हिमालये तु केदारं घुश्मेशं च शिवालये॥
In the Himalayas he is known as Kedhaara and as Gushmesh in Shivalaya.
Of the twelve Jyotirlinga of Siva, the northernmost one is Kedarnath. It is also the location of the samadhi of Adi Shankaracharya, the great Hindu philosopher and teacher who originally codified the concepts of Advaita Vedanta.
A lot of conflicting reports are still coming out about the disaster that destroyed the town of Kedarnath and claimed the lives of thousands, with reasons ranging all the way from unprecedented, climate-change-fueled flooding to the wrath of Siva. The answer, however, is never “something in the middle” but always a combination of factors that cross disciplines and, unfortunately, functions of government.
Reason 1: Geology And Meteorology – We Know What Happens When Terrain And Weather Coincide
The Geological Survey of India’s Landslide page states that “landslide, a frequently occurring natural hazard in the hilly terrains of India, shows preponderance of activity during the monsoon period from July to September and after the snow fall from January to March.” The monsoons arrived a bit early in 2013, but what happened this time around to cause so much destruction?
Dave Petley of the AGU Landslide Blog has been doing a great job keeping track of news and images of Kedarnath and surrounding areas, and explaining what happened. He speculated on the causes of the landslide or as he properly refers to it – a debris flow – and followed it up with the most likely culprit: “[not unprecedented] rainfall fell at a time when there was still [melting] snow on the ground.”
… any high mountain landslide expert will tell you that the combination of heavy rainfall on melting snow is tailor-made for landslides. The effect of the heavy rainfall and rapid snow melt was to generate huge amounts of water in the landscape.
… In Kedarnath, hostels had started to collapse, probably as a result of erosion of the edges of the terrace on which the town was built. However, upstream above the eastern snout of the Charobari glacier a larger slope failure developed.
In this post, Dave carefully analyzes satellite images to show that a glacial moraine barrier was breached and that Kedarnath was hit by two flows from two different directions simultaneously.
Reason 2: The Buildings – There’s Always Money To Be Made In Salvation, Especially If You Cut Corners
The picture at the beginning of the post shows what Kedarnath looked like back in 1882. A small temple situated in a glacial valley with a few temporary huts around it. It still is a small temple, but with a disproportionately large tourist economy rapidly built up around it in the last thirty or so years (and no easily navigable roads leading to or away from there).
That was knocked completely down by the flood.
This is the part where you read “glacial valley” and “rapidly-built-up tourist economy,” think of Indian monsoon season and listen to those alarm bells in your head getting louder. Note that the eighth-century temple stood. Not divine intervention, but the product of small and solid building for the future as opposed to random structures slapped together with no care for longevity or safety.
A Frontline India article states, “Given the vulnerability of the region, the town itself has come up in a very dangerous location. Therefore, how much of the destruction in this event was actually man-made is a moot question.”
No, it’s not. The death toll nears 4000. That many people would not have died had Kedarnath remained a simple temple and not become a tourist trap.
But instead of going on with the “people should have known better than to build and sleep on a river terrace or glacial valley” I ask this: We disrespect our own great nature-conquering ideas when we poorly implement them, but then why lament disasters when they were bound to happen? We are inherently creatures of risk and we may even calculate it correctly, but acceptance of a predictably negative outcome is not our strong suit.
If you know of a reputable way (as in not Red Cross) to donate or otherwise help out, please let me know in the comments.
I briefly stepped out of my room which is located in a complex at the back of the Kedarnath temple. I saw people running for their lives. The eighth century samadhi of Adiguru Shankaracharya couldn’t withstand the nature’s fury. Two statues of Shankaracharya, a sphatik linga and a Hanuman statue were swept away. What remains are just some remnants of the structure. Several nearby ashrams were also washed away. We ran inside the temple complex to save ourselves. Around a dozen of us took shelter there till mid night. The next morning was far more terrible.