Saturday, 25 January 2020

Badri yaatra - As it happened

There were so many questions popping up in my mind - Will we be able to reach Badri without any problem? Will elders have darshan with ease? Will the elders bear the cold in Badri?... My mind came back to the present when the flight attendant made an announcement "We will be descending to Dehradun in a few minutes. Please fasten your belt and do not use restrooms". It was more than 2 months when we decided to do a Badri yatra with elders. My family, my brother's family and four elders made it a 10 pax trip to Badrinath. Badrinath is one of the holy places for Hindus and its significance is much more for Vaishnavas. So naturally all of us were excited about this trip.


After almost two and a half journey from Bengaluru, we landed at Dehradun airport. From the airport, we got into our vehicle and headed towards Rishikesh, which was the first day stop.

I'm sharing a map with the list of prominent places mentioned in this post.


List of prominent places mentioned in this post


After a well deserved rest at Rishikesh, we started our journey towards Badrinath. It was very hot at Rishikesh despite a heavy rain the previous night. When you are going to Badrinath from Dehradun/ Rishikesh/ Haridwar, you have to pass through five prayags. In each prayag, two or more rivers converge. To understand it better, let me explain the direction of the rivers from where it flows.

The river Alakananda originate from the Himalayas and pass through Badrinath. At one point, another river Dhauliganga meets Alakananda and this place is called Vishnuprayag. After the convergence, the river retains the name Alakananda and she continues further South. 


Vishnuprayag


At another point, another river Nandakini converge with Alakananda, and this place is called Nandaprayag.


Nandaprayag


The river Alakananda continues her journey towards south and another river Pindar converge with Alakananda and this place is called Karnaprayag.


Karnaprayag


Further south, a river named Mandakini converge with Alakananda and this place is called Rudraprayag.


Rudraprayag


Further south, a river named Bhagirathi meets Alakananda and this place is called Devprayag.


Devprayag


After this confluence, the river is known as Ganga. The Ganges flows through Rishikesh, Haridwar and continues its journey through Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Bangladesh and finally into the Bay of Bengal.

So when you are traveling towards Badrinath, you will encounter prayags in reverse order from Devprayag to Vishnuprayag. As the river gets the name Ganga from Devprayag, this place has a prominence. We decided to get down to the point where two rivers meet. One has to walk approximately 1-2 kms through a narrow road. You will get to see a lot of cows on the road, and a few two-wheelers as well. After walking for a while, you need to cross a bridge and again walk further. Once you reach the point, you have to climb down the steps to reach the river. The force of Alakananda was very strong, and Bhagirathi was calm. Still, the rivers were flowing in full, so we just sat in that place and sprinkled the water. This is a beautiful place where you can clearly distinguish two rivers due to their contrasting colors.

After lunch, we continued our journey. Normally people travel from Rishikesh/Haridwar to Badrinath in one stretch. But we had decided to take a break, thinking it would be a tiring journey for elders. And it was a good decision as I explain in a while. So our next night stop was Srinagar. Well, this is not the popular Srinagar of Jammu & Kashmir. There is another Srinagar in Uttarkhand. We reached this place by evening and retired for the day.


View from Srinagar hotel


We all had a good sleep, and we were ready and excited for the day’s journey. This day we are supposed to reach Badrinath! As we reached Rudraprayag, we could not see the confluence site due to one-way restrictions on the road. The driver said he will show on the return journey. Next we stopped at Karnaprayag to see the confluence of two rivers. There is a temple dedicated to Karna. As per the legend, this is the place where Lord Krishna himself cremated Karna after he was killed in Mahabharata war.

When we were approaching Nandaprayag our vehicle stopped. Initially we thought there must be a road-widening work and hence stopped. We later got to know that there was a landslide and the JCB machines were working to clear the debris. It took almost 2 hours to make the way, and another 1 hour to cross the spot as there were a lot of vehicles piled up from both sides.


Waiting for debris clearance before Nandaprayag


This was our first experience of the situation when landslide happens. Luckily we had some snacks brought from home like chivuda, chakkali, and apples, so these eatables were required to sustain till we cross this hurdle and reach a restaurant. While we were crossing Nandaprayag, I called the manager of Anantha mutt at Badrinath where we had booked for accommodation to confirm him that we will be reaching today evening. The manager said “Sir, how do you people come? Don’t you know the road is blocked at Lambagad due to a massive cloudburst? I think it might take 5 days to repair the road”. After hearing this, we were completely devastated. I immediately opened Twitter and searched for any information on this situation. Incidentally, one lady had tweeted about this situation. She was travelling from Kedarnath to Badrinath and her vehicle was stuck at Chamoli. I also browsed for further information and I got to know from the news reports about this Cloudburst and it turns out a half a dozen vehicles were severely damaged and a few lives were lost as well. This was not at all the kind of news we ever wanted to hear. We felt bad about those lost lives and their families. We checked with the driver what to do next and he said “Let’s go as far as we can and then we’ll see”. This very attitude of our driver instilled some hope in us. He is an experienced driver and he has seen a lot of such things during his trips. He knows better when to call it off and till which point to continue. Frankly speaking, none of us ever heard this word Cloudburst! So I googled for this word and got to know about this natural phenomenon. We had lost 3 hours due to the landslide near Nandaprayag and we were hungry. The driver stopped at a restaurant between Nandaprayag and Pipalkoti.

At this restaurant, we met a mid-aged couple. It seems they had come from Delhi by road to reach Badrinath. In their own words,
“We reached till Govind Ghat and met a family who lost their own family members in front of their eyes in that cloudburst incident. They were crying and pleaded us not to go ahead as the situation is worst. We thought may be Lord Badrinath has decided not to give darshan this time, and with a heavy heart we returned back from Govind Ghat. We are driving back to Delhi. We’ll come again, maybe next year. There is no point for you guys in going further. We strongly suggest to return back”.

Now we understood the situation from the first account. Things were really looking bleak to reach Badrinath. We again spoke to the driver. He was also enquiring with others. He said the vehicles are not allowed after Pipalkoti, so we have to stop at Pipalkoti and check the conditions tomorrow morning and accordingly decide what to do next.

We also met a person from Karnataka. It seems he comes to Badrinath every year and he was also talking about the uncertainties of the road conditions. Two buses carrying Sikhs halted at the same restaurant for lunch. We spoke to an elderly lady, and she said they are all going to Hemkund, a holy place for Sikhs. From Govind Ghat, one road/trial goes to Hemkund and the other road leads to Badrinath. She also said there is a helipad at Govind Ghat and they are going to Hemkund in a helicopter. When we heard the word “Helicopter”, it stuck our mind on the possibilities of reaching Badrinath in a helicopter for at least elders, if not for all. However, we did not know how much it costs for a helicopter ride. With so many questions and apprehension in our minds, we reached the hotel at Pipalkoti for a night’s stay. The hotel was not good enough, but considering the fact that many people going towards Badrinath would be staying at Pipalkoti, we just settled for a night’s stay.

At this hotel, we met a family from Bihar. They are staying in this hotel for the last two days as the road is blocked and they are not able to go to Badrinath. An elderly person in that family was confident that the road will be cleared the next day. It was a ray of hope in such a difficult situation. We exchanged our phone numbers to get in touch and be connected. They suggested us to leave as early as possible to avoid the rush.

The next day we got ready by 6.30 in the morning and left Pipalkoti. There was a silence in TT, in everyone’s mind there was only one wish - reach Badrinath. As we reached Joshimath, the driver stopped the vehicle at a temple. He asked us to have darshan in this temple. This temple is dedicated to Lord Narasimha. It turns out, when Badrinath is closed for 6 months in winter, the utsav moorthi is taken to this temple and kept here. We all prayed Lord Narasimha to remove all hurdles and show the path for Badrinath.


Narasimha Swamy temple at Joshimath


We later stopped at a place for breakfast. Unfortunately, there was no proper restaurant. However we met a lady from Bangalore. She had come with her mother for a visit to Badrinath. She also said she cannot risk taking her mother with her so she is returning back to Dehradun and she has to catch a flight the next day.

We met people from different parts of India, and some were returning back, and a few were moving forward to try their luck and we were one of them. We reached Govind Ghat and many vehicles were stopped at this place. We got down from the vehicle and went to a dhaba for breakfast. Meanwhile, my brother and I went to the helipad to check if there is any service to Badrinath. We were told the helicopter service is only to Hemkund. There were many Sikh pilgrimages waiting in the queue to register their names in the helipad.


Helicopter going to Hemkund


After we finished our breakfast, we continued our journey. Just 1 km from Govind Ghat, there was another landslide and JCBs were in action to clear the road. It took a while to cross that section.

As we continued, we reached a place called Lambagad. This is the place where the road was destroyed due to cloudburst. All the vehicles were stopped at this point. Asking the elders to remain in the vehicle, my brother, wife and I went ahead by walk to understand the situation and also to get the update. The section of the affected road was blocked by policemen. There was a deroute for people to walk and reach the other end of this stretch. Basically no vehicles were allowed beyond this point. So people have to walk on the detour for approximately 1 km and reach the other point. From that point, one has to catch the cabs which ply between this place and Badrinath. I walked to some distance in that detour to know how difficult it is. It was not an easy walk for the elders. As we were contemplating, we caught sight of palkis. These palkis were mainly used to carry the luggage and there were very few cases of carrying people as well.


Palki with luggage


We thought of using this palki service for the elders who cannot walk in that stretch. After enquiring and talking in length, it was decided to use the palki service for two elders. They charge anywhere between 1000 to 1500 rupees based on the person's weight. The plan was - use pakli for two people, and everyone else will walk to cross this stretch. We have to reach the other end, catch a cab to reach Badrinath, have darshan, come back to that point, walk back, and catch our TT which will be waiting at Lambagad. So we carried only warm clothes and water bottles with us to minimize the load.

The deroute had a path for walking beside a huge debris of big rocks. These rocks were the result of cloudburst. It was definitely not easy for the elders. After walking for 700 meters or so, we have to climb up another 300 meters to reach the road. This climb was basically a kind of adventurous as there was no proper steps or path. One has to cross steep climbs as well as naturally formed steps. Many pilgrimages from youngs to olds were climbing with difficulty but they all seemed to have one goal - reach badrinath by any means!


De-route due to cloudburst





By the time we reached the other end, the officials had decided to allow vehicles with only drivers to pass this stretch. That means, no passenger will be allowed inside vehicles. Now we were thinking if our driver would come with his vehicle or not. After we cross Joshimath, only BSNL sim works and we did not have BSNL connection. How do we call him up and ask him to take the vehicle? As we were thinking of the possibilities of reaching him, our vehicle and the driver appeared. Our immediate reaction was “There he comes!” and we were ecstatic! Why not?!!! At this moment, the way we were looking at the driver was as if God has appeared in front of us! We wholeheartedly thanked him and got into the vehicle and our journey resumed towards Badrinath. Since the road was open for vehicles, we all had only one thing in mind - reach Badrinath, have darshan and come back as soon as possible to cross this stretch.


Beautiful yet scary roads


At last we reached Badrinath and it was such a great relief to all. We first went to a restaurant for lunch. We called our family members to inform them about our safe reach. They were very anxious upon knowing that the road was blocked. After lunch, we headed towards the temple. From the parking, one has to walk for quite a distance to reach the temple. The sun was pretty bright, so we were not feeling cold. As we walked past the shops, we got the first glimpse of the temple at a distance. Alakananda river flows in front of the temple. She was flowing with full force. One has to cross a bridge to reach the temple.

Before entering the temple, we went to the tapt kund, a small pond where hot water emerges, and many devotees take water from this pond and take a bath. A separate arrangement is done for gents and ladies. We were not in a position to take a bath, hence we just sprinkled the water and went to the temple.


Tapt kund


There was a crowd but it was manageable. After standing in the queue for about 30 mins, we entered the inner structure of the temple and had a darshan of the Lord Badrinath! It was such a divine experience with all the uncertainties, difficulties, and apprehensions, we at last had the darshan of the Lord! We felt ourselves lucky to have reached safely and we thanked God for his blessings.


Badrinath temple

View from Badrinath temple


After the darshan, we had a few photoshoots in front of the main entrance (we were more relaxed by this time). However, we were also thinking of returning back as soon as possible so that we can cross that main hurdle at Lambagad. After a quick shopping near temple complex, we went to the parking area where our vehicle was parked. We told the driver to return as we did not want to take the risk of getting stuck at Badrinath. As we descended the mountain, and reached that spot at Lambagad, the police had stopped the vehicle movements as more stones were falling down. As it was getting dark, the workers who were clearing the debris had left for the day. That means, the road will be cleared only the next day provided it does not rain overnight. With a bit of worry, we went back to Badrinath and stayed at Anantha mutt, where we had booked the rooms for 2 nights.

In late evening, a few of us again went to the temple by walk and had darshan the second time. There was no crowd this time, so it was a very peaceful experience. Considering what we had gone through, who had thought that we will get another chance to visit this temple!

We had dinner at Anantha mutt and retired for the day. After sunset, it was very cold at Badrinath. Without a proper jacket, it would be very difficult to bear this cold.

The next day after breakfast, our driver took us to Mana village - “the last village” as it is called due to the fact that after this village, it is India-China border. While everyone stopped at the entrance of this village, my brother and I decided to go for a small trekking (walking) to visit Vyasa guha. One has to walk in a narrow path and some parts of it are steps and others are ramp. First we reached Ganesh guha - a cave where Lord Ganesh wrote Bhagavata purana including Mahabaratha.


Ganesh guha entrance

Ganesh guha


We further walked down the path and reached Vyas guha - a cave where Vedavyas dictated Bhagavata Purana (and Mahabaratha) to Lord Ganesh.


Vyasa guha


There were a few more places near Vyasguha, but as we were running short of time, we both decided to get back to the main entrance of the village where our vehicle and all the other members were waiting. Before that, we went to the last tea shop of India. We had tea and also took a few photos. The tea owner has the India Flag, which he asked us to hold it for photos. It was such a great feeling being at this place and holding our flag. Jai Hind!


The last tea shop


We went back to the vehicle and we started descending. We reached that crucial spot at Lambagad. The driver convinced the Police to take only elders with him, while the rest of us took the deroute to reach the other end. Once we crossed Govind ghat and Joshi mutt, it was all the normal route ahead.


There was an unknowing smile at everyone’s faces, a kind of relief, a sense of achieving something, gratitude to the Lord for making this journey happen. We knew that there was a (long) story to tell, an experience to be cherished, and a journey to be remembered for the rest of our lives.


It would be unethical if I don’t mention Police personnel, Indian Army jawans, and other workers who were working relentlessly to clear the debris so that pilgrimages can have a safe trip. A big salute and a heartfelt thanks to them. Also, I would like to specifically thank our Driver without whom, perhaps, we wouldn’t have got the confidence and courage to continue the journey amidst all the stories we heard. If you need his contact number, do let me know in the Comments section.

End note: A helicopter service is available from Dehradun to Badrinath and one can have darshan and come back to Dehradun in half a day. When we enquired, the cost was Rs 75,000 per person (in September month). If you are willing to take this service, just Google and you will get the booking details. Also, to focus on Badri trip, I have excluded details about the places we visited at Rishikesh and Haridwar.

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