Thursday, June 20, 2013

3 dozen years and a ....birthday wish...or two

I'm not a great fan of birthday celebrations (when it comes to mine). In fact, I vividly remember just one one of my birthdays - the previous year's, when my colleagues totally tricked me into a gala time. This year, I guess it's not much of a celebratory mood. Around 6:00 AM, 21 June 2013, I would  turn 36 (unless my hospital records were doctored with some malicious intent).

I'm writing this piece with a purpose, and a sense of relief. I shouldn't have been in Bangalore today. There were two possible locations that I could have been in. One was Chattisgarh, the naxal infested state in India that I wanted to visit. In one moment of heightened emotion, following the brazen attack that killed about 28 people last month, I booked my flight tickets to Raipur, so that I would be in Chattisgarh on my birthday. The ill-conceived plan was to get on the ground, talk to people, and write about it. Well that plan just blew up on the ground itself (or in the hangar, as Calvin would say) as I realized the treacherous nature of the assignment in another moment of heightened clarity. One of my friends did help with his message "the naxals will provide candles for your birthday dinner".

The other plan I had was for Uttarakhand. As usual these days, I contacted Randeep (my fellow criminal travel buddy for Madmeheswar trek and Kumbh Mela) with plans to trek to Saptarishi Kund, a glacial lake situated at altitude of 4400 odd metres. The lake is the source of River Yamuna. And the idea was to be there on my birthday (note the narcissistic streak, My Lord). That plan was dropped as Randeep did not have the time to make it. I would have gone alone, but there's stuff. You know about stuff, don't you?

In retrospect, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because we might have found ourselves in the middle of a flash flood, one of the worst to hit the Himalayan ranges in recent years. Water levels in the Yamuna have exceeded record levels, while the rest of the region is grappling with rescue efforts for tens of thousands of stranded travelers and pilgrims. The current official death toll is about 140, but it may well touch four figures, after we take full stock of the situation once the debris settles.

The epicentre of the flash flood was the lake called Chora Bari Tal (aka Gandhi Sarovar), which is the source of the river Mandakini (which becomes Alak Nanda later on). Situated 3 km away from Kedarnath, this lake and its surrounding regions have been my favorite trekking ground for years. Well this is what's left of Kedarnath now:

Source of the pic.

My association with Kedarnath and the lake go a long way. My first journey to this region was in 1998. We had gone there as part of our Char Dham trip. We walked up in rains in June. That's Sumesh and Somnath, my juniors from college.  And they are wearing plastic makeshift ponchos protecting us from brrr rain.

Years and a few visits later, this is how the temple and surroundings looked in 2005. The majestic views of the Kedar Dome and the peaks around are unparalleled.
 The Kedar township from top on the way to Chora Bari Tal.

With my friend Sumesh, on the pathways around the temple, where currently you can find sludge that is 6 feet high. Oddly enough, that's my height too. Now, why did I think of a Creed song while I typed that?

Both of us kept our passion for the region alive. Incidentally, both of us got married at around the same time (I forget the year, because there is no time stamp on the pics ;) ). And it was no surprise, that we went with our equally enthusiastic spouses to this region. That's me and my wife in front of the glacial snout of Chora Bari Tal, the focal point of this year's disaster.
The rubble around the lake. This is part of the Kedar dome behind the temple, which broke this year sending huge rocks and sludge all the way down.The cloudburst and the water from the lake created a flowing wall of disaster that engulfed Kedarnath.

A peaceful resting place en route to Kedarnath. It would hurt anyone who's been here to think that none of this is there anymore.
I visited the place again in 2008 with my friend Shiju. I've written about it here. Here's a shot of the beautiful Mandakini river near Kedar. This year, she just changed her stance to the peril of  thousands of people.
 The lake from a different angle.
 When all of this decides to break lose, what can men do?
Compare this with the shots that you see today in the papers and you will get the full picture.
My heart goes out to those tens of thousands of people who are suffering right now. And, am I glad to have sidestepped this fury? Yes. But that does not reduce the pain. What's happened will for years continue to haunt people - yatris and trekkers. The army and BRO (Border Roads Organization) will do a decent job with rescue and reconstruction even given the constraints - that much I am sure of.

What I'm not sure of is the environmental angle - will the rape of the hills stop? Will the milking of the rivers - every few kilometers - in the name of power generation stop? Will the abuse of nature in the name of development (corruption) stop? I'm not sure. Because, what's a few thousand lives in a country with a billion people, whose collective memories are a blip. BTW, these dam construction efforts are staple scenes along the way!

I wish I had not changed my phones and lost Prem Singh's phone number in the process. He is (I pray that he is still around) a mule driver who once took me to Kedarnath on the back of his beloved mule, Rani. That was the time when I decided against walking the 14 km path from Gaurikund (Gaurikund, for practical purposes does not exist now.) to Kedarnath. He had saved my number as Kerala Babu, and used to call me once or twice a year just to check in on status. If I have just one wish for my birthday, I wish he is alive, and that all of the people who are in danger make it.
As for ecology, these roads less traveled need to be protected for our children. This one below has been destroyed, but we can rebuild!
Have a great year ahead, all of you! Now, that's a second wish, but then hey, it's my birthday. I shared this with a friend of mine, and the person had this to say:

"Advanced B'Day Wishes..Nice Blog..May be those rivers wanted to take a revenge for dumping all trash into them..I feel sorry for the people..but I feel sorry for the nature too..."

Peace! But there's a nightmare unfolding in Uttarakhand, as we speak.


  1. You have great passion and knowledge regarding ecology of hills. But I am still unable to figure out what our Meteorology department funded by taxpayer money is about to do.

    1. Hi Dr. Rajiv,
      Met Dept is a joke like any other govt depts working without accountability.
      But they have predicted heavy showers around June 27. I just hope, that this prediction of theirs do not come true.
      As it is, the human toll is expected to be in the thousands.With 30 or 40,000 stranded people, another round of rains will be a nightmarish calamity - if this wasn't one.

  2. I read that meteorology department is planning to develop something to predict the rainfall more accurately. If they do it, that is definitely going to be a good forward step (if they use it properly). Just predicting the rainfall is not enough. They should check the history of those events and should be able to predict the level of disaster and evacuate people before it hits the area. It is really sad that our country is technologically far ahead and we still don't have any basic facilities to save our people. Of course, Met department can only predict it, they cannot control any changes people make to the ecosystem!

  3. Indeed. I recognized a lot of areas from when news started pouring in, familiar mostly because of your blog. The situation is quite horrific.

  4. this was all about our carelessness for our enviornment and left to these corrupt politicians....... Whos just know how to make money in the name of development...... Plz plz now its time to revolunize ourself....

  5. this was all about our carelessness for our enviornment and left to these corrupt politicians....... Whos just know how to make money in the name of development...... Plz plz now its time to revolunize ourself....

  6. boss what about the dams..who will predict about is very clear that it was "Gandhi Sarvor Dam" built over Chorabari River which released million of gallons of water which added to the disaster in Uttarakhand.
    We need to have a much sensitive govt. which understands and relates to general public's problem and issues and does not allow taming of our natural resources which result in such calamities.

    1. Hi Vishal,
      There was no Gandhi Sarovar dam built anywhere above Kedar. Gandhi Sarovar/Chorabari Tal are the same thing - a small natural lake formed from the glacial melt of Chorabari glacier.
      As for the dams downstream, they are a different story.

  7. Global warming has shown itz worst face this year. Itz high time for us, need to take a step towards protecting the environment. Otherwise the earth gets washed away like this.

  8. thanks for the beautiful shots my dear saji...feels as if i've been through....actually i did'nt get this much information from anywhere else....n i pray for premsingh...dis b'day i wish ur prayers come true...

  9. Great piece daa, our convo is still pending and when are u down to mumbai


  10. Informative and sensitive article. I can understand your feelings. I could just dream of going to these places now that dream is shattered. so much of destruction.... We need to raise our voices to stop the people from destroying nature which has resulted in the tragedy.

    1. I hope we can rebuild things in a sensible and controlled manner. Disasters, however painful they may be, are also opportunities to rework our thought processes - our views on development, tourism, ecology, and disaster management, just to name a few.