Every time my mother says she wants to go for the Char Dham Yatra I try my best to dissuade her. This year, my worst fears came true
It is with a sense of deep foreboding that I read and saw the reports of the calamity in Uttarakhand.
Pictures of deeply cut roads, swollen rivers, landslides, people and vehicles being swept away and the terrifying fury of rain and flood sparing nothing and no one. It had happened last year too, and floods are not uncommon in this region.
What was different this time was the speed and magnitude of events that unfolded in the past fortnight, and later the heroic rescue operations by the armed forces.
Twice the number of its population visit this beautiful state every year according to news reports, and the Char Dham pilgrimage and trekking are big draws. Some of the places affected seem so familiar even though it was so many years ago.
It was in 1992 when my trekking gang had attempted this journey. While most of us were not religious, the prospect of some trekking was exciting -- but what we discovered along the way shocked and distressed us in varying degrees.
It was mid June and the rains had just set in. We hired an unwieldy jeep to begin the journey at Hrishikesh. The sight of the Ganga at Har ki Pauri was not memorable; it was filthy and full of decaying flowers and we watched in horror at body parts flowing by.
Even the most religious among us wanted a quick get-away from there. At Uttarkashi it rained so heavily that our hotel room was flooded almost knee-deep, and being on a rather tight budget we didn't have the luxury of changing to a better place.
Even then the hotels were all along the river and sanitation was non existent. By the time we drove upto Gangotri, the jeep and all of us were in tatters. It was evening and we decided to hike to the glacier at Gaumukh 18 km away , with a night halt at Chirbasa.
Someone said that sleeping bags would be available en route and so we left the stuff we didn't need in a small hotel room. The walk was uneventful but there were no sleeping bags at Chirbasa so we spent a horrid cold night on some benches before legging the remaining 9 km or so to Gaumukh, the source of the Bhagirathi.
En route, stones and mud kept dropping on us and we had to run through the path to avoid them. The air was full of the cries of people, many of them old, muttering Jai Ganga as they approached the glacier . As soon as they reached the snout, believed to be shaped like the mouth of a cow, they stripped and plunged into the freezing waters, then wore their wet clothes and started the march back.
The women too, some of them dipped in the ice cold waters with their saris on. The glacier was muddy and even in the backdrop of the grey skies and tall mountains behind, it was an unprepossessing sight. We walked back skirting the mini landslides before reaching Gangotri .
For the barefooted pilgrims it was faith that kept them going at that altitude. While the start of the trek was promising, the entire stretch looked degraded after Chirbasa with practically no vegetation. The hillsides were sandy and brittle and kept coming down. For the hordes of pilgrims who visit the area the arrangements were frugal. Our room at Gangotri was perched on the riverbank and we could walk down for a bath.
But our troubles had begun even before we reached Gangotri when the jeep which couldnt take the punishing winding roads, gave up. With difficulty we reached Harsil which had an army EME unit and we begged them to repair it. An armyman kindly agreed but not before telling us that it was near Harsil where the famous clinging sari sequence with Mandakini in the film Ram teri ganga maili was shot.
Least interested in this jungle lore we hoped he would repair the jeep. Though he spoke the local language our benefactor didn't look to be a local and predictably he turned out to be from my home state, much to the amusement of the others.
Mr Nair if I recall correctly, from Chengannur. He was so thrilled meeting me and we conversed in Malayalam for a while . I was treated to a cup of tea while my companions fretted over the jeep. Harsil was beautiful and serene, no pilgrims or tourists thronged the place and the river was quick and green. I cant imagine the horror in Harsil now after the floods.
While we got back on the road to our next stop, the jeep gave way. The driver made us wait on the road and said he would go and try to arrange for another vehicle. That was the last we saw of him. He never returned and we were stuck for long as we tried to stop vehicles without much luck till dark.
Our Char Dham yatra had ended unceremoniously and we were back to our flooded hotel once again in Uttarkashi besieged by the rains. At that time this area was part of Uttar Pradesh and our opinion of the State sank even lower.
What was also striking then was the degradation all around us, the hillsides were ravaged, the narrow roads hugging them were precarious to say the least, and the number of vehicles far too many. The construction of hotels and rest houses was haphazard and mostly on the banks and everything went down to the river, which was a handy septic tank. None of us ever wanted to return to that region and to drown our sorrows we decided to splurge and visit Mussoorie as a treat.
Everytime my mother mentions that she wants to go for the Char Dham Yatra I try my best to dissuade her. Every year some of my aunts or family make the trip stirring her desire afresh. But I have been steadfast and my worst fears came true this year, when I heard about the cloudburst and the floods.
Some of those places were so familiar and it was tragic that such devastation and loss of life had occurred. After some years we did venture for a proper trek which was one of the happier experiences in the area. This time it was the Pindari glacier which was still beautiful and pristine and a rather leisurely trek for the most part. The floods now affected the Pindari area and trekkers had to be rescued.
In a fragile Himalayan environment trampled by tourism and development, there were no mitigating factors. There were no early warning systems, no evacuation protocols and the army had to literally conduct a rescue and relief war of sorts. Many of the pilgrims were old, unhealthy, poorly clothed and in need of medical care and lost their lives as a result.
The horror that is playing out in the region with so many people still missing is still not over. And the chances that we learn any lesson from this disaster are pretty dim.