With Yamunotri and Gangotri behind us, half of our char-dham pilgrimage was over. Our next stop was the temple of Kedarnath many bus rides and several hundred kilometres away. The trek up to Gaumukh and back to Gangotri had left us both exhausted and we both decided to stay in Uttarkashi for a few days to recuperate.

Leaving Gangotri by bus, we returned to Uttarkashi in the afternoon only to discover that every decent guesthouse and hotel in town was fully booked. We trudged around the town for a couple of hours with our heavy backpacks and camera gear in tow, poking our heads in every hotel reception room only to be told that there was no rooms available. After about two hours, we finally found one room in a dingy guesthouse. It was obvious that seeing our plight, the manager overcharged us. The room we acquired had no windows, no ventilation and was next to a warehouse that had people coming and going all day and night. By evening, an unbearable smell began to permeate the room and we finally tracked the odour down to a pipe in the corner. We ascertained that this pipe came from upstairs and was a sewage pipe that was leaking. Needless to say on first light the next morning, we abandoned the room and were fortunate enough to find another hotel with good accommodation down the road. This overcrowding has become a common occurrence in these Himalayan hub towns during the peak seasons.

After two days in Uttarkashi, we felt strong enough to continue our journey to Kedarnath.

On a map, the actual distance in kilometres between Uttarkashi and Kedarnath doesn’t seem so far. Apaprently the base camp of Kedarnath (Gauri-kunda) is only 339 kilometres and at a decent speed should take no more than 7 hours. However, it took us two days on two buses and two jeeps to reach our Gauri-kunda. Before getting there we stopped the night in Srinagar and continued the next morning by shared jeep.

As we neared Gauri-kunda, the traffic got worse and worse until there was a line of vehicles that were going nowhere very fast. The jam continued for hours, during which time there were locals going up and down the line of cars desperately trying to sell faux-saffron, tea biscuits and dusty slices of watermelon.

GAURI-KUNDA – Where Parvati Did Penance
(6496ft /1980m)

When we did finally arrive at the bus stand at Gauri-kunda, we were shocked to see just how many buses and cars there were. Amidst the vehicles it was a sea of people –pilgrims carrying luggage on their heads, porters haggling with visitors, policemen struggling to control the crowds, crouching beggars calling out for a few rupees. Added to this were the deafening sounds of buses blaring their horns constantly, children crying, mules braying, tourists loudly arguing over prices and devotional music screeching from temples at full volume.

We got down from the jeep and edged our way towards a narrow winding street behind the bus stand. We were convinced that, given the throngs of people here in this small temple-town, we were certain to encounter the same problem that we had in Uttarkashi in regards to accommodation. Imagine our surprise when, after half an hour, we came across a decent guesthouse with an available room. Naturally, it came as no surprise to us that we had to pay an unreasonable price for our 10ft by 10ft room, but since we were in no mood to roam around the town for hours again, we simply paid the money and moved ourselves in.

After an hour or so, we went out to explore the town and to figure out how to get to Kedarnath the next morning. During our walk, we came across the main temple and sacred pond where Gauri-kunda gets its name. We spoke with one of the priests and he narrated the story of the temple to us. Haridwar is where Sati, the wife of Shiva, immolated herself when her father Daksha insulted her husband. When she was reborn as Parvati, she came to Gauri-kunda and performed severe austerities until Shiva himself came there and declared his love for her. They then travelled to a spot called Triyuginarayan, near Rudraprayag, where they were married. Gauri-kunda is the pond that Goddess Parvati would bathe every day. It is also said to be the spot where Ganesh acquired his elephant head, after Shiva decapitated him.

After visiting the temple, we walked a few minutes till we found the main pony stand. It was a chaos of hundreds of milling ponies and literally thousands of pilgrims trying to get rides up the path to Kedarnath. We got some idea of where to go for hiring ponies and promptly retreated back to our guesthouse.

KEDARNATH – The Abode of Shiva
(11758ft / 3584m)

Early the next morning we left our guesthouse and walked towards the pony stand, half expecting that at such an early hour, we would be the only ones there. We weren’t…

There were more people than the day before and even more chaos. We finally found two young men with ponies who agreed to take us up to Kedarnath for 900 Rupees a piece.

All the ponies were scrawny beasts and looking at the state most of them were in, one could not help feeling pity for them. Their owners dressed them up in chintzy finery, but it didn’t disguise the fact that these nags were all undernourished and mistreated. I saw one angry young man punching his pony in the belly with full force, resulting in the poor creature buckling at the blow. We were never going to make it up the 14km to Kedarnath with our camera gear and back down in the same day without ponies. I was happy to see at least that the boys we hired them treated their own mounts quite well.

As we ascended the mountain trail on our steeds, the first thing that we observed was the amount of pilgrims on the road. There was hardly any room to move if one was not on a pony. The second thing that we noticed was the acrid odour of pony urine and dung. Every so often on our journey, our guide would pull the ponies to the side and say, “Toilet!” and allow the pony to defecate at the side where a dark pool of excreta lay.

The halfway point was a place called Rambara. It was a series of shanties made of corrugated iron and plastic sheets where pilgrims and guides would stop to rest and eat the usual fare of ‘Maggi-noodles’ (instant noodles – just add water!) and parathas. Rambara reminded us of an old village in medieval Europe – dark, dirty, wet, muddy, smelly and overcrowded. We were cold and the air was damp and we were very eager to leave this place as soon as possible and get to our destination.

After a solid 6 hour journey up the steep valley slope, we finally came to Kedarnath. As we came up the path the temple town of Kedarnath and the towering mountain backdrop came into view. It was an amazing scene. It was such a surreal spectacle to observe the height of the mountains in contrast to this small town. We got off our ponies, bid farewell to our guides and walked towards the main temple. The narrow streets were full of stalls selling trinkets, photos, beads and other devotional paraphernalia, as well as snacks and other items. In the hustle and bustle, you could make out a few ‘sadhus’ dressed elaborately and giving blessings to the pilgrims for a few rupees. Some were dressed in fake tiger skins, some wearing necklaces of rudraksha beads, some anointed from head to toe in grey ashes and others with long dreadlocks and beards. They were only camera-friendly if one was willing to pay them some money, otherwise they were extremely ill tempered.

We came up to the shrine of Kedarnath which was buzzing with Hindu pilgrims. Looking at the long line of eager devotees waiting to take darshan of Kedarnath, we quickly realized that it would be an all day affair to take even a glimpse of the deity.

In Garhwal there are five main temples of Shiva – Kedarnath, Tungnath, Rudranath, Madhyamaheshvara and Kalpeshvara. Collectively they are known as the ‘Pancha-Kedar’. The most important of these is the Kedarnath temple. Tradition says that after they won the battle at Kurukshetra, the Pandavas felt remorse for the deaths of so many of their kinsfolk. In order to achieve some relief from such a sin they asked Krishna what they should do. Krishna replied that they should show honour to Lord Shiva and worship him in the Himalayas. The Pandavas travelled to the north and while there, Shiva took the form of a bull and led them to the Shivalik mountain range. Realizing that this bull was Shiva himself, the Pandavas devised a plan to find him. The bull hid amongst a herd of grazing cattle and at dusk, when the cattle began returning to their shelters, Bhima climbed up a narrow pass, and as he stretched his legs across, the cattle passed under his legs. Shiva however refused to go under him and began to sink into the ground. When Bhima saw this he immediately jumped down and caught the bull’s hump before it disappeared into the earth. Shiva was pleased with Bhima’s determination and blessed the Pandava brothers. The hump of the bull that Shiva appeared as is worshipped as the lingam at the shrine of Kedarnath.

Behind the temple is a hall wherein lies the samadhi of the founder of Advaita philosophy, Adi Shankara. The hall was totally empty and in one corner there was a deity of Shankara and a large crystal lingam on a pedestal where the actual samadhi of Shankara lies. Taking advantage of the peace and quiet, we chanted some Sanskrit prayers and japa for an hour before heading back to the main temple of Kedarnath. We took another look at the beauty of the temple, with its Himalayan background and the Mandakini River flowing close by. We were none the wiser that a week after our visit, this peaceful vista would be replaced by a scene of death and devastation.

Considering that the weather seemed to be good, we decided to walk back down to Gauri-kunda. However our estimation was wrong and as we approached Rambara, the weather suddenly changed and we were in the midst of heavy freezing rains. By the time we had arrived in Gauri-kunda we were soaked to the skin and shivering with cold. After returning to the hotel, we took a hot bath, ate some noodles and rested.

JOSHIMATH – The Monastery of Light
(6150ft / 1800m)

Leaving Gauri-kunda was a little easier than getting there. We had already booked seats on a bus to Joshimath (our next destination before Badarinath) and by 5:30am we were on our way. The bus ride itself was, as usual, difficult. Altogether, including the stops for breakfast, post-breakfast, pre-lunch, lunch, post-lunch and a myriad other stops for tea and biscuits, it took us about 12 hours to get from Kedarnath to Joshimath (nearly 200 kilometres)

When we arrived in Joshimath in the evening it was already dark. Fortunately, Joshimath had many hotels and guesthouses and we found a good clean room for a good price to sleep that night.

The next day we went out to explore the town. The name ‘Joshimath’ is derived from the Sanskrit ‘jyotir-matha’ meaning ‘the monastery of light’. This was the northern headquarters of Adi Shankara who established his disciple Totakacharya as the first pontiff of this monastery. The people there were quite friendly and allowed us to take photos of anything we liked in the compound including the deities of Shankara, Totakacharya, the crystal lingam and the deity of Goddess Rajarajesvari. Next to the monastery was an ancient shrine under a banyan tree where it is said Shankara established a self-manifested lingam and lit a lamp that has been burning ever since.

Later in the afternoon, we visited the famous Narasingha temple – another self-manifested Deity established by Shankara. When we arrived at the temple it was almost empty. Photos were strictly forbidden and to actually see the Deity was very difficult due to the amount of flowers and decoration surrounding Him. We could barely make out a smooth black stone in the middle, resembling a shalagrama-shila. Apparently the Deity has four arms and one of them is very thin. When the arm breaks at the end of Kali-yuga, legend has it that the two mountains on the way to Badarinath will collapse and the Deity of Badarinarayana will be moved to another temple known as Bhavishya-Badari (‘Badari of the future’). However, as I mentioned, due to the abundance of flowers and cloths around the Deity, we could not see the fabled arm.

The next morning we found a shared jeep going to Badarinath. We climbed in the back and for the next couple of hours saw some of the most beautiful scenery of the Indian Himalayas and experienced some of the most perilous roads in India.

BADARINATH – The Abode of Lord Vishnu
(10, 279ft / 3,133m)

Arriving in Badarinath at midday we performed our usual ritual of searching for a hotel room. Our hunt for a residence in Badarinath was exceptionally difficult – three hours of going from hotel to hotel without success. We eventually found one room that was so dirty that even the cockroaches wouldn’t stay there. We could literally see the bedbugs jumping on the mattresses. To add insult to injury the owner was overcharging us. We both decided that rather than catch a terminal disease, we would keep looking till we found something. Eventually we found a room at one hotel – another 10ft square room. The bed took up most of the space in the room, but we figured that beggars can’t be choosers, so we paid the exorbitant amount and put our things inside. We asked the hotel owner why were things so expensive? Considering the size of our room we should have only been paying 400 Rupees instead of 1500. He smiled and simply said, “Main season!” It was sad to see such extreme opportunism going on at every one of the Char-dhams.

We walked around the town for a while and saw across the Alakananda River the brightly coloured temple of Badari-narayana. In Sanskrit, the word badari refers to the jujube berry that used to grow here in abundance in ancient times. It is said that Lord Vishnu sat here and performed meditation while His consort, Lakshmi, appeared as a badari tree to shelter Him from the heat of the sun. It is for this reason that the Deity in the temple is found sitting cross-legged. The Deity is said to be self-manifested and appeared nearby under the rock known as the Narada-shila in the Alakananada River. The demigods established the Deity and Narada was the first to offer worship. Later, when Buddhism became prominent in the region, the Buddhists began to worship Badari-Narayana as Lord Buddha. Later, in the 9tth Century, when Adi Shankara defeated the Buddhists, they desecrated the temple, threw the Deity into the Alakananda and fled to Tibet. Shankara retrieved the Deity and re-installed Him again. The present temple was built by the king of Garhwal and dates back to around the 16th Century.

After seeing the temple, we decided to walk 3km to the village of Mana, where the cave of the great sage Vyasadeva is situated.

MANA – The Cave of Vyasa
(10, 498ft / 3,200m)

Mana is the last village in India as it is only 24km from the Tibetan border. We had a utopian idea that the cave of the great sage Vyasa would be atop a high mountain, surrounded by solitude and hardly visited by anyone. We thought it would be a perfect place to sit and peacefully meditate for an hour or so.

Our idyllic notions were dashed when we arrived there only to find hordes of Indian tourists walking up towards the famed spot. The old ladies of the village, dressed in traditional Himalayan clothes sat on stone walls, knitting brightly coloured scarfs and jumpers. Whenever a tourist would walk past, they would hold up some of their wares, hoping they would purchase something. However, they would become intensely angry if anyone tried to take photos of them, and demand money from them if they took one.

The courtyard of the cave and inside the cave itself was well tended. We were able to sit inside and chant a few prayers where a black deity of Vyasadeva himself and several other great sages was present.

Badarinatha Darshan

The next morning we woke up at 3:00am hoping to get darshan at the temple. We were quite surprised when we arrived to see quite a long queue of pilgrims already standing in line, shivering with the cold, all holding offerings of flowers, incense and tulasi garlands. We bought one garland from a vendor and stood in line with everyone else. After about 40 minutes, the line started moving very slowly and we finally arrived at the temple door. As we entered, we could see hundreds of pilgrims and priests, busily going from shrine to shrine, making offerings and chanting prayers. Along with the main Deity of Badari-Narayana, there are deities of Kuvera, Nara and Narayana, Sridevi, Bhudevi and Narada.
Our darshan was so quick we hardly got a glimpse of the Deity of Badari-Narayana. We were quickly herded past the altar by the priests at the front and pushed from behind by eager pilgrims.

The next day, early in the morning we offered our respects to Lord Badari-Narayana and took a long17-hour bus ride back to Rishikesh. Our Char-dham pilgrimage was finally over.

We felt very blessed to take darshan of the Char-dhams in Garhwal. However, we felt even more blessed when we returned from our pilgrimage a week later when we heard that there had been flash floods in the Himalayas and thousands had lost their lives.

We looked at the photos and coverage of the disaster – gazing at photos and footage of places where only a week ago we had stood. Kedarnath was the worst affected – what was once a thriving pilgrimage town was now a scene of utter devastation. The major cause was the crumbling of the Kedar Dome glacier. When this huge glacier collapsed during heavy rains, it caused huge landslides and a major rupture in the Charbari Lake which is 5km from Kedarnath. By the time the flood were over, nothing stood except the temple. The shops were all gone; the buildings around them had been destroyed; even the samadhi of Shankara with its deity and huge crystal lingam had all vanished. Rambara, the halfway point up that we had passed through on the way to Kedarnath, simply did not exist anymore. The temple town of Gauri-kunda was annihilated.

In Badarinath, five thousand people were stranded and were eventually rescued by the Indian army and air force. They were the fortunate ones. Those that were stranded for longer in other places and were cut off from any help had to deal with starvation, contaminated drinking water and disease.

Nobody fully knows the death toll of what the media called ‘The Himalayan Tsunami.’ Some say it was 5000 people, others say 10,000. Others say that such estimates are too generous. Eight months later, corpses are still being discovered.

The holy places of Garhwal were never meant to accommodate so many people. Its roads were never meant for so much traffic. The Char-dhams were originally constructed in inaccessible places for a reason – so that only those who were serious about spiritual advancement would access them. They were not meant to be popular tourist destinations. The increase of visitors to the area has brought pollution in abundance – in particular, the holy Ganga and Yamuna rivers are full of plastic at their very sources. Furthermore, investors have exploited the ecology of the area for decades, leading to deforestation, soil erosion and receding glaciers.

The fact is that the catastrophe in Garhwal was not a natural disaster that can be blamed on Mother Nature – it is a consequence of mankind’s ignorance and neglect in dealing with the environment, and in particular with sacred space.