With an annual footfall of more than half a million devotees every year, “Char Dham” is undoubtedly one of the most widely visited shrines in India. But before we delve into the popularity of these holy shrines, we first need to understand what Char Dham is all about. According to Hindu mythology, the term Char Dham was first coined by the prehistoric Hindu philosopher Shri Adi Shankaracharya.
Char Dham literally means “four abodes”. These abodes are believed to be homes of the Hindu gods and are considered to be the holiest places of pilgrimage. It consists of four historic temples which are spread across 4 different regions of India, truly encapsulating the message of national unity. These are namely- Badrinath in the north, Puri in the east, Dwarka in the west and Rameshwaram in the south.
In the north lies Badrinath, a temple of Lord Vishnu, situated at a height of 10,400 feet above the sea-level in the Garhwal Mountains of Uttaranchal. It traces its origins to the word “Badri” which refers to a berry that was said to grow abundantly in the area, and “nath” which means the Lord. Legend has it that Shankara once discovered a black stone image of Lord Badrinarayan made of Saligram stone in the Alaknanda River. He originally enshrined it in a cave near the Tapt Kund hot springs. It was brought to its present day location by the king of Garhwal in the sixteenth century.
Puri, a small coastal town of Orissa, is situated on the shoreline of the Bay of Bengal. The resident deity at this dham is Shri Krishna, who is celebrated as Lord Jagannath. He is worshiped here along with his elder brother Balabhadra and his sister Subhadra. This temple was built by an Oriya king Chodagangadeva in the twelfth century but it is believed that it has been there since time immemorial. Legend has it that Vishwakarma himself carved the idols out of wood. When the time came to make the idols, he ordered for a special kind of wood and went into the temple. He closed the doors of the temple and thought that he would remain inside till the idols were ready. Till the time the idols were ready, no one was supposed to enter the temple. Unfortunately, moved by the impatience of his queen, the king had the doors opened before Vishwakarma came out. When they went in they found that the God had carved all the idols up to their elbows. He was about to put on the hands but before he could do so, he saw the king and left angrily, never to be seen again. So the unfinished idols had to be set in the temple as it is and worshiped. That is why Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra are handless.
In the west lies Dwarka, a holy shrine situated on the west coast of Gujarat. It was home to Shri Krishna after he left Mathura. The city lies in the westernmost part of India and dates back to 2,500 years. The story behind this temple is that one day, Durvasa Muni, who was known as a saint who could be easily angered, was invited by Lord Krishna and his wife, Rukmini, to dinner. When a person is invited to dinner, etiquette dictates that the host should not eat until the guest has been satisfied. On the way to dinner, Rukmini became thirsty and asked Krishna for help. Krishna then put his foot in the ground and the Ganges water flowed forth from the earth. As Rukmini was drinking the water, Durvasa turned and saw her drinking without his permission. He became angry and cursed her to live apart from Lord Krishna. That’s the reason why Krishna’s temple is in the town and hers is located outside the town.
Rameshwaram is a small town located in the Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu. According to legends, the lingam was built on Rama’s return from Lanka. Ravana was a Brahmin and it was a sin to kill him even in war. Hence, Rama decided to atone for this sin at the place from where he began his battle march. As a result, Hanuman was dispatched to Varanasi to bring the image of the lingam from the Kashi temple there. However he was delayed and the auspicious moment was about to pass. Therefore, Sita built a lingam of sand and the prayers were conducted. This lingam is referred to as Ramalingam. When Hanuman returned with the lingam from Varanasi he was peeved to find that the prayers were completed. To placate him Sita also installed the Kashilingam and decreed that this lingam should be worshipped before the Ramalinga.
Over the years another Char Dham evolved in Garhwal Himalayas, where Adi Shankaracharya attained freedom from embodiment. It’s known as the “Char Dham of Uttarakhand”. Badrinath, one of the four sites in the original Char Dham, has become the central site of this Himalayan pilgrimage circuit called the Chota Char Dham. Located in the Garhwal region of the state of Uttarakhand, the circuit consists of four sites—Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath.
Char Dham Yatra has great significance in the lives of the Hindus. It is commonly believed that undertaking the Char Dham Yatra washes away all the sins and opens the doors for “Moksha” or salvation. It offers a sense of belonging and is believed to purify the mind and the body. Therefore it’s said that every Hindu, regardless of his age should embark upon this journey at least once in his lifetime.
Contributed By Mihir Ajgaonkar