Why an Indian holy town is sinking

Josimas, India –

Inside a shrine overlooking snow-capped mountains, Hindu monks heaped spoonfuls of puffed rice and ghee into a crackling fire. They closed their eyes and chanted, hoping that the prayer would somehow turn back time and save the holy and sinking city.

Revered by Hindu and Sikh pilgrims and hidden in the Himalayas, the approximately 20,000 inhabitants of Josimaat have spent months watching the earth slowly engulf their community. rice field. They called for help but it didn’t arrive, and in January their desperate plight was thrust into the international spotlight.

But by that time, Josimart had already become a disaster zone. The high-rise hotel fell to one side. The cracked road was gaping. More than 860 homes were uninhabitable, with deep cracks spreading. And instead of a savior, they got a bulldozer and destroyed a whole swath of town.

The holy city was built on a pile of rubble left by landslides and earthquakes. Scientists have warned for decades that Joshimath would not be able to withstand the levels of massive construction taking place these days.

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

Josimart’s future is in jeopardy, experts and activists say. Part of the reason is that the prime minister’s political party is pushing the expansion of religious tourism in the state of Uttarakhand, home to the holy town. Massive new construction to accelerate hydropower projects in the region is exacerbating land subsidence.

Josimaat is said to have special spiritual powers and is believed to be the place where Hindu guru Adi Shankaracharya attained enlightenment in the 8th century, and has been found throughout India, including one of Josimath. Founded four monasteries.

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

“It must be protected,” said local priest Brahmachari Mukundanand, who called Josimaat the “brain of North India,” adding, “Even if limbs are amputated, our bodies can still function.” But if something happens to the brain, we can still do it.” doesn’t work. Its survival is very important. ”

According to environmentalist Vimlendu Jaa, the town’s loose topsoil and soft rock provide limited support, and that limit may already have been breached.

“In the short term you might think it’s development, but in the long term it’s actually devastation,” he said.

At least 240 households have been forced to relocate without knowing if they will ever return.

Prabha Sati, who fled Josimaat last month when the house began to crack and lean, returned to rob her property before state officials demolished it.

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

Ignoring expert warnings, authorities continue to develop costly projects in the region, including numerous hydroelectric plants and long highways. The latter aims to further boost religious tourism, a key plan of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

Uttarakhand, which is home to several sacred shrines, will see a surge in tourism over the next decade due to improved infrastructure, Modi said in 2021.

A major draw is the Char Dham pilgrimage, where pilgrims traverse challenging terrain and harsh weather to reach four high-altitude temples. In 2022, 200 of his 250,000 pilgrims died on the journey. Officials said the increase in visitors was straining existing infrastructure.

The Char Dham infrastructure project already underway aims to make travel more accessible through long, wide, all-weather highways and rail lines crisscrossing the mountains.

Some experts fear the project will exacerbate the fragile situation in the Himalayas, where several towns have been built on rubble.

Ravi Chopra, a veteran environmentalist, said building a road this wide would require breaking rocks, cutting down trees, and removing shrubbery, weakening the slopes and “impacting natural disasters.” It will be easier to receive

Construction on a project near Joshimath was put on hold last month, but locals feared it was too late. A long crack across one of his front walls of the famous Adishankaracharya Monastery has grown worryingly deep in recent weeks, said one of his priests, Vishnupriyanand.

“Leave the places of worship as places of worship. Don’t turn them into tourist spots,” he pleaded.

Not just highways.

In late January, hundreds of residents protested at the National Thermal Power Corporation’s Tapoban hydroelectric power plant near Joshimas.

“Our town is on the brink of destruction because of this project,” said Atul Sati, a member of the Save Joshimath committee.

Locals say an explosion has caused the construction of a 12-kilometer (7-mile) tunnel to the station, causing the collapse of their homes. Work has been suspended, but NTPC officials deny any connection to his sinking of Joshimath. Various government agencies were conducting an investigation to determine the cause of the damage, said Himanshu Khurana, who is in charge of the Chamoli district where Joshimas is located.

The crisis has rekindled questions about whether India’s pursuit of more mountainous hydropower to cut its reliance on coal can be sustained. Uttarakhand has about 100 hydropower projects in various stages.

Experts warn that the large-scale construction required for hydropower could cause irreparable damage to areas already vulnerable to climate change.

As residents of a village near Joshimas learned, it could also evict entire villages.

Hart on the Alaknanda River was once a sacred settlement where Guru Adhi Shankaracharya is said to have founded another temple in the 8th century.

After an energy company bought the village in 2009 to build a hydroelectric project, today it’s a dumping ground for waste and a storage pit for construction materials.

Lakshmi Narayan Temple is the only surviving temple in the village. All the residents have been relocated, said Rajendra Hatwal, a former village chief who now lives in another town.

Hatwal and a few others are still checking into the temple. A caretaker who refuses to leave lives in a makeshift room next door. He cleans the grounds, cleans the idols, and prepares tea for the strange guests who come.

They were afraid that the days would be numbered.

“We are fighting to protect the temple. We want to preserve the ancient culture and pass it on to new generations,” Hatwal said. “They not only destroyed the village, they ended a 1,200-year-old culture.”


AP photojournalist Rajesh Kumar Singh contributed to this report.


AP’s religious coverage is supported through a partnership between AP and The Conversation US with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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