Char Dham and Panch Prayag of Uttarakhand
By Nawani Royal
The pilgrim's progress to the four most sacred Dhams of Uttarakhand is made along rivers that have shaped the lives of countless millions of North Indians over the centuries: the temple of Yamnotri lies at the head of the River Yamuna; the Ganga is worshipped at Gangotri, Lord Shiva's shrine at Kedarnath is near the source of the Mandakini River; Badrinath is situated below the massif where the Alaknanda gathers its headwaters.
According to tradition a pilgrim should visit these dhams from left to right - geographically, from west to east - beginning with Yamunotri, then Gangotri, Kedarnath and finally Badrinath. Each stage in the journey to these dhams has its own special history. Along the route , the five prayags, the confluence of the holy rivers are the most holy. At each juncture, the flowing forms of the godde sses unite, eventually giving birth to an even greater energy- the River Ganga.
The highest of the confluence's is at Vishnuprayag, where the Vishnu Ganga meets the Dhauli Ganga below Joshimath. Further downstream, the Alaknanda is met by the Mandakini, which gathers its headwaters from the snows of the sentinel's peaks around Nanda Devi. Nandprayag is where the waters mingle, the Mandakini, flowing down from Kedarnath, is the first major river to meet the Alaknanda from the west. The confluence is named Rudraprayag. Deoprayag, the biggest of the five major confluences is also considered the holiest. Here the Bhagirathi and the Alaknanda, carrying the waters once dispersed by the locks of Shiva, reunite to form the Ganga.
The name of this sacred city means the 'Gates of Heaven', for it is here that all pilgrimages to the mountains shrine traditionally begin. Each day, thousands of devotees pass through it stopping to bathe at Har-ki-pauri, the holy Ghats that bear the footprint of Shiva. And having washed, they find a quiet spot on the steps to wait for the evening, when they will float flowers and lighted earthen lamps down the water. This is the hour of the aarti, the fire worship of the Ganga, for which Har-ki-pauri is prominent. Every 12 years, Hardwar hosts the Kumbh mela or fair, when millions of Indians gather on these banks for a dip.