About 20 days back, the tiny Himalayan state of north India, Uttarakhand, suffered a major cloudburst. It caused massive flash floods that carried away everything that came in the water’s way. Having lived all my working life in Pune, I have always missed out on the family outings here in the north, of which the beautiful Char Dham pilgrimage circuit is one. And just as we were planning a visit there in September—the place is lush green after the rains—the region has been declared out of bounds for at least one year.
But my brother has been there a number of times, as had been our grandfather in his days.
Davinder tells me that when they first went in 1987, the scene could hardly be described as crowded. They were 4 adults and 2 children in that tiniest of Marutis, the basic 800 one. And loaded with ration, utensils, beddings, and all kinds of munches and eatables. Who knows what would be available and what not? Knowing that petrol stations were rare in the mountains, they had carried a jerry can of fuel from Delhi, as also kept topping up wherever they found one. This being well before the ATM revolution, they distributed cash in various pockets and amongst many places in the car. But as the tour progressed, they found they had been unduly anxious. The hill people are mild and helpful by nature.
It seems that all four temples constituting the Char Dham lie within an area of a hundred kilometers over this section of the Himalayas. From the plains, you first drive to Yamnotri, the origin of river Yamuna, then Gangotri, that of the Ganges, or Ganga. Originally, both rivers appeared at these points from under their glaciers but over the years the glaciers have receded and moved up. So today you have to trek (or hire ponies) to visit the actual origins, 5-6 kilometers for Yamuna and 19 kilometers for Ganga. (This distance is steadily increasing.) As you continue your drive for the rest of the two Dhams, first to come is Kedarnath. This is the epicenter of this latest cloud burst tragedy. The drive stops 14 kilometers short of the famous temple at a place known as Gaurikund, from where you have to trek, or pony, up and down. Until fairly recently, there was no place to stay at the temple point but the last time Davinder visited in 1996, many hotels had come up around the temple. All these structures have now been washed away.
The last of the four Dham temples is Badrinath. Being farthest from Delhi, this is also the closest point to the China border. But it is motorable right through. The last lap of the road between Gaurikund and Badrinath is narrow and allows only one-way traffic. The last vehicles from both sides get a hand-written chit from the coordinating officials and a large, open, flat space at midpoint Pandukeshwar serves as a transit point. The system works without deployment of any gadgetry.
When my brother’s Maruti 800 with its payload of 2+2+2 reached Badrinath in 1987, pandas surrounded them wanting to know where they had come from. When Davinder mentioned our village, they all left saying such and such individual was their purohit (they prefer purohit, the family priest, to the commonly used panda which has a touch of derision) and that he would visit them. Sure enough the man came next morning. He had brought his ledger from which he read out names of our elders who had visited Badrinath. Our grandparents’ names were there and they were identified through their three sons. Interestingly, daughter Shanti Devi doesn’t find mention. In orthodox Hindu values, women even today don’t count as daughters; only as wives.
With his credentials established, our purohit updated his book with that latest visit and afterwards conducted our rituals at the temple. Davinder still has the man’s visiting card and a hand written copy of his record of the visit, followed by its more understandable rendering in his own hand underneath and overleaf. Today we would take a picture of our family page in his ledger but this was years before we bought our first camera. The year 2011 of our grandparents’ visit mentioned here is of the Hindu calendar, which translates to 1954 of the Christian one.
For this post, Davinder and I jogged our memories to piece together flavour of our grandparents’ visit to Badrinath full 33 years before his own.
My father was at that time posted in Delhi and Davinder and I were just 5 and 8 years old. Our grandfather visited our sprawling government bungalow in north Delhi quite often. Having been a doctor in the Indian army, having fought in WW2, and having visited Shanghai, he finally returned to settle down in our ancestral village, Dhanana, about 60 miles from Delhi in today’s Haryana. He would usually come alone and unannounced for no more than 3-4 days. After an early lunch he would every day go to Chandni Chowk (most likely walking; about 4 miles each way) and return with a number of recent issues of Hindi and English magazines purchased from the pavements. Dharamyug, Illustrated Weekly of India, Sarita. That he also picked up supply of medicines from Nai Sarak for his patients in the village was of no interest to us. Throughout his stay he would concentrate on the newspaper since he didn’t have them in the village, while we would take the magazines inside to our mother to see them with her. Finally all the magazines would go with him to the village for a thorough, leisurely read until his next visit. Since there was no electricity in the village, he had no access to radio. And there was no road either. The nearest rail contact was a small, one room station (but with a pompous name, Quila Zafargarh) which was 4-5 miles by bullock cart. That’s what we would take when we visited grandparents.
For this special, once-in-a-lifetime occasion, however, he came with a retinue of 3-4 others from our extended family, and indeed our grandmother. The two of them were going on this end-of-life pilgrimage to this remote someplace called Badrinath and those others had come to give them this formal send off. Even my father I suspect was taken by surprise and we brothers remember whispers and a general air of solemnity. This was the last we may see of our grandparents! My mother recalls that she and my father too expressed a desire to accompany them, but grandfather turned it down saying they had still to fulfill worldly duties, raise children and the rest. (Not that they had fulfilled all of theirs, to be sure; my youngest uncle was still single at the time. But you didn’t argue with my 6-footer, rarely smiling and always angry grandfather.)
They returned after a whole month and both with swollen feet! Apparently they had taken public transport up to the last point on the road which was Rishikesh, and then joined groups of pilgrims on kuccha pathways. Where the group halted, provisions like flour, rice, dal, potatoes, cooking utensils and fuel wood could be had for a fee. Women would set up hearths and cook for their men and themselves. Then everybody would rest for the night and resume walking the next day. This happened day after day until they reached the final destination, Badrinath. Davinder and I reckon that they trekked a distance of 160 kilometres each way!
My grandmother, a puny woman with a small voice described the experience to my mother and aunts. Mainly what frightened her was the steep mountain wall on one side and sudden fall on the other. That of wild animals was another danger but that was largely taken care of by moving in groups. Grandfather had put a paper with my father’s address in her pocket, saying if something happened to him, “they” would reach her to “the boys.”
The place visited by my grandparents and later by Davinder seems to be a far, far cry from what the pictures of devastation tell us today.