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On a cool afternoon in May, vehicles are lined up bumper to bumper as far as the eye can see on the Rishikesh-Kedarnath highway in Phata, a small town in Uttarakhand’s Rudraprayag district.
The convoy of vehicles is ferrying thousands of devotees who have descended on the hill State for the Char Dham Yatra — an annual pilgrimage to four Hindu shrines: Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath — which has resumed on a full scale this year after being a low-key affair for the last two years owing to COVID-19 restrictions.
The pilgrimage, considered one of the most sacred by the followers of Hinduism, is a journey to the abodes of four deities: Yamunotri (goddess Yamuna) and Gangotri (goddess Ganga) in Uttarkashi district; Kedarnath (Lord Shiva) in Rudraprayag district; and Badrinath (Lord Vishnu) in Chamoli district.
Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, the shrines are situated in the Garhwal region of the State, which is revered as ‘Dev Bhumi’ or the land of gods. All devout Hindus aspire to visit the four shrines at least once in their lifetime as they believe the yatra helps them attain ‘moksha’ or salvation. They believe the arduous trek tests their faith and paves the way for an inward journey towards spiritual awakening.
“Going to Badrinath is like visiting Baikunth [the abode of Lord Vishnu]. All our wishes get fulfilled. Seeing Badrinath and Kedarnath gives strength to our body and mind. After COVID, I have learnt one lesson: there is no point in accumulating wealth. Everyone should fulfil their desires at the earliest,” says Sushma Dhabale, 52, who has arrived for the pilgrimage with her elderly parents from Nagpur in Maharashtra.
Seventy-four-year-old Subhash Chandra Patel, who is part of a group of 110 pilgrims from Satna in Madhya Pradesh, says, “Undertaking the yatra has been a family ritual since the time of my ancestors. We are here to rid ourselves of sins and seek blessings. Lord Shiva fulfils all our wishes,” he says.
A devotee attains peace of mind on completing the pilgrimage, says Pankaj Shukla, a priest at the Kedarnath temple. “This journey cleanses the soul of a person and takes him towards higher consciousness. In this way, the soul is freed from the cycle of life and death.”
The pilgrimage also offers visitors panoramic views of the valley and the snow-capped mountains. Rishi Bhardwaj, 26, from Raipur in Chhattisgarh remarks that “there is no place like this in India… It is purely heaven”.
Ravindra Kumar, who runs Maruti Tour and Travels in Haridwar, says the pilgrimage draws people from all walks of life, but a large number of them are over 40 years and come from rural areas of the country. “They are the real pilgrims with true devotion. Generally, pilgrims come in groups but we receive individual bookings too,” he says.
Of late, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of youth arriving for the pilgrimage. However, Ajendra Ajay, the president of the Badrinath-Kedarnath Temple Committee, has termed them tourists. “They are not pilgrims. Religious fervour is mostly missing in the youth. We are seeing an influx of YouTubers and vloggers who come to boost their subscriber base and business interests. Usually, they don’t care about the sanctity of these holy places. Recently, a YouTuber visited Kedarnath with his dog and offended many pilgrims. We are trying to put a check on videography around the shrines.”
Rishikesh is the starting point of the pilgrimage, which involves travel on foot and by pony, bus, car and helicopter across 1,200 km of hilly terrain. The train of pilgrims in Phata is heading to Gaurikund, where the 18-km trek to Kedarnath begins. However, the slow-moving traffic has halted their progress.
Traffic jams have become a common sight in the State since the opening of the doors of Gangotri and Yamunotri on May 3, and Kedarnath and Badrinath on May 6 and 8, respectively. The State administration is finding crowd management an uphill task amid complaints by pilgrims about overpriced amenities and inadequate medical facilities. The influx of pilgrims has also resulted in rising air pollution and growing piles of garbage that environmentalists say could hurt the State’s fragile ecology. However, tour operators and hoteliers are heaving a sigh of relief after reeling under losses during the pandemic.
Noticing the uptick in tourists, the State government on May 15 made registration for the pilgrimage mandatory and announced that pilgrims who fail to register themselves will not be allowed to proceed beyond Rishikesh.
Prabodh Kumar Ghildiyal, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Rudraprayag, says, “We were forced to put a cap on the number of visitors. Pilgrims are facing many problems as they have made bookings for their stay and travel, but their registration slots are on different dates. So they are losing out on money. Seeing their faith and devotion, it is difficult to ask them to turn back,” he says.
According to government figures, 10.26 lakh pilgrims have visited the four shrines and over 21 lakh have registered for the Char Dham Yatra as of May 25. Kedarnath is the preferred destination of 6.97 lakh pilgrims followed by Badrinath (6.60 lakh), Gangotri (4.12 lakh) and Yamunotri (3.52 lakh).
“In 2019, the four shrines received over 32 lakh pilgrims before COVID-19 restrictions caused the numbers to drop to 3.21 lakh in 2020 and 5.09 lakh in 2021,” says Jaspal Chauhan, regional tourism officer, Dehradun.
Chaos reigns at the inter-State bus terminal (ISBT) in Rishikesh with thousands of devotees desperate to visit Kedarnath. However, the Uttarakhand Transport Corporation is providing tickets only to Badrinath as slots for Kedarnath are booked till June 2.
Twenty-two-year-old Aman Rawat, who works at the registration centre at the ISBT, says, “Since there was no daily cap on visitors earlier, a large number of pilgrims have already reached the four shrines. Crowd management there is a challenge as the facilities in place are not sufficient to cater to this influx.”
Vinod, 28, a resident of Orchha in Madhya Pradesh who is undertaking the pilgrimage with his friend Shiv Pratap, says they completed their registration for Kedarnath on May 16 and Badrinath on May 19. “We want to go to Kedarnath first, but we have received tickets only to Badrinath. Authorities are behaving rudely with us when we ask questions.”
Harshit Jain, 26, from Jalgaon in Maharashtra, wears a dejected look as he sits near the ticket window at the ISBT. “We have been trying to visit Kedarnath for the past several years, but our plans were thwarted by COVID-19. We wanted to visit Badrinath and Kedarnath but no slot is available for Kedarnath.”
Unable to control the surge in pilgrims, the State administration on May 19 closed offline registration till May 27. Shailendra Singh Negi, Sub-Divisional Magistrate of Rishikesh and nodal officer for the yatra, says registration can be done using the Tourist Care Uttarakhand app. “Pilgrims can register online and secure slots for their journey. We have vehicles to ferry pilgrims to their desired shrines. We are facilitating the accommodation of people stuck in Rishikesh at dharamshalas and schools.”
In Guptkashi, located 14 km away from Phata, a crowd of pilgrims has queued up amid heavy rain outside the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam offline booking centre for helicopter services to Kedarnath. Despite waiting for over eight hours, Narendra Sawaliya, from Rajkot in Gujarat, and his family have not been able to lay their hands on a ticket. “They get a list of VIPs every day and allot tickets to them. There are no tickets for common people,” he says.
Harish Shah, coordinator for helicopter services at Guptkashi, says only 260 seats are available and 180 of them are booked online. “So that leaves only 80 seats for offline booking and out of them 20 to 25 are reserved under the VIP quota,” he explains.
Hoteliers like Sandeep Negi, owner of Hotel New Ganga Putra in Sitapur, who saw hard times during the pandemic are happy to see the return of tourists. “The huge footfall this year assures us of recovery of losses suffered over the past two years. Perhaps there will be no question of survival for us this season.”
Kishan Singh Panwar, who runs Char Dham hotel and restaurant in Tilwara, Rudraprayag, says he couldn’t pay the instalments on his loan but now sees some hope. Kuldeep Singh, owner of Mohini Hotel in Gaucher, Karnaprayag, says, “Everything seems perfect now. A major population of the State depends on the pilgrimage for livelihood.”
Mukesh Kumar, who offers pony rides at Sonprayag, says he had to work as a daily wage labourer during the pandemic. “The money I earned was not enough to buy two meals a day. Without the Char Dham Yatra, people can’t survive in these hills.” Prashant Maithani, who runs the Voyage on Himalayas travel agency in Tapovan, Rishikesh, says, “We are now fully booked till June-end.”
However, there is deep resentment among hoteliers in Sonprayag and Guptkashi as unregistered pilgrims cannot proceed beyond Rishikesh. Ramesh Chauhan, who runs Shree Krishna Palace hotel in Badkot, says, “We have enough accommodation in the upper hills. How will we make earnings during this peak tourist season if the government stops people at Rishikesh?”
Sushma Dhabale, who arrived from Maharashtra with her elderly parents, planned to visit Kedarnath on May 15, but received the slot for a later date. She is unhappy about having to wait out the remaining days in Rishikesh, where food and accommodation are overpriced. “The money saved up for the yatra is being spent here,” she says.
Brijesh Sati, spokesperson of the Char Dham Teerth Purohit Hak Hakookdhari Mahapanchayat, a body representing priests, expressed his displeasure at devotees being overcharged for basic services. “The government has failed to manage crowds. It is also difficult to make digital transactions due to poor network connectivity in the area.”
At Yamunotri, a prepaid counter for pony rides was opened after several tourists complained of being overcharged by private operators.
Ankit Gairola, 36, president of the market association in Sonprayag, says the administration is not making sufficient arrangements in the area. “There is shortage of electricity and water, and people are defecating in the open as there are no toilets. Due to poor telecom signals, pilgrims are unable to contact their agents and seek help from the State administration. There is only one hospital in Sonprayag and the facilities are so inadequate that doctors are forced to sleep on the ground,” he says.
Manoj Rawat, a Congress leader and former MLA from Kedarnath, has accused the government of ruining the yatra’s reputation. “No BJP Minister has travelled on foot to Kedarnath. There are no toilets from Gaurikund to Kedarnath. Pilgrims wait in three-km-long lines for six to seven hours for darshan but there is no facility to provide them with shelter from the rain. They are falling ill because of this mismanagement.”
However, Manoj Semval, Food Security Officer of Rudraprayag, refuted these allegations. “We took a tour of Kedarnath and there were no complaints of overpriced and poor quality food. The prices are a bit high due to the cost of transporting goods to a higher altitude. We found no substandard food.”
As many as 74 pilgrims have died en route to the four shrines situated at high altitudes, ranging between 10,000 ft and 12,000 ft, since the start of the yatra on May 3, according to the State Health Department data as of May 25.
Thirty-seven pilgrims have died on their way to Kedarnath, 20 en route to Yamunotri, 13 to Badrinath and four to Gangotri. A majority of those who died were above 60 years and had heart ailments and comorbidities. Ganesh Mehulkar, a pilgrim from Jalna in Maharashtra, says, “A man died before my eyes due to cardiac arrest and no medical help could be provided to him.”
Pilgrims trekking to Yamunotri and Kedarnath shrines have complained of facing difficulties in receiving timely medical care. Ram Sharan Agarwal, 69, from Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, says, “There are many elderly people like me who are on this journey. When pilgrims reach Lincholi, on the trek to Kedarnath, they suffer from breathlessness due to the high altitude and decreasing oxygen levels. Owing to the heavy rush, not everyone is able to gain access to oxygen cylinders at the medical centres.”
Sandeep Gusain, a 32-year-old YouTuber, expressed his disappointment at the medical facilities. “Following the floods in 2013, the hospital at Kedarnath was damaged and it is still under construction. The existing hospital does not have room for even 100 people.”
Sukhdeo Krishna Mahajan, 65, from Surat in Gujarat, says there are accidents on the crowded trekking path because of the movement of ponies. “Due to frequent rains, the path is slippery and this has led to mishaps. I have seen several women pilgrims get injured, but medical treatment is available only after three or four hours of trekking.”
Dr. Bharat Sharma at Sigma Hospital in Kedarnath says about 500 pilgrims suffering from cold and fever arrive every day. “They don’t get acclimatised to the weather while coming by helicopter.” According to Dr. K.S. Chauhan, Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Uttarkashi district, pilgrims who do not clear medical screening are being sent back. Dr. B.K. Shukla, CMO of Rudraprayag, says 700 to 1,000 pilgrims are being screened daily. “Every two km, we have set up medical relief posts. There are two hospitals in Kedarnath, one in Sonprayag and 12 medical centres along the trekking route. While two pilgrims with head injuries were airlifted to the AIIMS in Rishikesh, 19 pilgrims who fell ill were airlifted to Phata for medical care.” Director General of Health Dr. Shailja Bhatt has advised pilgrims against travelling if they are not medically fit.
On May 24, pilgrims were asked to halt their journey as a precautionary measure after the region received fresh snowfall and heavy rain. Helicopter services to Kedarnath were also suspended. However, with the weather improving the next morning, pilgrims waiting in Sonprayag and Gaurikund were allowed to proceed to the four temples.
The influx of tourists has left environmentalists worried as pilgrims have littered the trekking route with garbage, posing a threat to the State’s rivers.
Ravi Chopra, former chairman of the Supreme Court-appointed High Powered Committee to oversee the Char Dham road-widening project, says, “The movement of diesel-powered buses and taxis is releasing large amounts of black soot, which causes rapid melting of glaciers. Helicopters are also emitting black carbon. Apart from this, pilgrims are leaving behind a large amount of trash, particularly in Joshimath and Guptkashi. Our natural resources are being badly affected by this anthropogenic pressure. The footfall needs to be monitored to protect the ecology of this Himalayan terrain.”
Eminent geologist Navin Juyal says since the Char Dham Yatra is a major source of employment, environmental concerns take a back seat. “People are not so conscious about the environment in Uttarakhand. They are just happy that the yatra has resumed and pilgrims are thronging the shrines. They only see the short-term gain. But this terrain can’t accommodate such crowds. The sustainability factor should always be kept in mind while making policies.”
Grappling with the rush of pilgrims, Uttarakhand Director General of Police Ashok Kumar was recently seen in a video reminding pilgrims that the Char Dham Yatra would continue till October. “I appeal to people to not make plans in a hurry,” he says in the video.
However, pilgrims aren’t willing to turn back. Godri Girpad, a 69-year-old farmer from Maharashtra, says, “I won’t return without the darshan of Badrinath and Kedarnath. Sab dev baar-baar, ek baar Badri-Kedar [One may visit other gods several times, but one receives more blessings by visiting Badrinath and Kedarnath just once].”
This report was first published in The Hindu on may 27, 2022.
(Courtesy: The Hindu).