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Disquiet in Devbhoomi

One of the major challenges facing the Uttarakhand government even a month after the disaster is to start the daily rituals at Kedarnath shrine, which is still strewn with debris and corpses. In the absence of any land route even for safe pedestrian movement, the members of the Badrinath-Kedarnath Temple Committee have been camping in Guptakashi hoping for the weather to clear, so that they reach the much revered shrine and begin the daily temple chores.

The rebuilding, or the sanctification, of the 8th century Kedarnath shrine has been increasingly getting embroiled in controversy with Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi initially making the offer to rebuild the temple, which was scoffed at by the state government, which in turn claimed it would have the temple ‘restored’ using scientific techniques with the assistance of the Archaeological Survey of India.      

However, with the team of the state government-controlled committee also unable to reach the shrine even a month after the disaster, and the state government having done the initial damage of saying that the temple could remain shut for several years, the people of the state are now faced with claims and counter claims about the fate of the much revered and awed shrine. There were reports in the local media recently that henceforth the prayers to Lord Kedarnath would be offered at Doleswar Mahadev Temple at Bhaktapur in Nepal as starting rituals at the Kedarnath temple site looked unlikely.

This thankfully was countered by the head priest of Omkareshwar Mahadev temple in Ukhimath, the seat of Kedarnath during the winter months. Following the disaster, the idols of deities Shankar, Parvati, Ganesh, Bhairav and Shaligram have been brought from Kedarnath to Ukhimath and they are proposed to be taken back to the shrine once the sanctification of the temple is done. But the big question is when would the sanctification process of the temple begin? Nobody seems to have an answer for it, adding to the disquiet among the people.

As former chief minister Bhuwan Chandra Khanduri pointed out, the people of the state will have to be taken into confidence through the whole process of restoration of the devastated temple. Not just the four important deities of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri but several other gods and goddesses form part of Uttarakhand’s cultural and social milieu. The people of Uttarakhand, deeply religious to the extent of even being superstitious, consider these gods and goddesses as one among them and they look after them like their own.

While Kedarnath is brought down to Ukhimath, Badrinath descends on Joshimath during winters. Goddess Ganga resides at Mukhyamath during winters, while her sister Yamuna lives at Kharsali when her summer home of Yamunotri is all snow covered during winters. The opening and closing of the shrines for the summers and winters also mark the start and the end of the Chard Dham Yatra in the state. The government role is still largely limited to organising the Char Dham Yatra through its agencies like the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam among others. While the management of Kedarnath and Badrinath temples is looked after by a government controlled committee, the temples of Gangotri and Yamunotri are still in the hands of the trust of traditional priests.

Despite the Badrinath-Kedarnath temples being under the control government trust, it rituals are still very much part of the curriculum of interaction between the local people and the deities. The idol to all the four prime shrines from their winter residences are carried in palanquins by the local people during the opening of the portal in summers and brought back when the sanctum sanctorums shut down for the winters. For instance there are these unmarried Bhutia women of Mana village near Badrinath who weave blanket for Badrinath idol to be wrapped during the winter months. There are several other such traditions and rituals which very closely entwine the local population with the deities. Unfortunately, post-disaster the local population seems to have gone off the radar not only in the matters of rescue and relief but also in not being consulted on the process of the restoration of the temple.

The displacement of Dhari Devi temple for building a power plant near Shrinagar, which almost coincided with the coming of the deluge in Mandakini valley, is already being held by the local population as the prime cause for the disaster. Even if we overlook the aspect of superstition and religious belief, it’s also true the huge power plant which would come up drowning the ancient temple would hardly benefit the population of the state. As mentioned in these columns earlier, in the past one-and-quarter of the year that chief minister Vijay Bahuguna has been in the office, he has acquired the image of being pro-builder community, which is largely being held responsible for the current catastrophe. His anti-environment stand has earned him distrust of people, who have been at the helm of save forest and environment movements.

Thus reconstruction under the leadership of a man who is not trusted by people would not be an easy job. The people of Uttarakhand have not just been harmed physically but are also passing through a phase of disbelief. They are still looking for reasons which made their presiding deities get so angry with them to shower such misery. The state would not just need to rebuild itself through brick and mortar but also need to restore people’s faith their Gods, who all these years have chosen to live amidst them.

The author is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is Consulting Editor, Millennium Post
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