The heart-rending details were still to follow, but we just knew it was something really big this time. For no particular reason, Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat suddenly came to mind:
‘Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.’
Why did so many people have to die – most of them devout pilgrims – for no fault of theirs? And why did many escape certain death miraculously? I often wonder about the role of destiny – or at times, blind chance – which showers unexpected kindness on some whiles it pushes others to eternal oblivion. I myself have had several close brushes with death in Uttarakhand, and often escaped by the skin of my teeth. But before I alter this article into a personal memoir, let me emphasise that to a large extent, we ourselves are responsible for the Uttarakhand tragedy. Having tinkered with the eco-system of the state for so many decades with no thought of repercussions, we were left with no option but to wait for nature to hit back. And it did, with a vengeance.
Situated at about 4000 meters above the sea level, the religious destinations like Kedarnath, Badrinath, Hemkund – as well as the world famous Valley of Flowers – capture the heart and soul alike for intrepid adventure seekers. These journeys take one to a higher level of spirituality. But the disaster in June, 2013, left the country shell-shocked. We need to be careful about our natural resources. We must understand that nature abides by its own laws. These laws have parameters for all, whether it’s animals, plants, air, water or humans.
Unfortunately, we humans have tried to take control over nature – but this cannot be a successful strategy in the long run, as the recent upheavals so clearly demonstrate. On coming to know about this disaster, I was gravely disturbed. When nature inflicts deep wounds, it takes a long time to heal. The memories of beautiful Uttarakhand took me back in time. It was 32 years ago when I, travelling via Badrinath, along with my friend Vimal Mehra, visited Mana, the last Indian village on the Sino-Indian border.
It was the 18th of June, 1980, and I was 24 years old then. We took a scooter to a height of 4000 meters i.e. about 13,000 feet – an achievement as well as the fulfilment of a dream. It was perhaps for the first time that anybody had reached Mana village on a scooter. One can well imagine how difficult it is to drive a scooter on snow covered mountain roads, braving incessant icy winds and windswept valleys. What inspired me to make this journey were the still unforgettable stories I heard from my family members – of snow capped mountains, valleys, waterfalls, streams and the beautiful vistas enroute to Badrinath.
I distinctly remember the date: 18th of June, 1980. It was a blazing hot afternoon when I and Vimal took off on my scooter at 4 pm from Delhi. My heart was brimming with expectation when we started for Haridwar, with all necessities duly packed – tents, provisions and clothes in a huge bag. It must have weighed 50 kgs and we strapped it onto the middle of our scooter.
A long run of more than 5 hours from Delhi brought us to Haridwar at about 9 pm. We pitched our
almost 8x8 tourist style tent (which I had purchased from a foreigner), on the banks of the river Ganga, completed our dinner with the bread and jam that we were carrying and promptly went to sleep. This was our first experience of spending a night in a tent and we enjoyed it thoroughly.
We woke up early next morning to a beautiful dawn. Pilgrims were already taking a holy dip in the river Ganga and the Mandirs on the banks were reverberating with the chants of the Gayatri Mantra and the sounds of Aarti. A cool breeze was at play with the lapping waves, creating a sweet symphony – divine weather and a divine ambience in divine harmony ; truly, this was the gateway to the abode of Gods.
We also took a dip in the Ganga and started at about 8 am on our onward journey. When we were about to reach Pipalkoti, at six in the evening, it started drizzling, which soon turned into a snow blizzard and we had no option but to pitch tent there to spend the night.
From Haridwar onwards, we could travel only at an average speed of 20-30 kmph. We had been running on top gear from Delhi to Haridwar on our Vijay Super scooter, but there onwards we were forced to use only the 2nd gear all the way up.
Next day, that is the morning of 20th, at about 7.30; we had tea and started on the next leg of the journey on the scooter. We kept stopping enroute, taking in the natural beauty – the hills, the dales and gurgling springs, it was a sight to behold! This seemed to be the most wonderful place on earth. Finally we reached Badrinath at about 4pm.
We had crossed Joshimath at about 11am, but the road to Badrinath from there was ‘one way’ only. The traffic flow was what is called in technical terms, a ‘one way convoy’ system. We had to wait till 3 pm there for the traffic to be allowed from our side. We spent the night of 20th at Badrinath.
People were completely taken aback when we reached Badrinath on the scooter; some of the locals had seen a scooter for the first time in their life! Of course, we were thrilled beyond words. Our visit to the Badrinath temple infused us with fresh energy and charged us up. Truly, this place takes you to a different world altogether. The streams and rivers gushing between stones send out a message inspiring us to move ahead in life, overcoming the various hurdles on the way. At night, lying down in our tent, we listened to the loud clatter of the gushing waters. Sometimes, it even seemed that this noise would burst our eardrums!
In the 80’s, noise, air and water pollution was increasing day by day in Delhi, whereas this place was a complete contrast. Dust, smoke, sweat, was non-existent. We could keep wearing the same set of clothes for days on end, even if we were not bathing! On our part, we were also very sensitive towards the environment and never threw our garbage here and there. Instead, we would collect and carry it to be dumped only into authorized garbage dumps.
On 21st morning, we started for Mana Gaon, the last village on the Indian side of the border. When we reached Mana Gaon on scooter, even the Army personnel stationed there were quite surprised. They could not believe that one can ride a scooter to this height and that too at minus temperatures. We were not allowed to go beyond this point, as this area is controlled by the Indian Army and is very close to the Chinese border.
We started on our return journey from there and without taking any halts, reached Devprayag in the afternoon. Pitching our tent, we decided to spend the night there and on 22nd morning started our homeward journey. A non-stop run took us to Delhi at about 9 in the night.
People often get tired on long journeys, even sitting relaxed on comfortable seats in vehicles, yet we were travelling by scooter and surprisingly did not feel exhausted at all. Perhaps the purity of the Devbhoomi had filled us with its spiritual energy. On our way down from Devprayag, we had come across stone slabs placed in memory of people who had lost their lives in accidents travelling on this route. This made our hearts heavy. It was sheer providence that we did not face any inclement weather, nor did our scooter even have a puncture or stall once.
We had spent around Rs. 3000 on this trip which, in those days, was substantial. We returned after 5 days from our enjoyable trip and also made it a strict point to respect the environment and not to sully it at any point in our travels.
I feel that to avoid this type of disasters happening again, leading to the huge loss of life and property, we should learn our lessons from the recent happenings at Uttarakhand and respect the laws of nature. We must now focus our attention towards properly organized development of the region. This development policy should not just take into account our human requirements but that of mother Nature. If we are not able to respect and protect our environment, then mere expression of sympathy and good wishes for the victims is only useless lip service.
As I sum up my feelings, Omar Khayyam grabs my attention once again. In his inimitable style, he forces me to question the importance we place on our own little affairs, unmindful of the great One who actually runs the show:
“And, strange to tell, among that Earthen Lot
Some could articulate, while others not:
And suddenly one more impatient cried---
“Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”
For more stories and films on wildlife by the author which have run on National Geographic channel, Doordarshan National channel and Doordarshan India, please log on to www.raheja.com.