Suddenly a man came to me and asked me if I was Bengali.

One should never flaunt regional identities casually; such is the wisdom of the day. But since he seemed harmless enough, I said yes.

He asked if I were in trouble.

I wasn’t really. It was only a setback. We had planned to go to Auli that day. But ropeway repairs had thrown us off track. Auli pre-snow season via highway isn’t as attractive as through skyway. So we decided to move onward. But a dearth of affordable options left the two of us sitting dejectedly on one stout milestone.

I explained this situation and told him not to trouble himself. Even in a land of faith it is not difficult to find trouble. But he told me that he was with a travel agent, there was a Force Traveller carrying a party, and two seats were unoccupied. We could have them if we so wished.

We so wished. The vehicle was full of pilgrims who welcomed us and the travel agent, unlike most others I know, refused my offer of some kind of compensation! I wanted to express my gratitude somehow, but all such efforts were repudiated. On the road the kindness of strangers is quite common. You can repay them by being kind to others.

We had a little time as the Gate wasn’t open. The Joshimath-Badrinath route had a Gate system then. Traffic would move only one way for fixed periods of time. That system is no more. The roads widened, wounding the mountains further.

Not willing to let go of the amazing offer we quickly checked out of the the Badrinath Kedarnath Mandir Committee Guest House; Jaya already had packed the rucksacks. It was a fond farewell. The Guest House at Joshimath was a lovely set of buildings with a beautiful courtyard just overlooking the Narasingha Badri Mandir. And your mornings would be full of mellifluous jingle of bells and melodious mantras.

The second time we went, we were given accommodation in the new building on the other side of the road. The rooms were nice enough, but lacked the charm and homeliness of the old building. Having booked a vehicle for the entire trip, Sonu (the driver), Taju (my brother) and the two of us had a brilliant time roaming around the region without any fixed itinerary. We stopped at Pandukeshwar to visit Yogadhyan Badri.

On the way back from Joshimath we stopped at Animath village to see the Vriddha Badri temple.

There are seven Badri temples in the region, just like the five Kedar temples. I have been to all five Kedarnath shrines, but only to six Badri shrines. The Bhavishya Badri trek was one I could not complete. I felt unwell within an hour of the six km trek and was tended to by a very kind family.

And quite expectedly I was told that my time of seeing the shrine had not come. I would succeed once I am called by the divine. Such is the lore that faith is made of.

We did visit Dhyan Badri in Urgam Valley on another trip. It is an easy trek and you can just walk on and visit Kalpeshwar (one of the Kedar shrines).

Of course, the easiest to visit is Adi Badri, which is right next to a modern motorable road.

There is an eighth shrine, named Ardha Badri, but we did not get to go there either.

The most sacred and revered of them all is Badri Vishal, a temple that is located in Badrinath. This is a temple with a brilliant façade located in between the Nar (human) and Narayan (divine) Mountains. It is said that once the world reaches a crisis point thanks to human sinfulness, the two mountains will collapse on the temple and Badrinath Dham would become completely inaccessible. The main Badrinath shrine would then shift to the Bhavishya Badri temple.

Badrinath is a location that boasts of having the origin and the end of the Mahabharata. This is the bona fide holy land of a religion usually lauded for tolerance and kindness. I love the small settlement of Badrinath. It is densely peopled by pilgrims, but two minutes’ walk would take you to sanctuary.

Alakananda is wildly beautiful. And you have a glorious view of the stunning Nilkantha peak.

Imagined as an image of Lord Shiva because of the dark ridge a little below the summit (since according to mythology Lord Shiva drank the catastrophic poison that came with the elixir of immortality while the holy primordial sea was being churned by the gods and Lord Shiva kept the poison in his throat which thenceforth turned blue – therefore Nil Kantha or Blue Throat) this mountain is considered to be as holy as any consecrated temple.

Of all the accommodations in the settlement, Vinod View is my favourite as it affords the best view of Nilkantha. Run by Bharat Sevashram Sangha, this is a hotel a little away from their hostel in Badrinath. We stayed there both times. The first time Bhabesh Maharaj graciously gave us a room even though our booking was for the next day. We did not get a chance to be well acquainted with him, for he left for the Panchachulli trek the next morning. We were invited to join, but we weren’t as confident with our feet as we would later be.

The second time we went without booking. Bhabesh Maharaj was no longer there, but the Maharaj in Charge was equally welcoming.

I believe I have written about the path before. This is the path, much elevated, about a kilometer’s steep climb above the Badrinath settlement which leads directly to a point near the foot of the Nilkantha peak. This is a path of sheer serenity.

There is a rock which has the ‘footprint’ of the god Narayan – called Charan Paduka or the Footwear of Narayan – where some pilgrims visit.

On our first visit we met this gentle sadhu.

He wasn’t there six years later. But the path and its beauty remain constant. There is a stream called Rishi Ganga that flows almost without a murmur. I dream of that path quite often.

The other attraction is the village called Mana. It is the last human habitation at that direction and is quite close to an international border. The village is small, picturesque and full of tourists. The first time we did not get any vehicle and we walked. It was only three kilometers from Badrinath. We walked to and fro and we were happier for it.

The second time we went by car, but we walked back through a remarkable route on the other side of the river. I had noticed it the first time, but there was only a log bridge below Mana village and no Taju yet.

But the second time we saw a proper bridge and Taju was with us.

Trust me, if you are ever in Badrinath, choose this path. If you are not afraid of a little stroll, then this would delight you to no end. Take this path while coming back, if you go to Mana through this meandering way a steep climb will await you at the end.

Mana is where the route for the Mahaprasthan (the final journey) of the Pandavas started. After you see the Vyas Gufa (the cave where Vyas Dev had composed the Mahabharata) you need to come down to Bheem Pool.

This is the confluence of the river Saraswati with Alakananda. There is a large rock which acts as a bridge. Legend says that Draupadi could not cross the riverfall, Bheem picked up the rock and placed it so that it became a bridge.

Across the rock, there is a coffee shop there now. Sit down and just soak in the legend and marvel at the magical appearance of Saraswaty through a cavernous hole in the mountain.

The path has continued towards a route that is for hardened trekkers. It traces the way that the Pandavas, along with Draupadi, took on their final journey in which only Yudhisthir could reach heaven without leaving his corporeal body. Those with serious trekking skills go up to Satopanth Lake. This is the Swargarohini trek. You get to see the magnificent peak from this route. Those who are less motivated can hike up to Vasudhara falls. It is a moderate hike, one which still waits for me.

Even if you feel not so inclined, you may just sit there and see how the epics still rule a very large population of our country. Millions of people come to these places of worship having faith in legends that are almost prehistoric.

This is where you must stop and think and understand what India is – you cannot understand the pulse only through imported theories. They will, no doubt, give you much intellectual stimuli. But the narratives for which the average Indian pilgrim will walk miles after miles will remain unknown to you. Learning about all the narratives that rule life all around us is important if you are a student of life. You don’t have to have faith. But you must understand it, empathize with it. Otherwise you will never understand your people and never fight the fights that need to be fought.

Earlier Posts:

1. Old Lucknow   2. Colonial Lucknow   3. Going Downhill - Versey to Dentam
4. Going to Garhwal  5. The Walkers  6. Palamau  7. Rishikesh
8. Kolkata Kolkata  9. The Roar of the Clouds - Santiniketan 
10. Of Pests and Men - Uttarey  11. Where Hikers Fear to Tread - Rudranath
12. Old Times  13. History in Ruins - Pushpagiri
14. Once There was a Heaven  15. Serenity  
16. Pilgrim's Progress - Kedarnath 17. Unfinished - Gaumukh 18. Ghatshila 
19. Nothing Important  20. Manu's Alaya - Manali  21. Santiniketan  
22. Little Lhasa - Dharamshala  23. From Varuna to Assi - Varanasi  
24. Tunganath  25. Transitory Blues  26. Gurudongmar  27. The Beginning  
28. Yumesamdong  29. Bangali in Bangkok  30. Mukutmanipur  
31. Rasvanti  32. The Old Town and the Sea   33. Budapest 
34. The Last Post of 2019 35. Travel Travails 36. Cluj-Napoça 
37. Presenting the Past  38. Far From the Urban Crowd
39. Silent Night Sleepless Night 40. Norwich 41. Photo Essay - The Road
42. Photo Story - The Days of the Goddess