  It was especially demoralizing as I approached Kedar Tal, climbing over each of several snowy ridges, I expected to see a lake, but instead saw the trail heading over yet another ridge.  When I finally did reach the lake, my efforts were well rewarded with a panoramic view of snow covered peaks a lake on one side and a glacier on the other.  In addition to the beauty of the mountain scenery that surrounded me, I will admit I did derive some pleasure from the dumbfounded looks I got as a lone foreigner on a day hike when I passed one group of Indian trekkers, fully equipped and outfitted to conquer K2 (porters, guides, ect.), first on the way up then again on the way back down as they slowly struggled upwards on their multiday trip to the lake.

It was the last day of the pilgrimage season, literally, the temple would close for the winter the next day, when I visited my fourth and final Char Dham temple, Yamunotri, source of the sacred Yamuna river which flows through Delhi and Agra before joining the Ganges at Allahabad.  It was a bizzar site to see a pilgrimage town shut up like a ghost town with nothing but the mountains of trash left by the hords of pilgrims who had passed through this now deserted place in the previous months.  The hotel I found to stay at together with a well traveled English Fellow I met on the bus, was already closed but a room was made available and the young manager was friendly enough although the empty halls and things packed away for winter eerily reminded me of the mountain resort from the classic horror film “The Shining.”  The setting of Yamunotri is less impressive than the other Char Dham temples and I didn’t have much time to really explore the surrounding mountains, as bus service to the service town of Janki Chatti, would shortly end with the closing of the temple.  In addition to the satisfaction of completing the “Char Dham” the other highlight of the area, and where in retrospect I wish I had spent a little more time, was the beautiful Garhwali village of Kharsali across the river from Janki Chatti, dotted with intricately carved old wooden buildings.

I had finished the Char Dham but there was still one last place to visit on my pilgrimage tour of Uttarakhand, the holy city of Haridwar, where the Ganges is worshipped as it leaves the mountains with a final rapid and enters the vast flat plains of India.  Like a small Varanasi there is an endless stream of pilgrims who come to bath in Ganga at this auspicious point.  I enjoyed the atmosphere but resisted the temptation to bath, I had washed my hands at Gomukh where the water was clean but cold that was good enough for this non-Hindu.

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