In the early hours of the morning of June 17, 2013, a flash flood carrying large amounts of silt and rocks came hurtling down the overflowing banks of the Chorabari lake in Uttarakhand. With the eruption of the Mandakini river, the flood gathered momentum and destroyed everything in its path — buildings, houses, people. At Kedarnath temple, one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites in India, the waters created havoc, killing priests and pilgrims alike.
Just when Shailendra Shukla, a priest at the shrine, thought the flood would wash the main temple away, a big boulder that came down with the river got stuck at the back of the temple. “I was inside the temple, people were screaming and I could see the whole area was flooded. Later, I realised it was the stone which saved us,” says Shukla. The boulder had diverted the flow of the water and the temple was saved. “There was no other stone like that in the floods. As people realised its importance, they began praying to the stone,” he says. Named Bhim Shila, the boulder is marked with vermillion and has become a place of worship in a temple town that is struggling with the aftermath of the floods.
After the disaster, the Kedarnath temple was temporarily closed to pilgrims and tourists for a year, while the temple rituals continued. It opened again last May. Two years and two months later, pilgrims are slowly making the way to the shrine from Lincholi, three km away from Kedarnath. Kamala Bai, 70, has come from Rajasthan with her son and is not intimidated by her surroundings. “Ab bhagwan ki marzi (It is the lord’s wish),” she says. But in the years after the floods, the numbers of the faithful at Kedarnath are not on the rise. Vijay Pal Negi, sector magistrate, says that since April this year, only 1,23,288 pilgrims have visited the shrine, a small number compared to the higher figures of the previous years. And though the Uttarakhand government has actively facilitated the redevelopment of the town, local priests are not too pleased.
“It will take time for us to rehabilitate. All sorts of developmental work is done by the government, but it seems alien to me,” says Shukla, who feels that the area now looks like a “tourist hot spot”. A priest at the shrine and former president of the Kedar Sabha, Deendayal Kishan Bagwari agrees: “It seems that the government has given full thrust to tourism rather than maintaining the sanctity of the place. There were various natural geysers here which held religious significance. They were all destroyed during the floods. Why haven’t they been rebuilt?” he asks.
Bagwari says that earlier there used to be approximately 5,000 priests in the area, which has now reduced to 1,000 during peak season, and only 150 remain during the monsoon. But there are those who disagree with him. “The government is trying to give this place some sense of structure,” says Ram Prakash Purohit, who got a shop after a draw system. After the deluge, the government has allotted only two general stores in the area based on a lottery system. The only problem, he says, is the increase in the price of the goods. “On the old route, bringing daily goods were cheaper and the mule owners used to charge Rs 500 per trip. Now we have to pay Rs 1,800 per trip on the new route,” says Purohit.
After the 2013 floods, new roads were built from Rambara, they are steep and longer. It is a 10 km journey to Kedarnath, which, earlier, was only six km. Earlier the vehicles plied till Gaurikund and then the trek started. Now, pilgrims start from Soneprayag and the total trek is 22 kilometres. The result: A bottle of water costs Rs 40.
It is 11 am and at a nearby godown, officials of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) are briefing labourers about the day’s work. Since 2013, most of the development works have been outsourced to NIM, who also identified the new route from Rambara to the shrine and started building roads, and bridges. Amod Pawar, one of the core members of NIM, says that in addition to the construction work, the institute is also responsible for an evacuation plan, in case disaster strikes again. “A three-tier protection plan is in the works. We will fence the area with gabion wire near the Chorabari lake from the where the devastation started to stop the boulders from hurtling down,’’ he says. Pawar adds that a 20-feet iron wall will also be built behind the temple with spaces in between to minimise the impact of water flow.
Suddenly, one hears the sound of JCBs roaring; the machine is transferring large amounts of mud from one place to another. Elsewhere, iron blocks weighing three quintals have been brought by Nepalese workers from Soneprayag. These will be used to reconstruct a bridge at Kedarnath. Almost all the work is carried out by Nepalese labourers, most of whom have come from Kalikot district in Nepal. Kishan Bahadur, 28, has left his wife and two children, in Nepal, simply for the pay. “We get Rs 18,000 per month during trekking season. Our lodging and meals are also free,” he says.
But the temple premises are yet to see signs of rehabilitation. It’s a disturbing sight and under the shattered houses and broken ceilings, unclaimed bodies remain. Bharat Vajpei, 52, a resident of the town, sleeps on a makeshift platform of flat wooden sheet in his dilapidated house, where the walls are supported by loose bricks. “I don’t have any other place to go. I stay so that some day I can see that the bodies of my brother and nephew are pulled out,” he says.
Those whose houses are under debris are awaiting government clearance to build a house. So far, around 47 buildings have been demolished to pave the way for a new, wider, road till the main temple. The priests whose houses have been demolished have been compensated to the tune of Rs 16.5 lakh per property.
Nearly 12 hours later, at night, there is not a soul around. Mules are seen grazing en route to the shrine, a few dogs follow them all the way. Near the NIM camp, shops are closed and houses shut, a police post left unmonitored. There is only an electronic board running a message: Welcome to Kedarnath.
At night, under the clear sky, Kedarnath is a ghost town. Once where people thronged the narrow streets till late, there is little barring broken houses and uncleared debris. A few posters bearing the face of the missing can still be seen on a few walls in the area. The forceful gushing of the Mandakini river is the only sound that can be heard for miles around. There is one more fear that has engulfed the town. A few priests say that many are fearful as there are several bodies still buried under the debris. In some corners, the stench of dead bodies still wafts in the air. “Some of us fear the presence of supernatural beings and we are afraid at night. That’s why all the people sleep with their lights on,” says a priest.