Sunday, October 27, 2013

Back to Kedarnath, The Valley of the Dead

You see, their morals, their code, it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you. When the chips are down, these... these civilized people, they'll eat each other.   These lines immortalized by The Joker in The Dark Knight makes perfect sense to me after a visit to Kedarnath. Something needs to be done about the joke that's being played out in Uttarakhand presently. It's a rather long post, so be warned. And please share if you care.

Context: The picturesque Uttarakhand state situated in the cradle of Himalayas was wrecked by cloudbursts, landslides, and floods in the second half of June, 2013. Thousands of people died, and many more were rendered homeless. Thanks to the intervention of Indian armed forces and the paramilitary, thousands were airlifted and rescued over the next few weeks. Four months down the line, the relief work in the hard-hit areas reeks of inefficiency and corruption (SURPRISE!). First, there's this inaccuracy in reported casualty numbers-somewhere to the tune of 4,500 (officially), when the facts on the ground indicate MUCH more. Second, there's this question of delayed or half-hearted relief operations- people are out on the streets protesting the callousness of the approach. Third, there's insult doled out in the form of cheques to the living dead - sometimes as low as Rs. 200 for having lost all forms of livelihood. And when some of those puny cheques bounce, you have no option, but to quote Tolkien "There is no curse in Elvish, Entish, or the tongues of Men for this treachery."

The government declared victory by restarting the prayer ceremony at Kedarnath, the worst affected of the four holiest places for Hindu pilgrimage. Public was still not allowed. I felt that there was something rotten in the state of Uttarakhand. Just what and how much, I was going to find out.

The Trip: In early October, I booked my tickets to Delhi determined to get to Kedarnath, the epicenter of the cloudburst and destruction. I was in touch with a trekker friend, Tilak, to try and get some sort of red tape permission to get to the closed sanctuary. That was not needed, coz thankfully, on October 5th, the government started issuing permits to up to 200 people a day to go to Kedarnath. Wow, things cannot be so bad, if they're letting civilians go up there, I thought. Thus, on the chilly morning of the 13th of October, I found myself applying for the permit and undergoing a health checkup at the GMVN in Guptkashi. We had 7 people with us, a ragged sprinkling of people from different parts of the country, including a survivor of the cataclysm of June 17th. The medical checkup revealed that my BP was 90/140 (no surprises on the higher end) and the doctor asked me repeatedly if I'm taking medicines. I told him I was not, but he warned me anyway to take the trek at a slow pace. He need not have.

The destruction was evident on our journey all the way up to Guptkashi. This is what is left of the GMVN resort at Syalsaur - what used to be a paradise for vacationers as well as couples on honeymoon.

Just to give you a perspective, this was how it looked 3 years back when I stayed there with my team from ansr

We might not be able to prevent disasters, but we are quite capable of perpetuating the misery. Here's how some people in the region cross the river, four months after the disaster. We saw these contraptions in a couple of places. To add insult to injury these have become tourist attractions of sorts. Sorry for digressing, but yes, we deserve that permanent membership seat at the UN Security Council.

By eleven O clock, we reached Rampur, an otherwise hustling bustling mini-township situated a few kilometres before Gaurikund, the base camp for the original 14 km trek to Kedarnath.

The impact of the tragedy on the economy of the northern ranges of the state is Himalayan in nature. Uttarakhand pretty much survives on four or five months of pilgrim tourism (May/June and Sept-Nov) and a bit of trekking/adventure income. All of it has been lost this year, and what awaits in the years to come is also uncertain. Here's a "salon" that the owner was not even bothered to inhabit. 

Further up, the sight of the parking lot at Sitapur - trucks and vehicles were chewed and thrown up - reminded me of Tremors, a 1990 movie (which people find strange that I like). 

The current base camp for the trek to Kedarnath is Sonprayag, another 5.5 kilometers before Gaurikund. The total trek distance has increased to around 20+ kilometers, thanks to a new route, and the extension of the starting point to Sonprayag.

Approaching Sonprayag.

These cars have become notice boards of sorts for "people missing" posters.

As I walked around clicking pictures, I sensed a faint but nauseating whiff in the air. Thinking it was my mind playing self-fulfilling-prophecy games, I turned around and asked Tilak and Bijendra, and they confirmed that my nose was in fact working accurately. I sensed that beneath the rock and debris, there's decaying matter that has not been excavated and buried properly.  That would not be the first time my nasal powers would be put to test.

Son Prayag is situated at the confluence of two rivers - Son Ganga on the left and Mandakini on the right (in the picture below). There used to be a huge metal girder bridge which was swept away by the onslaught of rocks and debris. Even the remnants of the bridge are nowhere to be seen.

We started our trek at around 12 in the afternoon. Vehicles could ply up to Gaurikund before the disaster happened. The road does not exist now, for the most part.

From Sonprayag, we trekked up using an old route that were used by mule riders to get the animals to Gaurikund. When it was season, there would be anywhere between 5,000 to 10,000 mules in Gaurikund. For those who did not want to walk, mules were the preferred means of getting to Kedarnath. This path was created so that there would be little commotion on the usual road to Gaurikund, which would otherwise be packed with vehicles.
The stretch wasn't easy for me, as there was some serious altitude gain.
New route carved out of the remains of a landslide.
This is what's left of the vehicles that were parked at Gaurikund in June. They are stranded because the roads have been washed away. If they had any emotions, they would be feeling rather ok about their fate compared to the thousands of vehicles that were swept away.

Approaching Gaurikund.
Half of this settlement has been washed away. No hot water springs, no temples, Gaurikund only has a few closed hotels and shops left.
This is a place where thousands of people used to throng. The streets of Gaurikund, where you had to fight for space, where devotional music filled your ears and shops sold char dham DVDs, winter-wear, food, paan, oxygen, and what not - the silence was deafening. Another economic nightmare.
The mules are back in business, albeit at a microscopic scale compared to the heydays a few moons ago. Here's one of them getting prepped for the tough life ahead.

We reached Gaurikund by around 2 PM. That was good progress for 5+ kilometers. Our destination for the day was Bhim Bali, around 7 kms further ahead. For now, Bhim Bali has taken over from Rambara as the midpoint halt.

This doohickey seen below is called a palki (short for palanquin?). These were used to carry people up, much like how the Maharajah's of yore liked to be pampered. Four strong men would march in unison carrying on their shoulders what usually would be an obese or an old pilgrim.

After a short break for tea and biscuits, we started our second leg for the day. This is the starting point of the original trek to Kedarnath. In the distance, you can see the colored railings of the old trek route.

 View of the starting point after crossing over to the other side.
Open boxes and destroyed shacks, staple scenes on the route.
These shacks littered throughout the route used to serve food to weary travelers and pilgrims, while doubling up as resting places. 
 An Ibex that got stuck in the middle of rocks. I'm sure he or she managed to escape.
After a kilometer or so, the original trek route gave way to landslides, and we had to climb up a new one. This was tough.
On the way we came across a rescue helicopter that crashed during the action. Thankfully, the crew and passengers had a miraculous escape - a feet or two more, and it would have plunged into a gorge below.
 It was getting to be a bit late in the evening. Sun sets earlier in the hills (FYI, just in case you did not know).
Scenes of disaster everywhere.

The only thing that hasn't changed in the last few months, if not the last few millenia, is the grandeur of the Himalayas. I debated to myself whether I had come here for this beauty or to analyze what transpired in Kedarnath. Neither side won.

Finally, at around 6 in the evening, I dragged myself to the Bhim Bali campsite. Here's a proud bhotia dog at the campsite. He would accompany me for a good part of my journey the next day. 

The person who runs this shack (in the green sweater) is from Guptkashi. He used to own a few hotels and shops at different points in this region. Now he operates this place, as he has little else to do.  I recognized him because he sold me some painkillers from his pharmacy in Guptkashi just the very same morning.  

The makeshift helipad at Bhim Bali.

Around 30 people were there that night at Bhim Bali. One of them was Swami Sushantha, who had traveled along with us from Guptkashi. On the fateful morning of June 17th, he was there at Kedarnath when all hell broke lose from the glaciers above and water, rocks, and sludge lashed out at the township as a 70 feet wall of sheer energy. He and a few others survived by holding on to the Nandi statue in front of the temple. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he recounted the story of what transpired after the major wave had passed. There were bodies and screams everywhere, but what struck him most was the sight of a single hand waving for help, with the body buried inside the debris. He said, "I could not have saved that person. All I did was to pray to the Lord that that person's journey be quick".

The only time in my life when I did not grudge veg food. I was thankful for whatever was on offer and gobbled it down without the hint of a burp. That's Bijendra on my right (if you know me, i.e.).

Btw, stay and food was free, organized by the government. While lying in the tent that night, I wondered w.t.f I was doing in a Red Cross tent. Most probably, this tent would have been given by the Red Cross for relief work during the days of the tragedy. What was it doing here as an accommodation for the "government-sponsored" pilgrimage? I was not being thankless for the shelter, but was just wondering how much our governments would stoop to project a brave face.
All of us woke up by around 6 in the morning. We decided to have breakfast and rest at Linchauli, the next resting point about 3 kilometers away. After a few hundred metres of walk, we reached Rambara, the township once capable of accommodating thousands of people. On the day of the tragedy, an estimated 3,000 people stayed here. Yes, HERE.

A picture of Rambara from the other side of the river.
In case, you wondered where Rambara was in those pictures.....well it wasn't there. The settlement was shaved off and it slipped and fell into the river - everything below the treeline. It was hit on the night of June 16th in the first wave that washed over Kedar. It must have been decimated the next day with the cloudburst. Those who survived the ordeal and went up into the forest to survive - well, most of them perished due to hunger, thirst, cold, and landslides, and no one kept count of how many went up.
From Rambara, the route changes completely as we cross the Mandakini river using a makeshift bridge to the other side of the valley. 
In the pic below, you can see the old trekking route that has been destroyed on both ends. People stuck in stretches like this would have been the most vulnerable - with the intense rain and the threat of further landslides. Nothing can prepare you for this, but most pilgrims undertaking the yatra are poor and are often ill-equipped to handle the cold weather. The temptation to move up into the forest for shelter could have proved deadly for a lot of them.

The new route on the right side of the river is tough with some serious climbs. It is set in dense forests, and on another day and another location, I would have found it beautiful.
Pit stop with my fellow trekkers. Sachin (Delhi), Tilak (Uttarkashi), Sushil (Samastipur/Dubai), and Bijendra (Rishikesh).

At about 10 in the morning we reached Linchauli, where we had breakfast. Linchauli too has a sprinkling of Red Cross tents for accommodation. Along with the cops, Shanti Kunj foundation also makes sure that the travelers are fed properly. The administration apparently told Shanti Kunj fellows to pipe down their hospitality a bit, so that the administration does not have to share too much credit.

 Laying the new trekking route. I heard a few dynamite blasts along the route and thought "guys, shhh...this whole place may blow up".

 The mountains were getting closer with each painful step.

In the center of the pic below, you can see the remains of a helicopter. People inside this one were not lucky enough to escape.

 At another pit stop. We had to stop because there was another round of serious elevation in front of us.  
This hill is what I'm talking about. It zapped all of my remaining energy. On the plus side, you get a summit feeling once you reach the top.
Beyond the summit, it was plain walking ground. 

A beautiful glacial melt on the way. 

At around 1 I reached the final camping ground, about a kilometer from Kedar. I kept my bag there and started for the final stretch. Everyone else had gone straight ahead, but I preferred to take it slow. While walking alone, I wondered about our conversations over the days. About hundreds of dead bodies of people who tried to escape by climbing the hills around Kedar - they are still there much above Vasuki Tal, and potentially will never be cleaned up. About people who asked for sex and money in return for shelter. About bodies being found in Kedar itself by hoteliers who are clearing up the debris. About the baba (saint -sic) who wouldn't let go off his big dholak (drum) while boarding a rescue helicopter (cops got suspicious and they ripped apart his dholak to find crores of currency.)  About kids who were taken from wandering parents and left astray after taking money for helicopter rides to safety. About the goat-herder who raped a girl for weeks after she ran into him. About people who "foraged" dead and rotting bodies for gold and valuables. About the guy who cut off a finger for a gold ring who was warned of sin and his response "this one is a sinner, that's why she is dead". About NGO trucks that had no clue and dropped relief material in places that were not needed. About Sushil, who asked "how can people behave like that in times like this".
Good deeds were done during the tragedy and these (and many more) could have been exceptions, but still, it bothers. Coz, no man is an island.

Soon the destruction came into plain view. If you look closely to the left of the picture, you can see a small crisscross trail that leads to the top - it leads to Gandhi Sarover aka Chora Bari Tal. After the cloudburst, all hell broke lose, and flowed down to Kedar below.

The  Bhairav Mandir on the right side of Kedar. People ran up here to escape. Most of them would have been safe and should have been airlifted.

The small Doodh Ganga River on the left of Kedar. She pounded the township with her fair share of rocks, while Mandakini did the damage from up above and Saraswathi River from the right. Wait a minute...Saraswati? 

It was my sixth visit to Kedarnath. Unsure of the makeshift rickety bridge, I paused for some time staring at the Saraswati River. This was the first time I would cross her to get into Kedarnath township. It used to be an iron bridge over Mandakini river that did the honors along with a big bell on the bridge that I would ring. Saraswati was a small nondescript stream then. Now, after the tragedy of June 2013, a new river has been born technically speaking. The slim channel of yesteryear has morphed into a roaring Himalayan river. Geography was being made, so to speak, as well as history. The marking on the rock clearly stated that not more than one person should cross the river at any given time. This is Saraswati.

I crossed over edgily and walked to the township, the stones painted in white leading my way. One could easily get lost without directions, but I wasn't about to blame the administration for not putting arrow marks, well not yet. That sentiment changed in a few minutes as my mind started churning out expletives.

I had thought that the place had been cleared by now, bodies dug up and cremated. Despite the warnings of people I met on the way, I had never imagined the place like this. How did anyone have the audacity to restart a pilgrimage to a place like this? Hotels and establishments had sand filled to the first floor in places - and there were people in those rooms.
I stepped into the main path and in front of me was the temple. A single word came to my mind....cemetery. I just stood there taking pictures.

It was about 1.30 in the afternoon. It took me some time to walk till the temple, and before I reached, the bells rang out, and the temple was closed for the afternoon, denying me a chance to enter. Fine! I thought.

Outside the temple, Tilak was planning to do a havan (prayer ceremony). One of the priests refused to preside over the havan because none of the people were wearing the sacred thread (well, it's a Hindu thingie). And I was in my mind saying, haven't you seen enough already? Nature (God, if you wish) does not discriminate between people, when she is at her ravenous best. I think it was money that overcame the ritualistic technicality in the end. I sat at the edge of the pooja, dazed by what I had seen. That's Tilak Soni, doing the havan.

 The person wearing saffron is Swami Sushantha, the survivor of the calamity.

After the pooja was done, I walked around the temple to see the Sacred Rock (Divya Shila) which had saved the temple from decimation. The big piece of rock is worshiped now, as it is said to have blocked other boulders from hitting the main temple. 

I have a different theory. This is a shot of the posterior of the temple. Numerous rocks had already reached the temple and had blocked the path of the big one (on its way to destroy the temple), is what me thinks. I could be wrong, but Physics anyway has no role in belief, as Galileo discovered centuries ago.

The Kedar Temple is situated at an elevation of about 4-5 feet from the ground nearby. It's all level now. So it is possible, that inside the debris covering the township at 5 feet height there are people dead. It is also possible that in the buildings covered in sand up to 1st floor and closed by rocks, there are bodies. I was thinking all this would have been cleared before they announced the yatra. And if you're thinking I'm cooking this up...NO. Foul odor emanates from some buildings which are farther away from the main route to the temple. All of this is outrageous simply because it is not even a secret. I leave it to your judgment as to what is palatable.

From the clothing, what must have been a lady!
Tilak went walking and unearthed a few more. Mind, you, we were just walking, not "unearthing" or digging, so to speak.
The amphitheater of destruction!
 A hotelier I met had come here to dig the sand and rocks from what remained of his building. He fled after he found human remains.

 The Nandi statue that saved our fellow traveler and a few more people.
A visibly miffed, Mr. Shukla, in front of his destroyed hotel. He received a compensation of Rs. 8,000.

 Who could have escaped this?
 Entrance of a hotel.
 Private players digging out their hotels. Corpses have already come out in such instances. I'm a fan of Stephen King books, but even he could not have weaved a thread so bizarre.

 The flow from above that cleared it all.

The big rock - another shot.
Somewhere around here stood the memorial of Shri. Sankaracharya, who is believed to have founded this temple.
Clearing out the debris. This is bang in front of the temple.
Most of my team mates left by around 4 in the evening, unable to stand the destruction. I stayed put for the temple to open and for the aarti. I had my hands folded during the aarti, but I was not praying. I kept thinking how to present this tale to the world that has moved on after the media blip in June.

As I walked out of the temple, I met Mr. Radhakrishnan, a former journalist of LA Times. He was hopping mad. He could not make any sense of the nonsense unfolding in front of him in the name of pilgrimage. As we walked back to our tents for the night, the three of us (including a stranger who kept the torch alive in the darkness) were convinced of a few things. The obvious thing was that nature had been harsh on everyone. What was even more pathetic was the way in which we treated the survivors. What truly took the cake was the disgusting manner in which we are treating our dead - by running a pilgrimage over what's left of their bodies.

My tryst with Kedar started in 1998. For once, I'm not so sure if I would want to go back ever again. For the administration, three recommendations - (1) Stop the yatra/pilgrimage charade; (2) Hand over the area to army/BRO/NIM, let them excavate/demolish the place of all nonessential buildings, give the dead as well as the living their due, and then announce to the world that we have arrived. (3) Last but not the least, make an effort to estimate the true casualty figure. A.K.A start digging before you stop counting. Since the government has already displaced the peacock with the ostrich as the national bird, you will have to take my word for this - way more than 20,000 people are dead.

And, if I can make a prediction, the monsoon of 2014 could turn out to be much worse for the area, with two rivers pummeling it from both sides. And for those itching to visit Kedarnath, a word of advice - yeh Kedarnath nahin, kabristan hain (this is not Kedarnath, this is a graveyard). If you were with me so far, I leave you with a few words by John Donne.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Two words explain my trip and I'm not proud of them - "disaster tourism". Jai Kedar!
In the months that followed, I found myself going back to Kedarnath. It was, among others, to witness the opening of the shrine in May, 2014.