How a Himalayan Tsunami Failed to Dampen the Spirit of Kedarnath
Survivors of the 2013 Kedarnath disaster recall how they escaped from the jaws of death.
Multimedia Producer: Kunal Mehra
(This story was first published on 18 June 2018 and has been republished from The Quint’s archives amid massive flash floods that caused the Rishi Ganga river to swell, resulting in at least 19 deaths in Tapovan, which lies close to Joshimath in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district.)
On an extremely damp day in upper hills of Uttarakhand, Subhash Lal tip-toed to the edge of a mountain, attempting to glance at the Saraswati flowing below. He saw the river raging like never before.
The river, he recollects, had turned black and smelly, almost a tell-all sign of the mayhem that was to follow. The year was 2013 and the tragedy that ensued came to be known as Kedarnath flash-floods, a Himalayan Tsunami.
From then to now, it’s been half a decade. But for those who witnessed the harrowing wrath of nature unfold, the tragedy remains a haunting memory. The Quint trekked all the way up to Kedarnath, to look at the tragedy through the eyes of those who witnessed death in close proximity.
Losing One Stranded Companion After Another
Having toiled as a doli-wala in his early days, Subhash Lal had set up a small shop near the Kedarnath shrine by 2013. At around 6:30 am on 17 June that year, Subhash had escaped to Doodh Ganga in the higher reaches, leaving his shop behind.
When he returned the following morning, he saw “lakhs of corpses lying around.” Failing to reach the place where helicopters were rescuing people, he walked to an acquaintance's house in Gaurichetty. He came back to Kedarnath the next day, but this time too, he could not cross the river to reach the rescue site. He saw people being washed away by the river, as they attempted to tide over its rage.
Finally, with the help of a Gujjar milkman, Subhash, along with 40 other men from his village, walked through the forested slopes to reach Gauri Khark. Twenty had perished by the time they reached.
In Gauri Khark, I saw many others who were stranded. I slipped into the blanket of a Nepali man, as it was really cold. But soon, he turned cold and passed away. I turned to another man, who was still keeping warm. But as soon as I went close to him, he too grew cold and died.Subhash
The next morning, Subhash reached the banks of Songanga, where men threw long trees into the river, hoping to walk over to the other side. If ten succeeded, twenty others failed and were swept away. Subhash couldn’t muster enough courage and decided to not take the leap.
By the following morning, the river grew calm and he could cross it safely, with the help of locals. He managed to reach Sitapur with great difficulty as his feet had swollen up.
The Fall of Rambara
On our upward trek to Kedarnath, we met Dinesh Negi, who had a small eatery in Rambara, around six kilometres from Kedarnath. Before June 2013, Rambara was a bustling pit-stop, with over a hundred shops catering to pilgrims and horsemen who would stop by to rest and replenish.
“It was raining heavily that day and hotels were teeming with tourists,” Dinesh recollects while describing the tragedy. The river had turned black and smelly but no one paid any heed to it,” he says.
So torrential was the river that it ate into the land under a hotel, washing the concrete structure along with it. With the fall of the hotel, the entire Rambara was swept away like dry leaves being brushed away by the October wind.
All along our journey, we were faced with stories of Rambara’s destruction. So we kept an eye out for it. When we finally reached the ill-fated area, we could only see a rocky slope. Other pilgrims, who may not have heard about Rambara, casually walked, thinking of it as yet another moss-laden mountainous slope.
It is true that both Subhash and Dinesh witnessed unparalleled scenes of death and destruction that left them scarred. But for 21-year-old Lalit, the flash-floodsalso brought irreparable loss. He lost 18 members of his family to the tragedy.
On 17 June 2014, shopkeepers returned to Kedarnath, as it had stopped raining for the first time in five days. Lalit too returned to his quarter near the shrine, hoping to get some rest. But loud cries of bhago bhago greeted his ears, and the then teenager made a dash for the door.
So turbulent was the river that buildings on its way fell like a stack of cards. He ran uphill, to the Bhairav Nath temple, and didn’t return till the waters receded. As he fled to the mountains, Lalit lost one of his slippers and went back a couple of steps to pick it up.
By the time he returned, several of his companions were washed away, in a matter of seconds. He spent only one night at the towering Bhairav Nath temple, but it felt like ages.
The tragedy nearly destroyed Kedarnath and consumed thousands in its rage. Just like how the temple survived the destruction, the faith of those walking all the way up to soak in its aura remains undeterred. Kedarnath, then, seems like a Himalayan Phoenix, rising slowly from the debris of disaster.
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