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By Suresh Nautiyal

THE natural wonders in the Central Himalayan region have been identified as manifestations of the Gods themselves, or of places where mythic events took
place. In the backdrop of this, six Himalayan sites came to be known as undisputed important shrines for Hindus. Gangotari, Yamunotari, Kedarnath,
and Badarinath being in the sacred lands of Uttarakhand or Central Himalaya
and fifth (the Amarnath Cave) and sixth (Kailash-Mansarover) in Jammu &
Kashmir and Tibet respectively. Yamunotari and Badarinath are associated with Lord Vishnu, the Preserver; whereas, Gangotari and Kedarnath are shrines devoted to Lord Shiva, the Destroyer as well as the Transformer.

Whole of Uttarakhand is an ancient land with traditions going back thousands
of years and a complex, interwoven system of beliefs. One can pass years in
Uttarakhand and only learn a fraction of the ceremonies and myths connected
with the remarkable area. Badarinath is one such place visited by thousands of devotees and nature-lovers from the world over every summer. Devotees approach the holy shrine to perform pooja that involves recitation of scriptures and ritual presentations of grains, oils, spices, or precious objects to the Lord Vishnu, the Presiding deity.

The shrine is situated 298 km away from Rishikesh, a bubbling town largely
spread on the right side of the immortal Ganga. Rishikesh is a sort of base camp for the yatra trail. Important towns like Deoprayag (70 km), Shrinagar (105 km), Rudraprayag (139 km), Karnaprayag (170 km at the junction of Pindar valley), Chamoli (202 km), Joshimath (250 km), and Gobindghat (270 km) lay en route Badarinath shrine.

Also, one passes through two more Prayags --- the sacred confluences --- Nandprayag (at the base of Nandakini river), and Vishnuprayag (far below Joshimath at the confluence of Alaknanda and Dhauliganga). From already mentioned Rudraprayag the road to Kedarnath branches-off.

All buses stop at historical Joshimath (Jyotirmath in scriptures), situated magnificently up and down along a ridge over 1,000 feet above the Alakananda
river. This place onwards, a system of one-way traffic called 'gate system' has to be followed strictly at officially appointed times as the road ahead is slim and sleazy unsuited for two-way traffic. The first gate is at 630 hrs and the last at 1630 hrs. The winding road is reasonably maintained and sharply ascends and descends.

From Gobindghat (between Joshimath and Badarinath) a road branches-off for
the world famous Valley of Flowers and Hemkund lake, a hiking route. Come Hanuman Chatti (283 km), the wonders spring rolling down. From here the road almost climbs above the treeline --- the mountains looking bald headed as if they too had offered tarpana at the Brahama Kapaal near the Badarinath shrine. In Hindu religion, tarpana has an important role without which the dead do not qualify for the heavenly abode.

Badarinath is an unequalled place for meditation --- sprawling in a silent valley divided by sacred Alakananda river --- in a sense illustrious daughter of Satopanth peak. Hindus claim that eons ago, Narada, a godly sage having access to the heavens, rebuked Lord Vishnu for indulging in an earthly pleasure. Vishnu sent wife Lakshmi away and went into seclusion into the Badari valley for meditation.

However, Lakshmi managed to locate Vishnu in the valley and urged him to give up the penance. The Preserver agreed on the condition that Badarinath remained a valley for meditation. Badari refers to a wild fruit said to have been eaten by Vishnu during his long period of ascetic meditation.

Legend has it that the shrine was converted into a Buddhist temple under the
influence of Emperor Ashok, 274-232 BC, and the idol of Vishnu was tossed
into the Narada Kund. Centuries later, Adi Shankaracharya recovered the idol
and again established the Badarinath shrine as the premier seat of Hindu religion.

Others believe that the shrine actually belonged to the Buddhists and Adiguru Shankaracharya converted it into a Hindu shrine during his visit place. The fact that the deity is seated in padmasana form --- a very common form of Buddhist icons --- supports this belief. Lord Buddha, in such a posture is called Bodhisatva.

However, opinions are still divided as to the origin of idol. Perhaps, because of this, the Dharmadhikari of the shrine explains to the devotees that they might see the idol of Lord Badarinath in whatsoever form they wish. The fact that Hinduism allows the maximum freedom in matters of faith and worship as it does not rest in the acceptance of any particular form of worship.

Mr Jagat Singh Bisht, the chief executive officer of the Badarinath-Kedarnath temples Committee, rightly pointed out that the philosophy of Hinduism was not meant for intellectual curiosity and vain explanation. It was guide to the path of life. Undoubtedly, much of Hinduism's myth and tradition stem from the Vedas --- the sacred writings compiled between 2,500 and 4,000 years ago. Many of the legends in them speak of places in the Himalaya.

Surrounded by the snow-covered peaks, the Badarinath shrine complex is situated on the right bank of the roaring Alaknanda, which along with Bhagirathi becomes Ganga from Deoprayag downwards. Most part of the township lies on the left bank at the height of 10,300 feet above the sea-level. One follows the pucca path past meditating and alms-seeking sadhus, past restaurants, souvenir and pooja accessories shops, and more sadhus before crossing a wooden bridge leading to the sacred shrine, divided into three parts: the Garbha Griha, the Darshanam Mandapa, and the Sabha Mandapa.

Today, only ancient inner sanctum has escaped alteration. The main shrine has an inner sanctum with a black stone idol of the reigning deity Lord Vishnu sitting under a gold canopy. The details of the idol of Badari Vishal are not well defined --- perhaps the result of weathering, when thrown in the Narada Kund for a long time. In one of the small shrines that surround the temple, Lord Hanuman holds the Himalayas in his palm, Another shrine is dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi. And another honours Adiguru Shankaracharya, who recovered the idol from the Narada Kund.

All day long, devotees climb the stairs to the shrine, jumping up to ring a huge brass bell that hangs from the arcade leading into the small temple courtyard. Special evening poojas include arati and Geet Govinda. Before the evening arati and darshan, devotees gather in a room off the temple courtyard and listen to a priest tell stories of Vishnu.

Then the time is for the evening arati. The devotees rush into the mandapa and brush their hands over a brassplate with diya to get its blessings. Then they file into the inner sanctum where the High Priest sits by Lord Vishnu, dressed in flowers and tulsi garlands. Drums announce the end of arati. The idol then goes back to bed.

In the morning, special puja like mahabhisheka, srimadabhagwat, and geetapath are held. The chanting of the Vedic hymns by the pujari and pundits together with the tinkling of bells creates heavenly atmosphere --- a feeling of complete surrender to the Lord. The tinkling of the bells also mingle with the roars of Alaknanda creating an atmosphere of reverential fear.

The hot water tanks or the Taptakundas are boon of nature. A bath in the holy tanks completely invigorates the fatigued body after a journey from Rishikesh or
beyond. The sulphur water in the tanks is also considered good for health. From religious point of view, a dip ensures salvation for the devotees. For gastronomic requirements, it is always advisable to head for the most crowded restaurants as they are a guarantee for good.

Both Badarinath shrine and town are closed during winters. During this period, the Lord's idol --- not the actual black idol --- is established at Joshimath for darshan.

Off Badarinath is a side valley that rises to the base of Neelkantha spire. Take a day and hike up the tributary valley from Badarinath towards Neelakantha's base. One approaches the glacial features quickly, for within hours of leaving the place one is on morainal debris that leads towards Himalayan snows. Here one will have an excellent view of a series of steep slopes beneath.

The spire draws its name from Lord Shiva who is also called Neelakantha. Legend has it that Lord Shiva had held the poison --- extracted during the samudra manthana (churning of the sea) --- in his trachea to save humanity; thus, called Neelakantha or one with blue poison in the trachea.

Unmistakably, Mount Neelakantha (21,640 feet) looks like the poisoned blue trachea. For others, Neelakantha is a blue arrowhead ready to penetrate the
heavens. However, for the famous British climber Frank Smythe, Neelakantha
was "the Queen of Garhwal."

To the north of Badarinath, trekking possibilities are immense. The route to Vasudhara Fall lies through a military camp. It is near the base of Alaknanda on the way to Satopanth glacier, the glacial source of Alaknanda. Up the glacier is Satopanth lake, where the divine Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh are said to meditate beneath 23,420 feet Badarinath peak and Swargarohini, a mountain path to heavens. Charanpaduka is also worth visiting. It is a rock with the imprint of Vishnu's foot and lying within view of both the temple and Neelakantha. North of Badarinath at the end of the valley is the 17,900 feet Mana Pass.

For them, those who always crave for exploring the wonders of nature, much-much more lies in the region. Like the Pancha Prayagas, there are Pancha Badaris and Pancha kedaras fro their quest. Beyond doubt, the majesty of the central Himalaya --- Uttarakahnd --- lay in its ruggedness. Several interconnecting trails can tell one that.


Author: Suresh Nautiyal ( Click here to read Profile of Author)
(Till recently a Special Correspondent with the Political Bureau of The
observer of Business and Politics, the author is currently a Delhi-based
freelance journalist.)
  Phone: (011) 6252460.