Day 20: The stories that remain behind

10th October 2013,  9am,  Kotma village, Uttarakhand

Today morning Swami ji gave me my cure for the cold that has refused to leave me for the last 10 days. His treatment – a brisk 3kms trek early in the morning. Last night during dinner he made sure “to kal hum subah 5:30 baje jayenge” (so tomorrow we will leave at 5:30am).

From top of the hill where we are staying, I had seen a temple below with a very steep path down and I thought that’s where we are going. When we reached that temple, Tulsidas ji continued to walk past it and I had this question in my eyes “isn’t this the place?” As if he read the question, he immediately said “this is a new temple, the original temple is across the river”.

Now the road and the bridge to that original temple is all gone after the floods and I realize that it is the boulder filled river bed that we have to walk on… at places its slippery and when you hold on to stones for support, they give away. So, slowly and steadily we tread forward. And then comes the biggest surprise- a makeshift bridge.

Volunteering in Uttarakhand, Uttarakhand post floods, volunteer in uttarakhand, disaster stories, sharing memories of disaster
makeshift bridge across Ganga after the real bridge was washed away during floods

And I again look at him with another question in my eyes “do we have to cross this?” He looks at me and again as if knowing my question,  he says “yes yes.. come on. It’s very sturdy. All villagers come through this bridge. Even when they are sick, patients are carried on this bridge. Come come” and he walks ahead.

I look at the flow of the river down and then at the bridge and I say to myself “if this is my last day… let it be” and step on. Every step is wobbly and in the center I could feel the bridge swinging but alas I was across the river :).

A little way up was the kotimaheshwari ma (name of the goddess) temple. As soon as we reached,  pandit ji came from his room. He was just beginning to sweep and clean the temple. After bowing our heads, we all sat down taking in the scene and the silence of the place.


Volunteering in Uttarakhand, Uttarakhand after the floods, Volunteer in Uttarakhand
The river bed strewn with boulders that came down during the floods

From the temple I could see the entire river bed full of huge boulders and debris.

I was wondering if pandit ji was here when the floods came and as soon as I looked towards his room, to our surprise, he was coming out with tea for us :).

Tea_conversation, volunteer in Uttarakhand, volunteering in Uttakhand, Uttarakhand after the floods
sharing stories over a cup of tea

Tea is an amazing conversation stimuli in India :). After the initial pleasantries,  I asked him if he was there during the floods.

What started was an animated conversation about the day and the aftermath. He described how they had gone to another village crossing the pull on 16th when the rover level had started to increase. On 17th morning, there was nothing left..  the temple had a dharmshala (a free rest house for pilgrims),  which was washed away; the pull was washed away; there was a hydroelectric power plant down the river, which was washed away too. The boulders that came down were so big that the entire villages were shaking. The sound of the river was deafening. The river was bringing everything down with it – people, mules, tractors, JCBs, buildings.. just about everything.

He told stories of survivors. How one of his friend who came back alive described the river Ganga flowing like an ocean and huge waves engulfing everything that came its way. How another friend was stuck in debri for hours before rescue and how some youths from his village spent days in caves before starting to come down.

He then went on to explain the local understanding of the reasons for this flood. He said “har cheez ki ati ho gayi thi.. to bhagwan ko bhi sab barabar karna hi tha” (“everything had gone to excess, so God had to stabilise everything”). The locals had become greedy and had started charging the pilgrims exorbitant rates for transport, for food and everything.  Even the pilgrim had become a tourist demanding all comforts and the local business person responded by building 5 star hotels and providing all demands even alcohol. Encroachment was rampant. There were buildings right next to the temple even though it came under a sanctuary zone. The pandit there will say “for 1 lakh rupees and I will make a room for you here in Kedarnath” the devotee will easily give that money to the pandit but he will bargain with the boy who is carrying him on his shoulder him for 14 kms. One person brought a Shiva Linga worth 5 crore to Kedarnath.  What was he proving?  Is it anything but show of money? Does God need this? Does devotion need this? And where did this money come from?  People were giving their black money to make statues and rooms in Kedarnath. The conscience is no longer of devotion among both the locals and the so-called pilgrims.. Kedarnath ji did what he needed to do when the situation crossed all limits.

And he went on and on…

I was thinking how interesting it is that science and spirituality converge at the same result. Scientists also came to the same conclusion of how the excessive building on the mountain and along Ganges and the resulting deforestation led to the floods and the damage. After all the clouds didn’t bring in the debris, the debris was of all the construction that happened.

It’s also amazing how a strong faith is God helps people accept any situation and come out of it. The 5 villages in this area in all have lost 250 lives but life does seem to have come to certain normalcy. People are picking up their lives… and when we visit anybody all that is there are stories.

I am currently volunteering to take English and Mathematics evening classes for children so panditji said that he would send his kid for the classes. We then spoke to panditji about the schools in the region. Goonj wanted to support schools and swamy ji was looking at how best it can be done for the 5 cluster villages in Kotma panchayat. Earlier the thought was that we can pay a better salary to the school teacher so if he/ she is paid well, the teaching will be better. Pandit ji then suggested that the teacher is anyway getting a salary from the committee, it might be better to hire one more teacher with the money there is so that the load on one teacher is reduced which would improve learning as well.

So well said! How often we impose our understanding without taking in local suggestions while so called “supporting” the calamity affected areas. We further spoke about the relief requirements at the temple. The temple earlier had a dharmshala which was washed away and along with it all the stored items. It was amazing how panditji was living there with his wife and son, taking care of the temple at a time when no devotees were coming.  Swamy ji promised immediate ration help and that he would connect the temple with other organisations who are providing relief material.

At around 7:45 we left from the temple as the kids have to leave for school by 8:30 and pandit ji also had to finish his cleaning.

All along the way I was thinking about the many stories he told and wondering that all that remains after a tragedy are stories and tales.

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