In the serene embrace of the Vishnu Ganga valley, a mere 23 kilometers downstream from the sacred sanctuary of Badrinath, lies the unassuming town of Pandukeshwar. With the onset of winter, as the chill in the air intensifies, and the first snowflakes descend, a unique ritual unfolds in this tranquil hamlet. Following a grand ceremony, the gates of Badrinath Dham are closed, and mobile images of Kubera (Lord Badrinath’s treasurer) and Uddhava (His childhood friend), as representatives of Lord Badri, embark on a regal procession to Pandukeshwar, their winter seat.
Pandukeshwar – Winter Abode of Lord Badrinath
In April, just before the onset of the Char-Dham yatra season slated for early May, my expedition brought me to the enchanting hamlet. Following an overnight stay in Joshimath, a once-vibrant town now grappling with the challenge of land sinking, we embarked on the next day for Pandukeshwar. Traveling on the highway to Badrinath, a narrow rugged path on the right led downward with a board announcing the sacred temple complex. After parking the car along the highway, we descended a series of substantial stairs, roughly carved into the mountain, guiding us toward the dense village of Pandukeshwar.
Nestled along the Alakananda River, the village resonated with the gushing of the river Alakananda (also called Vishnu Ganga). The temple complex housing the images of Kubera and Uddhava is a small, ancient site with two adjacent temples. Mainly Yog Dhyan Badri temple and the adjoining Vasudev temple.
The priest of Badrinath Dham belongs to the Dimri clan of Brahmins and oversees its management. They assist the chief Rawal, who hails from Kerala. When the temple gates are closed in winter, he returns to his native place. While the Dimri Brahmins descend to Pandukeshwar and Joshimath. During our visit, Kubera and Uddhava were on a ritual tour of a nearby village, bestowing their blessings upon the villagers. We offered our worship to Lord Narayana, the presiding deity of the temple complex. We engaged in a meaningful conversation with the chief priest, unraveling the mythological significance of the town and its relation to Badrinath.
This small hamlet’s roots intertwining with the Mahabharata narrative holds great mythological and historical significance. Legend has it that King Pandu, father of the Pandavas, incurred a curse for accidentally causing the demise of a sage and his wife. Renouncing his kingdom, he embraced the ascetic life and retreated to this very region with his wives Kunti and Madri. It was in this serene locale that his five children, known as the Pandavas, were born. Tragedy struck when the curse took effect, leading to the demise of the king.
Following his passing, the Pandavas, accompanied by their mother Kunti, returned to the plains of Hastinapur. A bronze, life-size image of Narayana in a meditative posture in the sanctum of Yoga Dhyan Badri is said to have been commissioned and installed by Pandu.
The town’s documented history traces back to the era of the Katyuris. The pioneering dynasty that once held sway over these mountains in ancient times. In the 19th century, discovering four copper plate inscriptions within the temple premises, dating back to the 9th CE, provided invaluable insights into the town’s past. Renowned epigraphist D.C. Sircar deciphered these inscriptions, unveiling the historical significance of Pandukeshwar, referred to as Garudagram in that period.
The inscriptions chronicle the endeavors of Katyuri king Lalitasuradeva. Who granted land in the name of Lord Narayana, enshrined in the temple of the village Garudagram. This temple is likely the Yog Dhyan Badri temple. Potentially making it one of the oldest temples in Uttarakhand.
Yog Dhyan Badri at Pandukeshwar
Yog Dhyan Badri stands out in the realm of architecture with its distinctive features. The dome-shaped shikhara that adorns the structure has long intrigued historians as it deviates from the prevalent architectural styles in the Central Himalayas. Early interpretations leaned towards a connection with Buddhist Stupa, pointing out the lore of Adi Shankaracharya’s expedition to this region.
Legend has it that Shankaracharya retrieved Vishnu’s murtis from the neglected Tapta Kund nearby, installing them in the place where Badrinath temple stands. The local Katyuri rulers, influenced by the revered figure, have assisted Shankaracharya in driving out the Buddhists.
However, recent scholarly investigations challenge this narrative. In a meticulous examination, art historian Nachiket Chanchani uncovered compelling parallels between the architectural design of Yog Dhyan Badri’s dome and the temples of Nartamallai and Kalayadipatti constructed in Tamil Nadu during the 800-1000 AD period. Dismissing the earlier theories, Chanchani posits that Yog Dhyan Badri was crafted in the Dravidian Alpa Vimana style. Revealing a link with the architectural trends prevalent in the southern regions of India during the same period.
The diversity of pilgrims and travelers on this route during the early medieval period is evident through epigraphic and artistic sources. In the discovered inscription, King Lalitasuradeva addressed people from various regions, including Khasas, Kiratas, Dravidas, Kalingas, Gaudas, Huns, Udras, Madas, and Āndhras. Showcasing a wide representation from across the Indian subcontinent. Adjacent to Yog Dhyan Badri on its left is the Vasudeva temple, commonly known as the Narayana temple. This temple, constructed in the late 9th century, follows the Nagara Latina style prevalent in the Central Himalayas.
Inside, an ancient copper image of Vishnu, crafted during the temple’s construction, resides. Positioned in the same temple, facing the antechamber, is Garuda. The vahana of Lord Vishnu is depicted in a reverential pose with folded hands, gazing intently at the chamber. The Vishnu image displays stylistic influences from West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. The Garuda image draws inspiration from the styles prevalent in the neighboring Himalayan regions of Chamba and Nepal. Thus, this small site is also a silent testimony to the dynamic movement and exchange of people and ideas across the subcontinent during the 9th century.
Lord Kubera and Uddhava
Today, Pandukeshwar plays host to Lord Kubera and Uddhava. Representatives of Lord Badrinath during the winter months when they descend after the blanket of snow envelops Badrinath town.
To reach Pandukeshwar, one can embark on a journey from the neighboring town of Joshimath. Accessible via a half-hour drive on a motorable road, followed by a brief stroll through the village lanes. The ideal time to explore the place is during March-April. That offers a more comfortable climate preceding the onset of the Char-Dham season.
This timing ensures the opportunity for a darshan (sacred viewing) of Kubera and Uddhava. Before they return to Badrinath upon the reopening of its gates. For those planning a visit, it’s essential to note that photography within the inner sanctum of the temples is strictly prohibited, respecting the sanctity of the place. The visit itself doesn’t demand an extensive time commitment. Exploring the temple complex and the village can be comfortably concluded within two to three hours.
After paying homage to the temples, indulge in a stroll through the town’s narrow lanes. Immerse yourself in the local culture. Simply marvel at the imposing mountains that cradle the hamlet from all sides. Watch the Alaknanda River carving its course through the breathtaking landscape. Pandukeshwar is not just a stop on the way to Badrinath. It’s an invitation to explore the mythological and historical significance of this quaint Himalayan village.
Chanchani, Nachiket. Mountain Temples and Temple Mountains: Architecture, Religion, and Nature in the Central Himalayas (Global South Asia) (p. 195). University of Washington Press
Sircar DC, Three Plates from Pandukesvar
Chanchani, Nachiket. Mountain Temples and Temple Mountains: Architecture, Religion, and Nature in the Central Himalayas (Global South Asia) (p. 221). University of Washington Press.
This is a Guest Post by Neha Mittal
Neha Mittal is a civil servant of the 2018 batch. She loves to write about the Himalayas and the culture of its people. Her debut book, Devbhoomi Uttarakhand: The Fascinating Cultures of Central Himalaya, delves deep into the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. And uncovers the stories behind its sacred centers and celebrates the culture of its diverse communities.