Saturday, April 6, 2002
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Tehri awaits its jal samadhi
Ranbir Singh

THE fate of the scenic town of Tehri, located 89 km from Rishikesh in the Garhwal Himalayas, has been sealed. Against the wish of the people, a huge dam is being completed which will fully submerge the town. In spite of numerous protests and objections by the Bhoomidhars of the area, the Tehri Hydro Electric Power Corporation, the principal agency designated to build the dam on the river Ganga and sell power to the towns of the Indo-Gangetic plains, is going full steam ahead with its plans these days. The local people, who have been protesting against the construction of the dam for the past two decades, could achieve little except delay the construction. All objections, whether they were by environmentalists or by independent seismic experts, were overruled by the government. By enforcing this decision, the 187-year-old town of Tehri will drown under the waters of the Ganga and the Bhilangna rivers. With it, the symbols of the rich cultural past will also disappear forever.

There is agony on the faces of the people who are being uprooted. They would be leaving behind their homes, agricultural lands, property and , above all, cultural heritage. The old town of Tehri naturally wears a desolate look and this once bustling town has virtually turned into a ghost city.


The Pradhan Kacheyhari is being demolished
The Pradhan Kacheyhari is being demolished

Sunder Lal Bahuguna, the tireless crusader against the dam, laments that he failed to convince the authorities about the adverse impact of the dam on the people and the vast area around Tehri. He is not very optimistic about the future of the people down the river who will use the 2400 megawatts of power promised to be generated once the power houses go on stream. In addition to power, the northern region will receive water for irrigation and drinking purposes. Irrigation facility will be augmented for 9.01 lakh hectares. As much as 270 million gallons of drinking water will be made available to towns in UP and Delhi. Bahuguna says that the people of Tehri have paid a heavy price for the comfort of those who will use power and water.

Although the government claims to have ameliorated to a large extent the sufferings of the people of Tehri through resettlement and relief programmes, Bahuguna contends that only a handful of people were able to receive appropriate compensation. Hundreds of Bhoomidhars and small-time vendors have either not received adequate compensation or have not been paid at all. The Bhoomidhars held a month-long dharna at the old Shiva Temple in the town some time back. In fact, the agitators have now resigned themselves to fate and are now fighting a legal battle to pressurise the government to get as much compensation as possible.

The Ghanta Ghar at Tehri
The Ghanta Ghar at Tehri 

The entire area appears scorched due to years of earthwork carried out with the help of heavy machinery. Most of the villagers who were paid reasonable compensation have migrated out of the old town of Tehri and nearby villages and settled either in New Tehri township, Dehra Dun or other places. Only those families could shift to safer places who were allotted either land, agricultural or residential, houses and shops. Others, who received only financial compensation, have bought properties elsewhere in the country. It appears that less than 300 families are now living in the old Tehri town. Although essential services like electricity, water, telecommunication and security will be provided till June 2002, others like education, medical facilities etc are no more available in the old township. Most offices have long been shifted to the new township. Municipal services are also defunct.

The old Tehri town was selected as capital of Tehri-Garhwal by Raja Sudarshan Shah after the expulsion of the Gurkhas with the help of the East India Company in 1815. Sudarshan Shah was the 55th ruler in his lineage and ruled from 1815 to 1851. In 1815, under a treaty, the Britishers demanded Rs 5 lakh as war compensation which the Raja could not pay. Therefore, the entire area east of the Alaknanda river and Rudra Prayag was kept by the Britishers under their administrative control and declared as British Garhwal. Srinagar was made the capital of the British Garhwal and put under the Commissioner of Kumaon Division. Devoid of a capital city, Sudarshan Shah had to eventually select a new site.

Tehri was a small village before Sudarshan Shah selected it as his new capital. The Raja must have been impressed by its picturesque and safe location. It was surrounded on three sides by the two rivers. The site where these two rivers meet is known as Ganesh Prayag. An ancient Ganesha temple located at this site is said to have been washed away in the great floods of 1937. Here, on the left bank on the Ganga, was located Rajghat i.e., the imperial quays which were used by the royals as well as commoners for bathing, and for submerging the ashes of the deceased in the holy waters. The old Darbar Bhavan, which was on a plateau on the northern hill, was the royal seat. Later, Maharaj Kirti Shah got a new palace complex built on a hillock on the left bank of the Ganges. Most of the religious and administrative buildings were constructed here between 1840 and 1930. The old Darbar and the new Darbar complex are being demolished. All the valuables, art objects and other utilities were probably removed some years ago by the incumbents of the house. Tehri was spread over 5 to 7 square kms and the famous 60-foot-high Ghanta Ghar or Clock Tower was a landmark here. It was raised by Raja Kirti Shah in 1897. Its yellowish paint has faded and the clock does not show the time.

There are at least a dozen buildings of historical significance in Tehri. There are two ancient Shiva temples on the left bank of the river Bhilangna. It is said that when Raja Sudarshan Shah was surveying the area for a suitable site for his new capital, his horse stopped at a place where the Satyeshwar Mahadev temple now exists. The horse just refused to move further. On probing, the King found an old Shivalinga. He immediately decided to establish his headquarters here. However, while the auspicious ceremony for founding the new capital was being held, one of the pundits predicted that the new town would not survive beyond 200 years. His forecast has come true. In less than the predicted period, the town of Tehri will disappear. Ever since, Satyeshwar Mahadev has been revered by the people of the town. Soon after, another Shiva temple was built adjacent to the ancient one. These temples are located on a high platform. On the left bank of the Ganga and to the west of the town are located three more temple complexes; two of them devoted to Lord Shiva and the third to the river goddess Ganga, also called Bhagirathi. A few years ago, regular pujas were held at the temples. The expenditure incurred on the services was met through the royal grants, income from the land grants and offerings by the devotees. The Badrinath and the Kedarnath temples were erected more than one and a half centuries ago on the orders of a pious lady of the darbar, Maharani Jiyaji-Guleriaji.

The temple of Ganga stands on the left bank of the river. These temple complexes have large dwelling places for pujaris, temple servants and visiting sadhus. Swami Ram Teerath used to stay in one of the quarters of the Kedarnath temple. It is also known as Swami Ram Teerath Ashram. Here the renowned scholar could be seen engaged in his spiritual, philosophical and literary pursuits. He possessed extraordinary physical prowess, charm and will power. He took jal samadhi in the Ganga at Tehri. The Kedarnath and the Badrinath temples had been vacated long ago. The sanctum sanctorums and the adjacent buildings of these temple complexes were built in traditional Indian style of architecture and are suggestive of the Nagar Shelly. They have not been maintained for decades and neglected to the extent that plants have grown on their sturdy walls. The facade of the huge entrance to the Kedarnath mandir has very impressive stone and wooden carvings. It is indeed a matter of grief to the residents of old Tehri town as well as visiting devotees that these holy sites will be soon submerged.

Although the government ‘transplanted’ all the temples from the old town to the new township but the buildings hardly match the originals and are also not culturally relevant to the people. The new township does not have the charm that a town of hills should possess. The old town has attractive streets and alleys which were laid in a zig zag manner during the organic growth of the inhabitations and utility buildings. The traditional hill architecture is also missing at the new township. The old pahari architecture is a visual treat. In the town of old Tehri, the haveli of Mahant Maandayalpuri constructed in 1870 on receipt of a grant from King Narender Shah shows the richness of the traditional pahari architecture. The vestiges of this architecture can be still seen on the front door and hanging balcony over the facade. The intricate carvings on the wooden structures affixed on the facade and the manner of holding the hanging balcony on the back support of two juxtaposed elephant figures (used a brackets) are worth appreciation. Inscriptions in English as well as Garhwali languages to this grant have been affixed under the facade. The mahant’s family has sold this house long ago to a trader who had migrated from the plains and had settled down in Tehri.

Among the active cultural practices was a huge mela that was held every year at Sangam Sthal on the day of the Makra Sankranti. Regrettably, the grief stricken people of old Tehri displayed little enthusiasm this year to celebrate this festival of the Sun God. Instead, they participated in celebrating the last birthday of Tehri early this year.

On entering the town, one is taken aback by the deserted look: sealed shops and dismantled houses line the streets. The whole New Darbar complex and the Pradhan Kacheyhari have now been dismantled. This seat of judgement was a fine piece of old pahari architecture. Thanks to the sluggishness of the dismantling activity, the massive gate structure and the adjoining administrative offices of the Pradhan Kacheyhari which were built by Raja Pratap Shah in 1885 can still be seen. It is a huge and beautiful structure. Behind the court building, one can find a medium-sized tank with quays and beautifully laid arched gate structures. It appears that this water tank was built for the purpose of adding a water body, since it was considered appropriate and auspicious in accordance with the Hindu law of architecture i.e., the Vaastu Shastra.

The residents of old Tehri now live in a depressing milieu. The symbols of their cultural heritage will submerge shortly The institutions of their cultural significance with which they could associate themselves since generations will disappear soon. Persons like Virender Singh Pundir, who owns and runs Bhagirathi Prakashan Griha, established in 1980 by his visionary father Bansi Lal Pundir, for popularisation of the culture and literature of the Pauri Garhwal region, regrets moving out to Dehra Dun. He has so far published dozens of books which include new titles as well as reprints of some old books written decades ago by renowned persons of the era. The worrisome aspect is that the people of Tehri will disperse to diverse locations and it will be difficult for them to keep the thread of their rich cultural heritage united and functional.

Top photo: The huge earthen dam being raised on the Ganga at Tehri. (Inset) The Kedar mandir which will be soon submerged.