‘Anything you are attached to, give that. Go to the places that scare you.’
In the high plateau under the gaze of snow-capped mountains Puttiah ambles away in the direction of the temple. I wonder where he plans to sleep. He had mentioned walking down to Gaurikund the same day, but it would be impossible for him to reach before sunset. It is only four o’clock, but already the light is dimming. In these mountain communities the sun sets early and rises late. I figure he is sensible enough to look after himself. Myself on the other hand, perhaps less so. I had found one guesthouse online with a Tripadvisor review from 2012. From the devastation around me, it is safe to say that the guesthouse no longer exists. There is no question of going to the temple now. I am too wiped out, physically and mentally. Plus, I have absolutely no concept of what a visit to the temple entails. The temple is the sine qua non of this journey, but it is also the biggest unknown. If I can’t be prepared for the unknown, I at least want to be fresh for it.
Even in the creeping dusk, the primordial memory of the forces that have reshaped the environment and personal destinies of this place are vivid. Hardly a building is left standing. The rest are savagely buckled and distorted in a deranged graveyard of stone and concrete corpses. A few guesthouses are under construction but not yet operational. Again not a woman in sight. It is a town of men and mules. I return to the tent village, the best option for a bed for the night, my thoughts still fussing around the question of the temple. What am I doing here? I’m not a Hindu. I don’t know the rituals. How am I going to manage? What if I inadvertently offend someone by doing the wrong thing? They’re going to think I’m crazy. I AM crazy! What am I DOING here?
As if reading my thoughts a man materializes by my side and presses a business card into my hand.
“I am a priest at the mandir,” he explains, ‘mandir’ being Hindi for temple. “Come morning time. Six-thirty. Puja. Explain everything.”
The card reads PUROHIT KISHAN AWASTHI. Purohit means ‘family priest’. I am too tired to be impressed by this synchronicity, which is anyway becoming less unusual. I step into a camp courtyard that fronts a row of institutional-style buildings and approach a man behind a desk who looks the most probable ‘in-charge’. He is all bundled up in coat and hat, while the sweat from the climb is still drying on the back of my neck. He is surprised to see me but hides it well and confirms that tents are available for one hundred rupees. I present him with my biometric card, which he studies for a very long time. Finally, he looks at me.
He opens a ledger and I gird myself for the next installment. If the previous two form-filling sessions at Guarikund and Sonprayag had seemed excessive, the next one outdoes them in every possible way. It is also clearly the most exciting thing going on in Kedarnath that evening, since by the end of the process there is a full house. The office manager studiously notes my particulars, while five jacketed men stare at my passport details as if they are a constitutional amendment. In my light-headed state, I worry that I might get the giggles.
Finally, the ledger is closed, and I am directed to Tent Number 3. It is immaculate with five bunk beds stocked with brand new mattresses and pillows and quality army issue sleeping bags. I ask if I can have the tent to myself. My guide gives me that “it’s highly irregular, madam” look, but since only about five tents out of sixty are occupied, he can find no reason to refuse. He shows me a plug where I can charge my phone and directs my attention to the light switch. He switches it on and off in case I am unclear on the concept. It is often the case that foreigners are treated like children in India, and assisted in the most routine of tasks. Perhaps Indians notice how much less observant and coordinated we are. With such a low level of motor skill ability and alertness, we don’t seem entirely capable of looking after ourselves.
With only a zip between me and the outside, I consider if it’s safer to take a top bunk. I don’t really think anyone will harm me or steal from me in such a holy place, still I have become habituated to security drills. But all such calculations collapse along with my body onto a bottom bunk. I wake up in the dark an hour later. It is getting chilly, and I pull the sleeping bag around me. It smells of petrol. I wobble out in search of food. A simple buffet dinner of daal, sabji and chapatti is available for the yatris for sixty rupees (less than a dollar). In the cafeteria, an Indian news channel is looping a CCTV captured scene of eight youths beating an old man to death in Ahmedabad. Twelve shawled men are watching wordlessly. In my newly sensitized state I find it even more horrifying. I can’t watch it. I clean my teeth at the outside sink and use the portable toilets that claim to be some special eco brand produced for high altitude climes. The temperature is dropping fast and I can’t bring myself to take a shower. Plus the dexterity required for all the undressing and re-dressing in the confines of a shower stall with no hooks are beyond my present capabilities. I return to my bunk and lie for a while in exhausted joy. The joy wells up from somewhere deep in my stomach. It feels dependent only on itself and is intensely soothing. I have no way to contact the outside world. My phone has no signal and there is no internet, but rarely have I felt more connected. The atmospheric conditions at 3500 metres is an effective somnolent and I surrender to a dreamless sleep. At five I am wide awake, gasping at the fantastic purple predawn light stroking the Chaukhamba massif into view, ascending over 7,000 metres into thin air. I take my 40 rupee breakfast of chole bhatura (spiced chickpeas and fried bread), and head out.
The town looks like a war zone. Concrete, iron girders, and slabs of cement are smashed together at violent angles, as if the forces that put them there are still operating. Only the newly paved red-brick road is intact. This road, the continuation of the 16 km stretch from Gaurikund, is an insistent exclamation of endurance. The fact that it leads directly and only to the temple door, speaks volumes about this land’s priorities. I take photos, even though I can’t always untangle what I’m looking at. Scientists at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology that runs two automatic weather stations around the Chorabari glacier near Kedarnath have described the Uttarakhand catastrophe as “one of the most extreme events of the century”. Eyewitness accounts describe a tsunami-like “wall of water” over three storeys high that engulfed everything in its path, collapsing buildings like sandcastles. Experts are still debating what actually happened. Monsoon had come early with especially heavy rains, over 375% more than normal for that time of year. In just 24 hours, Kedarnath received a staggering 120 mm of rainfall. The deluge caused the glacial lake of Chorabari Tal (aka Gandhi Sarovar) a couple of kilometres higher up to burst its banks (others contend that the body of water that overflowed was a temporary lake). The sound of the lake bursting its banks was so loud, reported one resident, it was as if the mountains were falling apart.
Whatever the cause, around 8 pm on June 16th 2013, ten million litres of water was dumped on the town in under ten minutes. By the morning, the flash floods had been compounded by the run off from rapidly melting glacial ice, swelling the rivers and vastly increasing the force of their momentum. In the following days, the Indian Space Research Organization estimated a mind-boggling 745 landslides along the river valleys in the area, with the debris of dams and bridges adding to the destruction. There was a lot of finger pointing in the weeks afterwards, in particular about the rampant construction of hotels and guesthouses along the riverbanks (none of which remained standing). But nobody expected this to happen. It was utterly beyond human imagining; redolent of Lord Shiva’s Tandava—his cosmic dance of creation and destruction.
My ‘family priest’ greets me in the temple grounds. I am relieved to see him and he looks just as happy to see me. There is only a handful of pilgrims milling around. Puja business is slow. I had imagined being joined by others, but this is a puja for one. The temple is a grey stone edifice reminiscent of a church with a pear-shaped steeple. The building dates back to the 8th century, but the site as a place of worship has a far more ancient thumbprint, going back a few millennia. The approach is flanked by stalls selling intriguing items for the puja offerings; artificial and real flowers, piles of ghee, exotic-looking gourds, bags of seeds and rice, and white pellets for Prasad.
I remove my shoes and Purohit ji directs me up the steps, past a statue of Shiva and Parvarti’s gatekeeper, the bull Nandi, carved out of rock. I had read a story that during the floods of 2013, a large boulder had tumbled down the mountain and lodged behind the temple, protecting it from the force of the floodwaters. I ask Purohit ji if it’s true. He nods in recognition and takes me to the back of the temple, where a thirty-foot boulder is sitting daubed in orange paint. With his spartan English he begins to sketch the story. On the morning of June 16th, 2500 people ran for their lives and sought refuge at the temple. Purohit ji and his family among them. He watched the massive boulder tumble down the mountain towards him on what looked like a direct collision course. But six feet from the temple wall, the boulder came to a rest. Its presence diverted the floodwaters into two separate channels that flowed either side, keeping the temple and its huddle of refugees from harm. The boulder is now worshiped as a divine object. Purohit ji referred to it as ‘Bholenath’ one of the 108 names of Shiva, in his manifestation as the unquestioning deliverer of whatever his disciples desire. There is something wonderfully Indian about this; among a million negatives to shower hope and praise on a singular positive thing. But many were not so fortunate.
“Government number very low,” he says, referring to the official death toll that had hovered around the 5,000 mark before the reports had fallen into an uncomfortable silence.
“How many?” I ask.
He doesn’t hesitate.
Purohit ji regards the boulder for a moment, his right hand pressed against his heart. He turns to me.
“We go inside now.”