- No screams: Indrajit Pathak, 85, was about to reach the Kedarnath shrine when he was caught in a rumble of stones and water. “Not a scream was heard!” he says. “Just the fury of water.”
- 8 thousand people (and counting) have been rescued by defence forces choppers
Pilgrimages are difficult journeys. They are meant to be. A relinquishing of life’s comforts is part of the idea. A 19th century picture of Kedarnath from the archives of the Geological Survey of India shows the temple stand tall amidst a landscape of nothing but imposing mountains. Mystics and wanderers have spoken of streams of consciousness and energy flowing in such places. With no distraction, just the vastness of nature all around, the pilgrim finds a sense of penance and, sometimes, his sense of self. Over the years, such journeys have become easier, with better transport and connectivity. Kedarnath is no exception. But still, not all difficulties have been eliminated. People come from everywhere, and every hardship, every stiff joint finds itself alive, exhilarating with joy.
For Ravi and Rekha Sharma, what pushed them on despite the difficulties was the fervour of devotees along the way. On June 16, the sound of the sheets of water pouring down had been violent and deafening. The rain hadn’t paused, even for the span of a breath. The couple from Baroda in Gujarat had had their Kedarnath darshan. It was on the trek down they were caught in the downpour. The beautiful landscape that had taken Rekha’s breath away the afternoon they had arrived was forgotten. There was something ominous about the sheets and bursts of rain, the thunder, the howling wind. Rekha had tried to hold her husband’s arm, but found the support of the mountain edge more comfortable. “He’d only moved a few steps ahead, and boulders suddenly crashed on to the road. I saw a huge gap. We barely had time to let out a cry.”
An angry stream, long restricted, gushed out taking with it large tracts of soil. Rekha was on one side; a few hundreds were across; the ones in the middle, like Ravi, were nowhere to be seen. The Mandakini, flowing below, had turned brown. Rekha remembers that Ravi was wearing a navy blue shirt.
For the next three days, Rekha and about a hundred others tried everything, trying different paths, deceptive short cuts, rocky climbs, calling out the names of loved ones and waving garments to catch attention. In the end, it was all the same: they were stuck on a narrow road fringed by gorges and a deep, sharp decline in front. They reckoned they were a few kilometres short of Rambara, halfway between Gaurikund and Kedarnath. “We had nothing to eat except what we had carried with us. We could see food packets being dropped but they often ended up in the river. It was a very hungry river,” Rekha says.
The landscape, its chaos, sometimes serves as a mirror for the inner self. When the first chopper arrived, the ITBP men who’d taken this group to safety a few hours earlier had to tap into every ounce of their training to prevent a stampede. After the experiences of the last few days, all of them were restless, fatigued, grief-stricken. And all those days, there had been no way for anyone else to know if they were dead or alive.
Rivers attract a special reverence among Hindu tirthas. The Ganga, a live site of holiness along its entire length, is believed to have its sanctity magnified at places. That’s why Indrajit Pathak, 85, was determined to trek up to Kedarnath. He’d taken a full day, but just before he went inside the temple the next morning, the sky turned ashen, the rain came down in torrents. Pathak found himself caught amidst a rumble of stones and water. “Not a scream could be heard! Just the fury of water!” A boulder a little away from the temple became his shield. Pathak spent two nights, drinking dirty water, mumbling prayers. Frightened by the darkness and the silence, it was two days before he stretched his legs.
He had been a cashier with the Bank of India in Gorakhpur. He’d lost his wife a year ago, and since then, every few months, he’d set out to some temple somewhere. When rescuers handed him a food packet, he could barely open it and hold the puri. “I don’t have the heart to live another day in this rubble-strewn land,” he told them.
A week before tragedy struck, it was pilgrim season in the hills. Every transport was taken—tourists, pilgrims to the char dhams, many unsure of what they were really looking for. Ram Avtaar Gupta has seen them all. A taxi driver, he has been on the char dham route for 15 years. His advice to pilgrims: “Piggyback rides won’t get you far. Peace isn’t coming to you when you’re perched on someone else’s back.” He had chided his last group when some able-bodied young men had asked to hire a palanquin for the 14 km trek from Gaurikund to Kedarnath. For him, each trip was a pilgrimage. The growing number of restaurants serving non-vegetarian food and liquor along the routes to the four sacred sites had troubled this vegetarian teetotaller. On the route to Gangotri, he would often stop his car at places and urge pilgrims to drink the clear, cold water that came through dark clay and tasted of the forest.
Four days after the flash floods, he had been conscripted by the district administration to ferry evacuated pilgrims from Dharasu to Rishikesh and bring back bread and biscuits. This was his second round trip and he had reached Dharasu very early, hours before the first sortie would take off to Harsil and bring back tourists and pilgrims.
It’s 4 am. The village is asleep. But Paras Hotel and its adjoining Krishna Hotel are up and buzzing. Pots of tea are being prepared, the lights in most rooms are on. There is the sound of water filling buckets coming from some and shouts of “no water in the taps” from others. Clothes are hanging out to dry in balconies. In just about ten minutes, the IAF pilots from various squadrons across the country will be at the airstrip for their first briefing by Group Capt M.K. Yadav, leading the mission here in Dharasu and hoping to complete evacuation from Harsil and Manheri in a day or so. Seven planes are fuelled and ready to take off. They will set off after the briefing. He had spoken of the three Cs the day before: how pilots are curious on the first day, careful on the second and sometimes complacent on the third. His men have internalised it. The density of helicopter traffic over these skies had increased many times and safety is paramount.
Due west in Gauchar, another temporary base near Rudraprayag on NH-58, from where operations are being launched for Guptkashi and Gaurikund, an unmerciful reality has come pouring in. One of the planes has brought firewood to cremate the dead. They are being offloaded far ahead on the airstrip. The same plane will now go to Guptkashi and evacuate passengers.
Rekha and Indrajit have found their way in. An IAF man hands her a clipboard with sheaf of paper and asks her to sign. It’s an indemnity bond. Rekha hasn’t heard him. Her eyes are shut, her lips mumbling a prayer, her face turned in the direction of the shrine that has taken away everything. Sitting a little away is Pathak. He will go from Guptkashi to Dehradun and then to Gorakhpur. Before his departure for Uttarakhand, the village head had warned him, “Nothing can prepare you for a pilgrimage.”
Certainly, nothing could have prepared him for this one. A worshipper of Shiva, Pathak believes that God presides over existence and destruction. After a few weeks with his grandchildren in Gorakhpur, he wants to go and live in an ashram in Ayodhya.
By Anubha Bhonsle in Kedarnath and Gaurikund
(The writer is a senior editor with CNN-IBN, a TV news channel.)