This year quite a few Hindu pilgrimages are scheduled. In fact, some have been gone through, some others are continuing and still others are yet to commence. An ancient religion as it is, it has a number of auspicious days as prescribed by the scriptures and the same have designated a number of holy places. Actually, the entire country is dotted with places that have some religious significance or the other. In some estimation there are more than 300 such sacred sites that span the country. Some are very important, so much so that a visit to them for the faithful is considered de rigueur to earn salvation. Others, however, may lack that compelling importance, considered holy only in the areas around. A pilgrim centre could be any holy place like the Himalayas, the temples located there or elsewhere, a holy congregation as prescribed by the mythology or a powerful deity or a tomb or a Samadhi of a holy or Godlike man.
Talking of pilgrimages one is reminded of two medieval tomes on the subject. One is Geoffrey Chauser’s “Canterbury Tales” that assumed cult status. It described the 11th Century pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in the Canterbury Cathedral and the other was the 16th Century John Bunyan,s “Pilgrim’s Progress”, an allegorical narrative that never went out of print. One wonders whether pilgrimages like what Chaucer had in mind are undertaken even now in the modern world. Coming down to us from the Vedic times, the tradition of Hindu pilgrimages seems to be nowhere near tapering off even in the 21st Century. If anything, it has acquired a greater hold on common man than ever before. Hundreds of thousands of people travel through the country from east to west and north to south or vice versa on pilgrimages using the modern means of travel like roads, railways airlines and even helicopters. Gone are the days when the pious and the staunch believers would trudge through the country that was largely untamed and wild, without fears of natural calamities or of predators lurking behind every bush. Motivated by sheer piety, unshakable faith and a strong desire to obtain release from the cycle of birth and death they would go over the difficult mountainous terrains, through verdant valleys or across broad rivers or fast-running hilly streams. The fear of losing life in the process was singularly absent though their near and dear ones would more often believe in the unlikelihood of their return.
Today, however, it is far more safe, convenient and trouble-free. One doesn’t have to undergo the privations of yore that the pilgrims had to suffer on the long and arduous journeys generally undertaken on foot to the temples or abode of a deity. Now it is well packaged and most of the needs, comforts and conveniences of the pilgrims are outsourced to private or public enterprises. Such is the surge in numbers of devotees that their travels, halts, lodgings and boarding are booked in advance so much so that one does not have to do anything other than embarking on the pilgrimage. Highly commercialized, such facilitations have only increased the numbers of pilgrims exponentially over the last few decades. Numerous states that are lucky to have an important pilgrim centre in them also join in making arrangements by building up infrastructure like roads, hotels, lodges, camping sites, etc. for smooth and painless passage of pilgrims. Those dependent on the revenues earned through the large influx of pilgrims invite more and more of them to bolster their coffers. “Religious Tourism”, as it has come to be known, is precisely from where the problem of degradation of environment of such places consequent on massive visitations has cropped up – despite the strong empathy of Hinduism with Nature and all its elements.
A classic example is that of the state of Uttarakhand which suffered untold devastations in 2013 due to environmental degradation only to accommodate more and more pilgrims. Blessed as the state is with the four holy Hindu shrines, it could never have escaped the attention of pilgrims from all over the country. Earlier Uttarakhand was part of Uttar Pradesh and pilgrims’ traffic was on a low key. The newly created state, however, gave the subdued religious tourism a mighty heave. It became a big collective enterprise and virtually every section of the population got into the act. Roads were re-laid or newly-built on which would run hundreds of buses, SUVs and MUVs. Rest houses and hotels came up, shopping and eating joints were opened up all along the routes precariously perched on treacherous mountain slopes and dangerously close to the fast-running rivers, throwing to the winds all environmental norms.
The country’s rising middle classes too sent the tourist traffic soaring by the year so much so that on 16th June 2013, thousands were milling around at the state’s four shrines located at elevations of 10000 to 12000 ft in ecologically fragile narrow valleys. While the entire population of the state was 1 crore (1 billion), 2.5 crore (2.5 billion) tourists had travelled to it – much more than what was its carrying capacity. The holy town of Kedarnath with a population of fewer than 500 was hosting 17000 pilgrims. A disaster was in the making and, lo and behold, suddenly Nature struck a violent blow – a massive cloudburst that sent millions of cusecs of water gushing through the narrow valleys carrying along massive boulders down the steep mountain-slopes destroying or sweeping away everything that came in their way, from houses to cars to men, women, animals, roads, and slices of the weakened mountain sides. Thousands perished and many are still untraced and yet the ‘never-say-die’ politicians opened the state to pilgrim traffic in a year’s time despite the routes to the shrines remaining vulnerable to flash-floods, landslides and other natural calamities. Such is the lure of the lucre for politicians – and, of course, for votes – and piety of the faithful.
Deaths in pilgrim centres have become common. Only recently hundreds of thousands had collected on the banks of Godavari at Pushkarulu for bathing during an auspicious period that comes only once in 12 years and several died in a stampede that occurred as the restraints were dropped with the VIPs leaving the venue. Again, a few died in a landslide caused by heavy rains at Baltal in Kashmir – once a beautiful, quiet meadow below Zoji-la pass surrounded by green pine-clad mountains. It was commandeered for providing another route for the inflated traffic of tens of thousands of pilgrims to Amarnath cave where a trickle of frozen water miraculously assumes annually the shape of a phallus – the symbol of Mahadev. The township that is erected every year has played around with the surrounding hills making them weak and prone to slips – destroying its beauty as well as its ecology.
Likewise unrestrained influx of people in hundreds of thousands wreaks havoc on the ecology of several other pilgrim centres most prominent of which are Allahabad and Sabarimala. At Allahabad during Kumbh hundreds of thousands camp on the banks of the Holy Ganges and take ritualised baths in it polluting its surroundings and waters. The annual trek through the forests of Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) of Wayanad in Kerala to the Sabarimala hill shrine is devastating the famed forests. Besides, the River Pampa flowing by has become a sewer and people residing on its banks have to suffer its smelly and filthy waters.
As the pilgrim centres are generally located on ecologically sensitive hills and mountain, in forests or on banks of the holy rivers a time seems to have come to restrict the numbers of pilgrims travelling to them for the sake of saving them for posterity. Every site should have its scientifically determined “carrying capacity” permitting access to them above that limit should be prohibited by law, reckoning it as harmful for all – the holy site, man and nature.