In early February 99, His Holiness Swami Sadyojat Shankarashram assigned us the task of planning a 'Yatra' to Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath shrines. Since we had not ourselves been to the shrines, a reconnaissance of the areas was conducted in the last week of April 99 when the shrines were opened after winter.
Swamiji's Char Dham Yatra - October 1999
by Lt. Gen. Prakash Gokarn, AVSM
In early February 99, His Holiness Swami Sadyojat Shankarashram assigned us the task of planning a 'Yatra' to Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath shrines. Since we had not ourselves been to the shrines, a reconnaissance of the areas was conducted in the last week of April 99 when the shrines were opened after winter. At the conclusion of the dry run, discussions were held with Swamiji to finalise the dates and composition of Swamiji's entourage. We recommended that the Yatra should be held in early October due to condition of roads and weather. The Yatra being extremely tough (whether by mule or by foot) it was also felt that inclusion of ladies could hamper the speed of movement and create logistic problems. Swamiji agreed to these suggestions, and his 'retreat' was planned for the period between Chaturmas and Navaratas.
On Tuesday, 28th September 99, Swamiji alongwith an entourage of 7 members moved from Delhi by road to Uttarkashi (altitude 1158 metres) where the Principal of Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), Col. Ajit Dutt (an Everest expeditioner) briefed us on the tour of Yamunotri & Gangotri. After a visit of the NIM, we set off in the early hours of Wednesday, 29th September on a 103 Kms drive to Hanuman Chatti, the base of our trip to Yamunotri. Thereafter, we trekked for 5 Kms to Janaki Chatti, where we halted for the night at the PWD Inspection Bungalow. This initial trek gave us a clear idea of the physical fitness of all our members. Three of us i.e. Shukla Anand Bhatt, Ramakrishna Kodikal and myself were to go by mules ahead of the rest of the party consisting of Swamiji, Prabhakar Rao (Bantwal), Gurunath Ulman, Shantanand Shiroor, Arun Bolangady and Arun Irde. The trekking party was accompanied by Col. Ajit Dutt, LA Sampath (my Staff Officer) and Capt. Prem Lal who was our guide for this visit. As we approached Yamunotri, we got a stunning view of the Garhwal mountains particularly the snows of the Bander Poonch. Swamiji had a bath at the hot water springs at the temple of Yamunotri (altitude 3185 metres) and thereafter the Pooja was performed by the priest at Surya Kund. We had planned to return from Hanuman Chatti to Uttarkashi before sun set. But heavy rains delayed our move to Hanuman Chatti where our logistic personnel welcomed us with a hot cup of tea and a fresh set of warm clothes loaned by the Army. We were informed to our dismay, that the road between Hanuman Chatti and Uttarkashi had been blocked due to land slides within 2 Kms of Hanuman Chatti. As the bull-dozers had not been activated and it was getting dark, we decided to climb across the three land slides. This proved to be an extremely good decision as we were able to board two Tata Sierra taxis (allbeit at an exorbitant cost) to Uttarkashi. Swamiji, Shukla maam and all others braved through the torrential water and huge boulders on the land slides. None of the entourage faltered and it would not be an exaggeration to state that it was as if Moses had parted the sea, because within a few minutes our men had cleared the land slides with their bare hands and bravely crossed them without the help of Border Road Organisation stating "Swamiji Aage Gayen Hain To Hum Kaise Pichhe Reh Sakten Hain."
All this activity led to a slight delay but during this period Swamiji had expressed a desire to go to Gaumukh from Gangotri rather than spending an additional day at Gangotri. After some discussion, it was decided that we would break up our group again so that the elders do not delay the Gaumukh trip which was to be led by Col. Ajit Dutt.
The drive Uttarkashi to Gangotri (altitude 3048 metres) via Gangnani where Swamiji swam in the sulphur spring is a distance of about 120 Kms by road. Swamiji stayed at the President's Forest Lodge and after a beautiful pooja at the Gangotri Temple, left the next morning Saturday 2nd October to Gaumukh (mouth of Ganga) (altitude 3892 metres). We had requested this group to be back before darkness and in spite of all the difficulties, Swamiji ensured that the schedule was maintained. At Gaumukh, Swamiji jumped into the bitter cold Gaumukh glacier water and Col. Ajit Dutt remarked that in his 14 years of trekking of this area, very rarely had he seen pilgrims having the courage to bathe in such icy cold water. Swamiji described this experience as "electrifying". He also told us a story of the sage of ancient times who in this area, which is devoid of sounds of birds, animals and trees, meditated listening to the sound of the gushing Ganga water which has a very soothing effect on all three levels of persona. While at Gaumukh, Col. Ajit Dutt informed Swamiji that the life of a Parsi boy, who was mountaineering in the nearby icy slopes, was in danger because of lack of acclimatization and a rescue mission was in progress. Swamiji prayed for the life of the boy and by the time Swamiji returned, we received the news that the helicopter had been able to bring the boy to lower heights and thus saved his life.
At the early hours of 3rd October (Sunday), the group visited the Souvenir shop of NIM and purchased several mementos and memorabilia of this eventful journey. Here we said 'good bye' to the Principal, Col. Ajit Dutt, who by now was fondly called "Dutt Maam" and he presented Swamiji with an NIM clock.
We thereafter left Uttarkashi for Gauri Kund and spent the night at the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam Tourist Bungalow. En-route we stopped at Sone Prayag, which is a confluence of the Mandakini and the Vasuki Ganga. Here we discussed our move and removed any apprehension of Shukla Maam on the difficulty of using mules for 28 Kms (14 Kms each way) to Kedarnath. We left Gauri Kund in the early hours of Monday 4th October in our respective two groups and after the breakfast halt at Ram Khera, we were over-whelmed by the breath-taking sight of the Mandakini, the rich forest, lush valley and tumbling water falls. As we approached Kedarnath shrine (altitude 3584 metres) we saw the massive Kedarnath peak and the Chora Bari glacier. Kedarnath was very crowded, despite which Swamiji could have a proper Pooja and special Darshan of the shrine. Swamiji thereafter spent some time in the Adi Shankaracharya Samadhi where he must have pondered about the difficulties that this great sage of Hinduism had gone through in his Yatra. We returned by the night fall to Gauri Kund and Swamiji again had a bath of sulphur spring water and had a restful night.
The next day, the 5th October 99 (Tuesday), we left before sun rise for Badrinath, a distance of about 150 Kms. We reached Badrinath by 6.00 p.m. as the darshan of the temple Badrinath Murti is at 7.00 p.m. The next morning, we had a special darshan and Maha Abhishek during which the Temple Namboodri does the artistic decoration and dressing of the Badrinath idol, which is performed with great aplomb to a well rehearsed commentary by the Rawal. Swamiji and the entourage received special treatment (as also in the other temples) and every body appreciated the Maha Abhishek. Here too, Swamiji had a bath at the sulphur spring before entering the temple.
Having had a hectic tour so far and visiting the Char Dhams per se, the programme had been so designed that the next three days i.e. 6th to 8th October 99, was at a more relaxed pace and the group could meditate and feel the vibrations of Badrinath (altitude 3906 metres). The next morning, 6th October, we went on a tour of Mana village where Swamiji selected a home-spun woolen 'Aasan'. The others also bought some warm shawls and Aasans before proceeding to Vyas Gupha where Maharishi Vyas had dictated Mahabharat, Ganesh Gupha where the Lord Ganesh had written Vyas's dictation and to Bhim Shila where Lord Bhim had moved a huge stone to create a bridge for Draupadi to cross and finally to the gushing water of the Sarswati river behind the Bhim Kund. Swamiji spent some glorious quiet moments at the Vyas Gupha and went into deep meditation there.
The way back from Badrinath to Rudra Prayag was full of adventure. On 7th October. 99, we visited the Gokarn Partagali Math's premises of the Acharya Sadan. By sun rise, the rains had receded and we got a panoramic view of the mountains around Badrinath particularly Neel Kanth peak and Nar Narayan. When Swamiji telephonically informed Vedant Acharya, who was at Bombay, that we had visited all the four Dhams, Acharyaji expresed total surprise that this had been done in such a short timeA few kms. from Badrinath we found ourselves stranded on the wrong side of a large land slide, Fortunately, we had carried the Border Road JCO for facilitating our journey. He along with Capt. Sampath quickly galvanised the labour and the dozer operator. Swamiji took the "ring side" seat on a boulder and watched with amazement the dozer doing a quick job of removing mud and land slide. Our vehicles were the first to cross the land slides and we reached Joshimath without incident. Here, we met a long time friend of mine Col. C. Kannan and his family. When I mentioned to Mrs Kannan that our Yatra was on schedule in spite of all difficulties, Mrs Kannan recalled Swami Chidanandaji's words, viz. "Swamiji does not follow time, time follows Swamiji.
At Joshimath, we took the highest and longest rope way in Asia to Auli, a winter snow resort. This was an exciting ride specially for our youngest member Shantanand, and many others who were experiencing such a ride for the first time. In spite of clouds, our guide could indicate to us the Nanda Devi and Mana Parbat. On our return we walked to the Kalpa Vriksh and cave where Adi Shankaracharya had meditated. The Kalpa Vriksh was in very good condition in spite of its age. At the end of the trip at Joshimath, Major Krishna Mohan presented Swamiji with a Tejobal stick which Swamiji had suggested ideal for walking. Onward movement to Rudra Prayag was not without incident. We once again had a halt for a land slide which was already being cleared by a dozer very efficiently and we could reach Rudra Prayag before darkness. Here, we had a bird's eye view of the confluence of Mandakini and Alaknanda where Swamiji himself could take some photographs and observe the Koteshwar temple from a commanding height and distance.
Next day, i.e. Friday 8th October 99, we left for Raiwala ( in between Hardwar and Rishikesh). In the afternoon, some members of the group went shopping for rudraksha and various types of malas and Shantanand seemed very happy with his new possessions. In the evening. Col. P.V. Pathak had organised a very comfortable dip in the Ganges at Hardwar in an exclusive area at the Irrigation Rest House meant for the President of India. There, we got a grand stand view of the Arti at Har Ki Pauri where Swamiji reflected on the four years spent in this area. We ourselves performed Arti followed by flowing of gaily lit leaf boats with their lights dancing along the Ganga. This was a grand finale of our trip to Garhwal (Dev Bhumi) and as I prostrated myself in front of Swamiji, they said "The yatra was fascinating, you have every reason to be happy."
Throughout, my companion Arun Bolangady had pain-stakingly kept a record of our mileage and informed me at the end of our journey that we had driven well over 2100 Kms. by road and trekked over 70 Kms. The only places we could not visit due to land slides and change in programme were Trijugi Narayan Temple and Vasudhara falls.
The entire group ranging from amateur instructor mountaineer. Arun Irde to Shukla Bhat Maam were most amused that they could complete such a long journey without feeling tired in such a short time. In spite of being caught a number of times in unfavourable conditions and inclement weather not a single one of us had fallen sick. After all, we were in the company of Swamiji. Any doubts that I had of the physical fitness of Shukla Maam because of his girth was set aside by his brisk movement and ability to ride the horse / mule with confidence. Shukla Bhatt Maam on his white stallion and Swamiji riding to Gaumukh brought visions of the 'Charge of the Light Brigade," On our return journey, His Holiness remarked that if we had to do this journey again, we would need to have with us a Sumo, a Bus and a Dozer !!
On reflection, no doubt these ancient Vedic abodes set in the splendour of the mighty Himalayas have been sources of inspiration and salvation among Indians of all sections. Despite the hazards of yatra, this pilgrimage is almost akin to Mecca Medina for the Muslims and Babylon to Christians. The over-powering beauty of the Ganga, the Yamuna and their innumerable tributaries like Mandakini, Alaknanda and even a brief glimpse of the Saraswati set in snowy mountains will forever be etched in our being, as they made us bend our knees and lower out heads in humble reverence.
The inspiring influence of Swamiji for these twelve days made our yatra all the more memorable.