Each time I visit my hometown Almora in the Uttarakhand hills, or the capital city of Dehradun, I see change. The old hillsides have lost most of their trees. In their place have sprung up fancy new bungalows, all cement and glass—the summer vacation homes for the well-heeled non-locals. Shiny SUVs, private clinics, spas and English-medium schools are everywhere. Very few locals now speak the local dialects. The old roads to the old houses remain congested and potholed. Water supply and sanitation are a major headache during the tourist season. In the last five years I have repeatedly heard complaints from groups of unemployed youngsters roaming the streets, and from elders sitting on benches in parks or tea shops. They grieve over being colonised by the moneyed people from the plains. About a general decline in everything, from governance to the environment. Yet, in the just-concluded elections to the state assembly, they’ve voted back the incumbent party with a clear majority.
Why? In the pregnant phrase of a politician, “Aap chronology samjhiye”, the state of Uttarakhand has existed only for 20-odd years, since November 9, 2000 to be precise. But it is a mind-boggling mish-mash of cultures and gods and demi-gods that successive tribal clans, Brahminical, Buddhist and meandering yogis have introduced in the region for the past five centuries. From Adi Shankaracharya to the heretical founder of the Gorakhpanthi sect, Guru Gorakhnath, to Guru Nanak, all have come to the Himalayas on spiritual journeys. All these have dotted the land with countless temples and mutts to various gods and goddesses. Only some belong to mainstream Hindu dharma. Most of them are the presiding deities of hill ranges, rivers and waterfalls.