The final stop on our Char Dham pilgrimage is the transcendental abode of Badrinath, home of the Lord in His Visnu form of Badri-Narayana. Leaving Kedarnath, the third stop on the Char Dham route, one retreat South to Rudra Prayag, turning north once again to the sacred confluence of Karna Prayag. Here the Alakananda River meets the Pindar River, coming down from the Pindar glacier. Traveling relatively due north, one arrives at Badrinath dham, which is situated in a valley of the Nara-Narayan Parvat, In the background is the imposing Neelkanth, a Himalayan peak rising 21,000 feet above sea level. Badrinath itself is situation at approximately 10,350 ft. There, in a wide valley carved out by the headwaters of Alakananda River, the largest tributary of the Ganges, is one of the most famous mountain passes leading from India to Tibet.
The presiding Deity at Badrinath dham is a Salagram form of Lord Vishnu, seated in padmasana (lotus pose). Lord Badri-Narayan’s abode is protected by two mountain ranges, the Nar and the Narayan. The place is called Badrinath because it was once carpeted in wild berries (badris).
The Badrinath temple is visited by countless numbers of pilgrims each year, who wait for the snows to melt and give them access. Even so, it is a difficult journey, as are the other dhamas on the Char Dham route. The temple stands facing the Alakananda River. Devotees stop to take bath at the nearby Tapt Kund, a thermal spring, before going to the temple.
As described in shastra, Lord Vishnu was reprimanded by Narada for indulging in worldly pleasures, and came here to Badri-van to perform austerities. The River Alakananda was created when Ganga Ma was requested to descend to the earth. Lord Shiva took her flow onto his head, down the locks of his hair, so the earth planet could withstand the force. River Alakananda is one of the streams from that water flow.
About Badrinath, the Skanda Purana says: “There are several sacred places of worship in heaven, on earth, and in the hell; but there is no one of them like Badrinath.” Here, the sages Nara-Narayana performed austerities. Krishna’s dear friend Uddhava visited 5,000 years ago, and it was been visited by many saints over the ages, including Gautama Rishi, Kapila, Kasyapa, Ramanujacharya, and Madhvacharya.
Like Kedarnath, the main temple at Badrinath has been built and re-built many times due to aging, storms and avalanches. It was established in the 8th century by Adi Shankaracharya, but the present structure was built just three centuries ago by the Garhwal kings. It stands five metres and features a conical top with a small cupola of gilt bull and spire. As one can see from the many available photos, the temple façade has been re-painted many times, in different color combinations.
It is generally accepted that prior to the time of Shankaracharya, the temple was a Buddhist site. Local residents say that the Tibetans would cross over the Mana pass each fall for the temple’s closing, and would bring a woolen robe to drape around the Deity before moving Him to new quarters.
In the garbha griha, or innter sanctum, where Lord Badri-narayan resides, there is a darshan mandap for puja and a sabha mandap for devotees to assemble. Fifteen black stone Deities also reside there, including Lakshmi, Garuda, Lord Shiva, Parvati, and Ganesha. As usual, a group of hereditary pandas (priests) serve as temple functionaries, and offer Lakshmi-Narayan puja at Badrinath. They also serve as local guides and offer various resources to pilgrims.
Nearby the main temple there is a place called Charanpaduka, where a large boulder bears the actual footprints of Lord Vishnu, imprinted in the rock when He descended from Vaikuntha. Devotees make offerings of pada-seva at this site.
Badrinath Dham also serves as the summer meeting place of the Shankaracharyas, whose leader established a monastery here, as well as at Puri, Dvaraka, Udipi, and Joshimath (where the Deity of Badrinath spends the winter). There is a building here that houses the Shankaracarya’s office as well as a public restaurant.
Four other temples or ‘badris’ are found near the main Badrinath temple, and together they form the Panch Badri. Located just a few kilometres from the Badrinath temple are Yog Dhyan Badri, where the Pandavas handed over their empire to King Pariksit before retiring, along with Bhavishtya Badri, Adi Badri, and Vriddha Badri.