It is said that time can't be measured in kilometers or hours in the Himalayas, as rains and winds are the key factors for their calculation here. While travelling via Uttarakhand after the recent rains, tourists are bound to notice the various stretches of mercilessly pummeled winding Himalayan roads, roads reduced to one-way paths, mountains close to 3000 ft on one side and seemingly bottomless abysses on the other. The rivers at a distance can appear like squirming worms and the vehicles move gingerly on narrow roads that are heavily dotted with stones and water-filled potholes.
Rishikesh, another pilgrimage center in Uttarakhand, is witnessing a steady increase in the number of devotees. Some roads that boast picturesque backdrops have developed extensive damage and many others were patched up recently. The Google map would list the travelling time between Rishikesh and Devprayag as two hours but don’t fall for such ‘promises’. If the heavens open, the traveling time would stretch up to five hours.
The Devprayag confluence
Devprayag is the first brief halting point for pilgrims coming from Rishikesh. Many people stay for a day or two at Devprayag to have a glimpse of the confluence of the Bhagirathi River, which flows from Gaumukh in Gangotri, and the Alaknanda River, which flows from Badrinath. It is worth noting that both rivers originate from two different parts of the same glacier. The Bhagirathi River and the Alaknanda River merge to become the Ganges River or Ganga at Devprayag. But many refer to the Bhagirathi River as Ganga itself as and when the water body starts its journey from Gangotri.
The river that originates from a place that has copious rainfall would have brown murky waters and the water of the river that starts flowing from a place with no rain would be tinged with mesmerizing green. And the vast water canvas at the confluence spot at Devprayag is a collage of both these dash of colours. It is soothing to the eyes to see two rivers with different shades flowing amidst lush green surroundings to emerge as one. A temple is situated near the convergence of rivers and the buildings in the region have different layers. The holy Devprayag is the last of the five ‘prayags’ (confluence) and the birth of the Ganga River could be witnessed from here.
A six-hour drive from Devprayag would take pilgrims to the temple town of Badrinath. As you travel 48km up the hills from Devprayag, you can see a temple down below on a bridge that extends to the middle of the Alaknanda River. The temple is dedicated to Dhari Maa, who is the guardian angel and mother goddess of Uttarakhand. It may be noted that the local people would not do anything without the blessings of their protector. It is said that the region was inundated when the temple, which was in the middle of the river, was relocated for a power project. Later, the temple was restored in the middle of the river and a bridge was constructed for the devotees to reach the place of worship. The temple presently sits on pillars after the water level was increased after the commissioning of the power project.
The shores of the Alaknanda River are dotted with many small towns that have been made home by hundreds of people. Some of the houses on the mountain slopes may make your heart skip a beat as they look like hanging in thin air. Many houses are so close to the river that the residents might step into the water as they come out of their residences. The dwellings built on huge rock formations on the banks of the river have different levels. But when the river is in spate, the chances of water entering the houses are pretty high. The houses are a treat for the eyes as their walls are splashed with colours of all hues.
After Devprayag, another confluence of rivers and a small town is Karnaprayag, which is inhabited by less than 10,000 people. But Karnaprayag is a shining jewel that should not be missed in the quest to unravel the charm of the Alaknanda River. Karnaprayag is of great prominence as it is the place where Pindar Ganga merges with the Alaknanda River. Pindar Ganga, which originates from the Pindari glacier, fades into oblivion at Karnaprayag once it blends with the Alaknanda River. When Pindar Ganga reaches Karnaprayag, the water body is close to 3,800ft above sea level. The river flows close to 105km before embracing the warmth of the Alaknanda River.
The road from Karnaprayag is replete with rocks that form a canopy above the pathway. While snaking through the road, you can see the charming beauty of the Alaknanda River down below and the majestic grandeur of the Himalayas up above. As you travel along the Alaknanda River, you can witness the wonder of the river shrinking and expanding at will.
The holy temple of Badrinath
As you reach Badrinath, the snow-capped mountains will greet you in style from a distance. The road ends at Badrinath and the temple is situated beyond the bridge and on the opposite side of the river. Interestingly, the river is in its ferocious mood while flowing in front of the much-revered temple. The turbulent river water, which is milky white, makes a thundering sound like the waves of an ocean. The Badrinath Temple on the banks of the river is resplendent with the entire place of worship awash in bright light. When winter sets in, snow slowly eats into the mountains surrounding the temple. By November, the mountains would look like white behemoths straining hard to touch the sky. Lush greenery, which was the toast of travellers visiting the region, would be a thing of the past when the temperature dips in the winter season. The sight of the Badrinath Temple and the mountains enveloped in snow is indeed breathtaking.
The temple would be closed by the middle of November when the winter season slowly but surely becomes severe. After the temple is closed, army men, who guard the temple, and some hermits would be the mute witness to the changes in moods of nature. The sanctum sanctorum of the holy temple is covered in gold. The ‘omkara’ symbol is in the middle of the sanctum sanctorum and flanked by the impressions of a conch and wheel, which are the signs of Lord Vishnu, on both sides. The red and white colours make the fluttering temple flags attractive. The sanctum sanctorum, which is 15ft long and 15ft wide, is pretty small, and is the holy spot where Shankaracharya re-consecrated the deity of the temple around 1,200 years ago. Though the temple has an idol of Shankaracharya, no poojas are performed before the idol. But a pooja is held for Adi Shankaracharya at the sanctum sanctorum on the holy ‘Guru Purnima’ day. The things that adorn the temple include ‘nettipattam’ (ornamental covering used to bedeck the forehead of the elephant) and hand fan made of peacock feathers, both brought from Guruvayur in Kerala. The temple also boasts exotic necklaces of all hues and holy dresses that sparkle in gold. The sanctum sanctorum has the idol of Lord Vishnu in the middle with Kuberan on one side and Naranarayanas, Ganapathy and Narada on the other side.
The interior of the temple is nothing short of extraordinary with scores of ‘neyvilakku’ (lamps lit with pure ghee) and exquisite decorations that create a golden aura. As one enters the holy precincts of the temple, you could hear the ‘rawal’ (head priest) Easwaraprasad Namboothiri reciting the ‘Vishnu Sahasranamam’ in his baritone voice with great enthusiasm and reverence. An interesting fact is that the Travancore king in Kerala, which is thousands of miles away from Badrinath, had the right to choose the ‘rawal’ of the temple. The usual practice in the bygone era was for the king of Garhwal, where the temple is situated, to shoot a letter to the Travancore king to scout for an appropriate person to be appointed as the head priest of the Badrinath temple. Following the missive, the Travancore king would send a list of eligible candidates and one person from the list would be selected as the ‘rawal’. This practice had been going on since the times of Shankaracharya, and now the Uttarakhand government writes to the Kerala government regarding the appointment of the head priest. Easwaraprasad Namboothiri, who has been the head priest for the past 11 years, belongs to the Cheruthazhathu Illam in Kerala’s Kannur district. Easwaraprasad has a wealth of experience as he got this coveted post after serving in various temples, including the Ambalapuzha Krishna temple, for many years. As the head priest of the Badrinath temple has to face numerous challenges, many are not willing to take up this job. It may be noted that no one had been the head priest for 11 consecutive years in the past 100 years and that shows the dedication of Easwaraprasad Namboothiri. The ‘rawal’ has to take holy dips in the ice-cold river water four times a day. Moreover, he has to walk barefoot to the sanctum sanctorum even when the weather is harsh.
Three hot water springs in the vicinity of the temple is a great relief for hundreds of devotees who visit the place of worship. The springs are located on the shores of the Alaknanda River, which has freezing waters. When the hot water springs flow into the ice-cold Alaknanda River, steam billows over the meeting point. Near to where the hot water springs flow into the Alaknanda River, there is an idol of Adi Kedareshwar. It is said that Kedareshwar went to Kedar from this point. You can see many ascetics with their bodies smeared in ash and wearing ‘rudraksha’ chains in front of the temple. Another striking feature of the temple is the ‘agni gundam’ (fire pit), which would be burning 24x7. Shankaracharya who reached Kedar and Badri conducted re-consecration rituals. He gave the responsibility to perform ‘poojas’ of the Badrinath temple to Kerala priests and that of the Kedarnath temple to priests from Karnataka.
What’s in store at Kedarnath
The journey to Kedarnath is quite different compared to the travel to Badrinath. You have to travel through the tough terrain of the Himalayas for close to 10 hours to reach Kedarnath. Those planning a visit to Kedarnath should keep in mind that many roads to Kedarnath would be closed if there is heavy rain in the region. Another pertinent point is that you are travelling to a place where the oxygen level is low.
Hundreds of local villagers throng the Kedarnath temple, which has a very small sanctum sanctorum. A huge stone is the idol of worship. The pilgrims pay obeisance at the huge stone and can perform its ‘abhishekam’. The huge boulder that came rolling down in the last flood got stuck behind the sanctum sanctorum and it saved the holy place. The mammoth stone protected the temple from landslides triggered by the gushing waters from the mountaintop. Now, devotees garland the stone and hermits love to sit around the gigantic stone. The ‘samadhi’ of Shankaracharya is near the temple. The ‘prasad’ of the temple is the holy water sourced from a pit behind the sanctum sanctorum. A spring that flows through the crevice of the earth is considered as the offering from the temple. A journey to Badrinath and Kedarnath is nothing but a spiritual odyssey that cleanses both mind and body.