“Religious faith is the strongest force,” says Dhritiman Mukherjee, one of our country’s top wildlife photographers, after trekking with Bollywood composer Shantanu Moitra to pilgrimage site Kedarnath, for their #100DaysInHimalayas project. Between February and December 2016, the duo will make a series of trips in the Himalayas covering reaches running from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, and into the neighbouring foothills of Nepal and Bhutan—and they’re taking National Geographic Traveller India along for the ride.
Perched on the banks of the River Mandakini in Uttarakhand, Kedarnath is the most remote of the four Hindu pilgrimage sites on the Char Dham yatra. In June 2013, a devastating flash flood hit the valley, laying waste to much-frequented holy sites such as Kedarnath and Gaurikund. Nearly three years on, the snow-clad temple town sees hordes of tourists and pilgrims during the six months that it is open every year. Moitra saw people walking with IV drips, and met a 68-year-old man who was at peace with the possibility of dying on the taxing route. “It’s an incredible sight, and sometimes heartbreaking to see the kind of hardship people go through,” Moitra said. They saw ailing people being carted up the steep slopes in palanquins, in baskets, on horses, even by helicopter. “The frequency of the choppers was like a Mumbai local train, every few minutes,” said Mukherjee, “Even then we couldn’t get one, so we walked the 16km from Gaurikund to Kedarnath.”
The effects of the floods are still palpable. While Gaurikund is slowly coming back to life, Mukherjee says Kedarnath looks like it is under construction. “There are lots of rules now but it’s very well-maintained and clean.” The town is now peppered with a few new small hotels, and the route from Sonprayag to Gaurikund and Kedarnath is strictly monitored by police.
Oddly, the floods seem to have left a sea of tranquillity in their wake. “Religious places are also great commercial centres, full of hustlers,” Moitra added, but “Kedarnath was absolutely quiet despite the devastation, as if it has put everyone on the back foot. For the first time, I’ve gone to a popular pilgrimage place—one of the Char Dhams—and felt God could be here; that’s very unlikely for me.”
Buildings were washed away by the river, but the Kedarnath Temple escaped major damage because of a boulder nearby, which bifurcated the onslaught of the flood. “The stone has become a god because of the temple,” Mukherjee said. Visitors now stop to put vermilion on the boulder before stepping into the shrine. Moitra added, “It’s clearly a coincidence, but you can’t doubt that if the rock wasn’t there, the temple wouldn’t be there.” Moitra met locals who felt that the floods had been a sign of divine displeasure. “The introspection of the Himalayan people is incredible,” he said, “I don’t think people introspect anymore because it means accepting you’ve done something wrong.”
Keep posted for updates from Mukherjee and Moitra, as this mountain bromance yields stunning photos of the Himalayas’ stark beauty, and stories of its charming people. Missed the previous dispatches? Read more on #100DaysInHimalayas.
Saumya Ancheri is the former Assistant Editor of NGT India's web team. She loves places by the sea, and travels to shift her own boundaries. She tweets as @Saumya_Ancheri.
Dhritiman Mukherjee is as elusive as the animals he photographs. His photographs have appeared in National Geographic Traveller, The New York Times, Lonely Planet, WWF, UNESCO, Birdlife. He is a RBS Earth Hero award winner for inspiring people for conservation.