It’s 5:55 am on October 7 at Sonprayag in Uttarakhand. The clear-skied autumn morning is filled with the chirping of birds. There’s a cool breeze blowing. But the town misses the buzz of locals and pilgrims on their way to Kedarnath, that characterised the place till a few months back. The mid-June flash floods in Uttarakhand has reduced Sonprayag, nestled at the confluence of the Basuki and Mandakini rivers, into a heap of rubble. This is the last motorable road towards Kedarnath, the revered Hindu shrine, that too wasn’t spared the wrath of the natural disaster.
Three cops at a makeshift police post wait eagerly for guests. The Kedarnath pilgrimage was resumed on October 5, after remaining closed for more than three months. For the first time, the government has made registration compulsory for pilgrims. The police records the names of pilgrims at five points — Sonprayag, Gaurikund, Bheembali, Lincholi and Kedarnath.
The HT team is the first to reach the Sonprayag police check post, followed by a group of seven pilgrims from Jind (Haryana). “Our people were stuck in Uttarakhand in June. We prayed to Lord Shiva to protect them and he obliged. We are here to thank God,” says Ritu Dev (22).
The 24-kilometer long stretch from Sonprayag to Kedarnath has to be negotiated by foot. Before the June disaster, the last motorable road was till Gaurikund, five kilometers from Sonprayag. Septuagenarian RS Chauhan, who runs an isolated shop at Sonprayag in the devastated pilgrim town, believes the pilgrimage to Kedarnath will never be the same again. For decades, business provided by the pilgrims making their way to Kedarnath had been the lifeline for thousands of families running shops, restaurants and hotels along the route. After the June floods, hundreds face a bleak future.
The Road Ahead
The authorities had assured that two policemen, equipped with wireless sets, will accompany pilgrims. But neither we, nor the group from Jind are escorted. The road is often in very bad shape. It is also easy to get lost, with no clear signs to mark the way.
We start our trek from Sonprayag and after walking some 200 meters, notice a diversion. One broad road leads straight ahead, while another narrow lane winds its way up a steep hill. As there are no signboards, we decide to follow the broad road. A mistake. Luckily we are set right and told to take the narrow lane through the village of Mundkatia. It is believed that the Hindu elephant god Ganesha was beheaded here. We see few pilgrims. However, many villagers who live between Sonprayag and Gaurikund frequently use the route. Umesh and Yogesh Goswami are two such. The two brothers walk almost 12 kms everyday to attend the new school at Joshi village, after their old school in Gaurikund was washed away in June. The stretch between Sonprayag to Gaurikund measures 8 kms. On our way, we meet a six-member group from Ajmer (Rajasthan), on its way back from Kedarnath. Gopi Chand, a tour operator, who had lost his wife in June, is finally at peace. “I wanted to offer my last respects to my beloved wife,” shares Gopi. Twenty-six people went missing from his village in the floods. Another pilgrim, Neeraj Saini (29) from Saharanpur, says, “I had visited Kedarnath in the past, but the route now is entirely different.”Beyond Gaurikund
Gaurikund, another happening spot till June, is now a sleepy town. The government-run GMVN guesthouse is partially operational. A hospital at Gaurikund has a doctor and support staff, but offers only first-aid. The next stop, Bheembali, is at a distance of approximately seven kilometers. Tell-tale signs of the recent disaster start surfacing Gaurikund onwards. Between Gaurikund and Bheembali, ‘Jungle Chatti’ used to be a thriving business spot. Now, there’s not a single shop beyond Gaurikund. There are, however, ruins of old shops, ragged remains of polythene sheets, plates, kettles, spoons, clothes, shoes, beddings and gas stoves, telling sad tales of pilgrims who were either trapped, or killed. As one moves on there are other signs of destruction. A crashed chopper, milk bottles, gloves, a saree, towel and some bones, are enough to scare anyone. “The authorities should have cleared these before reopening the road,” complains Rajkumar Dogra of New Delhi.
On the deserted road to Bheembali, langurs (grey monkeys), rule the route. Police cautions that wild bear threat is common in the stretch between Jungle Chatti and Bheembali. There are no street lights, since electricity poles and wires had been damaged in June. Just before Bheembali one has to be cautious while crossing a water fall, as there is no clear path.
It takes us approximately 10 hours to reach Bheembali, named after the epic character Bhim. Thus is the first base camp where authorities have provided free boarding for pilgrims. About a dozen tents have been erected. The government has restricted the number of pilgrims going at any given time to Kedarnath to 100. One wonders, however, how the dozen tents (half of them occupied by police, medical staff and other support staff) will accommodate even 50 pilgrims at a time. Solar panels provide some light.
On to Kedarnath
Next morning, at 8 am, we start from Bheembali base camp and reach Rambara in 10 minutes. There used to be more than 100 shops and lodges at Rambara to serve the pilgrims travelling to Kedarnath. The temple destination used to be at a distance of only seven kilometers from here. Besides, Rambara was also a transit point where mules and kandi (basket to carry people) operators would ferry pilgrims. Now a skull and a pile of human bones act as an eerie reminder of the June calamity.
The road from Rambara was on the left of the Mandakini. A new road has been constructed Rambara onwards, this time on the right of the Mandakini. A bridge has also been erected to cross the river. The new route is more difficult to negotiate.
Richard (58), a German national, says, “Pilgrimage and tourism are two different things and the government should keep them separate.” It takes us three-and-a-half hours to reach the next base camp — Lincholi. After resting for half-an-hour, we move on. Another three kilometers, and the 800-meter steep hills lead to an alpine meadow and the last base camp at Kedarnath. The base camp at Kedarnath has ample space to accommodate pilgrims and employees.
Scene at the shrine
The Kedarnath shrine is almost two kilometers from the base camp. The crumbling structures around suggests that reconstruction work is yet to happen. Till last year, pilgrims had to wait in long queues to perform puja at the temple. But serpentine queues are a thing of the past. At least, for now.