Saturday, August 6, 2016

Amazing Pilgrimage through India's Devbhumi Utharankhand

Devbhumi... Land of God or Land of the pious.. That is what Uthrakand is.. Place where Adi Shankara established his Mutt .. Land where he spent time /penance... So when the opportunity came through a request, there were no second thoughts.. 

It was in 2015 when my father expressed his desire to visit Kedarnath, Badrinath, Rishikesh, Haridwar. At first it was a well yeah let me try, but then it became evident that the accessibility to these places was non predictable. Kedarnath suffered mass destruction during the 2013 cloud burst. I was told that the roads were still getting build and that the facilities in the area (rooms/restaurants) were not up to the mark. Big Tour operators such as Yatra were not yet operational. The temples at Kedarnath opens for only 6 months from May every year. 2015 was too tight so the planned moved to 2016. My journey to Kudachadri also added fascination to visit the places which were related to Adi Shankara. Kedarnath/Badrinath is where he did penance as well as reestablished the temple. 

Now to find out the best tour operator and the modus. Sitting at Bangalore, there were only very few options I could find. Rao Travels, Panicker Travels & Southern Travels were shortlisted based on online reviews. I called them up as well as dropped emails. From emails Panicker looked a lot proactive. During December I called up to confirm and then again in February 2016, I confirmed. Seats 15,16,17. Flight tickets were booked to and fro from Delhi.. All locked down. Start the journey on 13th evening and returning on 20th. Unfortunately, wasn't able to get a Helicopter booking for Kedarnath. 

Day 0: Bangalore to Delhi by flight. Air India.. The bus departure was planned for around 9pm. The helicopter booking was not done. Panicker travels confirmed that they will try, but no assurances. We boarded the 1:30pm Air India flight from Bangalore to Delhi. Temperatures close to 40 degree and warm winds. Our pickup location Delhi's Karol Bagh area. As the night settled in, temperatures dropped and became more comfortable. Night dinner was at Bikanerwala's, had nice Lassi.. It was a 20 seater bus, the front Rows were occupied by Naidu sir & Venkatarama sir (family from Bangalore), Next one by Sadagopan sir and family (During the journey we realized towards the end that they lived in Kannur (town that I hail from) for 7 years :)). Next Mr. Suresh and Family from Chennai. He was a VP in an international catering company, then took a break and became a Vaishnavite. Next row Mr. Aravindakshan from Malappurm in Kerala a retired Police officer. Dr. Rajasekaran and family, his brother in law Kamal (we were in adjacent seats throughout the journey). Dr. Chitra Ramalingam and her elder sister Paraneeta from Bangalore. Chitra akka flew down from Kentucky and was on pilgrimage tour with her sister. Then Vijayalakshmi aunty and uncle who came from Hyderabad. Then Dileep who came all the way from Nagerkoil with only one wish ... to see Snow...  

The guide for the journey - a very well mannered Neeraj Choudary - an ex army man. Driver - Mr. Joshi.., a helper and couple of cooks. The bus was directly taken to a temple, where they did Pooja (somewhere near Connaught place). The first destination - Haridwar. 

Day 1: Haridwar. After an overnight journey, we reached Haridwar by 3:30am. Khanna Palace Room number 304... After a comfortable 4 hour sleep, we were on our way for sight seeing at Rishikesh, about 45 minutes drive from Haridwar.Rishikesh is located at the foothills of the Shivalik mountains and the place where Ganga leaves the mountain and enters the Indo Gangetic plane. First stop, Shivananda Ashram. Center for Yoga and Spirituality on the banks of Ganges. A walk across Ganges over Ram Jhoola and Lakshman Jhoola a visit to Ganga Devi temple, Vishwanath temple, Swargashram, Multiple Yoga training institutes, paradise for spirituality..


The second half of the day was spent at Haridwar. First, bathing in Ganges at Vishnu Ghat. There are 5 lucky/auspicious things for Hindus. 
  1. Your Parents are blessed to see your child
  2. Holy Bath in Ganges
  3. While you Bath in Ganges, your parents are with you
  4. To visit Holy cities with your parents
  5. To die at the same place/town you were born
It is believed that rarely will anyone have the luck to have all 5.
A walk through the city market towards Manasa Devi temple on top of the hill overseeing the city. The view from the top is breathtaking. The areal view gives you the spread of the Gangetic plane and the width of the mighty river. 

In the evening, we were at Har ki Paudi to watch the Ganga Aarthi. Incidentally, the chief minister of Utharakhand was also there on that day. 

After a light dinner, we went to sleep.. Preparing for the next 4 days adventure through the mountains..

Day 2 : Through the mountains... It is kind of interesting to note that all the roads in the mountains are by the side of a river.. i.e. just following a river. Utharakhand has got 5 river confluences. They are called Panch Prayag. The first stop for us on the way to Kedarnath base (Sitapur) was Devprayag. This is where Alakananda joins Bageerathi and forms Ganga.. Or in other words the start of river Ganga. Note: Ganga originates from Gangotri caves (glacier) and from there it flows down as Bhageerathi till the confluence with Alakananda. At the confluence is Raghunath temple, which is also 108 divya desam per Vaishnavite belief. What was clearly visible was the differences in the water and texture of the two rivers. Alakananda - muddy and turbulent. Bhageerathi calm and green. At the confluence the fishes which eagerly await to be fed

Our next stop - Rudraprayag confluence of Alakananda and Mandakini. A brief stop over and we were on our way. following Manadakini river. Our Destination - Sitapur on the base of Kedarnath.We reached Sitapur at around 5 pm and after a brief rest went to visit Triyuginarayan temple. The ancient temple is dedicated to god Vishnu. Its fame is credited to the legend of god Shiva’s marriage to goddess Parvati witnessed by Vishnu. A special feature of this temple is a perpetual fire, that burns in front of the temple. The flame is believed to burn from the times of the divine marriage. A small temple, but the feeling - breathtaking .. By 7:00pm we came back to Sitapur. The next days plan looked daunting... 

One important thing - you need to get a medical check up as well as an ID generation at Phata. This will need to be shown at Kedarnath bases. The medical  There were couple of members of our group who did not get through. 

Day 3 : To see Kedareshwara... Kedarnath.. the tiny hamlet on the Himalayas. There are many Mythological significance associated with Kedarnath temple, related to Nara/Narayana, Parvathi and another one related to Pandavas. You can read them at your leisure at

How to reach Kedarnath :
1. Walk - From Gaurikund about 16km via Rambara. The original track was damaged after the 2013 flash floods. 
2. Mules - same route as above, but on mules
3. Palanquin - same route as above
4. Helicopter - Online and advance booking is available and I would seriously suggest in case you are travelling with elders also book in advance. 
It is a 6 seater at the max, and they are allowed to operated from day break to sunset. I could count at least 12 service providers operating. Pawanhans is a state owned one and bookings are available online. 
I opted for Helicopter. 

The day started at 4am when Neeraj knocked the door. 4:30am we were ready and running to the helicopter base. The ride was only 7 minutes, but the preparations took hours. All security clearances, checks, weight checks, loading, safety drills etc were done. Around 10 am our helicopter took off. An amazing feeling.. It was the first time I flew in a helicopter. The view of the flight through the valley was amazing.. Men walking up through the track like ants... Trees like match sticks.. Mandakini river like a pearl garland, flowing down hill... 

As we approached the hamlet, the view became breathtaking.... Snow capped mountains facing us and two small hillocks on my left and right. In the valley lies the temple.. made of large stones.. on the right on top of the hillock is Bhairavnath temple.. Air supply can get thin as you at 3553 meters.. I notice a boy collapsing inside the temple for want of air... A peaceful darshan of Lord Shiva (one of the Jyothirlingam) and we made it in few minutes.

One astonishing fact stuck me during the visit.. During the 2013 floods (cloud burst), the temple remained unaffected while the rest of the huts/buildings were washed off.. And I saw proof of how that happened. When the deluge occurred, two small rocks came behind the temple and then a large boulder rolled in which locked it up on the two small rocks.. That bounder diverted the water flow towards the sides. People inside the temple were saved, but not the ones outside. I was able to see that rock formation.

The departure from Kedarnath was delayed due to some technical snags at the helipad. But as I sat, the mesmerizing beauty of the valley was made even more beautiful by a cloud cover and then a bright ray of sunshine that ushered out of it..

It was 3 by the time reached back to base. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and talking to fellow passengers and relaxing. By evening 9 the pilgrims who took the pony ride had arrived. They were badly affected by the rains and the ride on the pony. Some complained of leg pain and others about nausea and vomiting. Since we had 3 doctors in the groups, they helped the folks with the needed pain killers and medications. We had to hit bead early as the departure was planned by 5pm. 

Day 4 : To Badrinath via Chamoli
It dipped to about 12 Degrees in the night and possibly to less than 10 in the morning. We were greeted by a long line of traffic jam... It took an hour to get cleared... Breakfast and lunch was packed. Our first stop was Gupt Kashi a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is believed that Lord Shiva escaped from Kashi and hid in the mountains in order to avoid Pandavas. 

Chamoli is also called the Switzerland of India. Large Plush valleys, some covered with Pine trees, some with thick teak covering.. small streams flowing through the mountains and lots of campers...

Our next stop Joshimath.. This is the place home to the Northern Muth established by Adi Shankara.. The place is also famous for Lord Narasimha Temple. The presiding deity Lord Narasimha is believed to have been established by Adi Sankara. It is one of the "Divya Desams", the 108 temples of Vishnu revered.
The next stop : Vishnu Prayag - confluence of Dhali Ganga and Alakanda...

From Joshimath, the road become narrow and treacherous. Some times to a point where only a single bus can travel (and no tarring on the road). On the right you will see river Alakanada flowing.. at a Depth of 50-100 feet. For ones I saw a car lying in the gorge.. Another place a mini truck crushed by a large rock (possibly form landslide) ...

On the way to Badrinath is Govindghat which is the gateway to Hemkund Sahib - A revered pilgrimage location for Sikhs. Like Badrinath it is only open during summer months. 

It was 7 by the time we reached Badrinath. The Darshan was planned for the morning, but we decided to go in in the evening.. Temperatures were already close to 4 degrees. At the foot hill of the temple is a hotspring.. I was told it will be hot, but I did not realize it would be this hot.. coming in from the chilly weather, I could barely touch my leg.. It took me time to get adjusted to the water.. it was so boiling hot.. Nature's (God's) mystery or blessing.. The queue to the temple got bigger by the time I finished my bath.. It took me 2 hours.. I spent some time sitting and meditating at the temple sanctum. The present day temple was established by Shakaracharya and the head priest of the temple (he is called Rawalji) is a Namboodiri Brahmin from the southern most province of India - Kerala (where I was born).  By 11 we returned to base and had a good sleep. 

Day 5 :

I shivered through the night... the room in which we were staying wasn't the greatest.. There were gaps in the windows and as temperatures plummeted in the night, the three layer cover want enough... The sunrise at Badrinath was the best I have ever seen.. The golden rays of sun falling on the snow capped Neelakantha peak.  

Me and my mother went for the a second visit to the temple around 7 am. Some minor shopping and again view of the Alakanada flowing peacefully through the shores of the temple was an amazing sight. During the visit, I met Karthik - a Tamil priest by profession and his family. He explained the significance of the temple, the rituals that were deemed to be best at the place and the relevance of it. Incidentally, he had also served as a priest in Singapore, which reminded me of my stint in 2003-2004 with HP R&D. 

By 11 we were on our way to Mana, the last Indian village towards the Tibetan (Chinese border). Places of attraction 
1. Saraswati river and its confluence with Alakananda.. 
2. Bheem Pul - A bridge across Saraswati river which is believed to be put up by Bheem to cross the mountains. 
3. Kashyap Maharishi (seer) Cave, more than 5300 years old. 
4. Ganesh temple/cave
5. Swarga (Heaven) 

Through the small streets of the village, women were selling clothes knit out of wool. 

By 2pm we returned and were on our way down the hill..
At the foothills is Pandukeshwar, famous for Yog Dyana Badri temple.

By night, we settled in at Pipalkoti. Almost half of the distance to Rishikesh covered.
Day 6 : Last day... Pretty much exhausted, but just the belief that let the journey end peacefully. On the way, the first confluence .. Nandaprayag - confluence of Nandakini (originating from Nanda devi peak) and Alaknanda..

The last one.. Karana Prayag - the confluence of Pindar Ganga and Alakananda..

After a stop over for Lunch, by 3pm, we reached Haridwar. Went to River Ganges at Vishnu Ghat. Thanked God's for the trip.. Collected Ganga water.. By 10 pm, we arrived at Delhi. We were exhausted, but took time to greet everyone who was part of the trip. We thanked the Guide, Driver and the cook who accompanies us. 

Night halt in Oyo room and 11 am flight back to Bangalore.. 

My Remembrance of the trip

  • People make the trip memorable : I was fortunate to meet new people on the trip, their life experiences taught me about new perspectives of life. Importance of life and reasons to be optimistic in life. Each of us are searching for the ultimate truth in life... Searching in our own ways. 
  • The terrain : The hills are mighty.. The roads are narrow and the valleys are steep.. 
  • Life and afterlife : The temples, the seers, the people whom I talked to, taught me about life and the after life. The significance of Karma and the relevance of rights towards ancestors. 

Jai Badri Vishal, Jai Baba Kedarnath....