Hey Bhagwan! Pilgrim surge in Uttarakhand shrines throws life out of gear : The Tribune India

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Hey Bhagwan! Pilgrim surge in Uttarakhand shrines throws life out of gear

It’s a crisis of our own making as an unprecedented surge in the number of pilgrims and tourists at Uttarakhand’s shrines throws life out of gear and tests sustainability levels

Hey Bhagwan! Pilgrim surge in Uttarakhand shrines throws life out of gear

When the sanctum sanctorum of Badrinath, the most frequented shrine, opened on May 12, more than 20,000 persons were present inside a compound which can barely hold 500 at a time.

Anil K Joshi

The annual Char Dham Yatra in Uttarakhand (not to be confused with the traditional four dhams of Hindu religion) comprises four major shrines — Yamnotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath (strictly in this sequence), all lying in the Garhwal region. Yamnotri and Gangotri, from where the sacred rivers Yamuna and Ganga originate, lie in Uttarkashi district. Kedarnath, a major Shaiva shrine, one of the 12 Puranic Jyotirlingas, said to have been established by Adi Sankaracharya, is in Rudraprayag district. Badrinath, a shrine devoted to Lord Vishnu, is in Chamoli district.

Traditionally, pilgrims from all over the country visit the shrines between April/May and October/November. The shrines are out of bounds during winter months as the entire area is under snow, and the deities are relocated to alternate sites. Once the snow melts, these deities are carried to the original place in a procession with great fanfare, with the band of Garhwal Rifles in attendance. Each shrine reopens on a precise date calculated by astrologers.

Devotees throng the Kedarnath temple in Rudraprayag district on May 30. More than six lakh people have visited the shrine within a fortnight. PTI

The high priests of Badrinath are originally Namboodiri Brahmins from Kerala, who are said to have been installed by Sankaracharya himself. The rulers of Garhwal have been regarded as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and addressed as ‘Bolanda Badri’ in Garhwali lingo, meaning, the speaking Lord Badri. This myth continues to thrive even though royalty has long been abolished.

Apart from pilgrimage, people also throng these shrines for performing various rituals like yagyopavit (thread ceremony), mundan (tonsuring of scalp), and funerary rituals, including shraddha. For these rituals, there are different sets of priests like Semwals, Gairolas, Hatwals and Dimris, who reside in adjoining villages.

Pilgrims protest against the administration over the alleged mismanagement during the ongoing Char Dham Yatra in Rishikesh. PTI

It was obvious that people providing other services would also settle down in the vicinity. Like, the porters, who would carry not only luggage, but also the old and infirm people in large wicker baskets. The shepherds rearing furry sheep and providing warm mattresses and blankets. Men and women who would pick and sell flowers, sesame seeds, draw water, etc.

In olden times, this pilgrimage was considered very difficult and only old people, who were free from their family obligations, dared to undertake it. There were no roads, the narrow paths were treacherous and the inclement weather was a big deterrent. Many died on the way either due to natural calamities or some epidemic. For instance, thousands perished from plague at Kedarnath in 1823, as recorded by Brig Surgeon G Hutcheson, Sanitary Commissioner for North West Provinces and Oudh. Those pilgrims who didn’t return were given up as dead by their kin and regarded as having attained moksha.

The Char Dham Yatra received an impetus after Uttarakhand was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000. With agricultural and trade activity not quite productive and other means of livelihood very limited, leading to a massive exodus of able-bodied men in search of employment, this pilgrimage was seen as a money-spinner, a major source of revenue.

The idea was fair enough, but the implementation didn’t exactly go according to the script. With most visitors hiring plush cabs from Delhi or Dehradun, eating at swanky restaurants and staying at fancy resorts that have mushroomed all over, the local population is no longer the major beneficiary of this windfall. It’s the travel agents or the resort owner sitting far away in some metropolis who are minting money.

As the government agencies went on an overdrive, they lost sight of the fact that most pilgrims of this era are not visiting for any real salvation, but just as tourists.

This year, the craze for Char Dham pilgrimage has reached ridiculous proportions, partly because of the hype created in the election year. The ill-advised eagerness to watch the opening ceremony of the shrines has added to the mad rush. When the sanctum sanctorum of Badrinath, the most frequented shrine, opened on May 12, more than 20,000 persons were present inside a compound which can barely hold 500 at a time. The opening ceremony at Kedarnath witnessed a 3-km-long queue. More than six lakh people have visited Kedarnath within a fortnight. Little wonder then that nearly 60 persons have died so far due to varied ailments which get aggravated at high altitudes.

Government agencies, to their credit, have made fervent appeals to people to stay back for a while, stating that the yatra season shall go on till October. Online registration was blocked for three days between May 17 and 19. The Director General of Police has camped in the area to regulate the ingress. Yet, the rush continues unabated.

Helicopter services are in place for people who can afford to reach Kedarnath, thereby reducing the load on roads. But that too is fraught with danger as the uncertain weather renders flying hazardous. Recently, a chopper full of passengers went into a tailspin while landing due to a hydraulic malfunction. Fortunately, it hit a grassy slope as it slithered down and all had a providential escape.

The roads are choked with traffic, the hills are groaning, with massive forest fires adding to the woes.

It goes without saying that this sudden spurt in the number of pilgrims has a lot do with the advent of renascent Hinduism, of late. Ironically, it was the horrendous calamity at Kedarnath on June 16, 2013, which resulted in an unprecedented loss of life that became a catalyst. A sizeable number of pilgrims who went missing hailed from Gujarat. The then Chief Minister made a dash to the shrine to locate the bodies and evacuate the survivors, a move which his detractors dubbed as a “Rambo-like act”. He also despatched special relief trains from Gujarat ferrying food and clothes. No need to elaborate as to how this act of chivalry propelled the Chief Minister to a higher pedestal.

Subsequent symbolic acts of appropriating the shrine, the cult of Adi Sankaracharya, meditation in an adjoining cave, all went viral and prompted a craze to visit.

It’s not just the four major pilgrim sites that are under stress. Even more alarming is the case of Kainchi, once a small nondescript temple complex built by a saint in the 1960s, 20 km downhill of Nainital on the national highway. It used to be quaint little place where passersby would stop at will, pay obeisance and move on unhindered. Alas, not anymore.

During the Prime Minister’s meeting with Meta boss Mark Zuckerberg in 2015 in California, the latter made a passing mention of Kainchi, and how his mentor Steve Jobs had visited it. Kainchi was immediately put on the priority list and, as a logical corollary, the current Chief Minister of Uttarakhand declared it a dham.

This virtually opened the floodgates and, of late, the place has been witnessing an uncontrollable rush of tourists. Politicians, business tycoons, cricketers, film stars, all have been flocking to seek blessings. At any time of the year, one encounters people milling around, rendering movement difficult. The pavements have been occupied by makeshift eateries and handcarts selling trinkets.

Located on the banks of a rivulet passing through a gorge with steep hills on both sides, there’s little scope for broadening of the road or expansion. But, that has not stopped people from constructing pigeon hole-like accommodation at every possible place in the garb of homestays, converting the once-picturesque spot into a concrete forest.

The riverbed, which remains dry during the lean season, has been filled with mud to provide parking space, conveniently overlooking the fact that if there’s very heavy rainfall at any given time, everything would be washed away in a flash and the vehicles would be carried away miles down the stream. The spot has become a traffic bottleneck since it lies on the busiest section of the most important highway reaching out to every corner of Kumaon. Hardly a day passes by when passengers don’t miss their trains, flights or ambulances ferrying patients/pregnant women get stuck in the traffic snarls. Even the movement of Army and paramilitary convoys heading towards the sensitive India-China and Nepal borders gets compromised.

Another case in point is Jageshwar, an ancient Shaiva temple complex, tucked inside a dense deodar forest which is so remotely located that it had escaped notice of the marauding Rohilla commander Hafiz Rahmat Khan, who had invaded Kumaon in the latter half of the 18th century and destroyed most ancient temples.

Though a major tourist attraction, it recorded regulated footfall and throbbed with activity only in the month of Shravan when, as per Shaiva tradition, devotees perform an elaborate puja. Not anymore. Now the place is under siege, not by any invader but by the glut of tourists.

Last year, the Prime Minister made a maiden visit to Jageshwar and, not surprisingly, declared it as another dham.

As expected, this declaration had a ripple effect, and this year, the pristine place has become almost inaccessible to the locals. Last fortnight, a 4-km-long traffic jam was reported and the charming picture postcard place was littered with waste. Another holy shrine defaced or, one could say, desecrated.

All this movement also entails unmitigated collateral damage. In order to facilitate vehicular movement, the roads are being widened indiscriminately. As the gargantuan machines continue to dig deep and chip at mountain slopes, massive landslides occur, ironically holding back the same traffic for which the broadening exercise is underway.

As the rocks and boulders come cascading down at a menacing speed, the trees also get uprooted, leaving the slopes barren and scarred. The subsoil water bodies created as a result of geological changes thousands of years ago, and which account for the numerous perennial streams and ponds downhill, are destroyed forever, aggravating the scarcity of water.

It is more than obvious, therefore, that the Char Dham Yatra, far from being beneficial to the people of Uttarakhand, has proved to be counterproductive. It hasn’t created as many job opportunities as envisaged. The problem of migration remains unsolved and environmental destruction is a major concern. The sole beneficiaries have been the fly-by-night operators, most of whom don’t have any affinity with the region. They make a quick buck, leaving the villagers even worse off.

— The Ranikhet-based writer is former head, Department of History, Kumaun University, Nainital

#Badrinath #Char Dham #Hindus #Uttarakhand

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