Char Dham Pilgrimage Route

The Char Dham ("four abodes") is the most important pilgrimage circuit in the Indian Himalayas. Located in the Garwhal section of the state of Uttaranchal (formerly the northwestern section of Uttar Pradesh), the circuit consists of four sites: Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath.

While each site in the circuit has an autonomous history and significance that predates and remains distinct from their status as a circuit, inclusion in the Char Dham has, over time, caused them be viewed together in popular imagination and actual pilgrimage practice.

The origins of the Char Dham are obscure. Originally, Char Dham was a name reserved for India's most famous 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. Unlike the original Char Dham, the sites of the Chota Char Dham do not share a single sectarian affiliation. Instead, the three major sectarian movements in modern devotional Hinduism all have representation, with the Vaisnava site Badrinath joined by one Saiva site (Kedarnath) and two Devi sites (Yamunotri and Gangotri).

As late as the mid-twentieth century, the "Chota" designation was still used consistently to delineate the Himalayan version of the Char Dham. This usage probably reflects the relative importance of the circuit for most of its history. 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 drastically, as India's short-lived efforts at Himalayan expansionism required massive infrastructure investments. As pilgrim buses began to arrive, the Chota appendix seems to have dropped away, though the prefix "Himalayan" (Hindi: Himalaya ki Char Dham) is sometimes still added to avoid confusion.

With infrastructure improvements, the importance of the Char Dham as both an actual destination and an object of the national Hindu religious imagination has increased significantly. Buoyed by the development of new forms of bourgeois "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 Char Dham has become an important destination for pilgrims from throughout South Asia and the diaspora, particularly Marwaris, Gujaratis, Delhi- and U.P.ites, and of course citizens of Uttaranchal.

Today, the Char Dham sees 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 Char Dham 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.

Most pilgrims to the 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 Uttaranchal. From there, the tradition is to visit the sites in the following order:

Click on a link above for more information on each site.


Quick Facts on Char Dham Pilgrimage Route

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Names:Char Dham Pilgrimage Route
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Coordinates:29.957100° N, 78.171008° E
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