Heroism & Treachery In the Devbhoomi

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The first wave on 16 June sent priests, pilgrims and local vendors scurrying for cover inside the Kedarnath temple, while others ran for the hills to gain higher ground. At 6 am on 17 June, the second wave deposited large boulders at the back of the temple and the water got bifurcated into two streams around it. Soon, the water gushed in, trapping those inside. Four jawans posted near the shrine helped some people climb into the higher recesses of the temple but they were not able to save each and everyone.

The reason for the second flood is attributed to a massive landslide triggered by a melting glacier, which cracked open mountain lakes along the way. The water tumbled over Gaurikund and took with it parts of the town while it flowed into the Mandakini a few hundred feet below, clearing the banks of illegal construction that were hanging precariously over the river.

The few hundred road signs bearing the legend ‘Welcome to Devbhoomi’ stand forebodingly in Rudraprayag, headquarters of the district by the same name, which includes the Kedarnath shrine. The road from Srinagar is a 103-km highway. But only a few patches remain. It took a 10-hour drive to get to Guptakashi, from where the Kedarnath temple is a 30- km drive to Gaurikund followed by a 14-km trek.

The smell of rotten flesh wafted around the mountain air in Gaurikund, which was deserted. The only signs of life were the survivors at the makeshift helicopter base. It is an 8-km trek till this helipad — 800 metres of which is through a deathly obstacle course. This required a walk from the bed of the river in Sonprayag (confluence of Mandakini with Son Ganga), across two 15-feet-long and one-foot-wide bridges over the Mandakini, followed by 35 degree uphill climb over 100 metres of boulders, a four-inch-wide path while rocks fall all around from 200 feet above you and finally the rope climb to a path that is being made by Border Roads Organisation personnel.

Dehydrated and starving survivors took this path after being sheltered for a week in the mountains. Many could not make it — some died of dehydration and diseases while others fell to their death while climbing for safety.

An Indian Reserve Battalion jawan who had made his way out on 19 June says, “After three days of incessant rain, the police chowki in Gaurikund receive a message that it was going to be worse and there could be flash floods. Word got through and we ran to the hills to save ourselves. When we saw the devastation, we tried to find our way out of the hills. It was every man for himself. There were people slipping down to their deaths in front of and behind me. There was no time to stop and look.”

‘On 16 June, we were at our lodge in Gaurikund, when my bed and the entire building started shaking. Not knowing what it was, we came out near the door. The water came and picked us up and threw us around. I landed on a tree in the Garamkund lake while five of my fellow villagers, including my son, was swept past me in the river’ 

Tula Ram Bahadur
Pilgrim

‘When we were in the jungles, the dead bodies around us started rotting, so people rolled them into the river fearing disease. There was no water, so we were collecting mountain water to drink. My father contracted diarrhoea and died on the morning of 21 June. After some prayers, we rolled his body downhill and ‘immersed’ it in the river’

Neeraj Soni
Pilgrim from Mumbai, Maharashtra

‘The Nepali labourers drew people saying that they would help them get out alive for a few thousand rupees. They took them up the hills and pushed them down after looting them. They cut off fingers, hands and earlobes to loot jewellery from the corpses’ 

Rajiv Agrawal
Pilgrim from Vrindavan, UP

The workforce in Gaurikund-Kedarnath is mostly Nepalese who migrate each year. They work in the lodges and restaurants, and also as palanquin bearers who carry old and infirm pilgrims up the 14- km trek to Kedarnath from Gaurikund. Some of them survived the ordeal and trekked the 100-odd km down to Srinagar.

“On Sunday (16 June) night, we were at our lodge in Gaurikund near the Bharat Sevashram, when my bed and the entire building started shaking,” says Tula Ram Bahadur, 50. “Not knowing what it was, we came out near the door. The water came and picked us up and threw us around. I landed on a tree in the Garamkund lake while five of my fellow villagers, including my son Buddhi Bhan, were swept past me in the river.”

As the rains continued, they started trekking down the hill on 17 June and reached Srinagar three days later.

According to lodge owners, there were at least 30,000 people in Kedarnath when the floods swept in. Raghuvir Singh Bisht has been operating the District Panchayat guesthouse here for the past eight years. He survived and was stuck here with 400 people and organised food and supplies for them until they were evacuated on 21 June.

“Around 4,000 palanquin bearers work in Kedarnath during the peak season along with 5,000 miscellaneous labourers, including mule-ride operators, lodge and restaurant staff among others,” he says. “Then there are the priests, police personnel and others. At least 20,000 pilgrims would have been there on that day.”

In the inter-college campus at Gaurikund, survivors said the river washed away many, but the mountains are also strewn with bodies of those who died trying to stay alive.

“There was a foul smell emanating from the lodges where many pilgrims met their watery grave as they slept,” says Neeraj Soni, 22, who came with his family from Mumbai for the pilgrimage. “When we were in the jungles, the dead bodies around us started rotting, so people rolled them into the river fearing disease. There was no water, so we were collecting mountain water to drink. My father (Sunil Soni) contracted diarrhoea and died on the morning of 21 June. After some prayers, we rolled his body downhill and ‘immersed’ it in the river.”

The survivors were disappointed that the administration and police were of no help. “It is the local people who are helping us, not the administration. Had it not been for the army, we would have not made it out alive,” says Rajiv Agrawal of Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh. “The politicians hogged the helicopters and kept making aerial surveys while the air space and copters should have been used for our rescue. They threw relief packets, which fell in the valley or were hoarded by others till the food rotted and was thrown away. No plastic sheets were air-dropped even though it rained while we were stuck.”

Others claimed that the police in Gaurikund and Kedarnath had deserted the pilgrims without alerting them about the coming deluge. Some said that they started heading to the forest only after they saw others running towards it.

“An under-construction dam of GVK Power released more water adding to the flood,” claims Bisht. “It is projects like these that have ruined the area. They lifted the Dhari Devi idol from the riverbed. We had been protesting against the shifting but now it’s been done.”

In the mountains, food and shelter were precious commodities. Some claimed glucose biscuits were being sold for Rs 1,000 a packet. A pilgrim allegedly gave Rs 3,000 to power house operators in Kedarnath for his family to stand in the shelter of the power house for one night.

Survivors also shared horror tales of a different kind. “The Nepali labourers drew people saying that they would help them get out alive for a few thousand rupees. They took them up the hills and pushed them down after looting them. They cut off fingers, hands and earlobes to loot jewellery from the corpses,” alleges Agrawal.

Some sadhus were caught trying to make off with money, which was either from the Kedarnath temple or the bank there. One was caught with Rs 3 crore hidden in his belongings while another had Rs 25 lakh with him.

There are rumours that some survivors were raped in the mountains but no official was willing to confirm this.

In Srinagar, 150 km northeast of Dehradun, the Alaknanda-Mandakini river waved and lashed against the habitation. Though there are no human losses here, the water went into Shakti Vihar, where it left 10-feet-high deposits of sand from boulders brought down from Kedarnath. Around 100 families have been displaced.

Guptakashi, normally a tourist stop, buzzed with rescue and relief activity from 18 June. But the efforts were by locals who had sacrificed their own rations to ensure warm food and a place to stay for the rescued survivors.

In Sonprayag (located 19 km from Kedarnath), the river has scooped out half the town. It is deserted and the locals have gone to live with relatives and friends. “How long will our relatives put us up?” asks a local farmer. He was headed for Guptakashi trying to get food and supplies for his family of a wife and two toddlers.

Both the river and groundwater have been contaminated with dead bodies brought downstream and the rain washing off the decaying corpses in the forests and hills.

“There are several cases of acute diarrhoea among the children,” says the former pradhan of Sitapur. “The earnings from the pilgrimage are now over. But what about us? There are health problems, we don’t have rations. The administration has completely forgotten us.”

Amidst the chaos, there are murmurs in Rudraprayag that the disaster was a divine retribution for the ill-treatment of pilgrims who were milked for every last penny. There are complaints that businesses in the vicinity of the Kedarnath shrine charge exorbitant rates for everything.

“The lodges charged Rs 2,000-3,000 for each person in a four-bedded room. I was asked to pay Rs 1,000 to park my vehicle for a night in Gaurikund,” said Raj Kumar Saliyan of Karnal district in Haryana, who is the sole survivor of a nine-man team.

Saliyan and others claim that the priests charge anything between Rs 500 and Rs 5,000 for a darshan. The closer the faithful wanted to get to the shivling, the more they had to cough up. Penniless pilgrims could only peer at the deity through a window. Many had to wait for hours, often not getting a chance, and had to return the next day.

All was not well before the disaster. On 11-12 June, the associations of local labourers were on strike to protest the Kedarnath Development Authority decision to increase the number of helicopter flights to the shrine. What started as two rides a day with Prabhatam and Pawan Hans now stands at 10 operators with up to 300 flights a day between Phata and Kedarnath for a price of 8,000 per return ticket. Palanquin bearers and mule operators claimed the buzz of helicopters was disturbing the biodiversity and also putting a dent in their earnings.

During the protests, the labourers forced shut the gates to the temple, which can only be done when the season ends on an auspicious day chosen by consulting the lunar calendar, sometime in September or October.

Locals fear the ire of the pandas (priests) in Kedarnath, but many are angered by the way they have marketed Kedarnath and ill-treated pilgrims in the name of god. They said that this was god’s way of closing his doors.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I myself stand ashamed. Have been to Gangotri and Badrinath. With car. Didn`t understand. Now I start understanding and next year I will make a real pilgimage. Walking from Rishikesh. From Rishikesh only lokals should be allowed in cars for their duties. Pilgrims should walk. For those who cannot walk: India has enough holy places that can be reached by car.
    Zhe forests are full of biological riches. Help locals to produce Himalayan medicines and much more.
    Oh man, if you go against nature, you have to face the consequences.
    I am also very afraid of the Tehri dam (earthquake).
    Much more could be said. May humanity learn.

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