Char Dham Teerth - A Seeker's Journey through the Himalayas and More

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Mitras, a Mumbai based dear friend who likes to remain unknown shared his Char Dham yatra experiences with me. Here it is for you. With Prem, Sanjeev, Editor.

OM
SHRI
JAI MAA
SHAMBHAVE NAMAH
JAI BADRI VISHAL
JAI SHRI KRISHNA
EK ONKAR

Be careful what you wish for

It is said that one should be careful about what one wishes for since one’s wish may actually come true. During my Mussoorie visits I often gazed at the Himalayan peaks of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath and wondered, “Would I ever visit these places?” Within me there was always a subconscious desire to go but for one reason or another other travel plans never fructified.

Then late one night a couple of month ago, as I worked on my computer a dear and respected friend and sometimes spiritual instructor Aditya popped up on the instant messenger to tell me that he was coming to India to immerse the ashes of his mother in the holy Ganga. Subsequently he and three others planned to undertake Char Dham Teerth Yatra. He seemingly casually remarked that it might be a good idea for me also to join. My first reaction was, “Oh! It’s been barely two weeks since I returned from vacation.” Going on this trip ostensibly meant neglecting my work but for some reason I could not say no. I ended up promising myself that I would somehow juggle my commitments to make the yatra. At that time one of the reasons was the strange fact that although I considered Aditya to be very close, we had never actually met or even spoken.

For many years our interaction was only over email and MSN. This happened for a variety of reasons. One we first “met” over the net. Two Aditya lives in New York, and three but most importantly because it really felt like a pure interaction since our conversations were not framed, circumscribed, defined or influenced by the interlocutor’s physical appearance, voice etc. One of the reasons I felt drawn to the yatra was that it would be an opportunity to have a direct dialogue with and discourse from Aditya. He said as much, “There are things which I have never been able to tell you because our interaction has been only through the computer. It would be nice to spend a few days together in a pleasant environment.” I replied, “I was in New York only a few weeks ago for work, and had the time, but never contacted you, for I sensed it inappropriate at the time.” Aditya: “You were right then, for I have become quite reclusive and don’t meet too many people now, but I would like you to come on this trip if you can.”It probably needs to be mentioned, that people like me aren’t seen flocking at sundry godmen’s discourses and ashrams.

I considered Aditya as my sometime spiritual instructor. He is not a baba in saffron robes but an Ivy League educated, hard core professional type, worked for the best US firms, lived almost his entire life in the US. Even at the age of 60 he is still an independent management consultant. Yet somewhere in between, right from the early days, he had become an expert in the thought of many different spiritual disciplines and could quote from scriptures as if he were fitted with a google search engine in his brain. Over the years our discussions and debates left me awestruck and the thought of spending over a week together was enticing.

By way of preparation Aditya suggested certain early morning practices. For years I had yearned for a teacher who could teach me how to meditate. It is one of those subjects where books can help only that much, and it never seemed to get priority on one’s to-do to find a teacher. On commencing these early morning practices 10 days before the yatra, that need evaporated. And in its place came a quiet assurance about the validity of those practices – this is what it means to meditate, to concentrate, to focus, to draw inwards, to raise the coiled serpent, to levitate (just kidding – but you get the drift).

And at another level preparation meant getting hold of appropriate clothing, footwear, rainwear and travel gear. There are at least a couple of treks involved in the Char Dham Teerth – more if one wants to do. Another aspect was trying to put together an itinerary. Aditya had last visited India eight years ago. His contact was limited to a Delhi based Swamiji whom he met in New York a few days earlier. Swamiji blessed the yatra plan and provided some tips on the basic travel/stay arrangements. Aditya and I soon had a nine-day plan that began and ended in Delhi. Being from the corporate world we made feeble attempts to convert the rough plan into a typical corporate style itinerary but realized that it was unnecessary and perhaps inappropriate for a teerth yatra.

Day 0 -- Delhi

As luck would have it I landed in Delhi a day before the appointed date since I had work with a government ministry. Having taken care of that, I kept the next day for other business matters. When I spoke with Aditya he told me that two of them were robbed of valuables after landing in India. While they were taking care of formalities a voice from within asked me drop everything and join them immediately.

I will always remember the first time I set my eyes on Aditya. As I walked into the room there were two men and a woman in the guesthouse. I am not the type who usually touches the feet of elders, but now felt the need to take his blessings in the traditional way by touching his feet. The previous 10 days of practice had been so rewarding that it was only right to acknowledge the person who had catalysed it. There was something magnetic about this white bearded stocky man.

He introduced me to the others – 61 year old Bengali man, Devashish who was a school mate of his, a 62 year old Sindhi woman from the US, Savitri, wife of a dear friend and Tarini a 26-year-old Bengali woman also from the US.

Due to the robbery money, identification papers and passports were lost. We spent several hours visiting police stations, embassy and sundry suchlike to put things on track so that we could proceed for the yatra in peace. The loss left us disturbed and preoccupied. We visited the ashram late at night. The vatavaran made us sit in quiet contemplation for a while. Reluctantly we returned to the guesthouse that night for our soul was in the ashram.

Day 1 – Delhi to Chinyalisaur

After taking the aashirwad (blessings) of Swamiji and Devi Maa we left Delhi the next morning. As we were driving out, I was continuously remembering Swamiji’s gentle words of caution. He said, “there were numerous factors operating that could obstruct your progress”. It proved to be the insight of a Seer rather than some random remark. That he mumbled this even though he was in mauna (silence) for Navartri was ominous. The saving grace was the blessing of Maa in the form of the floral offering that Swamiji had taken from the temple and given us with the instruction to return to Maa after yatra as thanksgiving. Each of us reverently saved our flowers to carefully bring them back to Maa.

Despite having taken the requisite actions there was a palpable tension as we drove out of Delhi. With a view to put the tension behind we focused on the deeper purpose of the journey. I began singing the Mahamantra. As I felt silent Tarini took up the mantle first with Madhurashtkam and then with Govind Damodar Ashtakam.

Before we knew we had passed the plains and entered the captivating beautiful sceneries of the land known as Dev Bhoomi (The Land of the Gods) – the modern day Indian state of Uttaranchal. We passed Haridwar and Rishikesh on route.

As the evening shadows turned long we casually asked our driver where we would halt the first night. We were surprised to see that he had no idea at all. We were under the impression that we had an experienced driver who knew all the routes and night halts but! Fortunately Devashish had done the yatra years ago and his experience helped. Now both of us had to pull our eyes away from the captivating sceneries, our minds away from the bhakta (devotee) mood, and get directions, maps, switch into a navigation and logistics-planning mode. As the sun set it became clear that we were not going to make it to the usual night halt of Barkot.

After 14 grueling hours of non-stop driving by our dedicated but clueless, driver Mukesh, we decided to halt in the small town (large village actually) of Chinyalisaur. The choice of boarding and lodging was between two dhabhas which had a couple of rooms to let. After a quick meal we went to sleep.

Day 2 – Yamunotri

For people who have taken on the discipline of certain early morning practices a 5:00 am departure means a 3:30-4:00 am wake up time. As I did japa for the first time in Dev Bhoomi I began experiencing a difference within. Aditya must have noticed something too, for with no prior warning he sprang more things on one. I suppose this is formally called Initiation. It was exhilarating, humbling, seemly inevitable and a scary experience. At the same time – it’s almost impossible to find suitable words to describe how I felt. There were conflicting thoughts and emotions that flooded the sudden initiation. As I write it has now become the centre around which my daily life revolves.

But the world beckoned, so before long we were lugging our bags, loading them on to the vehicle. I think we were quite pleased to actually be on the move by 6:00 am, an hour later than scheduled.

Before long we were in Janki Chatti, the base camp for Yamunotri (2650 meters above sea level). We refused guides/ horses and started the 7 km trek to the temple of Yamunotri Maa (3185 meters above sea level). More than the distance it is the 600-meter altitude ascent in thin atmosphere, lack of acclimatization and the bone-rattling journey from Delhi that made this 7 km walk a challenging exercise for us. As my fellow travelers fell back two by two, I was torn between waiting for them and pressing forward.

Despite the cold I warmed up soon enough and did not require any warm clothing. About half way through my energies sapped. Then, I invoked the deities to provide strength and purpose. I drank from the waterfalls that were joining into the Yamuna and sought the River Mother’s blessings. I held on to the mountainside rocks and sought the blessings of Mother Earth herself. Athletes call it the second wind, it surely came and then a third and before long I could see the hamlet and the temple top ie the dham of Yamunotri. I took a dip in the boiling hot water spring (kund) and came out refreshed as if I had just woken up after a good night’s sleep. I went up the to the Devi shrine, prostrated myself and took her blessings.

Thereafter I looked back hoping to find my fellow travelers but they were nowhere to be seen. I half ran half walked for nearly a km till I met Devashish and Savitri. I urged them to go on and walked downhill to find Aditya and Tarini catching their breath. Their faces lit up in the belief that the shrine was a short distance away. I gave them some glucose d and we resumed the trek to Yamunotri.

Finally the five of us regrouped at Yamunotri. We offered prayers, had a quick bite, and as the sun went low behind the peaks, invigorated by the blessings of Devi Maa we strolled back to Janki Chatti. On the way down we met some beautiful innocent Garhwali girls who befriended and sang for us as we strolled back to Janki Chatti.

From Janki Chatti to Barkot, the planned night halt was an uneventful drive. The physical exertion of the trek, the magical beauty of the mountains and the blessings of the Yamuna Maa had quieted everyone.

At dinner time Aditya said that the problems we had faced so far were not behind us so it was necessary to pay attention to small details like not wasting even a grain of food, keeping our minds focused and avoiding idle chatter. It was only then that I understood the importance of a seemingly trivial thing like saying a small prayer before starting a meal. The importance of economy of thought and action and focused use of resources is what I now realized. One feels so powerless when one squanders and so powerful when one economizes the release of energized thought and action.

Pics of Yamunotri

Day 3 – Gangotri

By now it was a routine to wake up at 3:30 am, have a cold-water bath in the common unattached toilet of the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam tourist guesthouse. Today I had a giant spider for company in the bathroom. One remembers not fear but an admiration for its symmetrical striped beauty. We completed morning practices and boarded our vehicle at 5:00 am. We headed out towards Gangotri and drove through Dharasu, Uttarkashi and Batwari. From Dharasu onwards the entire journey takes place along the banks of the Bhagirathi, whose source is Gangotri.

Unlike Yamunotri where we trekked there is a motorable road to Gangotri. Like Badrinath, Gangotri is close to the Tibetan border so the Army has for security reasons laid roads to these temple towns.

While this makes it more accessible it is a fact that the more accessible teerth sthans like Badrinath have suffered on account of easy accessibility. I do believe that the whole of Dev Bhoomi, teerth sthans (pilgrimage places), important temples and places of worship in general have a certain ambient vibration conducive to quietitude of the mind, prayer and meditation. I believe it is partly geographic – mountains and magnetic fields, thin fresh air, filtered sunlight, rivers and seas and oceans and tides. But the quietude also comes because so many people have for centuries contemplated and meditated at these places. The very atoms of these places become sentient. Accessibility brings with it people not necessarily in the same frame of mind which do eventually degrade the sentient vibration of the place.

Enroute to Gangotri we were held up due to landslides which had completely blocked the road for over a kilometer. Fortunately, army bulldozers were at hand to push away the boulders and rivers of mud flowing down the hillsides. The passage through that stretch meant watching the continuously slipping and sliding earth on one side, periodically punctuated by a rolling boulder. On the other side the view is thus for much of the entire journey – you are looking down a gorge out of your vehicle window and if you lean out you see the wheel of your vehicle spinning seemingly inches away from the edge of the drop. Not a sight for the faint-hearted traveler.

Once at Gangotri I had the invigorating experience of a snan (bath) in the glacial waters of the holy Bhagirathi. It was followed by darshan of Ganga Maa at her beautiful pure white temple and offering of prayers on her holy bank. That the River Mother washes away many things is common lore. More than sins one would like to believe the Divine Mother has floated away the false ego that obstructs us from swimming in her all-encompassing love. We left Gangotri that evening to reach our night halt at GMVN guesthouse Dharasu.

Pics of Gangotri

Day 4 – Dharasu to Gaurikund

After we completed our early morning prayers we left Dharasu for Gaurikund, the starting point for the 17-kilometer trek to Kedarnath. Enroute we drove along a very beautiful mirror like water body, which we called Tehri Taal. This is the reservoir behind the Tehri dam which has also sunk the town of old Tehri. The second half of the days drive was along the Mandakini River through Guptkashi, Sonprayag and on to Gaurikund. At Sonprayag we took a 13-kilometer detour in the moonlit night to the temple of Triyugi Narayan, the place where Lord Shiva married Devi Parvati and offered prayers. Blessed are those marriages whose constituents have the fortune to worship at this place. We reached Gaurikund that night and once again stayed at the GMVN guesthouse.

Gaurikund is a tiny town clinging to steep hillsides along one narrow pedestrian only road. The guesthouse too is perched in one such vertical rise which is approached through narrow flights of staircases. Lugging our bags up to those rooms was a good preparation for we knew that the next morning was the longest trek of our yatra.

Day 5 – Kedarnath

Gaurikund is situated at a height of 1,981 meters while Kedarnath is at 3,584 meters above sea level. A 1,600-meter vertical ascent spread over 17 kilometers makes it a fairly challenging trek. By this time we were well acclimatized and mentally prepared as well.

Learning from our Yamunotri experience, Aditya, Savitri and Tarini decided to do go on horse back while Devashish and I chose to walk. We realized soon enough that being on horseback was neither easier nor faster.

We set out at dawn. As before everyone went at their own pace. My attraction to Lord Shiva’s abode propelled me to trot at a rate well beyond my capacity. I was way ahead of even the riders. But the altitude and the ascent do take their toll. Soon my breaks were the same duration as my actual plodding time. When the horsemen passed me, I took the opportunity to shed all the excess weight – backpack, water and warm clothing.

Even so whenever I felt my energies sapping, I paused to invoke Devi Maa’s blessings. At one such point I perceived an acutely real presence of a huge tiger walking alongside exhorting me to go on walking. People may dismiss this as altitude sickness but to experience it is to know its reality. The waterfalls heading down the Mandakini provided nectar and nourishment. Soon I was trotting again and suddenly the old shortcuts going straight up the hillsides became doable.

Before long the bright yellow cheerful hamlet of Kedarnath could be seen nestled in the folds of the mountains. Partly by virtue of being acclimatized and largely because of the energies infused by the practices of the previous days and invocation of the deities our entire group reached Kedarnath within 4-5 hours.

At Kedarnath, Aditya sought out the most experienced purohit who assembled ten other accomplished ones for an 11 times recitation of a prayer dedicated to Lord Shiva.

The loud rhythmic chants of these venerable ones near the main temple created a bubble of quietude around us. The forecast for the day at Kedar was clear skies but during the course of the recitations, little clouds appeared and showered pearly hailstones around us on three occasions. As if saying that ‘Lord Indra prasan huaye’ – the prayers had made Lord Indra happy.

Thereafter we had darshan of the Kedar Jyotirling. The Kedar Mandir houses in its sanctorum the special shivling of Kedarnath which unlike the typical linga is a natural pyramidical shaped rock. For the devout, one touch of the forehead on the rock can be a mind altering experience. The outer temple has beautiful icons of the five Pandavas, Mother Kunti and Draupadi.

We returned to Gaurikund that night in immensely elevated spirits. By now we had completed three of the four dhams and we were confident of completing the fourth. Moreover with the blessings of Devi Maa and Lord Shiva gave us the confidence that the last dham would be experienced too.

Pics of Kedarnath

Day 6 – Gaurikund to Badrinath

We left Gaurikund for Badrinath at 5:00 am and reached at 5:00 pm. Legend has it that long ago there were direct mountain tunnel routes between the Badrinath and Kedarnath shrines such that the same priest did the morning pooja in Badrinath and then went to Kedarnath for the evening pooja. Then a mountain range grew up between and sealed the tunnels. This is said to have happened for a reason – a lapse on the part of a priest. Today it is a day’s journey by car.

At Badrinath we were reunited with Swamiji who had come directly from Delhi. We were lodged in his ashram. Now that his Navratri maun (silence) was over we were exposed to many endearing and thought-provoking aspects of his conduct. One of the points of our belief system is the situational and relative nature of actions. What is right conduct in a circumstance for a given person is totally wrong action for another person in another situation. While this seems simple enough a concept to embrace, in reality it is not so. To attempt to practice it in this world can set one in conflict with a lot of conventional notions about the rule of law and the use/abuse of power. To arrogate such moral authority to oneself without the adequate framework and readiness is foolhardy. To have such adhikara (right or authority) and not recognize it or employ it for the good of others is another kind of failure. To discriminate between these types of errors is like walking on a sword’s edge. One can only thank Swamiji for the experiential lessons in action provided on these issues.

The same evening we took part in the evening aarti and had darshan of Lord Badrinath. The present Badrinath temple was reestablished by Adi Shankaracharya. He is said to have made several trips to the four dhams in a short life span of thirty something years years. When he first visited Badrinath, a Buddhist monastery existed here. Based on a knowledge that came to him he is said to have instantly dived into the icy waters of the River Alakananda and retrieved the natural icon of Lord Vishnu meditating in full padmaasana (lotus pose). He installed the icon and recommenced the worship of Lord Vishnu at Badri. It is said that this was the third time the worship of Lord Vishnu was established at Badri. The original temple at this location is believed to have been first established over 6,000 years ago near the source of the Alakananda River as it passes between the Nar and Narayan hills.

Day 7 - Badrinath

The next morning we bathed in the hot water springs and had darshan of Lord Badri Vishal’s pre-dawn mahaabhishekam. Savitri could not help commenting on the glowing & peaceful face of the Raval (chief priest) as he lovingly went about bathing and clothing the Lord. The atmosphere in the temple was so charged with devotion that despite the severe cold only a dhoti and angavastram kept me warm. Perhaps, it was the warmth of Lord’s love.

The Raval offers prayers at the temple for only six months of the year. The temple is sealed for the winter and is usually fully buried under snow despite the anti-avalanche barriers set up by the army. Tradition has it that Lord Narada, Lord Vishnu’s most special devotee, catalyst of the destiny of so many, himself carries out the pooja during the frozen winter months.

During the day each of the men in our group took this opportunity to pray for the peace of their ancestors on the holy Brahmakapala rock on the banks of the Alakananda (the Pindaan ritual).

Later we had the fortune of being in satsang with a large group of visitors from Gujarat. As parables from Sri Krishna’s life were illustrated and sung by the various preachers one became lost in His beneficence. In the afternoon, Swamiji graced us with a rendering of Satyanarayana Katha in Sanskrit. That evening we strolled to Mana, the last habitation before the Tibetan border. Close by are the caves where, tradition has it, the great sage Ved Vyasa dictated the Mahabharat to Lord Ganesha.

After participating again in the evening aarti at the temple, we finally got to meet the Raval of Badrinath that night (all of 27 years). Sitting in his presence we were impressed by the sheen on his face, the mellow tones of his voice, the maturity of his words and economy of his actions. To my mind these were the results of his intense sadhana.

Pics of Badrinath

Day 8 – Badrinath to Rishikesh

We had the fortune of hot snan again at Badrinath (with the requisite four dips), followed by another audience with the Lord Badri Vishal for the morning mahaabhishekam. At Badrinath the parikrama is also done four times, so it felt harmonious that we had also had four occasions to be in His divine presence.

Our Char Dham was now officially over. We drove down to Rishikesh, and soon returned to the routine obstacles of daily life. I realized that this trip had taken place in a cocoon of Devi Maa’s protection. We had our share of near misses on the way down, program disruptions, frayed tempers and what have you. A little reminder from Aditya to cease idle chatter, stay focused and soon things started spinning in the right way again. Yes! Only if you have complete faith and surrender to the Force do you experience that the Universe spins the reality or perception that is right for you.

Thus we reached Rishikesh in time for Ganga Maa aarti. It was a picture postcard, late evening on the beautiful marble slab steps on the left bank of the Ganga that we had crossed to over the footbridge to reach a magical ashram. We offered prayers to the holy River Mother, in wide-bodied fulsome flow here. A lovely contrast to the gushing prancing young white chill waters of her constituents Bhagirathi, Mandakini and Alakananda we had met on the Dhams.

Day 9 – Rishikesh to Delhi

Getting up before 4:00 am had by now become a habit. Meditation in the Brahma muhurat at Rishikesh over, we left for Delhi. A normal 5-6 hour journey was over in less than three and a half hours. The first order of business was to return to the temple of Devi Maa at Swamiji’s and thank Her for successful completion of the yatra. Before long it was time to bid goodbye to one’s fellow chardhamonauts. What is there to say? We had spent perhaps the most significant 200 hours of our lives together. Words simply cannot describe the anubhav (experience).

Epilogue

This whole narrative is necessarily composed of words. The writer is not a writer. If words fail to describe what he experienced then that is the limitation of description – of the describer and of the act of ascribing words to experiences. Fortunately, many others have similar tales to tell and some tell them better. If science is the distillate of experience and experiment, of repeatability of results, then there are enough scientists reporting on the self same in similar terms. Is this science cosmogony, astronomy, sub atomic physics, biology and psychology? All and more? All and all. Unity and infinity  - a theory of everything?

I don’t know what
I don’t know why
There’s nothing to know
There’s no I
That has to try.

EK ONKAR
JAI SHRI KRISHNA
JAI BADRI VISHAL
SHAMBHAVE NAMAH
JAI MAA
SHRI
OM