In the early 1970s, the impact of Chinese aggression was yet to be neutralised and this author had to obtain special permission to visit the Vyas Gumpha (Cave of Vyasa) off Badrinath, the legendary place where the great rishi dictated the Mahabharata to his scribe, Lord Ganesha. Not a soul was around when two officers of the border road maintenance force drove me to the spot within the prohibited area. The dignified silence and a transparent stream dominating the site were an overwhelming experience.
My next visit to the cave in 2001 was a nightmare. The board warning that the area was prohibited stared helpless at a motley crowd picnicking in front of the cave, their throwaways clogging the stream. A kiosk, an artificial extension of the cave, sold soft drinks, and probably not too soft ones as well. It was maddening that the authorities could allow such an enterprise, even though there were similar shops only yards away. I listened to the conversation of the visitors.
They were hardly aware of the cave’s significance. The unkindest cut came from a young man demanding of his guide, “Bas?” meaning “That’s all?”
They symbolised the death of the tradition of Tirthayatra, the pilgrimage. They were tourists seeking pleasure.
This is how a foreigner described the Indian pilgrim: “One of the strangest sights in India is that of the ascetics who make pilgrimages from one part of the country to another … It is because their minds are so powerful that they are able to endure the roads over which they walk, the winds that blow upon them in the high hills, and the sun that beats down upon them in the plains.
They care nothing for any of these. They have learnt to bear all that may meet them. And so, wherever we may wander in the wide streets of Bombay, among the temples and beside the river at Benares, on lonely mountain roads and on village greens, we see some of them, their feet hard with walking, their bodies thin with fasting and travelling, their eyes glaring with defiance of all weathers and roads and people who would hold them back.” (Frank Elias, “The Gorgeous East”, 1913.)
We may bear with Adi Shankaracharya being sometimes described as the patron saint of Indian tourism, for he covered India by foot, establishing four monasteries in four directions of the country, for this limited application of the term. But pilgrimage and tourism, as the words connote today, are foes of each other, the latter vanquishing the former. Shankara’s travel—and that of the pilgrims after him—were not simply an external, but a simultaneous inner travel, an exploration of one’s consciousness. From the statements left by pilgrims we understand how the difficulties they faced while trekking resulted in their faith being strengthened, how each despair led to a new spiritual realisation.
Nations are vying with one another to make themselves tourist destinations. An island nation like Singapore that does not boast of any ancient heritage has practically transformed a major part of itself into a silver platter for tourists with the promise of luxurious adventures, artifices and ornithological and scientific institutions, partly educative but entertaining in full. China has made each of its hoary historical remains and natural discoveries irresistible spectacles.
But unlike India, no country can be proud of so many sites with epic associations and spiritual significance. Must we sacrifice them to our greed and gluttony? Day by day the Himalayan sites are rapidly falling prey to this trend. The easily accessible places in the region such as Haridwar and Rishikesh have lost the exclusive aura they radiated 50 years ago. For example, it was a region dedicated to vegetarianism. Not that I am its champion, but imagine my horror when, some months ago, while entering Rishikesh from Haridwar, two massive cutouts of pigs almost blocked my passage, with words assuring you of fresh pork. Certainly the local administration could protect the exclusive air of the place from displays of such crudities, just as they could have stopped a parlour adjoining the Cave of Vyasa.
The latest news of the road project covering Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri and Gangotri is alarming. The unpredictable flood havoc of 2013, which practically demolished Kedarnath barring the shrine that was saved by a gigantic rock tumbling down to barricade it, was expected to make us leave the Himalayas undisturbed till we have a full explanation for that stunning phenomenon. (By the way, a mystic who for years used to pass the entire period of six months in a cabin at Badrinath when the zone remained buried under snow, confided to me that some VIPs had a merry time at Kedarnath gorging on and indulging in the forbidden, just before the tragedy struck, putting the finale to the continuing clash between opposite vibrations at the occult plane. We can of course dismiss his observation as abracadabra if we please.)
A humble question is, since both Kedarnath and Badrinath are easily reachable today, why not we leave Yamunotri and Gangotri as they are, reachable only by aspiring pilgrims willing to take some pain? What if we draw a soft line between the pilgrim and the tourist—at least in the Himalayan world? Who can assure us that a calamity worse than that of 2013 will not befall us if we go on tampering with its complex ecosystem of which science knows little?
“There are no mountain ranges anywhere in the world which have contributed so much to shape the life of a country as the Himalayas have in respect of India … To the people of the South, a thousand and five hundred miles away, to the men of the sea coast, to the dwellers of the deserts of Rajputana, no less to the inhabitants of the Gangetic valley, the Himalayas have been the symbol of India. (K M Panikkar, “The Himalayas in Indian Life”.)
Eminent author and recipient of several awards including the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship