Rajat Sharma

Char Dham Yatra: Pilgrims, be careful

AKBWith a huge influx of devotees for Char Dham Yatra in Uttarakhand, several kilometre long queues have been noticed on the routes to Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri shrines since the last eight days. This has taken a big toll on basic infrastructure like tents, electricity, food, water and medical assistance for the devotees.

The Char Dham Yatra began on May 3 (Akshay Tritiya) with the portals of Gangotri and Yamunotri shrines thrown open for devotees. The portals of Kedarnath shrine were opened on May 6. This was followed by Badrinath shrine, whose portals were opened on May 8. The daily limits of pilgrims have been earmarked as 7,000 for Gangotri, 4,000 for Yamunotri, 12,000 for Kedarnath and 15,000 for Badrinath. In all, 38,000 pilgrims are allowed daily for the Char Dham Yatra. This was done because there is limited accommodation available for pilgrims at each of the four main shrines.

This year the number of pilgrims has recorded a steep rise because it is for the first time since 2019 that the Yatra has been allowed without any Covid restrictions in force. More than one lakh pilgrims have registered their names for Char Dham Yatra this year. Uttarakhand tourism department has made registration mandatory for all pilgrims for their safety and well-being. But, on the ground, more than one and half lakh pilgrims have already arrived, many of them without registration.

In my prime time show ‘Aaj Ki Baat’ on Monday night, we showed visuals of thousands of pilgrims walking, riding ponies on the tricky hilly routes, with deep gorges on one side and huge walls of rock on the other. Some of the visuals are terrifying. I would advise all pilgrims planning to undertake Char Dham Yatra this year to be very careful.

Till now, 20 pilgrims have died during the last eight days, and most of them have died due to cardiac-related issues due to travel at a high altitude. Unlike pre-Covid period, the state government this time has not made carrying of health fitness certificate as mandatory. The maximum number of deaths were reported from Yamunotri. The director general of health of Uttarakhand government Dr Shailja Bhatt has appealed to pilgrims having co-morbidities like diabetes, hypertension, breathing and cardiac problems, to stay away from the Yatra. On Monday, four pilgrims died due to health-related complications taking the toll to 20. Most of the pilgrims who died came from Maharashtra, Karnataka and UP.

Because of the huge rush, many pilgrims are spending nights in the open, without tents. There is huge shortage of doctors and paramedical staff. Thousands of pilgrims are walking in big crowds along with a long line of ponies carrying sick and elderly devotees.

Many of these pilgrims are braving difficulties despite lack of accommodation and medical help, simply because of their undying devotion. Two kilometres away from Kedarnath shrine, the entire route is chock-a-block with pilgrims for several kilometres long. The visuals clearly show that many of the pilgrims are not even walking, they are crawling, taking small steps because of the crowd. A pilgrim has to cover 16 km by road to reach the shrine. From Gauri Kund to Kedarnath shrine, the entire route is crowded. Women and elderly people carrying infants in their arms are walking towards the shrine.

God forbid if the weather suddenly turns bad. It can cause havoc for the pilgrims. The daily footfall on this route presently is between 25 to 30,000. According to state government officials, Kedarnath shrine can accommodate only up to 12,000 pilgrims daily, but since May 6, when the portals of the temple opened, 30,000 devotees visited on a single day, and this pace continued on May 7 and 8. Pilgrims are waiting on the route for more than 24 hours only to have a glimpse of Baba Kedarnath.

Due to huge rush of pilgrims, the demand for hotel rooms has spiked. Hotel owners have hiked their room rates. Some pilgrims have even paid Rs 10 to Rs 12,000 for spending a night in the hotel. Uttarakhand DGP Ashok Kumar admitted that police is having a tough time controlling the rush of pilgrims.

Kedarnath has three helipads, from where helicopters of nine companies take off to complete 130 sorties a day. The helicopter fare is between Rs 7,000-8,500 per head, and all the helicopters are booked till June. I understand pilgrims are preferring the summer holidays in the months of May and June for the Yatra, because with the onset of monsoon and bad weather, it could be difficult to visit the shrines from July till September. There are risks of landslides and road blocks.

The situation has become worse with the arrival of thousands of tourists in cars. On the Badrinath route, cars have been parked on both sides of the roads causing traffic snarls. Tourist buses has started arriving in large numbers. The CEO of Badrinath-Kedarnath Shrine Committee says that the rush of pilgrims is expected to increase from mid-May till the end of June. This is cause for worry because already 20 pilgrims have died due to health-related issues. Most of the deaths are due to cardiac arrest cause by high altitude and less oxygen at an altitude of 10-12,000 feet.

Char Dham Yatra is an important pilgrimage for Hindus. Every devout Hindu has this dream of making this Yatra at least once in his life. Devotion to God gives strength and the ability to individuals to face difficulties, surmounting all challenges, whether related to health, altitude or accommodation. But one has to understand the problem.

If a shrine can provide arrangements for 12 to 15,000 devotees daily, what will happen if more than 30,000 pilgrims converge in one place? Almighty will never want devotees to suffer, but pilgrims must understand this and avoid haste. Online registration facility is available and they should get themselves registered, and wait before beginning their pilgrimage.

Char Dham Yatra has been going on for the last several centuries. With progress and technological advancements, the number of pilgrims has increased exponentially. The roads are now better, there are arrangements for accommodation. Badrinath and Kedarnath shrines have now been given a complete facelift.

Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had opened the Samadhi Sthal of Adi Shankaracharya, and had unveiled the huge statue of Adi Shankara near Kedarnath shrine. Kedarnath is a beautiful shrine. Several tunnels have been built on the route. The 50 km long journey can be done on the banks of Tehri lake. The scenery is stupendous. People should visit Kedarnath and Badrinath shrines, but first of all, please get your name registered.

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