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Your Complete Guide to Char Dham Yatra in India

Rigorous travel, vast distances, extreme weather conditions, lack of everyday luxuries like a television or a comfortable mattress - none of these seem to deter pilgrims as well as visitors who intent on completing their Char Dham Yatra in India. On the other hand, you get refreshing spiritual rejuvenation, cultural enrichment, new friends with revitalizing ideas and peace in the midst of hardship; so it comes as no surprise that the Char Dham Yatra is one of the most favored religious journeys in India that attracts millions of tourists both from within the country and from abroad.

Though few people know about this, there are two Char Dham circuits in India; the original one as proposed by the 8th Century Saint Adi Shankara, covers the four corners of India. The four "seats" (Char Dham) are Badrinath in the North, Puri in the East, Dwarka in the West and Rameswaram in the South. Forming a perfect diamond in the map of India, this Char Dham route covers the width and length of India; to pilgrims in India, a visit to all four sites at least once in their lifetime offers a ticket to eternal salvation.

The other Char Dham, previously called Chota Char Dham, or small Char Dham is located in the state of Uttarakhand. The sites include Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. Due to its proximity to the Himalayas, this circuit is incredibly scenic and very popular among pilgrims as well as visitors. In the past century, this route has gained popularity and is called the Char Dham of the Himalayas.

Let's explore both courses and find out how best to discover inner peace in both these pilgrimages.

Adi Shankara's Char Dham
The Char Dham sites as prescribed by Saint Adi Shankara are dedicated to different Avatars of Lord Vishnu, but each of these Vishnu temples is also paired with a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, located in the same region. This was a step towards national integration way back in the eighth century, linking devotees of Vishnu with devotees of Shiva and bridging the North- South divide that was apparent in India.

Featured in both circuits, Badrinath is the most important temple in both Char Dham itineraries. Towering over the rest of India at a height of 3133 m above sea level, nestled in the heart of the Himalayas and located in culture-rich Uttarakhand, Badrinath is a spectacular place to visit. Dedicated to Vishnu's dual forms of Nara and Narayana, the temple of Badrinath along the river Alaknanda, a channel of Ganga, has featured in several religious scriptures and epics like the Mahabharata.

The Badrinarayan Temple was built by the king of Garhwal in the 16th century, but the shrine was discovered much earlier by Saint Adi Shankara in the Alaknanda River and was housed in a cave near the Tapt Kund hot springs till it was moved to its present location.

Badrinath can be reached by road as a pilgrim stop from Haridwar or Rishikesh; this is how most travelers visit the place since they can also see other important religious sites on the route. However, if you want to visit just Badrinath, book a flight to the Jolly Grant Airport near Dehradun and book helicopters from Dehradun or Phata to Badrinath. The best time to visit Badrinath  is from May until September as the temple is usually closed after the Vijayadasami festival in October till Basant Panchami or spring festival that happens in April.

The coastal town of Puri is a favorite with visitors because of its serene beaches, lakes, culture and festivals; but the most important reason to visit this place would be the glorious Jagannath Temple. Called a "Srikshetra" because of its prominence as a Hindu place of worship, Jagannath Puri is visited by as many as 50000 devotees every day. Built in the twelfth century, the Sri Mandir as the temple of Puri Jagannath is called; is an amazing structure with the main temple reaching a height of 215 feet.

The deities in this temple are considered sacred as Lord Vishnu during those days that is, the Kaluyuga was worshiped in this form. An interesting feature to note here is that all the main idols in the temple appear incomplete, without hands and feet. People believe this is the form the Lord has taken for this age; so thousands of devotees throng the temple every day to seek salvation and partake in the holy Prasad.

Train is the easiest mode of transportation to reach Puri; this is a major station in the Eastern Railways. For people who wish to travel by air, the closest domestic airport is at Bhubaneshwar, 60 kms away.

Troubled by constant attacks on his Kingdom that disturbed his citizens, Lord Krishna moved his capital from Mathura to a secret location in West India; the city was said to be designed by a divine architect and could be reached only by ferry. Kown as Beyt Dwarka, it is now a small island that can be reached by ferry from Dwarka. The Dwarakadeesh Temple, dedicated to Lord Krishna is the main attraction in this charming coastal town of Gujarat. The empire of Lord Krishna is believed to have been submerged by sea after his death; divers today have found traces of a vast, well-planned city corresponding to where Dwarka is believed to have been located.

The Dwarakanath Temple was built in the second century BC. Dwarka also happens to be one among seven most ancient cities in India. Non-Hindus are allowed inside the temple, but they have to sign a declaration of faith before entering the premises.

Dwarka is well connected by road and rail to major cities in India. If you wish to fly, the closest airport is at Jamnagar which is 120 kms away. Book a cab from there to Dwarka. The city gets very crowded on the occasion of Janmashtami, a festival celebrating Lord Krishna's birthday.

Again a coastal town, Rameswaram marks the Southern end of the Char Dham voyage. Dedicated to Lord Rama, this pilgrimage destination is believed to be the place where Rama crossed the ocean with his army of Vanars (monkey-men) to reach Lanka and save Sita from Ravana. Like in Dwarka, there are evidences that support this story; there's a fully submerged bridge from Land's end, the end of the Pamban Island that proceeds towards Lanka. Apart from the main temple, there are several places in the town that are believed to have been visited by Lord Rama, Lakshman and Hanuman.

The Ramanathaswamy Temple is the main hub of activity; it's believed that Lord Rama prayed to Lord Shiva using a lingam that Sita had made out of sand. The entire town is an interesting place to visit with several anecdotes from the Ramayana; Dhanushkodi, once a thriving town that was destroyed by a cyclone is also located close to Rameswaram.

The closest airport to Rameswaram is at Madurai; the town can be reached through land or train from major cities in Tamil Nadu.

Uttaranchal's Char Dham
Uttaranchal's Char Dham is a much smaller circuit than Adi Shankara's Char Dham; however, devotees endure harsh weather conditions and difficulties while visiting each of the four destinations in this route. Traditionally, the Char Dham Yatra is made from left to right, starting from the Yamunotri, moving on to Gangotri, then Kedarnath and concluding at Badrinath.

The first stop in the Char Dham Yatra, Yamunotri is revered as it's the origin point of the River Yamuna. In India, as in Egypt, rivers are worshiped as Goddesses. The actual point of origin is very difficult to access as it's almost always frozen and can be reached only by trekking through mountains, but pilgrims worship the river from the temple of Yamunotri; even reaching this temple involves going through a bit of hardship.

The temple is at a height of 3291 m above sea-level; to reach the temple, hire a cab or take a bus from Rishikesh till Hanuman Chatti. From Hanuman Chatti, join others in a shared cab till Janki Chatti and from there, trek the 5 kms to the temple. The route is very scenic though the weather can be a bit harsh; if you're not able to walk, there are mules and palanquins that can take you uphill to the temple. The temple is closed after Diwali till Akshaya Thrittiya, a religious day that normally occurs in April-May.

Dedicated to the River Ganga which flows as the Baghirathi by the temple, Gangotri is a splendid place to visit with its beautiful location and interesting legend. In a charming landscape of deodar and pine trees lies the revered Gangotri Temple; this building was built in the eighteenth century. The evening arti that takes place at 8PM everyday is fascinating to watch. The temple of Gangotri can be reached from Rishikesh which is 12 hours away; there are pilgrim dormitories and small hotels where you can stay.

If you want to see the actual source of the River Ganga, you have to trek up the mountains over a distance of 18 kms to Gaumukh, an ice cave where the glacier that's believed to be the starting place of River Bhagirathi, is located. The trek can be quite taxing and will require at least a couple of days. Like the Yamunotri Temple, Gangotri Temple closes after Diwali and opens only on Akshaya Trittiya.

Nestled in the Himalayas, with lovely snow-clad mountains as its backdrop, the Kedarnath Temple is one of the most difficult yatra destinations to reach; yet it's irresistible. The arduous trek and severe weather conditions don't deter people who're determined to see the Jyotir Linga of Kedarnath. One of the most interesting facts about Kedarnath's temple is that it's undated; yes, people believe Adi Shankaracharya built the temple in the eighth century, but there are stories that the temple was first built by the Pandava brothers from the epic Mahabharatha. The temple is closed between November and May when the shrine is transferred to Ukhimath, immersed in snow and worshiped.

In 2013, flash floods affected the entire area surrounding Kedarnath and the main route to reach the temple was completely destroyed; hundreds of pilgrims were stranded and there was heavy loss of life. But the thousand year old temple remained intact and undamaged by the floods. The old route Gaurikund to Kedarnath, involved a trek of about 14 kms on a nice pathway with several shelters and conveniences; but since this was destroyed in the flood, a new route has emerged that's still being worked on. Now, vehicles have to stop at Sonprayag from where you can get a shuttle to Mankutia, near Gaurikund; from there, it's a 17 km trek to the temple.
Though expensive, booking a helicopter is the easiest way to reach Kedarnath. You could combine Kedarnath and Badrinath in a helicopter package.

Badrinath is the only place that features in both Char Dham yatras; this temple is also prominent in other important Vaishnava routes like Pancha Badri and 108 Dhivyadesams.

Tips for your Char Dham Yatra

  • In spite of their wonderful location and superb landscape, it's always important to remember that the temples you visit are very revered holy destinations; in fact, several people don't think twice about spending their life's earning for this pilgrimage. So respect the sentiments of others. These towns are almost completely vegetarian; it's hard to get non-vegetarian food, alcoholic drinks or comfortable accommodation here. Footwear is not allowed inside temples.
  • Check your dates before traveling; Char Dham temples in Uttarakhand are closed between November and May, but the exact dates of closing or opening differ every year because Hindu festivals follow the Lunar Calendar.
  • Carry enough warm clothing since the mountain-side can get quite cold. In most yatra destinations, there are mules and porters to help travelers. Consider using this service even if you're fit because the air can get quite thin uphill.
  • Carry enough cash since cards are not widely accepted. It's also advisable to carry short eats and energy bars while trekking.
  • While driving in Uttarakhand, make note of the gate system that allows vehicles to proceed in one direction only for a specified time period. While this can cause delays, it's important to avoid accidents. Find out the schedule of gate closures and plan your travel accordingly.
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