Monday, June 24, 2013

PILGRIMS’ PERILS


My days of late, have been very depressing. I am haunted by images of hovering helicopters, surging waters, smashed buildings/bridges and ominous weather reports. I imagine myself stranded up on a hill for days together, shivering in the cold and waiting for someone to rescue me. And then, I wonder about the “fruit of pilgrimage” for those people who are there even now under similar circumstances.

Yes, I am talking about the Uttarakhand tragedy!

It is ironic that an ecological disaster like this should strike the land that was home to the Chipko movement in the 1970s. Chipko, literally meaning ‘to stick on to” was a peaceful protest started by a group of peasant women in the Chamoli district of Uttarkhand. The women hugged trees to prevent them from being felled by the contractors who had permits from the Forest Department. Their aim was to protect their traditional forest rights. It gave impetus to large scale grassroot  movements on livelihood and environment protection across the country.

After the freedom struggle, this has been one of the movements that  has  given me a lot of inspiration and pride. Later on , I had the opportunity to meet Shri Chandi Prasad Bhatt one of the leaders of this conservation movement. The few hours that  I spent talking to him were enough to make me want to visit his land. However , when I  did go there in 2009, I was horrified!  I saw quarried hills, barren slopes and buildings straggling along on hill slopes ready to drop down at the slightest movement of the rocks below.

When I see the debates on television about  the “development” needs of this fragile ecological zone, I feel very conflicted. On one hand are the infrastructural needs of the place and on the other hand are the conservation needs. Those ladies who hugged the trees were obviously of a different generation whose aspirations were different. Today’s youth up in the hills are looking at something different.  

Not surprising, that development of infrastructure  in the region seems to be the most important agenda of the state government.  After all hadn’t their demand for a separate state been on the grounds  that the ‘development needs” of the hills were different?  And they seem hell bent on fulfilling these “needs” even if it had a dark side to it! 

The Garhwal Himalayan  region known locally as “Dev Bhumi” is home to some of the most holy shrines for Hindus - Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri.  Being located in the higher altitudes, access to these shrines  is physically difficult and in winter completely impossible. Therefore,  when the snow melts, roads open up and there is an “onslaught” of tourists from across the country. There are thousands of people thronging a region that is probably not designed by nature to hold so many. If we look at the shrines themselves, they are not like the huge fortress like structures encompassing acres of land like the South Indian temples in the plains. They are small and designed to accommodate a few.  The architects of those temples knew the ecological fragility of the zone when they constructed the temples. It was only the most devout and determined who braved the steep climb and grim weather to visit the temples.

But  today the situation is different. The entire economy of the region  appears to thrive on these temples. With easy access to any place and greater disposable incomes people want to travel. And when they do, religious places are the first ones that catch their fancy.  Therefore, religious tourism or pilgrimage has become an important source of livelihood for the people of the Garhwal Himalayas. And the challenge here is that this livelihood is available only for a few months. So obviously, they want to make the most out of it.

I do not want to dwell on the relevance of the development  infrastructure of the hills as I am not informed enough to write about it. However, what I do want to raise in this post is the unsafe pilgrimage conditions that exist in our country. This is of particular relevance to shrines in places that are located on hills and other ecologically sensitive zones.

As mentioned earlier, the shrines themselves are not built to accommodate the crowds that throng the places –whether it is Kedarnath or Sabarimala, the numbers are just too large for the temples. There are no proper systems of registering pilgrims and I am not sure if there are any building permission permits for the local tourist homes, hotels or dharamshalas which houses pilgrims.  What I have seen is a commercialization of the hill sides- slopes being cleared to accommodate these buildings to house pilgrims. With such unregulated construction, the soil is bound to give way and when it does, landslides are a definite bet .And coupled with heavy rainfall, they became the right recipe for a large scale disaster!

The bodies inside and around the Kedarnath temple bear testimony to the wrath of nature. If there is a God, s/he is angry with the way we have been abusing  the nature that was gifted to us. We have been unthinking in our greed, trying to make money out of religion in a most unconcerned manner about the future.  It is not just the Char Dham.  This is just the beginning. Other temples, located in such regions are soon going to be witness to similar events if we do not do something about it now.

We need regulation in terms of numbers of people who can be there at a given point in time in an ecologically sensitive area. There needs to be registration of people who have come and left. Buildings should not be allowed to mushroom up on the slopes like they have. There need to be strict guidelines for their coming up and maintenance. Of course, all of this would affect the tourism based livelihoods to some extent. In order to compensate for that, there should be investment in other sectors so that people are not completely dependent on this one source.

I am not a very religious person in the strict sense of the term. But I believe that God manifests himself through nature and environment. If we destroy them then we are attacking God.  Hinduism talks about the Pralaya at the end of this Kali Yuga. I was left wondering last night  if this was the beginning?

I sincerely hope not. I wish we humans be given another chance. I pray for those who are still up there.  Godspeed those brave men of the Indian armed forces who are working day and night to get people out!  

 

6 comments:

SG said...

It is a huge tragedy.

Cloud Nine said...

Good one, meera. Nature is wreaking havoc due to large scale so-called "development". Governments conveniently forget the fragile ecosystem. What is the outcome is for all of us to see. I don't know how feasible it would be to control the number of visitors, but it can sure be regulated- if we really care. Official records put the death toll at 5000. In reality it may be more. Hats off to the armed forces that braved the inhospitable weather saving lives.

Rahul Bhatia said...

Taking the nature for granted is the worst offense and nature does not allow that subversion like humans!It is tragic that the culprits get away while an ordinary person bears the brunt!

anilkurup said...

I’m also one of the anguished like you. And I do not for a moment lament over the loss of life or the large scale disaster that has come about in the Himalayas, now in this monsoon torrent.
I believe that the folks were asking for this. The total irreverence and disregard to Nature, has now ricocheted in the form of this cataclysm.
I have been to Kedar , not as a blind pilgrim with eyes closed and chanting gibberish shlokhas and or with the sole aim of washing away my sins and petitioning the almighty for largesse. I smelt Nature and felt her entire way. The walk up from Gaurikund was exhausting but enlivening too. Because we had nothing to petition Kedarnath. To be honest, I and my son Aravind( he was fifteen then) were the only ones in the bus from Gaurikund( besides the driver) who saw the most panoramic view of the snow clad majesty of a Himalayan range when the bus turned a bend in the road. All the rest were chanting wired prayers, eyes shut tight. We saw God , I bet they did not!
It was eye sore of sorts to look at the most vulgar constructions on the hills, total disregard for all that is Natural.
I was astonished by the surge of people, call them pilgrims or whatever. It has always been more than what Nature could take. Gods have been commercialised. The sanctity of the mountains has been violated by men and they deserve this back lash. I wish that Kedar remains out of bounds. And then the Gods will descend again to their abodes. As for Nature she will resurrect in her own even time if man stay away.

Meera Sundararajan said...

Yes, Anil, exactly my thoughts! Nature is God in action. We do not seem have realized that simple truth. Prayers will get people nowhere if we do not appreciate what is in front of us ..! I also wish Kedar , Badri and the other two dhams remain out of bounds for humans. We obviously do not deserve to step there!

@ Rahul each one of us has had a role to play in the destruction of nature either directly or indirectly so no can escape the guilt. About controlling visitors, I am sure there is a way out.

@ SG yes, it is one of the worst disasters in recent times. I would not call it natural calamity as it is so obviously man made!

@ Cloud Nine, I think governments are run by elected representatives so by extension they are a part of us.

Ismita Tandon Dhankher said...

Very well written, Meera.

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