Originating from Yamunotri Glacier at a height of 20,955 ft, the temple of river Yamuna is at the foot of the inaccessible Kalind Mountain in the Garhwal Himalayas. It is the belief in the river goddess and her powers that has drawn people here down the ages through treacherous mountain paths to her shrine at a height of 10,797 ft. The journey to Yamunotri temple, the first stop of the pilgrim trail Chota Char Dham Yatra in Uttarakhand, India, is tough but the natural beauty of the environs is so captivating that it makes every traveller forget the challenges.
According to popular lore, river Yamuna is the twin sister of Yama, the God of Death, and it is believed that bathing in her sacred waters will free one from the sufferings of death. Both are children of the Sun God, Surya. Significantly, the river goddess is also one of the consorts of Krishna, and the devotees of the Blue God know her by another name, Kalindi. A river that has inspired many immortal tales of love, it is believed that she carries the colour of Krishna in her dark waters.
My journey from Haridwar to Barkot, which is the stop for most pilgrims heading towards Yamunotri, almost took the whole day, via Mussoorie. It was almost evening when we reached the Nivarana Yamunotri Cottages at Barkot, which is one of the best accommodation options in the area, and offers both cottages and camps, which are basic but comfortable.
Located next to the river, I could hear the roaring sound of the mighty Yamuna, even though I could not see the waters in the dark. The next morning, at almost 5 am, we started off for Janki Chatti, the last point where cars are allowed. It is advisable to start the climb to Yamunotri early and come down by mid afternoon, as the weather in the mountains starts changing after 3 pm, and rains are common.
From Janki Chatti, pilgrims can either take a palki (carried by four bearers) or a pony. But for those who are confident of walking the steep climb, the best option is to trek. The distance from here to the temple is just a little over five kilometres, but it takes almost three hours. Enroute, the scenic vista of the river roaring down the mountain will keep you enthralled. As you soak in the beauty of the surroundings, you can see the countless streams and rivulets joining Yamuna.
For a river goddess who is regarded as the daughter of the Sun God, it is not surprising to see so many thermal springs in the temple precincts, where the pilgrims take bath. Then there are those who put rice in cloth bags and dip it in the sacred hot spring called Surya (Sun) Kund, the rice and potatoes get cooked in the water and is taken by them to share as sacred prasad, with their family and friends. A rock pillar called Divya Shila is another key attraction.
After performing pooja, we entered the small temple to see the beautiful dark visage of the river goddess. I had never seen an idol of Goddess Yamuna before and was mesmerized by its beauty. Known as the river which inspires love and beauty, the dark idol is a perfect manifestation of Goddess Yamuna. Photography is not allowed inside the temple.
Covered by snow during the winter months, the temple is almost inaccessible and closed for six months. This is when a small silver idol of the river goddess is taken down to Kharsil, her winter seat. The idol is kept in the famous Shani Dev Temple in Kharsil. According to Hindu mythology, Shani Dev (represented by planet Saturn in the solar system), regarded as the God of Justice and Karma, is a brother of Yamuna.
For me, another highlight of the journey was conversations with the locals, the hardy mountain people who find work only for six months in a year, helping pilgrims reach the Yamunotri temple. Their life is intertwined with the temple, and most of them do not seek any other way of sustenance.
How to reach: Dehradun’s Jolly Grant is the nearest airport. You can stay for a night in Haridwar before heading to Barkot.
Accommodation: There are several accommodation options at Barkot. One of the best is Camp Nivarana Yamunotri Cottages.
When to go: The temple opens every year from the last week of April or the first week of May. It closes in mid-October.