Friday, October 18, 2019

Safeguarding personal data

The ease with which our personal data is being sought, the thoughtlessness in handing over the critical data relating to one and the reckless way in which such details are shared in public domain is scary, to say the least.

Recently, I attended a spiritually oriented event of a very popular and revered person who gives discourses on Ramayana, Bhagavatham, Narayaneeyam and other such spiritual activities attracting many devotees. At the event, it was announced that an exclusive group is being formed so that interested people are communicated about further events and to join the group a link was sent. The link led to a web page that asked for many personal data related to the potential member of the group. The page also warned that on submission, the name and photo associated with that particular account will be uploaded! Let me clarify at the outset, I have absolutely no issues in personal data being shared with this particular Group/ Event Management team as they are reliable, reputed and I have no reason to believe that they could leave the data unprotected leading to misuse.

But, the thought occurred as to what would happen, if the data so given is shared unintentionally but as part of further processing to some other third party organization, for maintenance? Or what is the guarantee of that third party keeping such data secure? What if there is a leak somewhere in this process, wherein data could be compromised and if so who is responsible for the same ?

So, while the persons seeking data may not be leaking or misusing it but are they aware of the risks and sensitivity of handling the same? More importantly in a group which is unlikely to be filled with only literates, what is their responsibility in seeking such data? In a belief blinded by other attractions and with some justifiable confidence on this group, many people are likely to share the data. But then, should the data seekers not perform their role and responsibilities in apprising the givers about the risks involved and / or confirming about their safety and security by an assurance of non-sharing with others without their consent ?

Normally with some technical know how, I believe, a reasonable profile outline could be created with one's expanded name, date of birth, contact number, email-id and photo. With the prevailing and proliferating instances of cyber crimes particularly over online banking transactions and with innovative cyber crimes like Sim Swap springing up everyday, while the basic security concern lie with the owner of the data, given the illiteracy and lack of awareness, should the data seekers not apprise the givers about the risks involved, so that the innocence and ignorance of the users are not exploited by some unscrupulous elements?

In another group, filled with bankers who could justifiably boast of atleast three decades of banking service, it is still a task to make them understand the risks in sending a mail to all thousand members and use of BCC in emails ! This is a classic case of the data collector unwittingly leaking personal data, which could have damning consequences !  Well then, can an ignorance be cited as an excuse ?

At the entrance of a popular saree shop in Chennai's busy Pondy bazaar, an young man with a neat neck tie was asking for the mobile number of all visitors under the guise of a free prize scheme!!

When the data collected at such different points are collated by any with crooked intention, will it be a huge task to build their profile? The above instances exhibit how personal data is collected with or without any dubious intention and this is what exactly common man should be aware of  before sharing his data.

I feel, fighting cyber crime must be multi-pronged - while the owners need to keep their personal data safe, the data seekers need to ensure privacy of data collected and also make sure that  before collecting the data, the provider is well informed about the risks involved in sharing. Organizations like Banks and other institutions should not only take up measures to ensure that data collected and also created out of the data provided and out of the business transactions are kept secure, but also subject themselves to security audits by recognized bodies or approved and qualified third party auditors, to gain customer confidence. Right now , these are being held more as a formal exercise towards compliance but the need of the hour is more towards customer protection than formal compliance to satisfy legal requirements

My point is data seekers should be more responsible in asking for data, as such acts could be misused by mischief mongers. For the well intentioned seekers- apprise the givers about the risks involved and the measures taken by them to protect their interest and also better not to ask for such data, unless they have the ways and means to protect them!   More importantly, individuals should be weary of sharing any data , unless absolutely essential or feel secured after a basic personal due diligence.  

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Wandering through Himalayas - Char Dham 2019

It was a yearning persisting for long that we should visit more places in Non-southern parts of India. It was a burning desire to see Badri Vishal and Kedarnath, said to be very hard to reach. It is this passion that drove me last year, when I was lazying around in Texas-USA,  to look for reliable tour organizers who could support me in this cause. When I pinged my friends' circle there were many suggestions and everyone was highly recommended based on the personal experiences. Still, being, as my friends call me ,a Mun-Jakkirathai muthanna, I was closely scrutinizing every recommendation and finally zeroed in on a Delhi based popular operator. After multiple rounds of discussions, we were ready to make the advance , but still the final mental green signal was evading me mainly on two counts: last seat availability and their mentioning making our own arrangements for food on two days bang in the middle of the tour. Brushing aside these, we were waiting for the auspicious time to make the advance, when came the email from, announcing their Char Dham programme and the rest, as the cliche goes, is history. Normally, I make detailed preparations, but Tirtha Yatra , beat me with detailed guidelines.
{ To read my thoughts on Tirtha Yatra, please read my blogpost :  } .
With all the preparations and more prayers , we embarked on our twelve days tour in the wee hours of 11th Sep, 2019.

Day-1: 11 Sep, 2019:
The nocturnal bird in me would be in a state of anxiety and excitement before every airport departure, and 11th Sep was no different. Things began to calm down after the baggage was checked in and when the IndiGo 6E soared into the early morning deep blue sky, it was the golden exhaustion that took over and kept us calm until we landed in New Delhi with a thud.  Switching terminals at New Delhi mildly reminded me of our experiences in places like Chicago, but then it is no comparison to those mighty giants and at the food court, we had the first taste of the North Indian restaurants and their cost, though fondly welcomed with a 'Vaango'! It was a huge relief to get a message that the representative of Tirtha Yatra, who was our Yatra Director, was already at the same airport and before we could exchange pleasantries and settle down, the connecting flight from Delhi was well on its way and in no time landed at the tiny Jolly Grant Airport at Dehradun.

Dehradun Airport
A forty five minute ride in a small van took the group of ten to the good looking hotel in Rishikesh, where in quick time we were ushered into a dining hall, where the liveried cooking personnel of Tirtha Yatra received us with some sathvic food sans onion and garlic!! Having a siesta during such tours is a luxury that I have not been blessed with during any of my travel and that was fully availed to calm the anxious nerves and the head that was throbbing due to early morning  wake-up. We came to the hotel lounge at the appointed hour in the evening only to be informed that due to the delay in flights yatris were yet to arrive and more disappointingly due to the local auto strike, the scheduled visit to some temples at Rishikesh were postponed to the last day !! To avoid disappointment, we decided to take a walk to the nearby sangam, when the next set of yatris arrived and we were joined by a young man, with a bright face that was filled with a ready laugh and instantly we recognized him as Shri Agrani Krishna Dasa, who was a last minute addition to the tour from Tirtha Yatra, we learnt.  The baby faced man turned out to be filled with the knowledge of pundits and little realizing that he is going to light up the next twelve days of the tour we started enjoying his company, as he just seamlessly took the strangers as though we have all met before ! Such was his company spiritually infectious that I, who went to have the darshan of the Triveni sangam, took to the holy dip in Ganges at the confluence of the rivers and what better auspicious start could I have asked for this Yatra !!

Triveni Sangamam, Rishikesh
The Holy Ganga was pretty chill for the first dip, but then she started warming along with our heart as we dipped again and again!

With the evening rain arriving uninvited, we rushed back to the hotel thinking that the day's programme was done in by Varuna Bagwan and Auto wallahs. Relishing the served snacks and hot tea, just when we thought we could retire for the day after a formal meet as announced, began a session that proved to lay the foundation for the next twelve days. The young man, whom I presumed to be just another staff, turned out to be the CEO of the organization and the oral deluge interspersed with spiritual inputs that followed kept everyone spell bound as he unraveled one by one the expectations in terms of etiquette, clothing, baggage handling, travel times, roles of Tirtha Yatra staff including their cooks and drivers and in no uncertain terms made clear as to how this yatra is tough but also guided on how the same could be handled !!
Setting expectations- Rishikesh

The entire tour programme was then analyzed day by day, as per the 15 page yatra document sent earlier to all yatris. Strict expectations were set that no one should be seen without shoes and ear muff in view of the expected cold weather across places and also supplemented their expectations with an umbrella and a nice blue winter jacket, which thereafter stood as an identification as a Tirtha Yatra team member. This one pre dinner session that lasted more than ninety minutes laid the foundation, in terms of mentally preparing the yatris for the challenging fortnight ahead.
Yatra Director addressing Yatris

Day-2: 12 Sep, 2019:
The 4 AM wake-up call by the Yatra coordinator shook the yatris out of their slumber and sent them hurrying towards an early checkout, with the baggage neatly stacked outside the rooms, while they rushed to devour the waiting hot Karnataka sweet Kesari and pongal and by the time we dodged the early morning drizzle and boarded the bus, our baggage was already loaded, we were told!Their baggage handling system , a boon to senior citizen is driven by a Generic Id, which will be mapped to the room number at all the places to be delivered by the Bell Boys right at your door. It is to the credit of this system, we neither lugged our heavy boxes at any of the places, nor we heard any whining about loss of baggage from anyone over the entire yatra !! The 170 KM travel from Rishikesh to Barkot started with the chanting of Narasimha Pranama, set to a mellifluous tune followed by Vishnu Sahasranama and the right mood of yatra was restored after the overnight sleep. The eight hour journey was made easy with periodical breaks and the steady following of the rivulets that at times turned out into water falls more due to the previous day's rains lifted the spirits with an impromptu bath !

Falling for the Falls
The lunch at a picturesque spot precariously perched atop from where the curving river gave a more satiating view than the simple but tasty food. Through the journey, the relentless pursuit of the water bodies keeping pace with our vehicles were a sight to behold.

Rishikesh to Barkot
By around 4 PM, we were given a traditional welcome at Barkot to the beating of drums and blowing of trumpets with various colors of thilaks applied capping with a welcome drink.

Barkot camp site
Even before checking into the simple but comfortable rooms of 'Camp Nirvana', the swirling beauty of the river Yamuna roaring outside with the yell of the school boys after the day was too beautiful a sight to miss at the twilight and we had the second holy bath of the yatra plunging into the icy waters that turned friendly on our persistent dips.

Holy dip at Yamuna, Barkot
Before the clothes could dry from the dip, we were again into the shower about the Glories of Mother Yamuna, by the young Master Agrani Krishna Dasa and both the experiences were just enough for the aching heels and soothing souls to slip into a blissful sleep at the end of a satisfied day!

Day-3: 13 Sep, 2019:
The 3 AM alarm helped in setting out at 5 AM on our way to Janki Chatti, a transit point. As the road and consequently the ride was bumpy, even the best of efforts could not help us with forty winks to make up for the early morning wake up and after some time as the dawn cracked, we decided to enjoy the nature around which was exhilarating all around- the river at times keeping pace with us and suddenly we were having an arial view of the gushing waters and in due course gave up clicking photos, as the scenarios emerged one after another in an endless sequence. As the 45 KM ride looked like a long one, we gulped the frugal breakfast of Poha even as the vans entered the bus stand to be surrounded by a sea of Doli wallahs brandishing their Id cards, offering rides. The first Dham of our sacred yatra was scheduled to begin with Yamunotri about five KMs up hill from there. The first option of trekking the distance was quickly dispensed by the organizers due to time constraint and the pony option also had no takers apart from me.

Pony option
 So, joining the gang we opted for Doli, a palanquin like wooden structure carried by four men on their shoulders at a cost of Rs 4500/- up and down. The cost that looked exorbitant appeared to be very much underpaid, as the four young men carried a seventy plus kilo mass of flesh and blood and starting climbing up the hill. With the oxygen levels dipping, we often had to reach out for the handkerchief smeared with camphor powder, a ploy suggested by the tour organizers to counter breathing issues. Even as the Doli carriers without any such accessories and with only a towel rolled as a cushion to smoothen their tiring shoulder blade, I felt ashamed that I should subject four humans to ease my comfort. But not opting for them could also deprive them of their livelihood, which they narrated lasts only for five months in a year and they need to live the rest of seven months out of the saving from this peak period. The best I could do to reciprocate is to foot their breakfast and lunch, as they stopped on both ways without any warning for a quick bite and make us pay, which I paid without any regret. Tired of clicking photos, decided to lie back and enjoy the surroundings as the Doli wound its way through the 5 KM steep hill in around three hours. In between the Doli walahs asked us to get down and walk some distance just for the thrill of it and also to get the holy waters sprinkled on us, as we walked
To Yamunotri on Doli 

Yamunotri, the birth place of the sacred river yamuna literally extended a warm welcome to the yatris with a holy dip in Tapta Kund, a hot water spring, which remains hot despite the falling temperature around even in the worst of the weather. Cleansed in Tapta Kund, we were mobbed by more number of people than the Doli wallahs, only to learn later that they are pundits offering to yatris a bouquet of religious services sans a menu card. Warding them off and trying to shrug the touts along with our 'papas (sins)', we managed to have dharshan of Yamuna Mayya and other handful of sannadhis atop.

Satisfaction written all over the face after the dharshan of Yamuna Matha
Still finding it hard to believe that we have indeed been blessed with the dharshan of a dham (meaning abode), we almost came hurling down the distance as the Doli wallahs rushed with the weight making use of the momentum gathered by the mass on the slope and we were back to the base in an hour, of what took three hours to climb. While initial excitement clouded our breakfast plate, the golden exhaustion did not allow us even to analyse whatever we had as lunch and the return journey to Barkot, though hampered by delay due to clearance of landslide did net deter our memories of the great Yamuna Mayya, until our daze was broken by hot snacks and tomato soup, back at the base. Tour organizers' true understanding of the yatri's mind and body was well displayed in their leaving the evening free for all to enjoy the nature to the constant chatter of the rolling of Yamuna waters at our doorstep.   

Day-4: 14 Sep, 2019:
Shedding the accumulated stress of long travel and hurtling down the hills with Doli, through a well earned sleep, the yatris checked out by 9 AM to be welcomed with  a pravachan on Lord Narasimha by Agrani Krishna Dasa, as the van sped through and stopped in between at Radi Top, the highest point at the valley for a group snap and a quick cup of tea for the smart hands !

Highest point in the valley
Due to better road conditions we sped through the 80 odd KMs and reached Uttarkashi, in time for lunch and before we could settle into a room with a beautiful view of Bhageerathi river, there was a call for the able minded people to jump into the river. Shrugging the tiredness and the icy waters, handful of us ventured and what Bhageerathi Matha offered was a serene experience that not only cleansed the dirt out of the body but also of those accumulated within over the years.

Bhageerathi Snanam at Uttarkashi
With little time to lie back and enjoy the holy dip, we proceeded to the Kashi Vishwanathar temple and were again immersed in the wonderful Sthala Puranam of Agrani Krishna Dasa, as he explained as to how this place is to ultimately be the one to visit when the now Dakshina Kasi (Varanasi) moves away from existence. The lecture not only moved our group but also others assembled to hear the great puranam, to feel how blessed we are even to step on this soil. We could also relate to the story of the siva linga slightly tilting , as Markandeya hugged the Lord, when Yama came to fetch him !
Uttarkashi - Sthala Purana
Tilting Shiva-Uttarkashi



The Trisul with unknown depth

With the strong support of Trisul from behind- Uttarkashi

Day-5: 15 Sep, 2019:
As the yatra stepped into the fifth day, the momentum of coverage also increased and the second of the Char Dham was slated for the day. To beat the anticipated Sunday crowd, it was decided the move before the day break and a 2 AM alarm helped in the group moving by 3:30 AM.

On the way to Gangotri
With the Narasimha Pranama and usual company of the streaming river, we sped half awake through , to reach Gangotri by 8 AM.

Unlike Yamunotri, there was no trek up the hills and after a brief walk , we found ourselves in front of a white colored typical North Indian structure, the sacred Ganga Matha temple at Gangotri! Contrary to expectations, our group was almost alone and within ten minutes we finished a wonderful dharshan at Gangotri and it took some time for us to believe, that it could be so easy.

We then moved on to the banks of the sacred Bhageerathy, which was flowing with a mighty roar and it was a sight that was worth watching for hours!

Praying to the Ancestors in the roaring presence of Bhageerathi 
A major part of our yatra group then were guided by the native pundit in doing the Pithru Tharpana and on a satisfactory completion of this sacred process, we were overwhelmed to have dharshan at Bagheerath Tapa Sthal.
Bhageeratha Thapa Sthali - Gangotri
Only when we moved back to the bus, we were reminded that we were yet to have our breakfast. With both the heart and stomach filled, the return journey to Uttarkashi , despite a warmer weather, was pleasant to reach in time for lunch. The skillfully planned schedule allowed yatris enough time to rest and relax in the evening, with some who missed the holy dip in the Bhageerathi river yesterday , even going for the same.

Day-6: 16 Sep, 2019:
With the early morning wake-up having become a part of the routine, the longest travel of the yatra (283 KMs) began with a 3 AM wake-up and the vans rolled out by 5 AM towards Joshi Mutt. En route breakfast of lemon sevai was a delight, as were the breathtaking natural scenarios with the heroine of Uttarakhand, the river, always giving us company.

Uttarkashi to Joshi Mutt
Mixed with lots of interactions and sleep the lunch with the southern specialty of 'Aamai Vadai' and fruit salad were pepping the spirits. The long journey also helped the yatris understand the special tours of Tirtha Yatra, whose CEO Agrani Krishna Dasa travelled with us and after what looked like eternity, we reached Joshi Mutt by around 9 PM, after travelling for more than 15 hours. Along with the hot dinner the next day's programme was revealed which required us to keep some baggage separate until the day after. Also, there was a sudden proposal to visit the Sankara Mutt, which was not in the Tirtha yatra schedule and after managing the schedule and coordinating the programme, it was past midnight when we hit the sack.

Day-7: 17 Sep, 2019:
After a sleep of around four hours, which was grossly inadequate for the distance we covered the previous day, half a dozen of us got up at 3 AM and came out by 5 and ventured into darkness with only the mobile phone torch and some barking stray dogs for company. All because, we wanted to see the Shankara Mutt at Joshi Mutt, deemed to be one of the four cardinal pithams established by Shri Adhi Shankara. Having seen the other three at Shringeri, Puri and Dwaraka, I knew that this was perhaps the last chance to see the fourth pitham and did not hesitate to forego few hours of sleep for that.

Shankara Mutt at Joshi Mutt
The trek was tough with around 100 steep steps in more than semi dark conditions, hand holding some other seniors too. But the efforts were later realized to be worth the stretch, as the Shankara Mutt on top, was a serene, well maintained place and enthused by the hard earned dharshan, we rushed back to the waiting vans just in time to check out.

The second blessing of the day came in the form of worshiping Lord Narasimha at the 105th Divya Desam of Joshi Mutt.

The early morning serene atmosphere along with the chanting of Narasimha Pranam by the group brought in an additional sense of divinity at the sacred Divya Desam !

Joshi Mutt

Vishnu Prayag

We then proceeded to Badrinath and on the way grabbed great dharshans at many sacred places. The first was Vishnu Prayag, where one could literally see rivers Dauli Ganga and Alaknanda, in different colors, merge and flow!
Vishnu Prayag
This is a place that one must visit before proceeding to Badrinath, we were told and we felt blessed to be at the great confluence. The starving from the morning due to the proposed religious activities at the Badrinath later in the day, did not deter us from actively mingling with the holy environment, though the rest of group used the wonderful place to complete their breakfast.

On a short travel , we reached Pandukeshwar, where the Pandavas were born and it also serves as the winter seat of Badri. The kshetra is blessed
with Yoga Dyana Badri and a little trek through uneven and steep steps lead to this wonderful temple of high spiritual significance.
Yoga Dyana Badri

We then proceeded to one of the most mentioned and discussed place on this yatra viz., Hanuman Chatti. 
Hanuman Chatti
Hanuman Chatti

It is here that Anajaneyar was believed to have humbled Bhima to suppress his ego and also supposed to protect all the yatris from here until they complete their yatra to Badrinath.

Though, a very small temple on the roadside, the yatris make it a point to stop here and seek His blessings, before proceeding with the holy pursuit.

When we then proceeded to Badrinath, fully prepared for some biting cold, with all the woolen paraphernalia in place, a warm sun welcomed us at Mana village, on the outskirts of Badri. 

The last Indian village before the Indo Tibetian border, swarming with military khaki overalls, is a place that is being looked at eagerly by all yatris, as it houses some of the most important places. But due to the trek through steep uneven steps, only the physically and more importantly mentally fit and inclined, were advised to undertake this trek.

Ganesha Gufa

The first was the puranically important Ganesha Gufa , followed by Vyasa Gufa where Lord Ganesha was believed to have written all those Puranas dictated by Rishi Vyasa, including the epic Mahabharatha.

At the Vyasa Gufa was a wonderful sermon given by the pundit there and the whole group was moved on hearing the passionate and convincing narration .
Vyasa Gufa

Having filled the heart at the 5000+ year old gufas, we moved towards the last tea shop on the border.

Rejuvenated at the highest tea stall on the border, we proceeded to witness the Holy river Saraswathi which is seen at full flow only here, as at most other places, she will be invisible. Story goes that when Draupathy was unable to cross the river Saraswathy in full flow at this point, Bhima put a boulder and thus came Bhim Phul, out next point of visit, after some tired legwork.

Bhim Phul
The temple for Saraswathi here, unique with her aggressive appearance as an adjoining river, is another attraction at this place.

With the soles tiring from a long trek though with a filled soul but with an empty stomach, we yearned to rest the feet up for sometime, but that was not to be, as even before checking our baggage in the Badrinath hotel, the pundit was ready to guide us to the next step.

With the mercury dipping and in the traditional wafer thin attire, what the pundit said as 'just near by', turned out to be a 15 minutes walk in a steady drizzle that was threatening to pour anytime.

The next fifteen minutes was spent by our six member gang searching for a wash room, which the famous place that boasts of thousands of devotees thronging everyday was not having anywhere nearby. So much for the rhetoric of 'towards a cleaner nation' !!

In Badrinath too, the tradition is to have the first dip in Tapta Kunda but unlike Yamunotri the natural hot water spring was so hot there that one cannot dive into it. It took fifty rupees for a plastic bucket to moderate the water but then the bath was so refreshing as the light drizzle had turned into a steady pour by now and the chilly winds brought in some shivers too !

The most famous Brahma Kapal is the place in Badrinath, where one is supposed to offfer Pinda Dhan to his ancestors, as it is believed that performing Shraddha here is multiple times more significant than performing at Gaya. The story goes that when Siva chopped off the fifth head of Brahma, it got stuck to his trident and with the blessing of Lord Vishnu at Badarivan , the head of Brahma fell from the trident at this place and hence the name Brahma Kapal, meaning Brahma's head !!

Sitting on the banks of river Alakananda, which was running with her full fury and in shivering cold, it was an experience to perform the rites with bare chest and by the time we completed the ritual, our fingers were already numb with cold. But, not withstanding the cold and the wollen coat clad pundit, it was a sense of satisfaction that overwhelmed the Kartas, when we completed the Dhan and the pundit must be appreciated for the elaborate and patient guidance with the mantras.

Brahma Kapal, Badrinath
By the time, we completed the rituals and trekked our way back to the hotel for lunch (?), it was around 4:30 PM. Though the bones were aching and a major event of the yatra done with satisfaction, we still had miles to go and could not rest even for a while. Started almost immediately with the group to the temple and the first dharshan of Badri Vishal was had in the general line of devotees.
Badri Vishal
The temple itself was not of huge real estate and the crowd would have to fight hard to  match with the one of Sani Pradhosham at Mylapore temple and still one wondered as to why there should be so many special dharshans like Namavali dharshan, Vishnu Sahsranama dharshan etc., As we had the dharshan through the general line, we decided to skip the complimentary offering of another dharshan extended by Tirtha Yatra, to catch up some rest. As weather dipped along with the sun, we enjoyed the serene atmosphere made more memorable by a group performing Bhajan and by 8 sharp , we were called over loudspeaker to join the line for Ekantha Sevai (also called Sayana Harathi with Geetha Govindam), for which we have already made booking through online even before the start of yatra. Some limited number of people are allowed for this last dharshan of the day, in which people were called by their name, Gothra and star and made to sit before the Lord for about 30 minutes. During this period, the ornaments and clothes of Badri Vishal are replaced one by one and prepare the Lord for the night rest. The devotion with which this is done only by select people of the pundits , while Gita Govindam is recited is a real exhilarating experience, worth going through even by paying Rs 3100/-, having travelled thus far to see Him. "In many other holy places, after performing one’s occupational duties as per the religious injunctions, one can get moksha. But in Badrinath, just by having one darshan of Lord Badrinath, the path to liberation becomes easy " says Agrani Krishna Dasa in his Blog post on Brahma Kapal . It was by around 10 PM, we reached our hotel in biting cold and the wandering through the day along with the great dharshan of Badri Vishal and the earlier visits to places where the great epics were made won over the tiredness and exhaustion and embrace a well deserved sleep.

Day-8: 18 Sep, 2019:
The biting cold and the exhausted body refused to get up early, as we were asked to look for stunning views of Neelkanth which would glitter on the falling of the first rays of the sun. Fortunately, some early birds have made it and we were grateful for their sharing of riveting views of snow capped hill.

Neelkanth , day break view, Kedarnath
The satisfaction of the dharshans of the previous day and the enchanting visit to Badri Vishal made me to view the days travel as a light one as we set out by 9 AM and the group was as expected enthusiastic, having seen three of the Char Dhams and heading for the fourth one. But, the day's travel proved to be a long one with a visit enroute to a beautiful temple Animat or Vridha Badri. This is the place where Lord Narayana gave dharshan to Narada Muni in the form of an old man and hence the name Vridha Badri, which is one of the Saptha Badris. After the usual up and down trek , we could see the small village of around thousand people grow their own vegetables and only the flowers from their garden are used for the temple pooja . The small but beautiful temple was brought closer to our heart by the moving Kshetra Puranam of the place by Agrani Krishna Dasa.

Vridha Badri

After the usually simple but good lunch, we kept travelling passing through Karna Prayag and broke for tea at Rudra Prayag. Despite the travel being made easier by discussions with Agrani on other Kshetras that are to be visited the travel was endless and by around 8:30 pm, we reached Guptakashi and based on an earlier request was allotted a tent for the two nights stay here!

Tent life at Guptakashi
The tasty dinner lost its focus, as discussions, plans and instructions for 'the' dharshan of the Yatra tomorrow, namely to Kedarnath were made. We were warned that until we return to the base, it is not certain that a dharshan could be had and that due to bad weather the helicopter ride could be cancelled for the day, at any moment. Also, the weather could be totally different in few minutes and were strictly advised to carry all the woolen items and elaborate instructions were given on how to behave during the chopper ride, for which a couple could be separated and sent on different choppers and that the spouse is supposed to proceed for dharshan without even waiting for the partner! The plans were so detailed, expectations on travel by helicopter and finding your way thereafter were so narrative that it took a long time for us to get to sleep, even after hitting the bed by around 11 PM.

Day-9: 19 Sep, 2019:
Despite a cold weather, we were up by 2:30 and after bath headed to the helipad by 5 AM. The most anxious and tense moments of the day followed as briefed last night. After a wait of around two hours we were called, fortunately we were not separated and initially led to a small distance where again clear instructions were given on the behavior during the ride, photography etc., and when at last the little bird did arrive, the five of us were led by a tight grip on our arms by the helipad officials as the wind pressure was so enormous making us stagger to the chopper.

At Helipad

 Within minutes we soared into the sky with the sound of the rotor blades reminding me of various mimicry sessions and soon we were up in the sky with panoramic view of the mountains and miniature of yatris down below trekking to the holy place. The trek to Kedarnath that could involve six hours was completed by the chopper in 7.5 minutes flat and soon we were on the sacred land of Kedarnath.

As instructed, the moment we were off loaded from the chopper, we started moving towards the temple, around 500 meters away. As we moved in awe, suddenly on turning a curve we had the holy structure bang in front of us.

The crowd  was not much but as I had observed in Badrinath too, it was made out to be big. As we moved into the temple the line started moving slower as the pundits round the deity kept urging the devotees to do archanai, abhishekam and neivedyam etc., all at some cost. Had the line be regulated as in Tirumala with no activities other than darshan, one could have darshan in minutes and for the not-so-big crowd on that day, we could have also had repeated dharshans. Setting these minor observations aside, one could not escape feeling overwhelmed after embracing the huge Shiv Linga of Kedareeswarar, which to me was a bigger version of Omkareshwar, in terms of shape.

Kedarnath !
Feeling absolutely blessed and still basking under the vibrations of the sacred abode of the Lord, we circumambulated the temple taking with us the snow capped mountains around wondering whether the great Lord will be amongst any of these silver giants!!  As happened at Gangotri, the breakfast relegated for the holy darshan was then had amongst cold winds and absorbing snow peaks, around eight hours after waking up!

The return trip to the base was had after a wait of around an hour as there was chaos of yatris wanting to scamper back to the base but there were no officials to guide and void of any chairs around, the tired yatris squatted on the floor, running away whenever a chopper landed and the official machinery was clearly found wanting ! What was feared for the onward travel happened on return, as my wife was sent in an earlier chopper while I followed 45 minutes later. But then with the initial anxiety and fears having dispelled and the return was to the by now familiar base, this was brushed aside, as I got off the chopper more to peal of the sweating light jacket and joined others. The feared vagaries of weather and nature of the place came to the fore just an hour after we returned, as the temperature suddenly dipped along with slight drizzle and heavy wind. While the waiting yatris started shivering the choppers found it difficult to rise from the Kedar helipad and flights were suspended for a brief period - Such uncertainties happening within minutes make the yatra special and justify how one could feel blessed after having a blissful dharshan without any obstacle.

Overcome by the stress and anxiety compounded by the by now early familiar early wake up, we slept like a log despite a frugal packed lunch and by the time a more elaborate lunch was served, we were well into the dreams amongst the snow clad mountains of Kedar again !! In the evening, the special pravachan on Kedarnath by Agrani was welcomed with a thunderous shower that lasted over an hour, as we devoured the hot snacks followed by dinner. Still under disbelief and awe of completing the Char Dham, the yatris had a disturbed sleep more due to excitement and thankful to Him for having helped complete the great dharshans than stress and strain.

Day-10: 20 Sep, 2019:
With the body and heart allowed to relax and enjoy the bliss for which the last four months were spent, got up leisurely to catch up with yet another wonderful pravachan of Agrani Krishna Dasa, this time on Badri Vishal, as we could not do it at Badrinath, due to cramped schedule.

The fulfilled mind was further anointed with a specially made and sankalpam performed Badri Vishal Yantra by Tirtha yatra.

89 year old young man
That the same was made to be presented to all by the 89 year old Shri Subramanian Appadurai,  senior most person in the group, who had ventured to take on this yatra alone is ample testimony and recognition of how only determination matters in undertaking the Char Dham yatra, before which the age pales into insignificance.

The temples of GuptaKashi scheduled on arrival but could not be seen due to late night were taken up today. The kshetra puranas say that the Pandavas were looking to seek Lord Shiva's pardon after indulging in a war that cost so many lives including their own kith and kin. The Lord, wanting to avoid them, was hiding in Gupta Kashi for some time and hence the name of Gupta Kashi (Gupta meaning to hide, we were told).

In the Shri Kashi Viswanath temple built by Pandavas, a popular Kunda by name Mani Karnika is known for the inflow of both Ganga and Yamuna at the same time.

Mani Karnika at Gupta Kashi temple
Into the Kund, Ganga flows through the Rishaba faced inlet and Yamuna flows through the one with Elephant and it was a sight to behold ! And within the same compound another small but impressive temple for Arthanareeswarar was also seen.

As the route to Ukhimath, our next scheduled place, was reported to be blocked by boulders from landslide, which was common in this region, it was regretfully decided to skip Ukhimath. En route we had to pass through the much protected Tehri Dam, the highest dam in India and checked into the Riverside Resort at Kirtinagar around 3 PM. The aptly named resort , was situated overlooking the Alanknanda river, the site of which the yatris are by now used to. After some rest, the yatris assembled again over a cup of tea to hear Agrani Krishna Dasa's continuation on Badrinath, picking from where we left earlier in the day at Guptakashi.

Day-11: 21 Sep, 2019:
With a mind that has started relaxing as the yatra is drawing to a close and having been habituated to getting up early, the early morning checkout was not a big ask.

With Alaknanda at Kirti Nagar
 After some snaps by the river, the group assembled in the lounge to acknowledge and thank the services of the cook and drivers , who extended excellent support throughout the Yatra.

Honoring the support staff of Tirtha Yatra

Having expressed our gratitude to those from Tirtha Yatra , who made our days peaceful and enjoyable with safe driving and home made like food, we proceeded to Devaprayag, about an hour's drive from Kirtinagar.
Devaprayag, Raghunath Temple

 At this Divya desam, we had a peaceful dharshan of the Lord as He bestowed us with an Ekantha Sevai, in the morning hours of the day and the pravachan about the Khetram by Agrani Krishnaji made the final day of the tour,  a memorable one for all present. It was at this juncture I too realised the difference between just a visit and a dharshan and about a dharshan with the Sthala puranam.

It is at this Divya Desam, rivers Alaknanda and Bhageerathi meet to join and proceed as Ganges.
Ganga at Devaprayag
Alaknanda at Devaprayag

Confluence of Alaknanda and Ganga at Devaprayag
At this sacred spot of the confluence , the yatris offered respects to the ancestors after a chill but refreshing dip and then breakfast was served on the banks of Ganga, making it a morning to remember.

Tharpanam at Devaprayag
Bathing and performing Tharpanam at this holy confluence is an experience, indeed !
Deva Prayag, Sangham

Fulfillment written all over , at the confluence

With the scheduled places of visit almost done, the happy group proceeded to the hotter realities which was felt even while travelling down to Hardidwar. Yet another holdup due to landslide and road clearance the proposed visit to Rishikesh again took the toll and we proceeded straight to Haridwar, which we reached by 3 PM and headed straight, as usual,  for lunch.

Ganges at Kankhal
Daksheswara Mahadeva temple at Kankhal, was the one strongly recommended as a must visit at Haridwar and the well maintained old temple with the flowing Ganges was a sight worth travelling thus far.
The famous Rudraksha tree at the Harihar Ashram, having the beautiful mercury Sivalinga temple was the next point of visit .  The temple looked more like a resort, in terms of maintenance , despite a steady stream of devotees thronging the place.

Mercury Shivalinga
A visit to Haridwar is not complete without having a dharshan of Maya Devi, whose temple dates even earlier to Haridwar, our Yatra Director said. After visiting the Maya Devi temple, we spent time on the banks of Ganga witnessing the most famous Ganga Harathi at Haridwar.


Ganga Harathi, Haridwar
Thus the curtain on the sacred Char Dham Yatra of 2019, was brought down with a Mangala Harathi of Ganga Matha at Haridwar !

Day-12: 22 Sep, 2019:

The winding up formalities began with the group departing by 11:45 AM to the Jolly Grant airport, Dehra dhun. The yatris were still in a daze , munching over the happening of the past 11 days - challenging treks, Doli rides, dips in spine chilling waters of Ganga, Yamuna, Bhageerathi  and Alakananda, hot water dips at the Tapta Kundas of Yamunotri and Badrinath, shivering performance of Tharpana at Brahma Kapal, nervous helicopter ride at Kedarnath, tough treks to reach temples at Pandukeshwar and Vridha Badri, the mighty Ganga Matha accepting our Harathi ... before one could recount all the happenings , we had switched over at Hyderabad and the flight landed at Chennai smoothly making everyone yearn for an encore at the earliest .

If the Char Dham yatra took eleven days , the compiling of this blog post took nearly a fortnight ! Yes, this post is big; longer than I anticipated. But this is the best I could compress without compromising on the actual happenings and feelings at every place. As is usual, this post is not created for an audience ; it is a more an elaborate form of the tour diary, at times soliloquies made out of emotions and feelings. The post is bound to be big, as the Char Dham yatra itself is big. It requires big time planning, big time practice, big form of discipline...... these big efforts make the Eleven day yatra look much bigger than what it is. It is not a small task to select some representative photos out of more than a thousand. And, there are umpteen audio and video clips , which could not be shared with the post, due to constraints on size.

The planning for the Yatra started in Nov'18, actual preparations in May'19 and intense practice and disciplines started from June'19, when we firmed up our seats with Tirtha Yatra. The physical preparations were enormous in terms of consistent daily walks, monitored food as the tour start date approached and the mental toughness and determination coupled with the prayers to Him, made the yatra memorable with one of the wonderful yatra organizers. It is to their credit and to the yatri's discipline that the well stacked medicine kit was never opened despite tough travel and vagaries of nature.  In my opinion, this is a yatra everyone who believes in this must strive and yearn to go in one's life but the only way to do will be to make all the efforts and leave the rest with a prayer and it shall happen. This is my experience.

Given a chance, I know I will go again !

Om Shanthi ! Jai Badri Vishal, Kedarnath ki Jai

-  Compiled on an overwhelming evening, after thanking Ma on Durga pooja, fresh from munching the yatra for the nth time, over a fortnight!