I came out of the inner sanctum, sat awhile at the temple steps and watched pilgrims taking their offerings to Lord Vishnu; hard sugar candy, tulsi, and dry fruits, placed in a thali. Then I went and bought myself a rudraksh bead which I later got strung on a gold chain in Mumbai, says Farzana Behram Contractor.

Badrinath would be the last temple a pilgrim would visit whilst on a char dham endeavour. But it happened to be my first. After visiting Badrinath, I was going to Kedarnath, a two day journey which I, along with the driver from the Uttarkhand Tourist Office and a knowledgeable guide, were planning to do in one day.

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The char dham pilgrimage is on the agenda of every devout Hindu. The four locations are Yamnotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. Of the four, the last mentioned is considered the most important - a fact I did not know till much after I visited the temple and came away having undergone a deeply moving and powerful experience. It is said in the Skanda Purana: "There are several sacred shrines in heaven, on earth, and in hell; but there is no shrine like Badrinath." The area around Badrinath is celebrated in Padma Purana as abounding in spiritual treasures.

The pilgrimage to Badrinath starts from Rishikesh, 301 kilometres away. The natural beauty along the route is breathtaking. Since this is also the road to Hemkund Saheb, an important Sikh pilgrimage site, this road is especially crowded. After crossing Joshimath, the base of Hemkund Saheb and the Valley of Flowers, the road gets trickier with its steep hairpin bends. If it weren't for the 'Gates' - a systematic regulation of 'Up' and 'Down' traffic within allotted timings - there would be chaos and worse, many more accidents than the ones that already take place. The natural elements in this region are all powerful and you can and should do nothing except respect them.

It was very cold when I reached the guest house where I was spending the night. The temple and the surrounding village have recently been made accessible by road. The temple was just a 5 minute walk across the bridge from the guest house. I planned to attend the inspiring dawn aarti. Alas, the long drive had done me in, for I slept through the ringing of the alarm. However, this lapse made me promise myself that I would surely visit this temple again.

The temple of Badrinath, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, is a striking building whose bright colours evoke the painted Buddhist ghompas of the region - some even think the temple was originally controlled by Buddhists. It is approximately 50 feet tall with a small cupola on top, covered with a gold gilt roof. The facade is built of stone, with arched windows. A broad stairway leads up to a tall arched gateway, which is the main entrance. Just inside is the mandapa, a large pillared hall that leads to the garbha griha, or main shrine area. The walls and pillars of the mandapa are covered with intricate carvings. The main shrine area houses the black stone image of Lord Badrinarayan, sitting beneath a Badri Tree. There are fifteen more murtis around the temple in the open air courtyard that are also worshipped. These include murtis of Nara & Narayana, Narasimha Lakshmi, Narada, Ganesha, Uddhava, Kubera, Garuda and Navadurga.

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Badrinath was established as a major pilgrimage site by Adi Shankara in the ninth century. In recent years its popularity has increased significantly, with an estimated 700,000 pilgrims visiting during the last season.

Badrinath is mentioned in religious texts as far back as the Vedic period. Some accounts claim that the temple was built on a former Buddhist temple site. One legend explains the reason why Vishnu is shown sitting in padmasana, rather than reclining. According to the story, Vishnu was chastised by a sage who saw Vishnu's consort Lakshmi massaging his feet. Vishnu went to Badrinath to perform austere meditation in padmasana. To this day, the area around Badrinath attracts yogis who come there for meditation and seclusion. Another legend says that Shiva and Parvati were doing tapas in Badrinath. Vishnu came to them in disguise as a small boy, crying loudly and disturbing them. When Parvati questioned him, he insisted that he wanted Badrinath for meditation. Shiva and Parvati realised that it was Lord Narayan in disguise. They left Badrinath and moved to Kedarnath.

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Badri refers to a berry that was said to grow abundantly in the area, and nath refers to Vishnu. Badri is the Sanskrit name for the Indian Jujube tree. Some scriptural references refer to jujube trees being abundant in Badrinath. Legend has it that the Goddess Lakshmi took the form of jujube berries to provide sustenance to Lord Vishnu during his long penance in the harsh Himalayan climate.

The Badrinath temple is naturally the biggest attraction in town.The Badrinath area is referred to as Badari or Badarikasram in Hindu scriptures. It is a place sacred to Vishnu's dual form of Nara-Narayana. Another legend has it that when the goddess Ganga descended to earth to help suffering humanity, the earth was unable to withstand the force of her descent. Therefore, the mighty Ganga was split into twelve holy channels, Alaknanda being one of them. It later became the abode of Lord Vishnu or Badrinath.

Legend has it that Shankara discovered a black stone image of Lord Badrinarayan made of Saligram stone in the Alaknanda River. He originally enshrined it in a cave near the Tapt Kund hot springs. But in the sixteenth century, the King of Garhwal moved the murti to the present temple.

The temple has undergone several major renovations because of age and damage by avalanche. In the 17th century, the temple was expanded by the Kings of Garhwal. After major damage in the great 1803 Himalayan earthquake, it was rebuilt by the King of Jaipur. Badrinath is one of the five Punyakshethras (or Holy Places, the other four being Kashi, Gaya, Prayaga and Rameswaram) where the Hindus offer Shradddhakarmas (oblations) to their 42 line of ancestors. It is believed that once the Shraddha Karma is performed here, the descendants need not perform the yearly ritual.

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The mountains around Badrinath are mentioned in the Mahabharata, where the Pandavas are said to have ended their life by ascending the slopes of a peak in western Garhwal called Swargarohini - literally, the 'Ascent to Heaven'. Local legend has it that the Pandavas passed through Badrinath and the town of Mana, 4 km. north of Badrinath, on their way to Swargarohini. There is also a cave in Mana where Vyas, according to legend, wrote the Mahabharata.

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Well, after I came out of the inner sanctum I sat awhile outside the temple. I noticed that the offerings to Lord Vishnu were hard sugar candy, tulsi, and dry fruits, placed in a thali. There were many vendors selling thick garlands, made of tulsi leaves and flowers and a brisk tourist trade in ancient coins, wool, ayurvedic medicine, holy books, counterfeit electronic goods from China, sacred threads, sea shells, aarti booklets, colourful beads and bracelets. I bought myself a rudraksh, the holy berry. Later in Mumbai, I had it strung on a gold chain.

I then walked down towards the Tapt Kund, the hot sulphur springs just below the temple. I noticed that most pilgrims, before entering the temple, bathed in the water from which a strong sulphur smell emanated. The hot spring water is considered to be medicinal and has a year-round temperature of 45°C.

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After observing life in the temple vicinity for an hour or so, I made my way to our guest house for some lunch, after which we planned to visit Mana, the last village on Indian soil, a few kilometres from the Tibet boundary. Over lunch, (food in this region is only vegetarian and no alchohol is permitted, though marijuana is illegally and widely available), I learnt that although Badrinath is located in the far north of India, the head priest, or Rawal, is traditionally a Nambudiri Brahmin from Kerala, in South India. This tradition was begun by Adi Shankara, who was a Malayali. The Rawal is assisted by Dimri Pundits belonging to Garhwal. Badrinath is one of the few temples in North India that follows the ancient Tantra-Vidhi of Shrauta tradition more common in South India. Devotees of all faiths and all schools of thought of Hinduism visit the place.

In November each year, when the town of Badrinath - which becomes completely snow bound - is closed, the image is moved to nearby Jyotirmath.

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