Badrinath is near the headwaters of the the Alakananda River, the largest tributary of the Ganges. The town is named after the presiding deity of the main temple; the word "Badri" refers to a type of tree now identified with the walnut (juglans regia), which at one time grew all through the valley. The image of this deity in the temple is claimed to have miraculously emerged full-formed from a shalagram, a particular type of black stone containing fossilized ammonite, which is itself considered a "self-manifested" form of Vishnu.
Badrinath has a long history as a sacred site,
including a connection with the philosopher Shankaracharya.
According to tradition,
established a monastic center in each corner of India, to train learned monks
and thus to revitalize Hindu religion. Badrinath is associated with the Jyotir
Math in the Himalayan town of Joshimath, about 30 miles south;the
deity Badrinath is symbolically transported there for the winter.
(Click on the thumbnails for larger images)
|Badrinath has had road access for the longest of these
three sites (since 1962, immediately after the Indo-Chinese border war),
and has expanded considerably even in the recent past. The oldest
part of the town is clustered around the temple, on the near side of the
river at the far left in the picture (under #1). The town has expanded
rapidly. In 1990 the Garwhal Motor Owner's Union (G.M.O.U.) building--a blue
building in the center of the picture (under #2) was at the farthest
edge of the town. Construction has filled the rest of the valley on
the far side of the Alakananda (which has motorable access to the road,
and is thus the more desirable side), and further building is taking place
in the open land other side of the river (at the bottom of the picture,
under the #4 marks a very large building under construction).
The large reddish building at the right side of the picture (under #5) is the new bus stand,
in the top center (under #3) is the new 500 bed Tourist Bungalow.
Aside from its importance as a pilgrimage site, Badrinath was also a stop on one of the traditional trade routes--the road at the upper left (by the number 1) leads to the Mana Pass and Tibet. This has meant that people in Badrinath have always had greater economic opportunities than those at the other sites, which are essentially dead ends. The Badrinath temple has historically been the richest of these three temples by far, and this affluence is visible in the town today. The standard of living is higher, there are far more luxury goods (jewelry stores), a far greater range of choices for eating and logding, and in general things are more expensive. (Photo courtesy of Nick Barootian)
The Badrinath temple has undergone some changes in the past 40 years, but only minor ones--notice that the facade of the temple gateways is largely unchanged. The 1960 photo of the facade shows steep steps built out of block, with containers of Tulsi plants on the sides (Tulsi is one of the offerings that pilgrims make in Badrinath). The presence of wires and colored light bulbs show that there was electricity in Badrinath even then--which indicates its considerable importance, since there was very little electricity in the hills then. The photo from 2002, on the right, shows a much wider stairway of poured concrete, with a railing and another area below it. These changes probably reflect not only the temple's continuing prosperity, but also the need for better crowd control arrangements, as more and more people came to Badrinath. (Left photo courtesy of John Palka, right courtesy of Sarah Helminski)
Economics and Religion
Here one can see both the renovations being done on the left side of the temple gate, and the crowds milling around the temple gateway--during the peak times in the morning and the evening people would wait for hours to get in, and they were only allowed the briefest time to stop before the major image--not nearly long enough to do any proper worship, as I heard some of the pilgrims grumble. The right hand photo shows us after our darshan--note that all of us have bare feet (since it is required to remove one's shoes when entering a temple) and Sarah has covered her head, which is customary practice for women.
Until 1939, the Badrinath temple's head priest (known as the raval) had control over all the offerings made there as his personal property. Since that time, the Badrinath temple had been controlled by a Temple Committee, and the raval has been restricted to ritual duties--but effectively stripped of control over the temple offerings. Despite this, the Badrinath pandas still seemed to be earning considerable money, even during a year when everyone said that the tourist season was down. Not one panda in Badrinath approached us to ask whether we would like to do puja (unlike the other spots), and there was so much pilgrim traffic that the local pandas hired "contract pandas" from other towns to perform rites for them. Both of these signs point to considerable pilgrim traffic and lucrative earnings; these are consistent with Badrinath's status as the wealthiest and most important of the three sites. (Photos courtesy Sarah Helminski)
Building has sprawled the most at Badrinath, probably because the wide valley (one of the common names is "Badri Vishal" or "wide-open Badri"). The left-hand photo shows the town in 1960, which was completely built on the temple side of the river. In 1960 one had to walk from Joshimath, and the town in those days grew up around the pilgrim road in an organic way. The photo on the right shows that this oldest part of the town has changed very little since that time, although we noted that many of the old town roofs were covered with blue plastic sheets--hinting that the buildings were getting old, and that the residents could not afford to do proper upkeep on them. Although the temple is still the town's ritual focus, there is much heavier development on the other side of the river, since the motor road comes through here. In this case, the advent of the road has significantly influenced building patterns. (Left photo courtesy of John Palka; right from Nick Barootian).
|As the land flanking the road gets more and more developed, this makes other sites more attractive for development, even if these sites do not have road access. Badrinath was the only site in which we saw existing buildings being renovated (at Gangotri the buildings were all too new--although we did see additional floors being added to existing buildings--and at Kedarnath both buildable land and financial resources were very scarce). In the left-hand picture, an older building has had its roof removed, and is being renovated (or perhaps is built up an additional story or two). This particular building sits at the edge of the old part of town--with the path passing right in front of it--and thus has a reasonably good location within 5 minutes walk from the temple. It is also a solidly built concrete structure. To the left is a building in more traditional materials--stone--and the plastic sheets on the roof testify that the owners don't have a lot of resources to keep it up. (Photo courtesy of Nick Barootian)|
The right hand photo shows some of the newest construction, again on the temple side of the river, but much further away. There is still open land here (as is visible in the background), but these open spaces will probably disappear as the demand for space grows. This new building is not only a multi-story construction, but also includes massive retaining walls necessary to keep it structurally safe. Because there is no road access to that side, all the building materials--including piles of rocks from which laborers made gravel (right-hand photo)--were dumped near the riverbank on the other side, and carried over in handcarts or head loads. This construction undoubtedly brings money into the local economy, but as the numbers mount, the demands on the environment grow ever greater. (Photos courtesy of Nick Barootian)
Environmental Stress: Aside from the problems that will come from overbuilding, Badrinath showed little of the obvious environmental stress that was evident at Gangotri and Kedarnath. There was virtually no visible trash, either in the town itself, or more surprisingly, in the "vacant" areas near the river. The trash that was in the streets was swept up and burned every morning, so perhaps Badrinath merely had more efficient sweepers than the other sites. Water testing both above and below the town showed no evidence of coliform bacterial contamination. Badrinath's comparative cleanliness may reflect its status as the "high-end" pilgrimage destination--it has always been the most important site in the hills, and is now being marketed to more upscale consumers. Aesthetic considerations are more important to these people than to many ordinary pilgrims.
Environmental Efforts: Two things at Badrinath are worthy of note. First, the town had prominent billboards stressing two themes: discouraging littering ("Take your Trash Home with You"), and encouraging forest preservation ("What is the Real Value of a Tree?"--which stressed the role of trees in preventing soil erosion, and in providing homes for birds and other animals). These billboards were mainly in English, even if they did affect people's behavior, it would only be those who knew English (on the other hand, these people might be more likely to be influenced by these messages). The other noteworthy initiative was sponsored by the G.B. Pant Institute for Himalayan Development. The Pant Institute is running a program attempting to reforest the area around Badrinath, which based on its name, was one time filled with trees (the Badri tree is now identified as Juglans regia, the walnut). The Institute has planted or given away almost 14,000 seedlings and cuttings of native plants to help prevent soil erosion and to reforest the area, including giving away walnut saplings in a ceremony in Badrinath itself (to involve the pilgrims and local people in these efforts). It is too early to say how successful the program will be, but one can hope for the best.
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Page maintained by James G. Lochtefeld.
Last modified 17 March 2003