Friday, April 24, 2009

Chardham 2005

From my Travel Diary, here is an account of a trip to the Chardham shrines, Badri, Kedar, Yamunotri and Gangotri in the Himalayas. This happened in 2005 and these are excerpts from a letter to a friend.

It was the call of the Himalayas. Six of us went to what is popularly called the Chardham Shrines, i.e., Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath. We had hired a Sumo from Haridwar through these shrines back to Haridwar and Rs.5300 per head for the 12 days. It was a mix of Adventure, Nature, Fun and Pilgrimage. This belt involves lot of trekking. The best part is throughout the trip, you travel right along the Ganga and its tributaries like Bhagirathi, Alakananda and Mandakini. Sometimes the river is at a stone's throw while in other places it is few hundred feet away vertically. All the other members trekked wherever trekking was required. I didn't trek much, I took ponies or human carriers in all places for a charge. It was a total of 80 km trek in the 12 days. We took dips in the many prayags on the way, thanks to some guys in our group, who used to gently suggest that may we please stop at this prayag and that, for a dip and darshan at the riverside shrine. We stayed in the GMVNL chain of Government Tourist Bungalows in middle-level accommodation with moderate facilities.

Vasudhara Falls

Let me tell you, if you are one who loves nature, Himalayas is the place to go. I feel it's heavily undermarketed when compared to other foreign destinations (though this may be a skewed opinion, since I haven't been abroad). Add to it the sanctity which the Indian cultural psyche attaches to the Ganges. (Forget about the lower ganges which brings up the image of pollution). This is about the Higher Ganges, beyond Haridwar, where we can actually take the water from the stream and directly drink and it would be absolutely pure. In fact, we actually drank from the stream during our trek to one Vasudhara Falls. This is a rarely visited place beyond the Mana Village which is the last village in India before the Tibetan Border. Vasudhara Falls is 5 km beyond Mana and I also had to trek because no ponies were available, since it isn't a popular destination. Our stay in Badri extended one more day because we went to Vasudhara Falls. Though the trek itself was fascinating to me, the Falls Proper turned out to be a anti-climax, since during the time we went, the Falls was a faint shower contrary to the fierce downpour it is in winter. But since that was only the stretch I trekked, it was a wonderful experience for me.


Beyond Gangotri, there is the Gaumukh peak where Bhagirati actually originates. It is a 19 km trek up from Gangotri. All the others went for the trek. I started too, but within 5 minutes, I just changed my mind instinctively and asked other members to go ahead and I would pick a room in Gangotri and stay till they are back the next day. Unfortunately, they were able to make it only upto 16 km upto a place called Bhojbasa and they had to return as there was a hailstorm. They had to actually walk when it was snowing to reach the Bhojbasa camp before the evening, since otherwise they would be stuck in the dark. The next morning the Uttarkashi Central School kids who had gone to Gaumukh told that it might be dangerous, so they returned from Bhojbasa. This was the most picturesque stretch with snow-capped peaks on all sides, streams to be crossed on logs put across and you can actually jump around in the snow. Looking back, I feel may be I should have made it, but all the friends say, it was a perfect decision for me to stay back since I would not have been able to make the 32 km trek without gasping, collapsing and downed by the fatigue. Everyone, particularly me, was very much worried about one of our friends who was frail, whether he will be able to make it. I was calling the Bhojbasa Camp by the wireless in my hotel to find out if our boys have reached, since even in Gangotri there was a mini hailstorm and there was this talk about it being more fierce in higher places. The temperature was around -3 degrees. But contrary to my worries, this friend was able to make it in fine condition. In fact, throughout the trip, while all of us used to be worried about him, he would always make it in good stead. He would exert and stretch himself for difficult situations, no doubt, but he would invariably make it well, no matter how difficult it would be for others. Well, some are stronger than what they appear to be.

While my brethren were up there battling the snow, I had a nice time in Gangotri. The Ganga had always fascinated me since childhood. So I felt really egggzzzzzeeeee to be on the Ganges. The hailstorm had just calmed down and there was not a soul to be seen by the Ganges, except for a stray sadhu here and there who were on their evening walk. I put on my jerkin and went for a long walk along the Ganges. In fact, I even ventured a dip at Gangotri immediately after hailstorm, but there was a Mouna Sadhu who gestured me to keep away since there was a hailstorm up there and ice cubes would be coming down the Bhagirathi. I had to postpone the dips to the next morning. I visited the Ashrams around, met a few sadhus and sages, was chatting with them about life in winter at Gangotri. All these shrines close down in winter to re-open only in mid-April. But there are sages and sadhus who have stayed for decades, summer and winter, at Gangotri, being brought provisions by someone in summer. I must have appeared to them as a very unlikely candidate for sadhana, what with my jerkin, goggles, sports shoes, track pant, hand-gloves and monkey cap with every part of my body covered with some kind of winter clothing. But once I break ice for a conversation, I would make it mutually enjoyable, well, you know about that part of let me skip the trumpeting....

Badrinath and Kedarnath

While Gangotri and Yamunotri are not frequented very much by people, Badri and Kedar are popular destinations and have more facilities. Badri is the most popular since it does not involve trekking. So there are many facilities and a strong South Indian presence, including the south-indian delicacy Masala Dosa, for which we were hankering after ten days of only north-indian dishes, Aloo Parota and its equally monotonous sister, Gobi Parota in the other places. Kedar involves a 14-km trek, it's actually walking up the slopes and is not trekking in the sense of adventure sport. But even elderly people walk slowly chanting 'Hara Hara Mahadev', 'Hara Hara Gange', 'Jai Boley Nath' etc. Ponies are available for elders (like me ! haha). Also available are woodden palanquins carried by four people, which are more comforatble, and naturally more expensive. The 5 km trek to Yamunotri is the steepest of all, though it is a short one compared to Kedar.

River-rafting at Kaudiyala

If you have wondered what was the fun part of the trip, except for the bounty of Nature, here it is. Near Rishikesh, we went for what is called the White Water River Rafting on the Ganges. You row your own boat, wearing life-jackets and being taught safety instructions for danger and damage, through the whirls of the fierce Ganga, with rowing commands given by a Guide who is in the boat and gives instructions. We saw the boys and girls from Kendriya Vidyalaya start the rafting, so we thought it shouldn't be too difficult. After a few minutes, comes the exciting rowing, that you just jump into the Ganges Proper with your life-jacket on. I had heard about this from one of our friends who had gone the previous on the same stretch. So in the beginning of the rafting, I was the first one to ask the guide, 'Are you not going to allow us to jump ? '. 'Well, ' he said, 'every one of you is going to do that'. The Guide had rafted in 25 rivers across the world and said Brahmaputra is the toughest of all. when the Guide gave the go-ahead, we went for the plunge and let go of the boat. First we held on to the rope tied to the boat, but then, we let go of that and were freely floating in water. Of course, you have to be a bit cautious with danger lurking in the whirls and the rocks that may be on the banks and you may know about them after you hit your head. But then, the mix of caution, a bit of nagging fear and the bubbling excitement is what makes it an adventure. The previous night we had stayed in tents that were put up, right next to the Ganges in Kaudiyala near Rishikesh for the rafters of the next morning.

We completed our Chardham with the famous 'Har-ki-Pauri' Ganga Arati at Haridwar, when all the ancient temples in Haridwar on the banks of Ganga offer Arati simultaneously at around 7.p.m. So do the hundreds of pilgrims who leave small lamps on leaves in the Ganga co-inciding with the Arati, which makes it a sight for the Gods to see.

So much for the Chardham. Apart from these we also had included Amritsar, Agra, Mathura, Vrindavan and Delhi in our itinerary. From Haridwar we went to Amritsar. Of course, we were in Delhi only for a day, but each of us had some kind of individual agenda like visiting friends and relatives. So we got back together after we finished our respective works and we did a bit of shopping at Palika Bazar.


In Amritsar, we went to the Golden Temple, Jalianwala Bagh Memorial and to the Wagah Border with Pakistan. The Golden Temple was really wonderful, with the huge water tank surrounding the temple. They give free food as prasad for all visitors ( and so it is, I believe, at all gurudwaras in the world). The voluntarism there also impressed me a lot, what with volunteers involved in all the activities like cleaning shoes, canteen works, cleaning the shrine etc. Of course, you have to wear this scarf on your head. Scarves are available for free at the entrance.

At the Wagah Border in Amritsar, which we included after hearing that the Indian Cricket team had gone there, the specialty is the Change of Guard Parade which takes place at 6.30 in the evening. This side is full of Indian Visitors and the other is full of Pakistanis. The parade takes place everyday at the same time amidst heavy shouting by visitors on both sides. While fellows and fellis on this side shout 'Vande Mataram', 'Hindustan Zindabad', 'Bharat Matha Ki Jai' etc the other side matches the pitch with 'Pakistan Zindabad' and the like. There is also a commentary by the armies on both sides as the the parade progresses.

We had to dash through Mathura and Vrindavan quickly since we had only one day for Mathura, Vrindavan and Agra. At Mathura, Right next to the temple sharing a wall with it, is the mosque built by Aurangazeb. The temple itself was destroyed and re-built 6 times during the various muslim invasions. The jail where Lord Krishna was born has been made into a shrine. A very serene place. Vrindavan is just a few km away. While the pestering guides and money-minded priests make it a bit funny, the shrines are very good. The thick and delicious Lassi sold in earthen pots needs a special mention.

The Taj Mahal

We had only a couple of hours spend at Agra. But I was amazed. The Taj is indeed imposing just as you step into the premises, with huge domes touching the sky and sight of sheer marble everywhere leaving you stunned. The dash of Mughal Architecture is evident on every inch, though the Yamuna was not as impressive as I expected. That may be because, we had seen the Original Yamuna in all its splendour, gushing and galloping down the rocks, so anything on the plains looks so mean. Thankfully there are no constructions behind the Taj, so the Taj with the backdrop of greenery looks like a giant lonely lover reaching out to the skies as the manifestation of the anguish that once haunted a rich and a melancholic king.There is high security. Video cameras are not allowed beyond a point. Even our portable hard disk in which we used to dump all the high-res digital photos, was not allowed. Tourists throng the place, particularly young couples and lovers, probably with the million-dollar question 'Kya Hamara Prem Bhee Aisa Amar Rahega ?'. But if you are going ( I mean if someone wants to go), I would suggest you go with your wife or fiancee. Of course, if you are a guy who enjoys different kinds of architecture, then it is a must-see case study in Architecture. And that it is one of the 7 wonders is not without reason. Someone remarked that after all it is a tomb or mausoleum and should be of little interest to spiritually-inclined half-monks, but I would say it is a parochial view. You should appreciate good work where you see it and this piece is undoubtedly among the finest of art.

From Agra, we dashed back in Tamilnadu Express to down south, moving from cold temperatures to our good old temperatures in the South. In all the trip costed around Rs.10000 per head including all expenses. If you include the shopping for the sake of and during the trip, it would be Rs.15000 per head.

1 comment:

  1. You penned those memories so vividly that I felt as if I was there right along with you in the Chardham trip.


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THANK YOU: These reflections draw sometimes from readers and friends who initiate ideas, build up discussions, post comments and mention interesting links, some online and some over a cup of coffee or during a riverside walk. Thank you.

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