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Retreat, Relax, Replenish: Diary of a Spiritual Pilgrimage

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Badrinath (©indiansgoogle.com)
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    Going on a spiritual pilgrimage is an important part of many Indians’ lives. These sojourns provide even the most modernized individuals a chance to renew their sense of self and relationship with their traditions. Melindah Sharma shares some experiences from her pilgrimage to the Badrinath and Kedarnath regions of Uttaranchal state in India.

    I had decided, prior to leaving my hometown of Boston, Mass., this past spring, to document my annual family visit to New Delhi. Friends were quite excited to hear that I’d be heading to the “Valley of the Gods” and many family members began sharing their experiences, inspirations and memories about this spiritual land. Yet, until I completed this energizing, peaceful but treacherous trek into the NandaValley, I hadn’t understood what anyone meant. While I share below some memories from my unforgettable trip, nothing compares to experiencing first-hand the rich culture, sounds and sights that I encountered.

    My journal and journey begin here. Shortly before I left for India, I learned that my family planned a yatra (religious journey) to one of four “Char Dhams,” Badrinath and Kedarnath. The pilgrimage to the Himalayan shrines begins only when the sun reaches the zodiac sign of Aries; the temples are open for a portion of the year, usually between May and October. Due to the heavy rains and snowfall in the winter months, a journey to the region during that time is considered very dangerous. Here are excerpts from our week-long trip.

    Day 1: Seven family members and our driver departed Delhi after lunch, snacking at a roadside dhaba and singing, napping and reading on the way to the first of our six accommodation spots. We passed Haridwar, 214 km northeast of Delhi at the base of the Shivalik hills. It is here that the GangaRiver comes down to the plains of India from the Himalayas. As the representative gateway to the Himalayan pilgrimage shrines of Badrinath and Kedarnath, Haridwar literally translated means the “gateway to the abode of the gods.”We missed the evening aarti at Har-ki-Pauri in Haridwar, which bears the footprint of Vishnu on a stone in a wall. As one of the most sacred bathing ghats in India, the best time to visit this spot is at sunset when you can see the Gangaji’s aarti being performed.

    Day 2: Departing early morning, we continued driving through the many one-lane roads, picnicking in the valley’s passing Panch Prayag (five river junctions), Bhagirathi and Alaknanda, Alaknanda and Mandakini, Pindar and Alaknanda, Mandakini and Alaknanda, and 10 km from our evening destination of Joshimath, Gangaji and Alaknanda.

    Day 3: Rising early, we departed for a 44-km drive through the Himalayas to Badrinath. One sees sadhus climbing, barefooted, most of whom fast till they receive the Lord’s blessings, walking from as far as Haridwar. Beautiful and peaceful, we wove through the curvy mountains, amazed at how the rivers continued to flow alongside every turn. Badrinath itself was small and intimate. Recently opened to the public, the temple was not as crowded as one might expect, and the weather was significantly cooler than the 100-plus degree weather in Delhi.

    As one of the most sacred pilgrimage centers in India, Badrinath is situated in Uttarakhand at a height of 10,248 feet above sea level. The lofty, hilly terrain curves and cliffs amidst stunning scenery and breathtaking views throughout amazed me; this was one of the beautiful places I had ever been to. We spent several hours at the main temple before heading to the start of the Saraswati (Goddess of Learning) River in Mana, a town residing on the Indo-China border.

    Later in the day, we drove to Mt.Auli, a well-known ski resort offering stunning views of numerous Himalayan peaks, including Nanda Devi, Kamet and Dunagiri, and ended the day at the fresh sulphur geysers at the base near Joshimath. You realize how high up you are when you start seeing oxygen tanks being offered for those not able to adjust to the high altitude levels.

    Day 4: After a wonderful breakfast we’re ready to head back into the car for our journey to Kedarnath. Taking longer than we planned, there were landslides, steeper curves than en route to Badrinath, and riskier roadways. Heading almost in a triangular direction, we planned to stay in Gauri Kund, where Goddess Parvati is said to have meditated awaiting Lord Shiva for over 3,000 years. Their son Lord Ganesh was also born here. One’s pilgrimage is said to be incomplete without visiting her shrine. Crowded, most yatris stay in Gauri Kund a night before climbing the 3,583-meter, 14-km distance by foot, horseback or carriage.

    Day 5: Another early morning and we were lined up to trek into Kedarnath by 6 a.m. via horseback. Snow-capped mountains, gorgeous waterfalls throughout, and a few tea stalls made the almost five-hour trip worth every second. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the exquisite architecture of the Kedarnath temple is said to be more than 1,000 years old. A conical rock formation inside the temple is worshipped as Lord Shiva. The temple, built in the 8th century by Adi Shankaracharya, stands adjacent to the site of an earlier temple built by the Pandavas. The inner walls of the assembly hall are decorated with figures of various deities and scenes from mythology. Outside the temple door a large statue of the Nandi Bull stands as guard.According to legend, Lord Shiva wished to elude the Pandavas, who were seeking penitence for having killed their kin in the battle of Kurukshetra. He took refuge in Kedarnath in the form of a bull amongst a herd of cattle. Having identified the meanest and most arrogant of the herd as Shiva, a Pandava is said to have grabbed him by the hindquarters. What remains at the shrine in Kedarnath is the rear end of the bull, with the rest of its body scattered throughout the mountains. Shiva dived into the ground leaving behind him a hump on the surface.This conical protrusion is now worshipped as the idol and is said to absolve those devotees, able to make the difficult journey, of their sins. Energizing and a different vibe than Badrinath, we enjoyed some time in the area, lunched in Kedarnath and left the area in the afternoon. Due to hail, heavy rain and the long trek back, we decided to extend our stay one more night, heading towards New Delhi the following morning.

    Day 6: With half the family sneezing and sniffling, the trip began taking a toll, and we drove straight to Raiwala, attending the evening aarti in Har-ki-Pauri. The setting was beautiful, with lotuses floating in the candlelit Ganga, temples spread along both sides while vendors sold bangles, idols, and toys to the tourists.

    Day 7: A bit refreshed, we awoke and reached our home in Delhi by mid-afternoon. We spent a lot of time thinking about when we might be able to return to visit again. This rewarding journey will not soon be forgotten.

    - Courtesy India Life and Style

     

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