Footprints on Himalaya
The Himalaya is one of the youngest mountain ranges of the world and is still very fragile and volatile. So what holds good for mountain ranges elsewhere in the world may not necessarily hold good here.
Except for scantily populated villages dotting the hills, Himalaya has always been a spiritual destination for people of India. It has been a place to experience spirituality through solitude, meditation, penances, pilgrimage, adventure, art, living with nature and such other pursuits which demand discipline and respect for the space around. Journeys to Himalaya were therefore undertaken with some austerity. As a result this has been a region not frequented by many and infrastructure too was minimal.
This in a way also maintained the ecology of this region and kept it pristine.
With the increasing foot print of commercial tourism the pristine nature of mountain scape is disappearing. Man’s greed to make the most of them without a thought, is evident from the way these regions have grown into shanty towns with abysmally low, ill planned and facilities that are neither human friendly nor eco friendly.
Now to support these towns and the large number of tourists flocking there, other infrastructure such as large scale power plants, roads, garbage disposal, water supply and such others too have had to be setup. We are slowly taking footprints of the plains into the delicate hills. Not only delicate, but hills which are core to life on the plains below; Hills that have nourished the lives in the plains with waters, alluvium, rains and much more!
By reducing the moutainscape are we not snuffing out the sources for our own sustenance and lives?
The very name Badrinath for this holy pilgrim spot, comes from the Badri tree. Badri is a type of berry. This region used to be a place of Badri trees. Today there is hardly any greenery around. All one gets to see are closely packed lodges, shops and eateries.
The word Kedar means a meadow, a flat table of land or water, a flat basin that can hold water. One look at the terrain around the present day temple of Kedarnath confirms why this place was aptly named so.
This picture brings out lucidly, the strategic location of this temple on a high ground in the flat land amid many hills. Naturally when it rains, the water would flow onto this meadow from different heights, different directions. In times of torrential rain and floods, this meadow would but naturally be inundated, true to its name. In the above picture of the Kedar valley in 1880s, we see the temple standing alone and nothing much else other than a few lone huts.
Before the June 2013 deluge, the whole area around it had mushroomed like a shanty town with very little adherence to organized planning and proper understanding of the heavy water flow or the seismological implications. In fact the temple seems lost amidst other buildings.
Soul Searching In the Hills
Development for Yatri, pilgrims is essential. But it should take into consideration both seismological and ecological factors. While the temple area needs to be pristine, facilities could be staggered across different valleys along the route. This would bring up only small footprints around the temple and not a large shanty town.
The capacity of any piece of land to house anything, be it people, animals or plant life, is defined by its spread, topology, environs and natural resources available to it right there and not elsewhere on another piece of land. Stretching things beyond this capacity is bound to cause stress to the land, its environs and its inhabitants eventually leading to an imbalance and breakdown.
Just because we have the technology and economic resources on hand, we cannot create almost city-sized towns on the hilly heights. Even though we may think of these pilgrim towns or tourist spots as having only a floating population which stays for a night or two during the few months that these are open to public, the average number of people who fill these hill towns are higher than those on the plains. Also floating people leave behind larger ecological footprints than permanent residents who conserve for future.
We need to rethink our approach to pilgrimage and tourism in such ecologically and geologically difficult terrain. Instead of concentrating all facilities near the temple just because it is a flat land and easier to build there, the money and effort could have been put into development of towns with planned infrastructure, lower in the hills, connected by technically advanced, safe mountain roads and tunnels, wide enough to enable quicker day-trips to and from these pilgrim spots higher up. Food and other provisions could be sent up with the travelers and the waste brought back with them for proper disposal at lower grounds.
This would not only reduce the need for housing, electricity, water, food and other infrastructure at the pilgrimage areas to enable people to stay overnight and return, it would also reduce the amount of pollutants being released in those delicate heights. Environment friendly medium of transport too could be deployed to prevent pollution of the hills.
Wider roads and transport would also be a boon for the locals of the hills enroute in times of emergencies which are not uncommon in this region of Uttarakhand.
After the recent catastrophe, it will be foolish on our part, if still we do not learn the meaning of the word Kedar and continue to be deceived by such flat lands in the midst of high, snow clad hills, as they can be equally dangerous as the narrow ridges.
Another point to note here is that while the modern structures have been washed out, it is the traditional architecture of the Kedarnath temple, that has stood this test of Nature’s fury and human’s folly.