The whirr of wings turns a bunch of eyes towards the sky in hope and prayer. As paratroopers throw down a rope, the stranded group clambers towards it. The most dashing man is also the most sensible one; he organises the group, roping them up one by one and sending them to safety. When he is among the last two left, the chopper dashboard beeps ‘overload’, and in an ultimate act of sacrifice befitting a quasi-tragic, romantic story, our young protagonist buckles up the other gentleman. He sends him to safety, reunifying him with his little son on board, and bidding a tearful goodbye to his lady love shrieking from the chopper. Aided with awkward CGI, the Mandakini river roars in anguish, well-attuned to the couple’s grief, and engulfs him as the rescue chopper flies off.
The 2013 Kedarnath flash floods, India’s worst natural calamity of the decade, were a tragedy far greater in every aspect than what was depicted by a Bollywood film created to launch a star kid. The feeble voices of a token environmentalism get drowned in the standard box office plot of Hindu-Muslim star-crossed lovers, and the opportunity afforded by a platform reaching millions of Indians is swept away like Kedarnath town was in the face of the swollen Mandakini in the early hours of that ill-fated summer morning. The river originates in Uttarakhand’s Garhwal region, from the snout of the Chorabari glacier suspended at 4,000 metres in India’s western Himalaya. Derived from the Sanskrit word ‘mand’, or calm, Mandakini translates as ‘she who flows calmly’.
On 17 June 2013, in direct contradiction to her name, the Mandakini river turned into a raging body of unbridled fury. A series of cloudbursts – and sudden, unexpected melting of ice and snow on the Kedarnath mountain attributed to climate change – flooded the Chorabari lake. This broke the embankment, and 262 million litres of water, debris, boulder, and scree went hurtling down the Mandakini in under ten minutes. Barely two kilometres downstream, sitting close to the banks of the river, is the Kedarnath temple that is one of the four major sites of pilgrimage of Hinduism in India. The township around Kedarnath was destroyed, though the temple itself miraculously escaped with only a few cracks in the walls. The tragedy left nearly 6,000 people dead and over 300,000 pilgrims and tourists stranded. Seven years later, many remain missing, while the odd body continues to get discovered in the higher reaches. But up in Kedarnath, the business of religion is back with a bang. Human intervention, a major contributor to the catastrophe, has found its feet again. Choppers have resumed flights, guesthouses are overbooked again, hawkers selling religious paraphernalia have returned with better trinkets, and pundits have hiked their fee.
A firm believer in the worthwhile nature of unplanned trips, I jump on board for a last-minute trip to Kedarnath, even though it’s a 13-hour drive to the trailhead. On average, the religious hotspot sees a footfall of nearly half a million people annually making their way up to the temple on a 14.5 km trail through an ecologically fragile region. I have avoided adding to the numbers all these years, but there is a good enough motive this time. Oblivious to my reasoning, people I reveal my plans to seem only too pleased to know that I’ve finally turned around and will be earning my (long overdue) merit to being a good Hindu. The lengthy drive, some phone calls and a stroke of luck generate a chance with heli tickets that are usually booked months ahead. It still involves a long wait, and in our case, an entire day’s. Lounging around the Phata helipad, 8.5 km ahead of Gauri Kund that marks the start of the hiking trail to Kedarnath. Ardent devotees get there on foot, on ponies, on dandies carried by coolies, and via choppers offering subsidized government rates, supported by infrastructure burgeoning in this sensitive zone.
A short walk away, a chai shop becomes my chosen hangout for the day. It might help reduce the monotony of waiting incessantly and distract my brain from resenting pilgrims sitting in the afternoon sun, mindlessly flinging orange rind and Parle-G wrappers in all directions. It might help me avoid resenting my divided mind that questions my choice of being here, while everyone around continues fanning flies complacently with rolled up newspaper batons. Mukesh, a young high school dropout, makes tea and Maggie noodles for customers. His best friend got washed away in the floods, after which he dropped out of school. ‘What’s the point anyway? Even if I go to school, I will get a blue-collar job at best.’ He’s rewarded with a thwack on the nape of his neck by his sister, a sprightly girl only a couple of years older to him and who works at the Phata ticket counter. ‘It’s only temporary’, she clarifies. Our conversation is interrupted by a group of pilgrims passing by, chanting ‘om namah shivay’, the powerful mantra that reverberates through the cosmos, celebrating Shiva, the destroyer. I wonder if they will find a spot in the already crowded waiting area, or if they will continue to Gauri Kund and walk it up.
Every year, on average, over 5 lakh people visit the Kedarnath shrine, and which has doubled in the recent years; among the four spiritual hotspots, the venerable Char Dham, Kedarnath is the runner up to Badrinath only because the motor road goes all the way to the latter. The region also forms the cusp of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates, making it extremely prone to earthquakes and landslides. Located at 3,583 metres above sea level, the section in and around the temple sanctum can hold 5,000 people, although five times that number is there every single day in high season. It is best left alone, but between the race for salvation and ecological upkeep, the former triumphs every single time in a religion burgeoning with 333 million gods and goddesses. The Char Dham yatra, India’s most idolised Hindu pilgrim circuit, sits precariously in the country’s top belt of natural hazards. Mountainous terrain makes up ninety per cent of the state; taking away safety measures and giving more access, instead of additional upkeep, is like ripping an endangered turtle’s shell off its back instead of giving it protected species status.
It has been easy to dismiss the Kedar tragedy as a natural disaster, but the criminal negligence of the geology of the region and all that it was burdened with, is entirely man made. Rampant building around the Mandakini, ignoring its original routes, is nothing but human blunder. Moving further down the river, where it becomes the Alaknanda and finally the Ganges, construction has been done alarmingly close to the lower banks. And then blaming the river for taking a path that rightfully belonged to it, is what gives this human tragedy the name of ‘natural disaster’. The debris from landslides is quickly covered by trails, because the quake has done half the job of levelling the mountain. It costs less to build on a mountain already broken up, with half the time and energy. These crooked shortcuts become what we pay the ultimate price for in the long run. But it’s tough to sail past the upsurge of immediate returns, as tourism ropes in the state’s highest tertiary GDP.
Religion is an easy sell and, going the extra mile to market, the Char Dham is not required. While the courts instructed the state to cap the number of trekkers and ban camping at higher-altitudes in 2018, despite the adverse effects on the economy, the sacred circuit is one that even the highest authorities are apprehensive of meddling with. To counter the economic loss from the floods, it was announced the building of the Char Dham highway that would double footfall, turning Kedarnath into a ‘smart pilgrimage centre’. The roads will be broader, traffic jams fewer, and the blessings infinite. Creating this, however, is bound to generate over 19 million tonnes of waste that will all merge into the nation’s biggest waterways. Mandakini, a major tributary of the Alaknanda, joins the Bhagiratha; together they become the famous Ganges, India’s most revered and most polluted river. The Ganges cuts through the plains of North India, providing agricultural and other livelihoods to millions, flowing east to transcend the country’s border into Bangladesh, and draining into the Bay of Bengal. While attempts have been made to curb environmental damage to the river by clamping down on various grey arenas, one of the largest causes of this damage, religious fervour, has not been kept in check. There is no place for spirituality, which sunk aeons ago in this battle and languishes somewhere at the bottom of the ocean. From private chopper trips that can help people cover all four dhams in a couple of days, to high velocity travel on newly broadened highways, the metaphor for a life-changing journey of self-discovery through pilgrimage is long gone, like the story of Kedarnath.
The exact dates of the origin of Kedarnath are unknown, with the earliest reference to its existence being in the 7th-8th century sacred scriptures of Skanda Purana, in connection with the origin of the Ganges. The temple is believed to have been built prior to this by the Pandavas, the legendary heroes of the epic Hindu poem Mahabharata, the Great Battle between good and evil. The five brothers came to these highlands in search of Shiva the Destroyer, also Kedar Nath or the Lord of the Cosmic Fields, to seek his forgiveness for the bloodshed they had caused in the Great Battle. Not wanting to grant them absolution easily, Shiva disguised himself as a bull and hid among the cattle roaming the meadows. He was tracked eventually, pulled out by the tail, and the temple built on the bull’s back to honour the divinity that pardoned them for their sins and paved their path to forgiveness. Ever since, Kedarnath remains the seat of the most overpowering Hindu god, and a most decisive ticket towards redemption. Eighth century peer Adi Shankaracharya propagated it as the ultimate pilgrimage, along with the three other dhams in the Indian Himalaya. Rampant redevelopment after the disaster includes the construction of a 3D memorial shrine to honour Adi Shankaracharya, right behind the main temple. The 100-feet wide, 50-feet deep pit that was dug for it is another disaster in the making. The 2013 disaster is not the first the region has seen, and will surely not be the last. Landslides are a common feature of the Himalayas, the youngest mountain chain in the world, yet to stabilise.
Pratap Singh, an ex-army pilot who has been flying commercial and ferrying pilgrims on this route for the past six years, takes us to an elevation of 11,500 metres before we plateau. He points out Gauri Kund down below, the bare patches here and there, eroded of their forest cover in the floods, the original path, and now the makeshift trail. The walking trail for pilgrims snakes its way through the mountainside, like veins in trite hands wrinkled over time. The Kedar massif gets bigger and bigger, and this early morning light is a visual feast for the beauty-starved soul; crowned with snow, the Kedarnath peak looms at 6,940 metres, and only a hundred metres shorter, to its right, the Kedar Dome flaunts its curvy roof. From this distance, the human dots marking the path below seem frozen in time, and inconsequential in the shadow of these mighty Himalayas. I had been torn between the trek and the flight, and guiltily chosen the latter for lack of time. Looking at the beeline of humanity flanked by shops, porters, load ferrying animals and pious pilgrims, I’m relieved; this wasn’t the ‘high-altitude hike’ I had imagined anyway. Soon after that flash of rueful respite, I ignore the quagmire down below and look straight ahead one more time at the imposing Kedar Dome. I’m lost in the hypnotism of dazzling white snow, and happy to stay in this transcendence forever. Did Adi Shankaracharya feel this way when he first chanced upon this magic mountain? If only he had let it be a gift for the seeker and true wanderer whose hardship is rewarded by a drop of divinity. If only worshippers would have the let the gods be. If only the meaning of true pilgrimage had never been lost in the deeps of the Mandakini.
I’m brutally jerked out of my otherworldliness in a flash as we land at the Kedarnath helipad, and plunge headlong into the melee of devotees; middle-aged women ailing with arthritis who have been carried all the way up by strong palanquin-bearers, city-dwelling young adults on ponies not used to walking great distances, honeymooners huffing and puffing their way up in trekking clothes and matching religious red-and-gold headbands, clasping their selfie sticks in one hand and their partner with the other, and old men nearing their end, mantras for salvation a slur on their drying lips. Almost immediately, we are accosted by pundits who rattle off darshan varieties and rates like a well-memorised shack menu. We can pay 500 bucks to be escorted through the crowd (or nothing to deal with it on our own), or 5,000 for a backdoor entry including an ‘abhishek puja’: a special one-on-one with Lord Shiva. Paying the latter to avoid being in this throng all day, we slip in past the serpentine front door queue to get into the inner sanctum, witness a mild uprising from a section that has been pushed aside by another, and slowly inch closer to redemption. The ancient stone temple is undoubtedly beautiful, with frescoes of the Pandavas and their wife Draupadi engraved on the insides. The solid walls tell a story, the loudest that of its unflinching foundation that stood the test of nature and faith on that fateful night. Going through the passage and transiting into the inner sanctum, kneeling down to rub clarified butter on the sacred stone that is the back of Shiva, and pouring other offerings from the neatly packaged platter bought hastily from one of the many stores outside, is all done in a matter of minutes. A golden Nandi, the bull that’s also the vehicle of Shiva, sits in the centre of the outer sanctum. Pilgrims stop by on their way out and get a few nano seconds to whisper their deepest desires into her ear, for she holds the power to convey them into the cosmos. I’m glad to be thrown out of the devout, stifling atmosphere, and almost immediately, like the first involuntary breath of a newborn, draw in a lungful of crisp Himalayan air.
While the Mandakini is cited as the core reason for the disaster, she’s also the one who renewed hope in the valley. Relief work began almost immediately, in June 2013: locals being the first to step up, followed by NGOs and relief organisations and, finally, the government which largely worked with tracking missing people and compensating their families. One such initiative that shines out in the aftermath of this tragedy is the Mandakini Women Weavers Association. The social enterprise was spearheaded by Mukti Dutta, a women’s rights activist who runs a similar weaving organisation in Kumaon, the eastern part of Uttarakhand, and who brought in expertise via another set of village women who volunteered to help their fellow hill women in distress. More than sixty villages depend on Kedarnath for their livelihood, which is part of the Rudraprayag district where 4,000 villages were affected by the floods. One of these is Deori-Bhanigram, that was dubbed the ‘Village of Widows’. Nearly all men from this village worked as purohits, or high priests, in Kedarnath, with their male children helping out by running shops and inns there. Overnight, they were swept away by the floods, leaving behind a village with no men, and women with an uncertain future. The newfound skills of these women, though, restored livelihoods and dignity into their fold. The Mandakini brought them down then, in an act of generosity, pulled them out again in turning helpless widows into heroes who weave their own capes and destiny.
Madan Mohan Semwal, who helped set up the resident weaving unit of the Mandakini project in his village Triyuginarayan, also led the local rescue front in 2013. Semwal, 48, works at a rural bank in Songanga and moonlights as a priest at the Triyuginarayan temple. When the main route via Gauri Kund closed down in the floods, an alternate escape route was diverted to his village. The natives helped set up a river crossing for safe passage of stranded pilgrims, fed them, and gave refuge until aid arrived. What does he think of the government handling of the tragedy, I ask him, and if people’s lost work has returned? ‘Last year, there were so many tourists during high season, that despite the expanded infrastructure, there were crazy jams en route and people were sleeping in cars.’ But isn’t that in proportion with the ‘crazy income’ that locals want? Semwal laughs. ‘Thank you for asking me this very important question’, he says wryly. ‘Mountain people are simple folk with simple requirements. These mountains are our inheritance, and they are not for sale.’ He is glad that biometric recording is now in place, so tracking people will be easier in the face of another disaster, and that the economy is getting a boost with the sudden infrastructure bonanza. ‘But twenty years ago, if I left something behind, I would get it back intact. There was no crime, no greed. That’s who we are, and that’s what we want returned to us more than anything else. I do not know who wants this development but, for us, less in more. Yehan ki hawa aur soch acchi hei, ussmein milawat nahi chahiye’. The air and thought are pure here; both are best left unadulterated.
With a few hours wait in hand for the return chopper, I walk far away from the mayhem of the temple area where godmen ask for money in return of blessings, dressed in dramatic head gear, covered only loin cloths, tiger print shawls, and ashes. Young girls beg for alms, and restaurant hawkers bellow wild discounts to beat the neighbouring stall’s hot paratha and tea prices. Behind the temple compound, men in uniform quietly clean the premises, calm in the midst of chaos, their sweeping motions matching those of dancers in a silent disco. Away from it all, the temple actually looks beautiful, standing in the shadow of the mighty Kedar mountain. I buy a lucky charm and a rubber snake from a boy at a lone stall with no customers. He points out the cave where Prime Minister Modi stopped to meditate during his visit after the floods, one that was peppered with promises and announcements for the brand-new smart pilgrimage centre of the future Kedarnath. ‘Stay at the cave is sadly booked for the next couple of years’, he says.
A trail forks out from here towards the Chorabari lake which, having emptied its inners, now lies dead. The snow on the peaks around shines pure as the atonement of sin, but the heaving hearts of these mountains have no audience; the seeker is busy queueing up for a fragment of heaven in the far corner. In the air, heavy with silence, my eyes and heart overflow with this grandeur, just like the Mandakini gushing down below. She meanders gracefully, bearing the crushing weight of rocks and secrets, but never letting go of the poise that becomes her name. When humanity turns to her for salvation, who does she turn to for hers? What I know is that, away from the chaos of madmen and in her lap, is where rests the divine we seek. What I do know is that the divinity we seek is far removed from the madness currently surrounding her.
Image credits: Shikha Tripathi.
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