BADRINATH, “Lord of the Berries”, just 40km from the Tibetan border, is the most popular of Garhwal’s four main pilgrimage temples, and one of Hinduism’s holiest sites. It was founded by Shankara in the ninth century, not far from the source of the Alaknanda, the main tributary of the holy Ganges. Although the temple boasts a dazzling setting, deep in a valley beneath the sharp snowy pyramid of Nilkantha (6558m), the town that has grown up around it is grubby and unattractive. All motorized transport from Joshimath is obliged to move in convoys; a gate system controls traffic in each direction, in two equal 24-kilometre stages – the first between Joshimath and Pandukeshwar, the second between Pandukeshwar and Badrinath. Several convoys leave Joshimath each day, the first at 6.30am and the last at 4.30pm. At night the road is closed, and Badrinath itself remains closed from mid-November to early April.
Badrinath is still presided over by a Nambudiri brahmin from Kerala – the Rawal, who also acts as the head priest for Kedarnath. According to myth, the two temples were once close enough together for the priest to worship at both on the same day. The temple itself, also known as Badri Narayan, is dedicated to Vishnu, who is said to have done penance in the mythical Badrivan (“Forest of Berries”) that once covered the mountains of Uttarakhand. Unusually, it is made of wood; the entire facade is repainted each May, once the snow has receded and the temple opens for the season. From a distance, its bright colours, which contrast strikingly with the concrete buildings, snowy peaks and deep blue skies, resemble a Tibetan gompa; there’s some debate as to whether the temple was formerly a Buddhist shrine. Inside, where photography is strictly taboo, the black stone image of Badri Vishal is seated like a bodhisattva in the lotus position (some Hindus regard Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu). Pandas (pilgrim priests) sit around the cloisters carrying on the business of worship and a booth enables visitors to pay in advance for darshan (devotional rituals) chosen from a long menu.
This site, on the west bank of the turbulent Alaknanda, may well have been selected because of the sulphurous Tapt Kund hot springs on the embankment right beneath the temple, which are used for ritual bathing. Immediately south of the temple, the old village of Badrinath is still there, its traditional stone buildings and a small market seeming like relics from a bygone age. The main road north of Badrinath heads into increasingly border-sensitive territory, but visitors can normally take local buses and taxis 4km on to the end of the road where the intriguing Bhotia village of Mana nestles – check the current situation before setting out. It’s also possible to walk to Mana along a clear footpath by the road. The village itself consists of a warren of small lanes and buildings piled virtually on top of each other; the local Bhotia people, Buddhists of Tibetan origin who formerly traded across the high Mana Pass, now tend livestock and ponies and sell yak meat and brightly coloured, handmade carpets. Past the village and over a natural rock bridge, a path leads up the true left bank of the river towards the mountain of Satopanth (7075m), to the base of the impressive high waterfall of Vasudhara, considered to be the source of the Alaknanda. Walking time is just an hour and a half and, unusually, there are no chai stalls en route.