Char Dham of Uttarakhand or Chota Char Dham (small four abodes) is one of the most important Hindu Pilgrimages in India. It comprises of four most holy sites of Uttarakhand, namely – Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri. When and how these places got linked in a pilgrimage circuit together is not known. Each of the places has its individual and legendary history. But perhaps it is the greatness and mysticism of each site that has qualified them to form a sacred pilgrimage tour.
Till the 1950s going to the four most sacred sites of Uttarakhand meant embarking on a strenuous journey on foot through the hilly trails. People, like wandering sadhus, and those who could afford to travel with an entourage, were the most likely and regular pilgrims of Chota Char Dham. After the 1962 Indo – China war, India put massive efforts into building means of better connectivity to and infrastructure at border areas. Now the roads could take one to the nearest points of the holy abodes. This encouraged people from other backgrounds (economic or social) to initiate a tour of the Char Dham circuit in the Himalayas.
HISTORY OF YAMUNOTRI
Yamunotri is where the second most holy river of India, the River Yamuna, takes birth. Situated in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand, Yamunotri Dham is the first stop in the pilgrimage. It is believed that bathing in its water cleanses all sins and protects from an untimely and painful death. The shrine of Yamunotri is believed to be built in 1839 by the king of Tehri, Naresh Sudarshan Shah. Besides the Yamuna Devi (goddess), the idol of Ganga Devi is housed in the revered temple. There are many hot water springs near the temple; Surya Kund is the most important among them. Devotees boil rice and potatoes in the kund and accept it as a Prasad of the Devi.
Yamuna Goddess is believed to be Sun’s daughter and the twin sister of Yama (the god of death). It is said that sage Asit Muni lived here and bathed in both Ganga and Yamuna. In his old age, when he was unable to go to Gangotri, a stream of Ganga started to flow across the steam of Yamuna.
HISTORY OF GANGOTRI
Gangotri Dham is dedicated to Goddess Ganga, who is said to have descended on earth to absolve the sins of humankind. The river originates at Gaumukh from the Gangotri glacier which is some 18 km from the town of Gangotri. Situated in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand, the original temple of Gangotri was built by Amar Singh Thapa, a Gurkha general, in the early 19th century.
King Sagar undertook an Ashwamedha Yagna and sent his 60,000 sons along with the horse. The horse was lost; tracing the horse to the Sage Kapila’s ashram, the 60,000 sons stormed the ashram and disturbed the sage who was in deep meditation. Enraged Kapila opened his fiery eyes that turned all 60,000 sons into ashes. Later, on Kapila’s advice, Anshuman (Sagar’s grandson) started praying to Goddess Ganga, requesting her to come down to earth to cleanse the ashes of his relatives and grant salvation to them. Anshuman failed in his aim; it was his grandson Bhagirath whose rigorous meditation made Ganga come down to earth. Lord Shiva tied Ganga and distributed its water in several streams to save the earth from its mighty force.
HISTORY OF KEDARNATH
Situated in the Rudraprayag district of Uttarakhand, Kedarnath is the most remote pilgrimage spot in the yatra. It is believed that originally the temple of Kedarnath was built by Pandavas. And Adi Shankaracharya got the present structure constructed in the 8th century adjacent to the old temple site. The grey stone structure is an architectural marvel because of its imposing design and its ability to survive for so many centuries in such harsh terrain.
Pandavas were searching for Lord Shiva to absolve themselves from their sins committed on the battlefield of Mahabharata. Lord Shiva was in no mood to forgive them so easily, so he converted himself into a bull and went to the Garhwal side of Uttarakhand. On being found by the Pandavas, he dived into the ground. Different parts of the Lord came up at different parts – hump at Kedarnath, arms at Tunganath, navel at Madhya-Maheshwar, face at Rudranath and hair emerged at Kalpeshwar. Taken together, these five sites are known as Panch-Kedar. Pandavas got temples made at each of the five places.
HISTORY OF BADRINATH
Badrinath is considered one of the holiest places in the Hindu religion. One of the 108 Divya Desams, Badrinath temple is part of both Char Dham and Chota Char Dham. Adi Shankaracharya found the idol of Lord Badri in the Alaknanda River and put it up in a cave near the Tapt Kund. In the 16th century, a Garhwal King got the temple erected, which has been renovated many times as a result of natural calamities. Sandwiched between Nar and Narayan peaks, the beauty of Badrinath Dham is further enhanced by the glorious background of Neelkanth peak.
As per one of the legends, the indulgent lifestyle of Lord Vishnu was criticized by a sage, after which Vishnu went to meditate as an act of penance, over here. Goddess Laxmi (his wife) became a berry tree to shade him from the sun and other harsh elements of nature. Another divine tale states that Badrinath used to be the realm of Shiva. Vishnu tricked Shiva into leaving the site and established himself instead.