I was born in, and grew up in the Garhwal Himalaya, which is also called ‘Devbhoomi'. Today, Devbhoomi has been struck by disaster, and the scale of the damage to life and property is closely linked with the way in which we have changed the way we built structures and communities in the fragile mountains. We have become ecologically and culturally confused, and have replaced sustainable living and travel with non-sustainable living and travel.
We have mixed up pilgrimage, a sacred act of devotion, with mass tourism. A pilgrimage is undertaken with a very small ecological footprint, and a heightened consciousness about the sacred earth on which the pilgrim walks, and the sacred site a pilgrim visits.
As long as the visit to the Char Dhams, the sources of the Ganga and its tributaries, was a pilgrimage, the sites were untouched. For over 1,300 years, pilgrims came, and left no footprint. The traditional pilgrim route was along the mountains, from Yamunotri to Gangotri to Kedarnath to Badrinath.
Today's consumer tourism leaves a very heavy footprint on our beautiful and fragile mountains. The careless consumer tourist wants a road up to the shrine. Reckless and limitless construction of roads in the fragile mountains has triggered landslides. The roads are built badly, without culverts and drainage, making the problem of landslides more severe.
In Kedar Ghati, the new breed of tourist even wants helicopter rides to the shrine — something not allowed anywhere in the world near a heritage site.
The pilgrim seeks no luxuries. The consumer tourist wants hotels and flush toilets, which dump the sewage into the sacred rivers. So Devbhoomi is rapidly becoming a slum and a garbage dump. And sadly, this dumping has been aggravated by the mindless ‘relief' of truckloads of plastic water bottles and packets of food.
Traditionally, homes and villages in Garhwal were not built in the flood plains or near river banks. They were built on slopes, and were made of stone walls and slate roofs. The houses were built with local materials and added to the beauty of the landscape.
Consumer tourism has pulled settlements along roadsides, while roads run along the rivers. When a disaster takes place, as just witnessed, the houses and shops are washed away. Hydroelectric projects that dump debris onto the riverbed and the dynamiting of mountains, which trigger landslides, have raised the riverbeds by 20 to 30 metres. With the riverbed this high, old settlements have become vulnerable. The college and school of Agasthamuni have been washed away, even though they were not built on the flood plain, but at a safe distance above the river. The disaster has changed the meaning of safety in the mountains.
A clear example of turning our sacred sites into slums of concrete is Kedarnath. Until a few decades, there were no hotels and concrete structures, just a few dharamshalas. The Kedarnath shrine is perched below a glacier at the source of the beautiful River Mandakini. Geologists had warned that buildings coming up and blocking the flow of the river would one day prove disastrous.
We need to learn from the disaster. We need to respect our mountains and rivers. We need to rejuvenate indigenous architecture as part of the rehabilitation both because it is better adapted to the local ecosystem and because the non-sustainable transport of iron and cement has been disrupted by the collapse of roads and bridges.
We need to reinvent travel to the Char Dhams, both to reclaim the culture of the sacred, and to change the paradigm of tourism. Why can't we shift from high-speed, careless, tourism to slow and mindful travel that respects our sacred land, its ecology and culture? We need to stop consuming our sacred sites. We need to stop the slumming of Devbhoomi.
Vandana Shiva is founder of Dehradun-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology
The views of the author are personal