Nestling in the Himalayas
The terrain is challenging but a trip to Badrinath is the dream of a pilgrim.
Photos: Rupa Gopal
In Indo-Tibetan style: The temple, a close-up
Badrinath! The first among 108 Vishnu temples, the first site of Lord Narayana, and according to the Azhwars, the first place where idol worship started. Over 10,000 feet above sea level, ensconced in the mighty Himalayas, near the Indo-China borde
r, the Devbhoomi of Badrinath is said to have been established by Brahma, in Satya Yuga.
Comparatively modern times saw Adi Sankara retrieve the Saligrama idol of Maha Vishnu from the Narada kund, along the banks of the Alakananda , at Badrinath. He installed the idol above a Bhairavi charka, and set the rules for worship, followed till today.
The Nara and Narayana mountains shelter the temple, built in Indo-Tibetan style, rich in colour. The rishis Nara and Narayana, observed severe penance on the twin mountains, subsequently named after them. Alongside lies the ice-capped peak of Urvashi, which legend says was created by Narayana from His thighs.
Lord Krishna and Arjuna
Nara and Narayana are said to be Lord Krishna and Arjuna, in Dwapara Yuga. At Badrinath, Narayana is in a seated meditative posture, while Nara stands with bow and arrow in his hands, said to be in meditation for a 1,000 chatur yugas.
Besides these two idols, the small sanctum houses the saligrama idol of Badri Vishal, having four hands, the upper two holding the shanka and charka, and the lower two held in prayer. A round smiling face of Kubera, the Lord’s treasurer, Garuda, Narada and Uddhava the only surviving Yadava, companion of Lord Krishna, and disciple of Brihaspati, Lord of Justice, are all positioned alongside, in front of the main idol. Uddhava was commanded by Krishna to reside at Badrinath. Sri Sankara deployed a Namboodri priest from Kerala as the chief priest, a continuing tradition.
Badrinath is not an easy trip to make. Long distances and unfamiliar weather often make it a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. The road journey up from Haridwar and Rishikesh is interminably long, stunningly scenic, frequently dangerous, and prone to delays caused by rockfall, landslips and jams, roads that fall steeply away towards the constant accompaniment of the Ganga. The holy confluences of the Alakananda with Bhagirathi, Mandakini, Pindar, Nandakini and Dhauli Ganga thrill the viewer.
The bank of the Alakananda.
With a checkpoint system preventing travel on the mountains beyond a specific time at night, it becomes necessary to halt at night. Most pilgrims try to make it to Joshimutt, about two and half hours before Badrinath. Others rest at Pipalkoti, before Joshimutt. Till the early 60s, pilgrims used to have to go on foot, from here, and earlier still, the entire pilgrimage from Madras would take up to two and half months!
Badrinath touches the jaded human soul, uplifting tired spirits with its very simplicity. Devotees line up right from 3 a.m., in the roofed queues along the river, braving the chill. The temple shuts at night, only after the very last devotee has had his darshan of the Lord. Sahasranama archana, Veda recitation and abhishekam are performed daily, as paid ‘sevas,’ allowing the devotee to sit close, in front of the sanctum. Free darshan goes on uninterrupted, just beyond this small seating space.
Mahalakshmi and Hanuman have small shrines in the temple compound, with Lakshmi said to be in charge of the Lord’s food. Rama in Treta yuga sent Swayamprabha to Badrinath, to ever reside in the Lord’s presence, as reward for helping the vanara sena of Hanuman, in the war against Lanka.
The Alakananda flows below Badri Vishal’s feet in obeisance, going on to become the Ganga. The perennial sound of the river keeps pace with that of M.S. Subbulakshmi’s Vishnu Sahasranamam, relayed at 3.30 a.m., creating an ethereal effect. The constant purposeful flow of the river never ceases to amaze, reducing the mere human to insignificance.
Completely snowed in winters, the temple is open only for six months in a year, from May to November. The idol of Uddhava is then taken downhill, to Pandukeshwar, to continue daily worship till next May, when it goes back to Badrinath. The winter months have Narada performing daily worship at the snow bound shrine, in the absence of humans. Truly, at Badrinath, one feels at home, with the gods.
An opportunity to do seva
Sri Rawal, the chief priest at Badrinath
His patience is immense, dealing pleasantly with visiting devotees, seeking his blessings, and advice. Sri Rawal, a namboodri from Kerala, is the chief priest at Badrinath. Excerpts from a conversation:
What are your duties, on an average day?
It is not duty at all, but an opportunity to do ‘seva.’ I enjoy doing it. I’m at the temple before 4 a.m., for the abhishekam. At noon is the ‘bhog’ [naivedyam], then I come back to the temple for the evening prayers. I do all the ‘alankaram’ I follow the same routine for six months.
Are you acclimatised to this Himalayan weather, and food?
Yes. I eat South Indian food, and also chappati, only the naivedyam. I can’t cross the river till Vamana Dwadasi. Once I come here in May, I only leave in November. The Brahmachari system is followed. I’m privileged to be here. I cannot sleep without the sound of the Ganga, it’s like a lori [lullaby], to me.
What was your education like?
In Kerala I was first a happy schoolboy. Then I studied B.A. (economics), but that was just like ‘timepass.’ It was the study of Sanskrit and the Vedas that I was drawn to, and concentrated on.’
Your impressions on this temple, and deity?
Badrinath is the only temple, for all castes, creeds, and colour. It is the place of moksha, of salvation. There is no concept like here in the whole world, where humans do puja for six months, and devatas the next six. Medicated ghee and oils keep the lamp burning throughout the six winter months when the temple is shut. Small vents in the walls provide the needed oxygen. Himalayan flowers like ‘ban moti’ do not fade. When we return and open the temple, the flowers are still fresh—the whole scene is indescribable.’
How do you communicate with the devotees?
Hindi, English, Malayalam, Garhwali, Tamil, Kannada, no Telugu [I use Hindi instead]. With foreigners who don’t know English, I speak even in Malayalam. I make them understand! Through mounam also we can communicate.
The year 1835 saw Queen Victoria’s messenger donate a bell to the temple, in true Garhwali tradition. The Garhwal regiment has donated a huge mirror. It was intended to help them have a closer look at the deity, by way of reflection.
The word Rawal itself is Urdu in origin. His attire is universal — the cap from Garhwal, the cotton quilted robe from Rajasthan to keep off the cold, the veshti from Kerala, and the sequined woollen shawl from a popular textile chain in Chennai. “Please tell the owner that I’m wearing something from his store. He has not yet visited Badrinath,” twinkles Rawal.
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