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New Delhi, October 10, 2009
An elderly man, adorned in just a shawl and dhoti worn in the north Indian style, was doing the Parikrama, singing praises of the Lord in a soft voice, oblivious of the chilly winds, teeming multitudes, shouting of the modern day dwarapalakas and others at the shrine.
This was indeed Bhakti in its purest form to be found where else but at Badrinath, the abode of Vishnu, high in the Himalayas.
It was mid-September, and we were waiting in the queue to enter the shrine for the evening Sahasranama Arati swaddled with sweaters, jacket and muffler. I wondered about how the old man doing the parikrama with the bare minimum clothing was managing to stave off the cold and who he was. But then, at this Lord’s abode, all such differences about your status in life, region, caste, colour and creed dissolved and all you saw around were Bhaktas.
After some time, the massive gold-plated doors swung open and amid much shouting and confusion, we were allowed inside and directed to be seated on the floor in front of the sanctum sanctorum. One could hardly sit properly with so many people pressing from both sides. In the meantime, a south Indian lady in the front row rather belatedly found out that she was to attend another arati. But by this time, the hall was packed and there was no way for her to move out. May be this was also part of divine plan of the Lord. Anyway, she continued to sit there and participated in the proceedings.
At Badrinath, each facet of the Puja is explained in Hindi by a kindly looking elderly swami in saffron robes through the microphone. Inside the temple, one feels to be in the presence of an emperor. For one, the "Garbha Griha" (sanctum sanctorum) itself is so huge with several deities lined up along with the main one of Maha Vishnu like Kubera, Narada, Uddhava, Garuda, Nar and Narayana. The decorations in gold and precious stones lent an air of splendour and opulence.
The day began, as usual, early for us. At 6 o’clock, we had started from Pipalkoti, the night halt. Reaching Joshimath, we visited the Narasimha temple. The idol is said to have been installed by Adi Sankaracharya on the request of "Bhakta Prahlada". During the winter months, when the Badrinath shrine remains closed, the puja of Badri Vishal takes place here. In fact, one of the broken idols taken from Tapta Kunda has been installed in this shrine. All pilgrims for Badri Nath have to necessarily visit this shrine to complete the pilgrimage.
The other place of importance at Joshimath is Sankara Peetham where Thotakacharya, one of the main disciples of Adi Sankara, had set up an ashram. It is renowned as a centre for teaching of the Vedas.
We reached Badrinath around 11.30 am. After keeping the luggage at the hotel, Acharya Sadan, we went to meet the Rawalji, who turned out to be a bearded young man but with a certain aura. He asked us softly whether we had had Darshan and directed us to do so immediately as the temple would close for ‘bhog’ in a short while. His assistant Narayanji took us to the temple through a colourful gateway that resembles a Buddhist Vihara. We were accorded the privilege of having darshan at close quarters and the attendants pointed out features of each of the deities.
The huge doors clanged shut minutes after we came out. People were already forming queues for ‘bhog’ after paying a token amount of Rs 2 for the paper plate. This is rice mixed with dry fruits and very tasty. We found many of the poor devotees having it in the forecourt of the temple. It would help them stave off hunger pangs for a while.
Once again, we were led to the presence of the Rawalji in his Puja room, who after an exchange of pleasantries, invited us for dinner. The room, with thick carpet over the wooden floor, had a small statue of Adi Sankaracharya and Lord Guruvayoorappan.
After lunch, we went to visit Mana, the last village on the Indian side of the international border with China. It was here, at Vyasa Guha that Veda Vyasa is said to have composed the Mahabharata with none other than Lord Ganesha himself as a scribe. There is a Ganesha cave temple on the hill slope (approach to Mana village entails a walk up a steep pathway of almost 750 metres, no big deal for us, veterans of Kedarnath).
According to legend, Ganesha told Vyasa that he was willing to undertake the task on one condition. The sage should recite the slokas non-stop. If there was an interruption, he would lay down the pen and not proceed any further. Vyasa agreed and the result was a somewhat ‘Duranto’ (the non-stop train service recently introduced by Ms Banerjee) compilation of the holy book. Another interesting point is that Vyasa’s cave and Ganesha temple are located several meters apart and one would need keen ears to catch what the sage was reciting. The fact that Ganesha had elephantine ears would have certainly helped, I think.
At Vyasa Guha, we found a kindly looking Panditji, who made us sit on the carpeted floor and recited to us in Sanskrit and Hindi, the significance of the spot. Then we sought permission from him for a recital of Vishnu Sahasranamam to which he readily agreed. The Panditji and some of the other visitors were moved to tears by the recital. The Panditji then said the spot used to resound to the chanting of Sahasranamam and other Stotras (hymns) for centuries, but nowadays such occasion were rare indeed !
Afterwards, we went to see the river Saraswati emerge from a cave in a roaring torrent. According to legend, the place is significant as Veda Vyasa, after compiling Mahabharata and other 16 Puranas, found that mental peace was eluding him. On the advice of Saint Narada, he mediated at this spot till Goddess Saraswati appeared and blessed him with spiritual knowledge. Thus, he acquired the power to write the "Bhagavatha Purana". This was also the spot where Brahma revealed the "Adhyatma Ramayana" to Veda Vyasa and other Rishis. While he was composing "Bhagavatham", Veda Vyasa requested Sasraswati to calm down so that he could compose in peace. Accordingly, the roar of the river quietens down at this place.
There is a massive stone bridge called "Bhim Pul" across the river. Legend says that when Draupadi found it difficult to cross the river, the mighty Bheema lifted a huge rock and placed it across the gorge. The short cut from Vyasa Guha to this place is indeed dangerous with a U-turn as you come down a steep incline where a slight misstep could send you plunging down into the river as there are no guard railings. We managed to traverse the spot with the help of our stout "Kedarnath" sticks.
The birth of the river is a sight to behold. She foams out of a dark cave, plunges down several few feet framed by massive overhanging rocks in a cloud of spray.
Incidentally, Mana is dotted with several teashops claiming to be the last one in India. One even had multilingual sign boards, even in Malayalam. We had earlier taken a snapshot of one such shop but then decided to do the same with others too.
Then we returned to Badrinath in time for the evening darshan. As we came out of the temple, a message was received from Rawalji’s residence for dinner. It was a simple affair of Chappati and rice with Rasam, potato curry and pickles. Quite tasty after having survived almost a week on a diet of Aalu Paranthas.
We had taken three tickets each costing Rs 4,500/- (for three persons) for the Maha Abhishekam that starts early in the morning around 5 o’ clock and were told to be at the temple by 4.30 am. Accordingly all of us got up around 2.30 am and were at "Tapta Kund" hot springs on the banks of the chilly Alakananda at 3.00 am. This sulphur springs gives out smoke and heat almost touching boiling point. I adopted a trick used for cold water baths in Delhi winters, applying water all over the body in small doses and then taking the plunge. Traditionally one has to take a dip in the "Tapta kund" before visiting the temple. So far we had been avoiding these hot springs for our own convenience, but here, the Lord willed otherwise.
After the bath, we climbed the steps to the temple. Whom should I find there but the very same gentleman we saw singing the previous evening. He was seated on the doorstep with another person who seemed to be his attendant.
All of us sat down in the partially covered structure around the sanctum sanctorum. I closed my eyes and started reciting ‘Om’. It helped stave off the cold a bit. No wonder, it is actually a Tapobhumi where the Lord himself sits in meditation.
Incidentally, I found that some people were wearing sandals outside the sanctum sanctorum. A saffron clad monk was wearing clogs. Sudheer explained that these were people connected with the temple.
Around 5 o’ clock, our names were called out and we went inside and were made to sit on the floor. This time the original "Salagrama" could be seen without any adornments. It looked to be incomplete, much like what God is supposed to be "Avyaktham". The Rawalji, adorned in a black robe with a golden sash, tinged with red serving as a belt and wearing a black cap, slowly removed the sandal paste on the idol and then proceeded to wash it (Abhisheka) with copious amounts of water. This was preceded by various other abhishekas, milk, honey, rose water and the like to the accompaniment of recital of the Vedas.
Some light moments were provided by couple of Tamilians sitting by my side. An elderly man was getting quite upset about a young woman sitting in the front row blocking his view. "Why do they allow such tall people sit in front?" he was heard to say. I immediately lowered my own head. Who knows, I may be blocking somebody’s view. Meanwhile, a young man sitting in front of me was periodically nodding off and laying his head on the shoulder of a woman sitting in front of him. At one point, a gentleman from Andhra, on my left side, scratched me on the cheek while trying to get a better view. He was apologetic and I forgave him. I think he was the same balladeer. Look how our paths cross!
Every kind of smell gets accentuated in the pure mountain air. Thus, the Tulsi we were given for Archana smelt absolutely divine and so did the "Kalabham" (sandal paste) we got as part of prasadam. On the downside, whenever a vehicle passes you, you get bathed in fumes from the half-burnt fuel (due to lack of oxygen in the air).
The Abhishekam ceremony proceeded at its serene pace. Every part of the ceremony is explained in great detail, including the history of the shrine, starting with "Alakananda Theere...." (On the banks of river Alakananda…). Then we were asked to do "Sankalpa" puja to our "Ishtadevata" (personal deity). Soon the Rawalji proceeded to carefully wipe the deity dry. Then each of the adornments, jewel encrusted crowns and faceplates, the Sudarshana Chakra, as also the diamond-encrusted Paduka presented by Lord Krishna to his ardent devotee Uddhava, were held up and the Swamiji at the microphone explained the significance of each item. After adornment of the Lord and other deities different Aratis like Sona (gold) and Chandi (silver) were held when the devotees participated in singing of "Om Jai Jagadeesha Hare". At significant points during the ceremony, the thunderous roll of Nagara drums were heard. The entire ceremony lasted one and half hours.
Later, Rawalji, at another audience at his residence explained that the Lord is present in Badrinath during Brahma Muhurtham, for the Abhisheka. Afterwards, he proceeds to Manikarna in Varanasi for the Usha Puja (morning puja), then to Puri for the noon Puja and to Dwaraka for Shayana Arati (quite a cross country race). This underlines the importance of having Lord’s Darshan at Badrinath during Maha Abhishekam.
He also said that the ghee used in the shrine was personally made by the Queen of Tehri. The dates for opening of the temple after winter is also decided by the King.
Here, since it is a Tapobhumi for the Lord, Goddess Maha Lakshmi is considered to be hovering like a shadow over the Lord to cool his body that gets heated up due to the strict penance.
According to legend, Adi Sankara had reinstalled the idol thrown into the "Tapta Kunda" by Buddhists at one time. The Saint had defeated the Buddhists monks in a peaceful manner through "Tharka" (arguments). He then took a dip in the "Tapta Kunda" to retrieve the idol. The first time he emerged with one that had its right hand broken. He took another dip and still emerged with a similarly deformed idol. For a third time, on getting a broken idol, he felt it was the wish of the Lord and installed it at the shrine. It is believed that people having Darshan of the idol will attain "Moksha" (salvation).
Some members of the group then proceeded for "Pinda Tarpan" on the banks of the Alakananda. The general belief in North India is that after completion of Pinda Tarpan in Kashi, people come here in Badrinath to ensure that their forefathers attain "Vishnu Pada" (salvation at the feet of Lord Maha Vishnu).
We finally bid farewell to Sri Badri Vishalji to catch the 11 o’ clock gate. Near Joshimath, it was time for another miracle. We were made to stop on the roadside as tarring of the road was being done a little ahead on a slope. Suddenly, we heard a commotion and saw a tar-laden cart rolling towards our vehicle at a considerable speed. Fortunately, it brushed against a bus just ahead and stopped. Otherwise, it could have hit us head-on and the impact would have made the van roll over the edge of the cliff. The minimum damage would have been a busted radiator.
It was time for the journey back. During this past week, we did not have access to newspapers, television or even mobile phones. Interestingly, we found large crowds in Kedar Nath watching intently the India-Sri Lanka cricket match.
We reached Rudra Prayag late in the evening to stay there for the night. After a good night’s sleep, we started off at six in the morning. We had a brief halt in the afternoon at Haridwar for a holy dip on the occasion of Amavasya and reached Delhi at 9.00 p.m. to conclude the trip.
Now it is time for me to sign off with "Sri Kedarnathji ki Jai" and "Jai Badri Vishal".