Flash floods killed at least 1000 people in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand and stranded 90,000 people. Many of the stranded and dead were on a pilgrimage known as Char Dham Yatra, which takes Hindus to four of the holiest shrines in Uttarakhand between May and November. Worst affected is the Kedarnath temple and the Kedarnath valley with entire villages wiped out all the way down to Rudraprayag. Here are two first-hand accounts by survivors taken from articles printed in the New York Times:
”Four of my friends, who are priests, are missing,” said Naresh Kukreti, a priest at the Kedarnath temple. “We don’t know whether they are alive or dead.” After the ritual evening prayer on Sunday, June 16, he had been filled with unease. “I had a strange feeling something terrible was about to happen. Suddenly a deafening noise shook everything,” he said. “It felt like an earthquake.”
Kukreti and about 800 pilgrims sought refuge in Lord Shiva’s stone temple, which was built in the eighth century 11,759 feet above sea level. “Within minutes, a river of black water and big stones followed us into the temple.” The temple survived the assault, but when the water receded after a cold night of prayer, Kukreti found himself standing among piles of dead pilgrims. “Everywhere I looked I saw dead men, women and children,” he said.
Most of the buildings around the temple were destroyed, and the town of Kedarnath, which has grown around the temple, was submerged. After braving cold, hunger and grief for three days inside the temple, Kukreti and the other pilgrims hiked a few miles to an emergency landing pad, and rescue helicopters flew them to a relief camp.
On the morning of June 15, Arijit Shashwat, a 34-year-old software engineer from Patna in the northern state of Bihar, began a 14-kilometer trek from Guptkashi village in Uttarakhand to the Kedarnath temple. He was part of an entourage of 15 people, including his 61-year-old father.
It was raining intensely as Shashwat and his family began the uphill trek at 10 a.m. Several laborers carried his elderly parents and uncles up the mountain in palanquins. Twelve hours later, Shashwat and his family reached the Kedarnath temple. The rain did not stop. They found a guesthouse adjacent to the temple and checked in. On the morning of June 16, Shashwat and family visited the shrine and offered their prayers. The rains continued. Local authorities forbade them from moving around. Even a downhill stroll in the pilgrim town of Kedarnath could be dangerous. They spent the day between the temple and their guesthouse. Shashwat and family returned to the Kedarnath shrine around 7:30 p.m. for the ritual prayers and got back to his room around 8.20 p.m. He was jolted by the earsplitting noise of cloudburst and blinding lightening. “Within moments, I saw an enormous amount of water pouring into our guesthouse,” he said.
Shashwat and his family ran out of the guesthouse, toward the temple complex. Water tore down their guesthouse within minutes. The ancient rock temple seemed the only place of refuge.
Water poured into the shrine. Massive rocks tumbled inside and damaged the courtyard. But the inner areas of the shrine remained intact, and they remained with many other pilgrims huddled in the shrine praying to Lord Shiva throughout the night. They had no food, no water and no news of several members of their entourage who had gone missing. Furious torrents of water pushing enormous boulders charged toward the Kedarnath shrine and town. “Inside the temple, the water levels began to rise. I held my son in arms at the waist level. The water rose further, I lifted him on my shoulders”. The volume and velocity of the water carried away many pilgrims hiding in the temple. “When the water receded we saw the piles of dead bodies,” Shashwat said. “My aunt and uncle lay dead at the main entrance of the temple.”
“We ran out of phone batteries and the floods had destroyed the phone towers,” Shashwat recalled.
Three days later, on the morning of June 18, the rain stopped. Shashwat found a muddied packet of biscuits outside the temple and fed them to his son and nephew. Around noon, a chopper surveyed the area and flew away. A little later, a small helicopter tried hard to land but failed. A man jumped out of the chopper and told the distressed pilgrims in the temple to walk uphill in a certain direction, where the rescue helicopters could collect them.
The only ones who could rescue the stranded pilgrims in these narrow mountainous valleys at these high altitudes was the Indian military. They employed more than 40 helicopters to airlift thousands of people – a difficult task, indeed. One of their rescue helicopters crashed trying to evacuate injured pilgrims trapped on a stretch of broken road in the Kedarnath valley. Frustrations ran high as families throughout India were frantically trying to track down their missing relatives.
The devastating flood that claimed thousands of lives and obliterated entire villages destroyed two large ashramas of the Bharat Sevashram, one in Kedarnath and one in Gaurikund. “We lost many monks and workers in the flood,” said Swami Purnatmananda, a senior monk of Bharat Sevashram Sangha West, Brea, California. “They got swept away as they were saving lives of pilgrims.”
For those who would like to support the victims of the Himalayan disaster, we recommend donating to the Ramakrishna Mission and the Bharat Sevashram Sangha. Perhaps the most respected spiritual organizations doing relief work, they serve afflicted people all over India without much publicity, worshiping God in the distressed. Both organizations have set up special funds to go to help those in Uttarakhand who have lost everything. While most stranded pilgrims have been evacuated and are home safely, the locals and villagers of the afflicted areas are struggling to keep alive. To learn how you can help, please click on the following links: