Home Feature Remembering my Nana, the Rawal of Badrinath

Remembering my Nana, the Rawal of Badrinath


By Alok Joshi

Thousands of devotees visit the Badrinath shrine every year but not many know much about the history of the institution of head priest (known as Rawal). What we know is that Badrinath Temple is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu and is situated in the Chamoli district along the banks of Alaknanda River.

Although Badrinath is located in North India, the Rawal is traditionally a Nambudiri Brahmin chosen from the South Indian state of Kerala. This tradition is believed to have been initiated by Adi Shankara, who was a South Indian philosopher. The pre-requisites for being selected as the Rawal (by the erstwhile rulers of Garhwal and Travancore) were that he should be a bachelor, well-versed in reciting mantras and belong to the Vaishnava sect of Hinduism. A Tilak Ceremony was held to instate the Rawal and he was accorded “His Holiness status”. He was also held in high esteem by the Royals of Nepal.

My Nanaji (maternal grandfather), Vasudev Namboodiri, was the Rawal of Badrinath for 22 years (perhaps the longest serving head-priest). He had six daughters from my grandmother, who was from Garhwal (Bhatt family) in Joshimath, 22 miles away from Badrinath. I happen to be his eldest grandson. Whatever I am sharing is based on my personal knowledge and conversations with him while he was alive.

Nanaji left his home in Kerala (Vaikom village) at the young age of 19 to become the Naib Rawal (assistant of the Rawal). He was trained and groomed to take over from the Rawal whenever required. His Hindi diction was poor but surprisingly he could chant Sanskrit shlokas perfectly.

He resigned as Rawal of Badrinath when the then Government decided that the temple affairs would henceforth be managed by a Management Committee, thereby undermining the religious authority and autonomy of the Rawal. He was against politics entering religion.

After his resignation, he decided not to return to Kerala where he could have inherited a lot of ancestral property. Instead, he settled in Joshimath. He was free to marry and have a family. The Bhatts helped him settle down and he married their youngest daughter, who must have been barely in her early 20s, whereas he was twice her age. He built a huge mansion, known as Rawal Niwas in Joshimath.

In 1972, my grandmother passed away when she was just 56. She lived with us in Chandigarh during her last days. My grandfather was devastated. Being used to the glory of his holiness for long, he knew nothing other than worshipping God and had been totally dependent on her. He went back and decided to leave Joshimath forever because the four walls of Rawal Niwas would have haunted him with her memories. His house, where we used to spend our 2 months summer vacation every year as children, had about 40 rooms of different sizes (as I vaguely remember), antique furniture, colourful tiles and huge mirrors brought from different corners of the country, a gaushala, fields and farms where crops and fruits were grown.

My grandmother used to manage the whole place with just a couple of helpers. She would get up at dawn and work the whole day without any rest. Being from the south, my grandpa tried his best to get a south Indian groom but finally all his six daughters were married in Garhwal/Kumaon to well-placed professionals. I guess when it came to marriage, my grandma must have prevailed. My memory of her is that of an extremely beautiful and strong lady.

That huge Rawal Niwas was sold in desperation at a petty price of Rs 80,000 and, today, it houses a big Christian Missionary High School.

When that huge house was under construction, I must have been present. Imprints of my tiny feet continued to adorn the verandah for decades. I guess the school authorities (being the new owners) would have demolished it by now.

Thereafter, my grandfather started living with his daughters by rotation in different cities of India. He never changed much except that his Hindi improved over time and he became a fan of Hema Malini movies. He remained the same dominating, authoritative, demanding person but deeply religious and pious. Perhaps the maximum amount of time, he used to stay with us in Chandigarh. I was his room-mate as a child. He would get up at 4 a.m., pray and meditate for 3 hours. He was loud even in his meditation, but I got used to it. In return, I requested him to teach me meditation but he never did, saying I was too young for those things.

I do remember some of the stories he narrated to me as a curious child.

Once the Rani of Nepal visited the temple and asked him to let her touch the main idol of God (only the Rawal had permission to touch the image of the presiding deity). He refused despite the fact that she had offered loads of money. He had ultimate faith in his God and told me that he had even seen blood in the Saligram idol of the Deity.

He also told me he had a mantra. That secret mantra was passed on from one Rawal to another. If he shared the mantra, his death was imminent. Actually, he did pass on the envelope with the secret mantra to one of his daughters, just before passing away in Lucknow.

When I was appearing for my Indian Civil Services interview, he gave me a Sanskrit mantra. I would like to believe that it must have done some magic to make me get through. I also remember he had presented me my first wrist watch when I was in high school.

Interestingly, my nana was requested to officiate as Rawal for a second time (after his resignation), since the then Rawal fell ill and had to return to Kerala for treatment. Being so close to Badrinath, the authorities wanted to save time without disrupting the ongoing pooja season. Much against his wishes, he succumbed to family pressure and went to perform pooja one more time. We were still children and it was the first time for us to visit him in Badrinath as Rawal.

We witnessed his glory. He would take an early morning shower in the “taptakund” (natural hot water pool) near his residence and walk up to the temple for ceremonious bath and pooja at 4 a.m. in the mornings, escorted by two guards so that nobody touched him on the way up to the temple. After four hours of pooja, he was supposed to bathe again before heading to his room for rest. He had to revisit the temple again at mid-day and then at night for worship and offer lunch and dinner to the Deity.

In his absence, my cousins and I would sneak into his bedroom, crawl beneath the huge bed and quietly steal dry nuts which were meant for distribution to devotees. Our delicate stomachs even got upset by over-eating. As grandchildren, we were accorded special treatment, unknown to grandpa.

It is unfortunate that not much is written about him or his contribution and service to the temple. I could not find any historical writing on the internet mentioning his name (though I remember reading his name on the wall of the main temple). The current generation of Rawals find abundant coverage in media, mainly for all the wrong reasons.

On a personal note, I do miss my Nanaji. He died in his ‘90s. He always sat upright, with no eyeglasses or hearing aids and maintained a tall and robust personality.

I wish he had not sold off the ancestral home in Joshimath, which is home to so many of my childhood memories. But I plan to return and cherish my childhood days in the erstwhile Rawal Niwas someday soon.

(Alok Joshi is an HR Advisor, freelance writer and author of “12 Sweet and Sour years in China”).