Literally translating to the pilgrimage to the four abodes, the Char Dham Yatra refers to the four holiest pilgrimage sites in India, viz. Badrinath (Uttarakhand in North), Rameswaram (Tamil Nadu in South), Puri (Odisha in East), and Dwarka (Gujarat in West). However, they are often confused with the 4 sacred destinations of Uttarakhand – the Devbhoomi. These Char Dhams – Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri, and Gangotri – are, in fact, a part of the small circuit of four seats or the Chhota Char Dham Yatra.
The Original Char Dhams
As defined by the Indian philosopher Adi Shankaracharya, the original Char Dham – Badrinath, Dwarka, Puri, & Rameshwaram – consists of 3 Vaishnavite (belonging to Lord Vishnu) and 1 Shaivite (belonging to Lord Shiva) pilgrimages.
The concept of the Chhota Char Dham Yatra became popular after the Indo-China war of 1962 as India began investing in road and infrastructure development projects. The improvement of roads in the area made it easier to access the holy shrines and other places of Uttarakhand, erstwhile Uttar Pradesh. The Chhota Char Dham slowly began to replace the original Char Dham.
Unlike the original Char Dham that took over a month to cover, the Chhota Char Dham could be covered within a fortnight. The cost difference between the two was massive. Now, more people could easily go on this pilgrimage. Pilgrims could travel in buses and jeeps to nearest points of the 4 shrines, within 10 – 15 km from the nearest motorable point.
Yamunotri, the seat of Goddess Yamuna, is the source of the Yamuna River. The actual source and glacier is located at an altitude of 4421 meters above the sea level, about 1 km further up. But it is not easily accessible. For the same reason, the shrine has been located at the Yamunotri Temple at the foot of the hill. Pilgrims offer prayers at the temple itself.
Legend: According to a popular legend, sage Asit Muni – who had his hermitage here – bathed daily in both Ganga and Yamuna. When, due to his old age, he could no longer go to Gangotri, a stream of River Ganga appeared opposite Yamunotri for him to bathe.
Gangotri – the seat of Goddess Ganga – is frequented by millions of pilgrims each year. The Gangotri Dham is set 19 km from Gaumukh – the place where Ganga River originates. From Gaumukh in the Gangotri Glacier, the river flows as Bhagirathi up to Devprayag. Here, it merges with Alakananda and forms Ganga as we know it.
Legend: According to the Hindu mythology, Goddess Ganga took the form of the river to cleanse the ashes and liberate the souls of King Bhagiratha’s predecessors when Bhagiratha meditated to please the goddess. To minimize the impact of her fall, Lord Shiva placed her in his matted locks. At the point of impact, the goddess came to be known as Bhagirathi.
Another legend talks of Ganga as beautiful woman born out of Lord Brahma’s kamandalu (water vessel). It is said that Lord Brahma washed Lord Vishnu’s feet after the latter killed the demon Bali in his reincarnated form of Vaman. Lord Brahma, thereafter, collected this water in his kamandalu. And Goddess Ganga was born out of it.
Located near the head of the River Mandakini in the Himalayas, Kedarnath is flanked by breathtaking snow-clad mountains. The city is named after King Kedar who ruled in the Satya Yuga. The saintly king is believed to be the ruler of the 7 continents. His daughter – Vrinda – is believed to be a partial incarnation of the Goddess Laxmi.
Legend: According to a popular legend, Nar & Narayana (two incarnations of Lord Vishnu) prayed in front of a Shivalingam in Badrikashraya of Bharat Khand. Pleased by their devotion, Lord Shiva granted them a boon. The duo requested Shiva to take up a permanent seat as a Jyotirlinga at Kedarnath so as to free the devotees of Lord Shiva from all their miseries.
The main deity here is the Lord Vishnu, worshipped in his aspect of Badrinarayan. This Dham is the only one that is a part of both the original Char Dham and the Chhota Char Dham circuits.
Legend: According to the Hindu epic Mahabharata, Badrinath is the place where Nar & Narayana – the dual forms of Lord Vishnu – meditated. The holy town has also been mentioned as a destination that the Pandavas crossed en route heaven. Another popular legend tells that Sage Vyasa authored Mahabharata at a cave in Mana, a destination approximately 4 km from Badrinath.