|The Char Dham is the most important Hindu pilgrimage circuit in the Indian Himalayas. In the layers of the snow-covered reaches of the lofty Garhwal Himalayas in Uttarakhand are located the holy Hindu shrines of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri, which together form the Char Dham or the Four Holy Shrines. While each site in the circuit has an autonomous history and significance that predates and remains distinct from their status as a circuit, inclusion in the Char Dham has, over time, caused them be viewed together in popular imagination and actual pilgrimage practice.The region is referred as the land of the gods in the ancient Puranas. Scores of pilgrims visit the shrines by trekking arduously along the mountain paths, all for a communion with the divine
Over the centuries, these sites have been described in sacred scriptures as the very places where devotees could earn the merits of all the pilgrimages put together. The origins of the Char Dham are obscure. The appellation Char Dham used to be reserved for India's most famous pilgrimage circuit, four important temples—Puri, Rameshwaram, Dwarka, and Badrinath—grouped together by the great 8th century reformer and philosopher Shankaracharya (Adi Sankara), into the archetypal All-India pilgrimage circuit to the four cardinal points of the subcontinent. At some point, Badrinath, the last visited and the most important of the four sites in the original Char Dham, also became the cornerstone site of a Himalayan pilgrimage circuit dubbed the Chota (little) Char Dham. Unlike the original Char Dham, the sites of the Chota Char Dham do not share a single sectarian affiliation. Instead, the three major sectarian movements in modern devotional Hinduism all have representation, with the Vaishnava site Badrinath joined by one Shaiva site (Kedarnath) and two Devi sites (Yamunotri and Gangotri). Subsequently, temples were built at these sanctified sites for all and sundry.
Most pilgrims to the Char Dham embark from the famous temple town of Haridwar. Others leave from Haridwar's sister city, Rishikesh, or from Dehra Duhn, the capital of Uttarakhand. Badrinath-Kedarnath lie towards the northeast of Rishikesh. Gangotri and Yamunotri are up north from Rishikesh. Of these sites, Badrinath and Gangotri are directly accessible by road while Kedarnath is reached by road followed by a short trek of 15 km from the Gaurikund road head. Yamunotri is a 13-km trek from Hanuman Chatti. The tradition is to visit the sites in the following order given below:
Yamunotri : The shrine of Yamunotri, at a height of 3,235 m, is the source of the Yamuna River and the seat of the goddess Yamuna, is a full day's journey from Rishikesh, Haridwar or Dehradun. The temple of Goddess Yamuna is the main pilgrim site and there are many thermal springs in the vicinity. The actual temple is only accessible by a six km walk from the town of Hanuman Chatti (horses or palanquins are available for rent). The current temple is of recent origin, as past iterations have been destroyed by the weather and elements. Also present is a divya shila, a rock pillar that is worshipped before entering the Yamunotri temple.
Gangotri : Eighteen kilometers downstream from Gaumukh is Gangotri. It is an important pilgrim site located at 3,048 m above sea level, the source of the Ganga (Ganges) River and seat of the goddess Ganga, can be reached in one day's travel from Rishikesh, Haridwar or Dehra Duhn, or in two days from Yamunotri. The Gangotri glacier is the original source of the river. There is a temple dedicated to Goddess Ganga and the sacred stone where Raja Bhagirath is believed to have worshipped Lord Shiva. Submerged in the river here is the natural rock Shivling where Lord Shiva is believed to have received the Ganges (called Bhagirathi here) in his locks. It is visible in the winter months when the water level recedes.
Kedarnath : Kedarnath, at a height of 3,581 m, is the site where a form of the Hindu god Shiva is venerated as one of the twelve jyotirling (linga of light), is a two-day's journey from either Gangotri or one of the main disembarkation points on the plains. The temple built of solid gray stone stands against the backdrop of Kedarnath range. According to legend, the Pandavas came here to pray to Lord Shiva after their victory in the great battle of Kurushetra to atone for killing their own kin in the course of the war. However, Lord Shiva kept eluding them and sought refuge at Kedarnath in the form of a bull. On being trailed, he plunged into the ground, leaving only the hump exposed on the earth, which is worshipped at the shrine. His arms are believed to have surfaced at Tungnath, his face at Rudranath, belly at Madmaheshwar, his locks and head at Kalpeshwar. These spots where he reappeared (together with Kedarnath) form the Panch Kedar. All these places are located in the Garhwal Himalayas and can be visited from Kedarnath by road and subsequent trekking.
The present temple at Kedarnath traces its origins to the 8th century, having been resurrected by Adi Shankaracharya. It stands adjacent to the site of an ancient temple built by the Pandavas. The samadhi or final resting place of Shankaracharya is behind the temple.
Badrinath : Badrinath, dwelling at a height of 3,133 m, is the seat of the Hindu god Vishnu in his aspect of Badrinarayan, is generally a two-day's journey from either Kedarnath or one of the main disembarkation points on the plains. By far the most important of the four Char Dham sites, Badrinath is said to be unparalleled in its sanctity when compared to other pilgrimages. Badrinath is located in the Narnarayan range against the imposing Neelkanth peak. The Badrinath temple is stationed in a beautiful valley on the bank of the River Alaknanda and is dedicated to Shri Badrinathji, that is Shiva the Creative Destructor. The temple traces its origin to Adi Shankaracharya in the 8th century, though legend has it that the temple stands on the site of an earlier shrine.
The present temple was built about two centuries back by the Garhwal kings. The main idol in the temple is of black stone and represents Vishnu seated in a meditative pose. The temple is divided into three parts: the garbha griha or sanctum sanctorum; the darshan mandap where the prayers are held; and the sabha mandap where devotees assemble. Below the temple are the hot springs, Tapt Kund and Surya Kund, with waters at a temperature of 55°C. There are four other Badris or shrines dedicated to Lord Vishnu that can be visited from Badrinath. They are Yogadhyan Badri, Bhavishya Badri, Bridha Badri and Adi Badri. Forty-two kilometers from Badrinath is Joshimath, the winter home of Shri Badrinathji.
East of Badrinath is the beautiful Valley of Flowers and the holy lake of Hemkund. According to the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, Guru Govind Singh, the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, meditated on the banks of Hemkund.
Best Time to Visit : Today, the Char Dham sees upwards of 250,000 unique visitors in an average pilgrimage season, which lasts from approximately April 15 until Diwali (sometime in November). The season is heaviest in the two-month period before the monsoon. Once the rains come (sometime in late July), travel is extremely dangerous: extensive road building has critically destabilized the rocks, and fatal landslides and bus/jeep accidents are a regular yearly occurrence, with mortality rates for a season often surpassing 200. Despite the danger, pilgrims do continue to visit the Char Dham in the monsoon period, as well as after the rains end. Although temperatures at the shrines in the early winter months (October and November) are inhospitable, it is said that the incredible mountain scenery that surrounds the sites is most vivid after the rains have had a chance to moisten the dust of the plains below.