The Hindu pilgrimage circuit of Char Dham is located in the state of Uttarakhand. Literally meaning ‘the four abodes or seats’ these include the holy towns of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. These four regions represent all the three forms of Hindu sectarian traditions with Yamunotri and Gangotri representing the Shakta, Kedarnath representing the Shaiva and Badrinath representing the Vaishnava sects.
The Four Dhams
Yamunotri, the beginning point of the Char Dham circuit, is situated at an altitude of 3293 m. It is the source of the River Yamuna and also considered to be the seat of Goddess Yamuna. The source of the river though is 1 km upstream; at an elevation of 4421 m. Since the terrain is extremely difficult to approach devotees present their offerings at the temple. The temple, on the left bank of the Yamuna, was constructed by Maharaja Pratap Shah of Tehri Garhwal. The deity inside is made of black marble.
There is a hot spring close to the temple where pilgrims take a bath. There are separate pools for men and women and entries to these are free. Food is also prepared here which is offered to the goddess. Rice and potatoes are tied in a muslin cloth and then dipped in the hot waters of the spring. It is then offered as ‘prasad’ to the deity.
The temple is open from the auspicious day of Akshaya Tritiya, in April/May, to the second day after Diwali (October/November). The temple is accessible from both Hanuman Chatti (13 km trek) and Janki Chatti (5 km trek). However, horses and palanquins are also available.
Travellers looking for accommodation can make a selection from the options available in Hanuman Chatti and Janki Chatti which include GMVN Tourist Bungalow and GMVN Tourist Lodge respectively along with a few other lodges. There is also a GMVN Tourist Bungalow near the temple which has a dormitory. Several restaurants nearby offer ‘thalis’, snacks and cold drinks. Non vegetarian food as well as alcohol is banned in the four Dhams.
Yamunotri also has famous trekking routes, such as Hanuman Chatti - Yamunotri, Dodi Tal route extending from Kalyani of Uttarkashi to Hanuman Chatti, Hanuman Chatti - Phul Chatti and Janki Chatti - Kharsali. Kharsali is a traditional Garhwali village where the priests of Yamunotri’s temple live and a major attraction. From Yamunotri, buses are available to Gangotri and the journey takes about 11 hours. Services start as early as 5:30 am and usually leave from Hanuman Chatti.
Gangotri, situated 248 km north of Rishikesh at an altitude of 3140 m, is the second destination in the circuit. It is also the remotest of the four dhams and is closed from the beginning of November till the middle of April. Though it is considered to be the origin of the River Ganga by devotees, the actual source of the river is the ice cave of Gaumukh, in the Gangotri Glacier, 14 km away from the valley.
The Gangotri temple, overlooking the River Bhagirathi, was built in the early 18th century by Amar Singh Thapa, a Gurkha General. The temple has a shikara surrounded by four smaller replicas and a gilded roof. According to legend, Goddess Ganga assumed the form of a river and descended on earth after King Bhagirath performed severe penance for years, to absolve the sins of his ancestors. Inside the temple there is a silver image of the goddess while outside the temple there is a stone slab which is called Bhagirath Shila and is believed to be the spot where the king meditated.
Accommodation options in Gangotri include ‘ashrams’, boarding houses, lodges and guesthouses. The government run GMVN Tourist Bungalow, situated over the footbridge from the bus stand, offers rooms and dormitories. Most hotels overlook the river and some provide beautiful views of the snow peaks. For food, there are a number of dhabas and cafes which serve breakfast, ‘thali’ meals, steaming hot tea etc. The market place is also the last point to buy woollens like gloves and hats.
Those interested in trekking the Gangotri Glacier need to obtain permits in advance from the Chief Wildlife Warden in Dehradun. Only 150 people are allowed to trek on the glacier each day as it is receding by few hundred metres every year. Permits are issued on a first-cum-first-served basis. Permits for Indian citizens cost INR50 for 2 days with an additional charge of INR25 for each extra day while those for foreigners cost INR350 for 2 dayas with an additional charge of INR175 for each extra day. Luggage carrying animals like mules and horses are not allowed inside the Gangotri National Park.
Other treks include those to Nandanvan and Tapovan, from where the Garhwali Himalayas can be seen. At a distance of 10 km from Gangotri is the Bhairon Temple, at the convergence of the Bhagirathi and Jat Ganga.
Kedarnath, situated at an elevation of 3584 m above sea level, is the third of the sacred Char Dhams. One of the twelve ‘jyotirlringas’, it is also the most important shrine in the Himalayas and one of the holiest ones for Hindus. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the temple which is believed to be over 1000 years old is closed from early November to early April and is filled with pilgrims during the summer months. Built of gray slabs of stone, the temple has a large ‘mandapa’ with a stone idol of Nandi. During winter, the seat of Lord Kedarnath is shifted to Ukhimath, near Guptkashi.
There is a GMVN Tourist Bungalow near the town centre which has rooms as well as a dorm and a Bharat Shevasram which provides accommodation. Food is easily available in the many restaurants but is quite expensive since all supplies are brought from the valley. There is also a canteen which is run by the temple committee and usually serves curry and alu paratha.
Apart from the Kedarnath Temple, other attractions of the region include the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, Vasuki Tal, Deoria Tal etc. The wildlife sanctuary, established in 1972, is home to species like snow leopard, snow cock, musk deer and others. Vasuki Tal, surrounded by the Himalayas is situated at an altitude of 4135 m above sea level and is considered to be one of the most beautiful spots in Uttarakhand.
Kedarnath can be reached by a very strenuous 14 km trek along a paved path, on horses or palanquins and by helicopter from Gaurikund. Elderly travellers usually opt for the ponies or ‘dolis’ which are carried by four people. Direct buses are also available to Gaurikund from Rishikesh and Guptkashi.
Badrinath, at 3133 m and 40 km from the Tibetan border is the last destination of the Char Dham circuit. Surrounded by the Nar and Narayan mountains, it was founded by Adi Sankara in the 9th century near River Alakananda. The main deity inside the temple is that of Lord Vishnu in a meditating pose and not the usual reclining pose.
The temple, also called Badri Narayan, which is repainted every year before the start of the season has a ‘garbha griha’, a ‘sabha mandap’ and a ‘darshan mandap’. It remains open from April/May until early November. Right beneath the temple, on the banks of the Alakananda, is a hot spring - Tapt Kund - which is used for ritual bathing. The town is also famous for the Panch Badri temples, which are Yog Dhyan Badri, Bhavishtya Badri, Adi Badri and Vriddha Badri. A visit to the village of Mana is an interesting option. Just 4 km away from Badrinath, it is inhabited by people belonging to the Indo-Mongolian tribe and is the last Indian village before Tibet.
Accommodation options in Badrinath consist of GMVN tourist rest houses and bungalows along with a string of budget hotels and a few posh hotels. Near the temple there are lots of cafés and tea shops while the more commercial part of town, on the east bank, has some restaurants and ‘dhabas’.
All traffic to Badrinath from Joshimath is bound to move in convoys. There is a gate system which controls traffic in each direction. Several convoys leave Joshimath every day with the first and the last one being at 6:30 am and 4:30 pm respectively. The road is closed at night.
It is believed that a journey to these sacred places will relieve one of all sins and help attain salvation. The circuit is visited by lakhs of pilgrims in a season which usually lasts from the middle of April to Diwali. However, these high altitude regions can become extremely dangerous after the monsoon season which is why the maximum number of footfalls is seen before the monsoon arrives.
The temples in these four regions are open from late April to early November and ‘yatras’ or pilgrimage tours start from May onwards. There are several tour operators who organise these ‘yatras’ which usually last for 12 days for all the four dhams. Yatras to two dhams are also available. Tours can be taken by bus, cab, helicopter or trekking. Tours are arranged by the GMVN as well as private operators.
Following the Hindu tradition of ‘parikrama’, the Char Dham Yatra usually starts from Yamunotri and proceeds to Gangotri and Kedarnath and ends at Badrinath, in that particular order. Most journeys begin from Haridwar or Rishikesh and at times from Dehradun.
How to reach
From Rishikesh, buses are available from the Yatra Bus Stand to all the four dhams and usually leave around 4:00 am. It is better to make reservations a day ahead. Another alternative is the press jeeps which deliver newspaper to the mountains. Leaving at around 5:00 am from Haridwar Road, they also play the role of share-taxis and give passengers a lift, though at a higher price than buses. More information can be obtained from the Uttarakhand Tourist Office and the GMVN Yatra Office on Haridwar Bypass Road as well as online on the official website of Uttarakhand State.
Best time to visit
The best time to visit the region is from May to October. Not only is the weather good at the time, it is also the season when the temples are open. Depending on the season of visit, light to heavy woollens are required. Since these are high altitude regions, it is best to be prepared for drastic changes in weather.
For trekking in these areas, it is always good to wear strong and sturdy boots and carry along adequate water and high energy food like energy bars, chocolates, dry fruits and nuts etc. It is always good to acclimatise the body to the high altitudes in the Himalayas, especially for older people, before setting out on these arduous journeys.