Uttarakhand is the most remarkable of places with respect to religious pilgrimage in India. Nestled among the serene heights of the Garhwal (Western Uttarakhand) region, the holy shrines of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath welcome lakhs of pilgrims during the summer months. And when these temples become inaccessible due to severe Himalayan winters, the temple gates are shut. The Gods then decide to reside in the “Winter Char Dham” at lower altitudes – so that the God is never far from His devotees!
The popular Char Dham Yatra season commences around April every year. Unfortunately, innumerable travellers who had planned to undertake the trip in 2020, had to suspend their plans due to the pandemic situation and consequent lockdown protocol in India. With inter-state travel being gradually eased across the nation now, the Winter Char Dham might just be the best alternative this year.
The gates of Yamunotri Dham shall close around Mid-November 2020. The idol of Goddess Yamuna will be carried ceremoniously to Her winter abode in Kharsali in a palanquin. The quaint village of Kharsali or Khushimath, is situated at an elevation of 2675 metres above sea level, in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand. Motorable road ends at Janki-Chatti, serving as the starting point for pilgrims heading towards Yamunotri Dham. Kharsali, one of the Winter Char Dham destination, is a mere kilometre from this place.
The village is famous for the largest temple dedicated to Lord Shani – son of the Sun God and brother of Goddess Yamuna. It is to Him that Goddess Yamuna returns every year on the occasion of “Bhai-Dooj” – two days after Diwali when the portals of Yamunotri Dham are closed. Believed to have been built by the Pandavas, the temple has withstood the wrath of extreme weather and major earthquakes since. Interestingly, the temple is made of alternating layers of timber and stone, and a mortar created from Urad Dal (Black Gram). The recent construction of a majestic temple with intricate wood carvings is a testament to the spiritual consciousness of the community here.
The idol of River Goddess Ganga travels about 20km south of Gangotri, to the temple in the quaint hamlet of Mukhba. There are two temples in the village, one of the Winter Char Dham sites. The older one is made entirely of deodar wood and brass, housing idols of Ganga, Saraswati and Annapurna. The newly constructed temple is built using marbles and concrete. Mukhba reveals some of the most enchanting Himalayan landscapes. Snow-capped valleys, dense pine forests and magnificent views Srikanth, Hindyani and Jaonli mountain peaks, and the glaciers magnify its beauty.
Tourist accommodation and restaurants are however not available here. The GMVN Guesthouse in Harsil is perhaps the best option of a hotel, which is within 1km of Mukhba. Pilgrims may also make a day trip from Uttarkashi. The route is strewn with mountain springs and unnamed waterfalls at random bends of the road, filling the traveller’s soul with a sense of enthusiasm and adventure.
A 195km journey from Uttarkashi brings one to Kund. The road bifurcates here: The Kedarnath Road leads to Guptkashi and eventually up to Kedarnath Dham. We took the rightward route to the Omkareshwar Temple of Ukhimath. The next was an ascend of few steps from the narrow lane and entry through a huge gateway into the temple arena. Here Kedarnath and Madhyamaheshwar are both worshipped in the winters. We were thus fortunate to be blessed with the darshan of two of the Panch (Five) Kedar together.
The presiding deity was seated across a collapsible gate. A priest offered the Gods oil, dry coconut and nakuldana. We had bought the offerings from a stall outside. The priest doubled up as our guide, showing us across the temple premise. A dark room houses five Shiva-linga’s – signifying the Panch Kedar. He showed us around a courtyard where the wedding of Usha (Daughter of Vanasur) with Aniruddh (Grandson of Lord Krishna) was solemnized. Interestingly, the town derives its original name, Ushamath, from the daughter of Vanasur. Popular trekking trails such as to Deoria Tal also commence near Ukhimath. It mesmerizes adventurers through beautiful hamlets, lush greenery and majestic views of the Himalayas.
It is amusing, how mythology is not merely a fragment of fables. But an intrinsic and inseparable portion of the lives of the residents around here. Much like their presiding deity, the whole population of Badrinath abandon the town. They settle in the lower altitudes of Pandukeshwar, Srinagar or Joshimath. The winter-seat of Badrinath is the Narsingh Temple of Joshimath. It is dedicated to the 4th incarnation of Lord Vishnu – Lord Narsimha; represented in the form of half lion and half-human.
As per a prophecy, mentioned in the Samhita created by the saint Sanat Kumar, the right hand of this idol is thinning every year. Once the hand of this statue breaks off from the main idol, the peaks of Jay and Vijay near Vishnuprayag will merge into one and the present site of Badrinath Dham will become inaccessible. Lord Vishnu will then re-appear as black stone (Shaligram) at a new place called Bhavishya (future) Badri. It is situated at a distance of 10 km from Joshimath. Abhishek puja is performed every morning ceremoniously – when devotees witness the thinning arm of the Lord.
There is an idol of Shankaracharya at one end of a long hall on the first floor. Pilgrims may sit here and meditate. His life is described in short sentences inscribed on the walls. The temple compound also houses Astabhuja Ganesh Ji, Nava Durga, Shri Gouri Shankar and Vasudev. We paid our heartfelt reverence and traced our way back to the hotel.
A Pristine and Divine Experience
The temperature was no more than 3degrees centigrade. It was a cold November morning, as I stood on the roof of our hotel along with my mother. We served our eyes with the astounding views of the mountains. The spectacle indeed obliterates all disquietude of city life and fills the heart with pristine contentment. It was tough to bring the heart and the mind to an agreement. While the heart wished to stay a little longer, the mind knew that we had to end it here; perhaps to come back again to the Land of the Gods!
An honest SCORPIO who is crazy about movies, and overly-passionate about travel.
Believes in immortalizing the moment, either by way of photograph or literal documentation of the journey.