Why a sacred Indian town is sinking


Inside a temple that overlooks snow-capped mountains, Hindu monks ladle spoonfuls of puffed rice and ghee into the crackling fire. They close their eyes and chant, hoping their prayers will somehow turn back time and save their holy — and sinking town.

For months, some 20,000 inhabitants of Joshimath, hidden in the Himalayas and revered by Hindu and Sikh pilgrims, have watched the earth slowly swallow their communities. They begged for help, which never came, and in January their desperate plight became the focus of international attention.

But at that time, Joshimath was already a disaster area. Multi-storey hotels flocked to one side; cracked roads gaping. More than 860 houses are uninhabitable, dotted by deep cracks. And instead of saviors, they had bulldozers that leveled large areas of town.

The sacred town was built on the ruins left by landslides and earthquakes. Scientists have warned for decades that Joshimath cannot withstand the recent level of heavy construction.

“The cracks are widening every day and people are scared. It’s a ticking time bomb,” said Atul Sati, an activist with the Save Joshimath Commission.

Experts and activists say Joshimath’s future is at risk, in part due to a push backed by the prime minister’s political party to develop religious tourism in Uttarakhand, the spiritual town’s home state. sacred. Besides climate change, extensive new construction to attract more tourists and accelerate hydroelectric projects in the area is exacerbating subsidence — land subsidence.

Joshimath is said to have special spiritual powers and is said to be the place where the Hindu master Adi Shankaracharya found enlightenment in the 8th century before going on to found four monasteries across India, including a monastery in Joshimath.

Visitors pass through town on their way to the famous Sikh temple, Hemkund Sahib, and the Hindu temple, Badrinath.

“It must be protected,” said Brahmachari Mukundanand, a local priest who called Joshimath “the brain of North India” and explained that “our body can still function if some limbs are amputated. go. But if anything happens to our brain, we can’t function. Its survival is of the utmost importance.”

The town’s porous topsoil and soft rock can only support so much, and that limit, according to environmentalist Vimlendu Jha, may have been broken, according to environmentalist Vimlendu Jha.

“In the short term, you might think it’s growth. But in the long run, it’s really devastating,” he said.

At least 240 families have been forced to relocate without knowing if they will be able to return.

Prabha Sati, who fled Joshimath last month when her home began to crack and tilt, returned to retrieve her belongings before state officials demolished her home.

“Now I will have to leave everything behind. Every little piece of it will be destroyed,” she said, tears welling in her eyes.

Authorities, ignoring the warnings of experts, have continued to develop costly projects in the area, including a series of hydroelectric plants and a long highway. The second is aimed at further promoting religious tourism, a key plan of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

Uttarakhand, dotted with several sacred shrines, will see a spike in tourist arrivals over the next decade thanks to improved infrastructure, Modi said by 2021. Nearly 500,000 people have gone via Joshimath in 2019, state data shows.

A major attraction is the Char Dham pilgrimage, where pilgrims traverse challenging terrain and inclement weather to reach the four elevated temples. By 2022, 200 of the 250,000 pilgrims have died making the journey. Authorities say the increase in visitors is putting a strain on existing infrastructure.

In progress, Char Dham’s infrastructure project aims to make the journey more accessible via a long and wide all-weather highway and railway that will run through the mountains.

Some experts fear the project will exacerbate the fragile situation in the Himalayas, where some towns are built on rubble.

Veteran environmentalist Ravi Chopra said that to create such wide roads, engineers needed to smash rocks, cut trees and strip away bushes, which would weaken the slopes and making them “more vulnerable to natural disasters”.

While construction on the project near Joshimath was halted last month, locals fear it is too late. A long crack running down one of the front walls of the famous Adi Shankaracharya monastery has deepened worryingly in recent weeks, said Vishnu Priyanand, one of the priests.

“Let places of worship remain places of worship. Don’t turn them into tourist attractions,” he urged.

It’s not just the highway.

In late January, hundreds of residents protested against the National Thermal Power Corporation’s construction of the Tapovan hydroelectric plant located near Joshimath.

Atul Sati, member of the Joshimath Rescue Committee, said: “Our town is on the verge of destruction because of this project.

Locals say explosions building a 12-kilometer (7-mile) tunnel for the station are causing homes to fall apart. Work has been suspended but NTPC officials deny any connection to Joshimath’s subsidence. Himanshu Khurana, the official in charge of Chamoli district, where Joshimath is located, said multiple government agencies are conducting investigations to determine the cause of the damage.

The crisis has raised the question of whether India’s search for more hydropower in the mountains to cut its dependence on coal can be achieved sustainably. Uttarakhand has about 100 hydropower projects in different stages.

The heavy construction needed for hydropower could cause irreparable damage in an area already vulnerable to climate change, experts warn.

It can also relocate entire villages, as residents of a village near Joshimath have discovered.

Haat, along the Alaknanda River, was once a sacred village where guru Adi Shankaracharya is said to have founded another temple in the 8th century.

Today, it is a landfill and building material pit after the village was acquired in 2009 by an energy business to build a hydroelectric project.

Laxmi Narayan temple is the only part of the village still standing. Rajendra Hatwal, a former village head who now lives in another town, said all its residents have been relocated.

Hatwal and a few others still visit the temple. A caretaker, who refused to leave, lived in a makeshift room next to it. He sweeps the yard, cleans the idol, and prepares tea for the odd guest passing by.

They feared its days were numbered.

“We are fighting to protect the temple. We want to preserve our ancient culture to pass it on to the new generation,” Hatwal said. “They didn’t just destroy a village – they completed a 1,200-year-old culture.”


AP photojournalist Rajesh Kumar Singh contributed to this report.


The Associated Press’s religious coverage is supported through the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.


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