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Kedarnath: Puja restored,resuming pilgrimage a mountainous task

The ground floors of several buildings continue to lie buried under.

The reopening of the Kedarnath temple may have been the easiest of the tasks on the Uttarakhand government’s hands. The resumption of the pilgrimage is a long way off.

Much of the geographical and geological changes caused by June’s flash floods are permanent. The Mandakini,which flowed to the right of the temple,now goes in a necklace shape around it,the larger branch to the left. Boulders almost the size of a truck have changed its course while the debris and silt left behind by the rushing waters still lie about eight feet high.

The ground floors of several buildings continue to lie buried under. The overpowering stink indicates many bodies still lie unrecovered. On puja day,government sprayed bleaching powder but couldn’t cover the smell.

The mountain at the back of the temple continues to look like a dug-up quarry with no sign of greenery. Even moderate rains continue to bring boulders and rubble down the mountain. The samadhi of Adi Shankaracharya at the back of the temple is gone.

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Except by air,the temple is currently accessible only by a temporary bridge over the river Mandakini,made of tin and pieces of wood. The bridge was remade after an SDM-ranked officer fell off an earlier one,built at the same site after the flash floods. The officer’s body is yet to be recovered from the river.

“After the puja,there will be a new plan. The first priority was resumption,” says J C Kandpal,an SDM-ranked officer who is camping there.

A three-member team of the Geological Survey of India walks on one peak. “They are surveying the new topography after the June disaster,” says Rudraprayag district magistrate Dilip Jawalkar.

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Teams of the NDRF (National Disaster Response Force),Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM),administrative officers and policemen continue to be deployed near the temple by rotation while an SDM-ranked officer oversees operations. They are accommodated in some 240 tents on the slopes.

Electricity has been restored to the temple and the base camps through small power plants set up by the Uttarakhand Renewable Energy Development Agency. Several solar lamps light up the area.

The BSNL tower doesn’t work in the evening,breaking the area’s contact with the world outside. “It does not have the capacity to provide connectivity all day,” a labourer says. “Perhaps they try to preserve their batteries.”

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A team of doctors,including cardiologists,ensures medical facilities to the workers and officers there. Jal Sansthan supplies drinking water. Two kitchens feed some 200 people.

The government’s urgency is partly explained by signals from the BJP that it will make an election issue out of any failure to restart the pilgrimage. But the operation is running against time. “It may not continue after October,” the officer says. “Yesterday it was 7°C.”

One problem has been persuading tirtha purohits to give up their claims on the buildings that collapsed,such as Bhopal House,Jodhpur House,Rajasthan House or Gujarat Bhavan. The tirtha purohits maintain records such as which pilgrims’ ancestors had undertaken the yatra earlier,accommodate pilgrims,and thrive on donations.

The government wants to demolish all structures in a radius of 200 metres. “The GSI and the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) don’t want any building near the temple We are trying to persuade the tirtha purohits to forgo their claims on the land,” says a government source,adding they can be allotted new sites.

“We can’t give up our claim on sites near the temple. This is our identity,” says Mahesh Bagwari,owner of Jodhpur House. He lost his son Rohit,19,in the disaster.

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The BJP has rallied behind the tirtha purohits,a vital vote bank in two assembly seats. “We can’t leave them in this situation,” says a BJP supporter who has arrived on foot along with former CM Ramesh Pokhriyal.

In the absence of a permanent pedestrian route,helicopter services have been introduced but they struggle due to frequent cloud gatherings. “Rambada is overcast with clouds. Flying there is not advisable,” a private operator staying near the helipad is heard communicating to pilots at the helipads in Phata and Guptakashi. Although an Air ForceMI-17 is available to the state government,it flies from Guptakashi only after the pilots of private helicopters have relayed that the weather is clear enough.

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Another problem is major stretches either washed away or damaged by landslides on the old pedestrian route from Gaurikunda. There is no chance of repairing this route and the government has built the temporary bridge. This route would be 24 km; the earlier one was 14 km. “One can’t walk continuously for 14 km. So,there must be a base camp on the new routes. This is difficult,” says a police officer.

“Bhagwan sab theek kar denge,” says the CEO of the temple committee B D Singh. A Shesh Nag and a Rudraksha Mala have been recovered from the debris,plus new puja utensils made with the help of an old priest. “All utensils required for regular aartu were swept away. We requested our old priest,Raj Linga,who retired six years ago,to draw the design of the old utensils. Then we contacted a goldsmith.”

First published on: 17-09-2013 at 03:59 IST
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