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Chota Char Dham

Kedarnathji-mandir.JPGBadrinathji temple.JPGGangotri temple.jpgYamunotri temple and ashram.jpg

Chota Char Dham

Name: Chota Char Dham
Creator: Pandavas
Date built: Unknown
Primary deity: Vishnu in Badrinath and Shiva in Kedarnath, Goddess Yamuna in Yamunotri and Goddess Ganga in Gangotri
Architecture: North Indian architecture
Location: India Uttarakhand, India
Coordinates: Yamunotri 30°44′N 78°27′E / 30.73°N 78.45°E / 30.73; 78.45, Gangotri 30°58′48″N 78°55′48″E / 30.98°N 78.93°E / 30.98; 78.93, Kedarnath 30°44′N 79°04′E / 30.73°N 79.07°E / 30.73; 79.07 and Badrinath 30°44′40.9″N 79°29′28.23″E / 30.744694°N 79.491175°E / 30.744694; 79.491175

The Chota Char Dham (Devanagari: चार धाम) (literally translated as 'the small four abodes/seats', meaning 'the small circuit of four abodes/seats'), also simply called the "Char Dham", is the most important Hindu pilgrimage circuit in the Indian Himalayas. Located in the Garhwal section of the state of Uttarakhand (formerly the northwestern section of Uttar Pradesh), the circuit consists of four sites—Yamunotri (Hindi: यमनोत्री), Gangotri (Hindi: गंगोत्री), Kedarnath (Hindi: केदारनाथ), and Badrinath (Hindi: बद्रीनाथ) [1]. Badrinath is also one of the four destinations of the longer Char Dham from which the Chota Char Dham likely draws its name.

While each of these sites is unique in its own fashion, inclusion in the Char Dham has, over time, caused them be viewed together in popular imagination and in pilgrimage practice.


Origins and the original Char Dham

Yamunotri temple and ashrams

The origins of the Chota Char Dham are obscure. The appellation Char Dham used to be reserved for India's most famous Vaishnavite pilgrimage circuit, four important temples—Puri, Rameshwaram, Dwarka, and Badrinath—grouped together by the great 8th century reformer and philosopher Shankaracharya (Adi Sankara), into the archetypal All-India pilgrimage circuit to the four cardinal points of the subcontinent. At some point, Badrinath, the last visited and the most important of the four sites in the original Char Dham, also became the cornerstone site of a Himalayan pilgrimage circuit dubbed the Chota (little) Char Dham. In the original Char Dham, three of the four sites are Vaishnava (Puri, Dwarka and Badrinath) with one Shaiva site (Rameshwaram). The Chota Char Dham is all-denomination also includes two Shakti (goddess) sites: Yamunotri Shakta, Gangotri Shakta, Kedarnath Shaiva and Badrinath Vaishnava.

Until recently, the "Chhota" (literally meaning "small") designation was used consistently to delineate the shorter Himalayan version of the Char Dham circuit. Accessible until recent times only after a two-month trek that repeatedly exceeds 4000 meters, the Chota Char Dham was long dominated by wandering ascetics and religious professionals, along with a handful of devoted retirees and wealthy patrons (who could afford an entourage). While the individual sites and the circuit as a whole were important 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, however, accessibility to the Chota Char Dham improved, as India's short-lived efforts at Himalayan expansionism required massive infrastructure investments. As pilgrim buses began to arrive, the Chota appendix has been slowly deprecated, and the prefix "Himalayan" (Hindi: Himalaya ki Char Dham) may be added instead to avoid confusion.

Recent development

The Chota Char Dham has grown as both an actual destination and an object of the national Hindu religious imagination. Buoyed by "religious tourism" and by the rise of a conservative Hindu population compelled by sites that speak to the existence of an all-India Hindu culture, the Chota Char Dham has become an important destination for pilgrims from throughout South Asia and the diaspora, particularly Bengalis, Marwaris, Marathis,Gujaratis, Delhites- and people from U.P, and Uttarakhand. Today, the sites see upwards of 250,000 unique visitors in an average pilgrimage season, which lasts from approximately April 15 until Diwali (sometime in November). The season is heaviest in the two-month period before the monsoon. Once the rains come (sometime in late July), travel is extremely dangerous: extensive road building has critically destabilized the rocks, and fatal landslides and bus/jeep accidents are a regular yearly occurrence, with mortality rates for a season often surpassing 200. Despite the danger, pilgrims do continue to visit the sites in the monsoon period, as well as after the rains end. Although temperatures at the shrines in the early winter months (October and November) are inhospitable, it is said that the incredible mountain scenery that surrounds the sites is most vivid after the rains have had a chance to moisten the dust of the plains below.

Pilgrimage centers

Most pilgrims to the Chota Char Dham embark from the famous temple town of Haridwar. Others leave from Haridwar's sister city, Rishikesh, or from Dehra Duhn, the capital of Uttarakhand. From there, the tradition is to visit the sites in the following order:

  1. Yamunotri, the source of the Yamuna River and the seat of the goddess Yamuna, is a full day's journey from Rishikesh, Haridwar or Dehradun. The actual temple is only accessible by a six km walk from the town of Hanuman Chatti (horses or palanquins are available for rent). The current temple is of recent origin, as past iterations have been destroyed by the weather and elements. Lodging at the temple itself is limited to a few small ashrams and guesthouses. Ritual duties such as the making and distribution of prasad (sanctified offerings) and the supervision of pujas (ritual venerations) are performed by the Uniyal family of pujaris (priests). Unique aspects of ritual practice at the site include hot springs where raw rice is cooked and made into prasad.
  2. Gangotri, the source of the Ganga (Ganges) River and seat of the goddess Ganga, can be reached in one day's travel from Rishikesh, Haridwar or Dehra Duhn, or in two days from Yamunotri. More popular and important than its sister site to the east, Gangotri is also accessible directly by car and bus, meaning that it sees many more pilgrims. A small village of guesthouses and restaurants serves the pilgrim community. Ritual duties are supervised by the Semwal family of pujaris. The aarti ceremony at the Gangotri is especially impressive, as is the temple, a stately affair that sits on the banks of the rushing Ganga (Ganges River). Adventurous pilgrims can make an overnight 17 km trek to Gaumukh, the actual current source of the Ganga.
  3. Kedarnath, where a form of the Hindu god Shiva is venerated as one of the twelve jyotirling (linga of light), is a two-day's journey from either Gangotri or one of the main disembarkation points on the plains. Besides its affiliation with Siva, Kedarnath is also believed to be the site of Shankaracharya's samadhi (place of enternment). The actual temple, an impressive stone edifice of unknown date, is accessible only after a steep 13 km walk (horses or palanquins are available for rent). The most remote of the four Chota Char Dham sites, Kedarnath is flanked by breathtaking snow-capped peaks. No specific family of pujaris supervises rituals at Kedarnath, which focus around veneration of the stone lingam that rests in the inner sanctum of the temple.
  4. Badrinath, the seat of the Hindu god Vishnu in his aspect of Badrinarayan, is generally a two-day's journey from either Kedarnath or one of the main disembarkation points on the plains. By far the most important of the four sites, as part of the larger Char Dham, Badrinath receives many more visitors than the other three sites. As the route to Badrinath is for much of the way also the route to Hemkund Sahib, an important Sikh pilgrimage site, the road to Badrinath is especially crowded. The temple and its substantial surrounding village are accessible by road. The actual temple is a striking building whose bright colors evoke the painted Buddhist ghompas of the region; rumor has it that the temple was originally controlled by Buddhists.


  1. ^ Chard Dham Yatra Govt. of Uttarakhand, Official website.
  • Chār Dhām Yātra: Ecstatic Flight Into Himalayas, by G. R. Venkatraman. Published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1988.

External links



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