Char Dham refers to the four most holy Hindu pilgrimage sites nestled in Himalayan Mountain Ranges of Uttarakhand. Yamunotri, Gangotri, Sri Kedarnathji and Sri Badrinathji are the epicentre of religious activity in north India and hence form the Char Dham yatra. These are some of the most important Hindu pilgrimage centres of India.
Accessible until the 1950s only by arduous and lengthy walking trails in hilly area with heights exceeding 4000 meters, the Char Dham was domain of wandering ascetics and other religious professionals, and those who could afford a traveling entourage.
While the individual sites and the circuit as a whole were well known to Hindus on the plains below, they were not a particularly visible aspect of yearly religious culture. After the 1962 war between India and China, accessibility to the Char Dham improved, as India undertook massive road building to border area and other infrastructure investments. These developments made these centers accessible to aspiring piligrims.
Gangotri, the origin of the River Ganges and seat of the goddess Ganga, is one of the four sites in the Char Dham pilgrimage circuit. The original Gangotri Temple was built by the Gurkha general Amar Singh Thapa. The river here is Bhagirathi at the source and acquires the name Ganga from Devprayag onwards where it meets the Alaknanda.
Gangotri is situated at an altitude of 3,048mts above sea level. The origin of the holy river is at Gaumukh, set in the Gangotri Glacier, and is a 19 km trek from Gangotri. Gaumukh is the second largest glacier of India, the first being the Siachen glacier.
Gangotri offers scenic vistas of rugged terrains, gushing water of Bhagirathi River and snow clad peaks. The place holds great importance amongst Hindus. Gangotri remains open from May and gets closed after Diwali. Gangotri temple remains closed during winters as the region is prone to heavy snowfall.
Yamunotri is situated in the western region of Garhwal Himalayas at an altitude of 3,291 metres. The temple is dedicated to Goddess Yamuna and has a black marble idol of the goddess.
The Yamunotri temple is a full day's journey from Uttarakhand's main towns — Rishikesh, Haridwar or Dehradun. The actual temple is only accessible by a 13 kilometres trek from the town of Hanuman Chatti and a 6 kilometres walk from Janki Chatti; horses or palanquins are available for rent. The hike from Hanuman Chatti to Yamunotri is very picturesque with beautiful views of a number of waterfalls.
The temple opens on Akshaya Tritiya (May) and closes on Yama Dwitiya (the second day after Diwali, November) for the winter. A little ahead is the actual source of the river Yamuna which is at an altitude of about 4,421 metres approximately.
Two hot springs are also present at Yamunotri offering relief to tired hikers. Surya Kund, has boiling hot water, while Gauri Kund, had tepid water suitable for bathing.
Kedarnath located in the Himalayas at a height of 3584m above sea level near the head of Mandakini River is a very popular destination for all Hindu pilgrims. The Kedarnath temple lies amidst the majestic snow-capped Himalayan ranges and is thronged by thousands of tourists each year.
The temple was built by Pandavas and revived by Adi Sankaracharya. It is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas Lord Shiva. The structure is believed to have been constructed in the 8th century CE, when Adi Shankara visited. The present structure is on a site adjacent to the one where Pandavas are believed to have built the temple.
It has a Garbhagriha and a Mandapa and stands on a plateau surrounded by snow clad mountain and glaciers. In front of the temple, directly opposite to the inner shrine, is a Nandi statue carved out of rock.
The extreme weather condition of Kedarnath means that the temple remains open from the end of April to the beginning of November.
Badrinath is one of the most popular religious towns of the Hindus located in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. The town of Badrinath lies between Nar and Naryana mountain ranges and in the shadow of the mighty Nilkantha peak, 301 kilometres north of Rishikesh. The town is located at an elevation of 3,133mts above sea level on the left bank of Alakananda River.
According to legend, the temple was originally established by Adi Shankaracharya which was renovated several times after its establishment. It is a place sacred to Vishnu, particularly in Vishnu's dual form of Nara-Narayana.
The present temple is conical in shape built two centuries ago by the Garhwal kings. 15 idols are present in the temple complex, each built in black stone. Lord Vishnu is represented here in a meditative posture and is flanked by Nar and Narayan.
Local legend has it that the Pandavas passed through Badrinath and the town of Mana, 4 kilometres north of Badrinath, on their way to Swarga (heaven). There is also a cave in Mana where the great sage Ved Vyasa is believed to have written the epic Mahabharata.
The ideal time or peak season to go to Badrinath is from May to October.