Tīrthayātrā or pilgrimage to holy places has been an age-old exercise under-taken by the pious Hindus. The Himālayas and the river Gaṅgā have so captivated the Hindu mind for generations that a majority of these places of pilgrimage is associated with them. Badarīnātha, also spelt as Badrināth, situated in the Chamoli district of Uttaranchal, is one of the most important of these and has been classed among the ‘Caturdhāmas’ (the four Holy Places), the other three being Dvārakā in Western India, Purī in Eastern India and Rāmeśvaram in South India. A visit to these four places has been a life-time’s ambition of many a devout Hindu since it is as good as covering all important places of pilgrimage in the country.
The place itself might have derived its name from the existence of Badarī or the jujube tree in plenty in that area.
Even from the most ancient days, Badarīnātha has been considered as very sacred. It was known as Badarikāśrama. It was here that the twin sages, Nara-Nārāyaṇa, had built their hermitage and performed severe austerities. The sage Parāśara and Vyāsa, the celebrated author of the Mahābhārata, lived here with their disciples. Consequently Vyāsa got the by-name Bādarāyaṇa.
The town is situated at a height of about 7000 metres (23,300 ft.), in a valley nearly 6 kms. long and 2 kms. wide (4 miles by 1.3 miles). The temple is on the right bank of the river Alakanandā.
The original temple is said to have been built by Śaṅkarācārya in the 8th century A.D., after recovering the old image from the Nārada Kuṇḍa (pond). Over the centuries, avalanches washed out many a temple and the present one is comparatively a modern structure.
Near the temple is a hot-water pond called ‘Taptakuṇḍa’, with a thermal spring of sulphurous waters. A bath here is a must, before the visit to the temple.
The temple of Lord Nārāyaṇa is about 13.5 metres (45 ft.) in height and faces east. There is a golden kalaśa or pinnacle on the top. The image inside the temple is made of ‘śālagrāmaśilā’ or black stone. It is in the padmāsana or seated posture, with four arms, carrying the well-known symbols śaṅkha (conch), cakra (discus), gadā (mace) and padma (lotus). Other images found in the temple are those of Nara and Nārāyaṇa, Uddhava, Nārada, Garuḍa and Kubera.
The chief priest called ‘Rāval’ is a Nambūdiri brāhmaṇa from Kerala, as per the traditions established by Śaṅkarācārya.
The temple, being situated among the mountains of the Himālayan snow range, is open to the devotees only for about six months (April-May to November). The utsavamūrti (image used in temple processions) is shifted to the temple of Narasiṁha at Joshimath, a place situated at a distance of 48 kms (31 miles) from Badarinath and worshipped there during the winter months. The chief priest and his entourage also shift to this place for this purpose. The ‘Jyotirmaṭha,’ one of the four principal monasteries established by Śaṅkarācārya is also situated here.
Lord Badarīnātha is worshipped in five different places. Hence they are collectively called ‘Pañcabadarīs.’ They are: Viśāla Badarī (the main Badarīnath); Yogadhyāna Badarī (at Pāṇḍukeśvara, about 24 kms. [16 miles] away from Badarīnath); Bhaviṣya Badarī (near Tapovana, about 17 kms. [11 miles] away from the Joshimath); Vṛddha Badarī (at Animath, 17 kms. from Joshimath in the direction of Pipalkot) and Ādi Badarī (about 16 kms. [10 miles] from Karṇa-prayāg on the road to Rāṇikhet).
It is believed that if śrāddha (obsequial ceremonies) is offered here at the place called ‘Brahmakapāla’ on the bank of Alakanandā to the dead ancestors, they are liberated at once. Hence it is no more necessary to continue the annual śrāddhas.