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By the river, a year later

One year may have passed, but death still lingers, and not just in memory.

The Mandakini near Gaurikund, its calm belying the rage of a year ago. (Tashi Tobgyal) The Mandakini near Gaurikund, its calm belying the rage of a year ago. (Source: Express photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

On the morning of June 17, 2013, the Mandakini’s wrath had swept through Kedarnath and left hundreds dead. A year later, pilgrims trek up again, their faith tinged with fear, but with the belief that the worst is over.

One year ago, five minutes is all she took. She raced through the temple town, unmindful of the damage she was causing to life, property or faith. As water, sand and rock hurtled through the streets of Kedarnath, only the temple remained untouched. Her name is Mandakini, she who flows calmly.

Every ruin has its own soul-shattering story to tell. One deserted room has a pocket-sized notebook left behind in haste. Its pages speak of a family calculating its accounts, vegetables and school fees. Right next to it, in a pile of footwear, is a tiny pink slipper, with flowers on its dirt-caked surface. The river was merciless.

The area near the Kedarnath shrine still has reminders of last year’s flood.( Tashi Tobgyal) Every ruin has its own soul-shattering story to tell. ( Tashi Tobgyal)

One year may have passed, but death still lingers, and not just in memory. On Thursday, three bodies were found under the rubble as a labourer searched for firewood. Unidentifiable, they were burnt besides the Mandakini without ceremony. There will be many, many more.

“For two days, there had been constant rain, but nothing had prepared us for what was to come on the morning of June 17. At 6:55, the river came, and brought with it boulders the size of small hills. I watched from the terrace of my home. Men, women and children were swept away and thrown against rocks like they were paper boats. Entire buildings went under the silt and mud,” says Kesar Singh, a constable with the Uttarakhand Home Guards, posted at Kedarnath.

The area near the Kedarnath shrine still has reminders of last year’s flood. (Tashi Tobgyal) The area near the Kedarnath shrine still has reminders of last year’s flood. (Tashi Tobgyal)

Many conversations at Kedarnath now search for why the Mandakini was angered so. Almost always, a divine plan is part of the answer. Rajendra Pandit, one of the temple’s many priests, says, “Over the years, the crowds had grown to 20,000 devotees a day, and we had become disrespectful to god’s abode. Hotels were built on the banks of the river, and the ecosystem was constantly being challenged. This was a warning.”

There were other ‘divine’ signs. Miraculously, a massive boulder perched itself right behind the Kedarnath temple, neatly splitting the raging river and leaving the temple unharmed. In the ever-growing legend of Kedarnath, the rock itself has become a deity. Bhim Shila, they call it, and obeisance is paid here not by money, but by placing a small pebble next to the rock.

Mules line up at Lincholi. (Tashi Tobgyal) Mules line up at Lincholi. (Tashi Tobgyal)

The river had allies in her fury. For several months after the flash floods, it seemed that the non-motorable path to Kedarnath was been damaged beyond repair. Six kilometres into the trek from the base camp at Gaurikund, a waterfall came into being, washing away the cemented path. The road at Lincholi fell into the river, aided by an avalanche in the upper reaches of the mountain. The worst was reserved for Rambada, a popular stop for weary pilgrims. The town simply ceased to exist, every single one of its 1,500 residents enveloped by the swirling waters.

While the Mandakini herself remains inscrutable, its calm belying the rage of a year ago, answers are now also being sought from the Gandhi Sagar lake in the higher reaches of the Himalayas that gives birth to the Mandakini. The past few months has seen a team from the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun, attempt to study and predict such disasters.

April saw the first reconnaissance team reach Kedarnath. They were met with a sight that nearly obliterated any hope of a yatra in 2014. Six feet of ice covered the entire town, feeding the Mandakini that flowed past. The boulders that had come down had created several rivulets that ran through the town, weakening the foundations of already precariously perched buildings.

A superhuman challenge was set for experts from IIT Roorkee and the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), Uttarkashi. Slowly, over the course of two months, the team removed the ice and levelled the road leading to the temple. Teams of the State Disaster Relief Force and the NIM were made to scout for alternative routes. Slowly, the yatra path took shape again. In several places, bridges were built to cross streams. At others, work on creating a new path still goes on.

“First, we looked for new routes and after identifying them, a workable path was made through Lincholi. The climb beyond Lincholi is so steep that even horses can’t navigate that stretch. This is proving to be a problem for the elderly and children. We have pressed policemen and representatives from the Army to help. Additionally, we are now creating a path where the incline isn’t so steep,” says Meera Kumar, sector magistrate in Kedarnath.

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Death and destruction aside, the Mandakini’s violent course has left behind a slew of lessons. If the river cut off the only route for pilgrims last year, condemning them to a certain end, teams from NIM, Uttarakhand Police and the State Disaster Relief Fund are now scouting for two other paths to and from the temple. If communication was a problem in 2013, satellite phones have now made their way into Kedarnath, integral to the management of any disaster. The helipad at Jungle Chatti is now being used for quarrying construction material and the one at Bhimbali has been converted into a hospital.

Most importantly, the Mandakini herself is being shackled. Embankments are being made, using the rocks brought by the river itself, in an attempt to shape its course. The new rivulets behind the Kedarnath temple, for instance, are now being channeled back into the Mandakini. “If the level of the water rises, it is easier to survive one angry water body than four,” says Kumar.

While a fear of a repeat of the floods has seen the number of pilgrims drop from close to 15,000 a day till last year to 900 this time, the rebuilding process has been marked by courage and grit. Most of the efforts are voluntary. Men in groups of four carry 80 kg generators up the 20 km climb. Others stand dangerously close to the river, breaking rocks to be used for construction. For Ganpat Rai, carrying an LPG cylinder up a steep slope is his offering to the deity. With sinews strained and beads of sweat on his forehead, he says, “There are many ways of serving Kailash Baba. Some pray. I help in rebuilding the yatra.”

A hotel kitchen in Kedarnath abandoned after the floods. (Tashi Tobgyal) A hotel kitchen in Kedarnath abandoned after the floods. (Tashi Tobgyal)

As Rai walks up the incline, he passes many who are sources of inspiration and strength. Some devotees are old and infirm, yet they walk up in an act of penance. Some are disabled, seeking relief from pain, challenging themselves to go a little further. The rocky path, often crossing streams that have frozen over, does them no favours. Nor do they seek any. “They tell me it is dangerous to come here. But I ask you this. Could the Lord not take me away in an instant in an accident in the plains?” asks 80-year-old Pradeep Singh from Punjab. On his way, there are many who assist him by giving him food and water. Some help comes from government stalls and some from private bhandaras. But anyone who asks him to rest for a while is turned away. Logic doesn’t hold a candle to faith.

All along the 20-km trek up from Gaurikund to Kedarnath, there are other  signs of last summer’s devastation. A yellow helicopter stands smashed against a rockface, like a fly swatted against the wall. Another damaged aircraft is now a milestone near Jungle Chatti. Trees are strewn on the riverbed, and along the river lie memories of what once were — a  briefcase hung on a branch, a dupatta on a rock in the middle of the river.

The area near the Kedarnath shrine still has reminders of last year’s flood. (Tashi Tobgyal) The area near the Kedarnath shrine still has reminders of last year’s flood. (Tashi Tobgyal)

As intimidating as these sights are, there is belief that the worst is now over. That the Mandakini will now return to being the benevolent river that she once was, giving life to those around her.

There has been a sharp drop in the number of pilgrims, from close to 15,000 a day till last year to 900 this time. There has been a sharp drop in the number of pilgrims, from close to 15,000 a day till last year to 900 this time.

But perhaps the most abiding sentiment at Kedarnath this year is that in the face of fear, faith has proved unshakeable. Regardless of the difficulty of the path, devotees will still climb. Often, rain clouds gather suddenly over the snow-capped peaks behind Kedarnath, and most admit to a shiver of doubt. But they will still climb. The rain could come down and the Mandakini could see red again. But they will still climb. For the worst has come and gone, and they are still climbing.

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