The sound was too loud and close for comfort. As if dynamite for road repair or construction had gone off nearby? But who in their right mind would do that at an ungodly hour way past midnight? These were my first thoughts on being suddenly woken up from a deep sleep, just as the mobile phone rang.
“Sir, are you OK? Is everything fine”? It was Tilak Ramola, a journalist friend from Naugaon, 20 km downstream from us in Uttarakhand’s upper Yamuna valley.
“Yes, but why?” I asked.
“There has been an earthquake with its epicenter at your place of halt. First reports speak of damage at the old palace in Raj Gharhi village overlooking the Rest House you are staying in.” Ramola ji sounded concerned and worried.
It slowly dawned on us as more reports came in that it had been a pretty close call. The blast was quake generated and the reason I am able to recount the incident now is because although 4.6 on the Richter the quake had been deep at 100 kms. Had it been shallower or stronger then perhaps …
We had halted at the Forest Rest House on the banks of a young Yamuna and close to Kharadi, a roadside settlement that comes into its hectic own during the annual yatra (pilgrimage) season. But we were not in Kharadi on a winter night as a yatri (pilgrim) nor was this our first or only visit.
There had been previous ones while we had worked on devising a People’s River Health Index and there would be more as a follow up to our initial efforts on sensitization and empowering the local people to take better charge and care of their river.
Kharadi, just 40 km short of Yamunotri is on the old yatra route. It is a road side habitation along the river, marked by rows of shops that double up as halting places during the yatra season. We had been visiting it since 2009 and the local people had started to place our names with our faces.
Over the years we were to discover a lot more than people’s views and understanding about their river and how it was slowly but surely getting snatched away from them and how a forcible re-routing of the river for a run-of-the-river power plant would result in devastation and loss for them in 2012 and 2013.
But this is not a lament about all of that.
We were in the land of Rishi Jamdagni better known as the father of Lord Parshuram. An ancient temple devoted to him exists in a picturesque village named ‘Than’ that lies at the end of an opulent open flat terrain overlooking the river. Residents of Than village give credit to Rishi Jamdagni for bestowing on them this flat and productive land, otherwise a rarity in these sharply undulating locales.
Folklore goes that Rishi Jamdagni used to visit the river Ganga that lay across some hills for ritualistic obeisance. With age and diminishing strength he found it difficult to go to the river and shared his predicament with his son Parshuram.
“If you can’t go to Ganga then I would request her to visit you” declared Parshuram. Soon a stream believed to be Ganga emerged out of the valley slopes of the Yamuna just below the village. A small temple dedicated to both Ganga and Yamuna sits at the emergence site of the stream which drains first into a lovely pond & finally into the river Yamuna.
Forward to June 2012. Bhim Singh Rawat, our indefatigable colleague had spent almost a month in and around Kharadi galvanizing young and old to work towards a green and clean yatra . This was before the ‘Swatch Bharat Abhiyaan’ had become a national slogan.
Holding a number of sensitization meetings, participating in local melas, spending days and nights with the members of the local Nadi Mitra Mandali (Friends of the River), joking and cajoling he had transformed initially reluctant young and old members of the community into a committed band of volunteers eager to welcome the yatris to a clean and comfortable stay. Kharadi is located suitably for the yatris to halt just one last time before their final march to the shrine at Yamunotri, one of Uttarakhand’s famous Char Dhams (four centres of pilgrimage).
We had reached Kharadi in time for the start of the yatra season and were wonderstruck by the transformation that had taken place there. Roads were swept, side drains were clean, mobile toilets for yatris were in place and shops sported a festive look. ‘Enthusiasm’ was written all over and Bhim was unrecognizable. It seemed as if more than one Bhim existed there, so close had been his identification with them.
The source of Bhim’s extraordinary motivation was not far to find in the form of the profound and timeless words of wisdom by Kautilya:
“It is the inaction of the ‘good’ rather the evil deeds of the ‘bad’ that harms society.”
Kautilya (also known as Chanakya) was the famous teacher-advisor of King Chandragupta Maurya (4th Century BC) and the message had thoughtfully been emblazoned at the entrance of a government Intermediate College in Kharadi by its principal.
I wondered if it is the rich histories of small places like Kharadi, a small seemingly innocuous riverside settlement in Uttarakhand, and its historical intertwining of tradition, culture and the environment that make India what it truly is – an ancient and timeless land.
All photos are the author’s own
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