Chota Char Dham
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|Chota Char Dham|
|Chota Char Dham|
|Proper name:||Chota Char Dham|
|Coordinates:||Kedarnath Badrinath Gangotri Yamunotri|
|Architecture and culture|
|Primary deity:||Shiva in Kedarnath,
Vishnu in Badrinath,
Ganga in Gangotri and
Yamuna in Yamunotri
|Architectural styles:||North Indian architecture|
The Chota Char Dham (Devanagari: चार धाम) (literally translated as 'the small four abodes/seats', meaning 'the small circuit of four abodes/seats'), is an important Hindu pilgrimage circuit in the Indian Himalayas. Located in the Garhwal region 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). Badrinath is also one of the four destinations (with each destination being in different corners of the country) 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
Originally, the appellation Char Dham referred to a pilgrimage circuit encompassing four important temples—Puri, Rameswaram, Dwarka, and Badrinath—located roughly at the four cardinal points of the subcontinent. An archetypal All-India pilgrimage circuit, the formation of the original Char Dham is credited to the great 8th century reformer and philosopher Shankaracharya (Adi Sankara). In the original Char Dham, three of the three sites are Vaishnava (Puri, Dwarka and Badrinath) while one is Shaiva (Rameswaram). The Chota Char Dham included representatives from all three major Hindu sectarian traditions, with two Shakta (goddess) sites, (Yamunotri and Gangotri), one Shaiva site (Kedarnath), and one Vaishnava site (Badrinath).
Accessible until 1950s only by arduous and lengthy walking trails in hilly area with height repeatedly exceeded 4000 meters, the Chota Char Dham was regularly done by wandering ascetics and other religious professionals, and those who could afford a traveling entourage. While the individual sites and the circuit as a whole were well known 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, accessibility to the Chota Char Dham improved, as India undertook massive road building to border area and other infrastructure investments. As pilgrims were able to travel in mini buses, jeeps and cars to nearest points of four shrines, the Chota Char dham circuit was within the reach of people with middle income. Vehicles reach up to Badrinath temple and Gangotri,Yamunotri and Kedarnath are at a distance of 10 to 15 k.m. from nearest motorable road.
Since the 1950, the importance of the Chota Char Dham as both an actual destination and an object of the national Hindu religious imagination has grown considerably. 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, Oriyas, Marathis, Gujaratis, Delhites and people from Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. Today, the circuit receives hundreds of thousands of 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, which normally comes in late July. After the rains begin, travel to the sites becomes extremely dangerous. Even before the rains begin, safety is a major concern, as extensive road building and heavy traffic have critically destabilized the rocks, making fatal landslides and bus/jeep accidents a regular occurrence. Mortality rates for a season often surpass 200. Some pilgrims also visit the sites after the rains ends and before the sites become impassable due to snow. Although temperatures at the shrines in the early winter months of October and November are inhospitable, it is said that the mountain scenery surrounding the sites is most vivid after the rains have had a chance to moisten the dust of the plains below. The Chota Char Dham was washed away in the recent 2012 Himalayan flash floods. One of the worst flash floods happened in June 2013 and it heavily devastated many parts of the Chota Char Dham, particularly the town of Kedarnath was almost destroyed and with only the Kedarnathji Temple and a few buildings around remaining intact, albeit partially submerged by rocks and slurry.
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 Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand. From there, the tradition is to visit the sites in the following order:
- Yamunotri, the source of the Yamuna River and the seat of the goddess Yamuna.
- Gangotri, the source of the Ganges (River Ganga) and seat of the goddess Ganga.
- Kedarnath, where a form of the Hindu god Shiva is venerated as one of the twelve jyotirling (linga of light).
- Badrinath, the seat of the Hindu god Vishnu in his aspect of Badrinarayan.
2. Informative Article on Chota Char Dham
- Chār Dhām Yātra: Ecstatic Flight Into Himalayas, by G. R. Venkatraman. Published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1988.
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