Protecting the Abode of Shiva

Shiva, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, India, flood

Statue of Shiva in Rishikesh usually sits well above the waters of Ganga. Photo credit: IBN Live

Monsoon rains flood Uttarakhand — the Devbhoomi, land of the gods

Sacred Uttarakhand in North India is home to soaring Himalayan peaks; the source of India’s most sacred river, the Ganga (Ganges); a major pilgrimage circuit (Char Dham); and hundreds of ashrams, temples, communities and national parks  — as well as my spiritual home, Aurovalley Ashram. The state was ravaged by torrential monsoon rains in mid-June that have swept thousands of people, buildings and bridges away. 

 Photos of Uttarakhand flooding from IBN Live.

My heart goes out to all of the people who have suffered because of this tragedy. I have spent months in this region — at Aurovalley Ashram and at the sacred cities of Rishikesh and Haridwar — and part of me lives there always. I have felt Shiva’s energy in the morning winds that howl down the valley in winter. In summer, I have dipped in the cool, green waters of Ganga as she emerges from her glacial source. I have meditated on the banks of the holy river, and gazed in the distance at mist covered Shivalik mountains. And I have walked alongside Ganga at dawn, to go the world’s largest spiritual gathering, the Kumbh Mela. This is why I care, and why I am personally concerned.

Shiva Rishikesh Ganga / Ganges India

Shiva statue in Rishikesh before the flooding.

The light and dark of destruction

In Indian mythology, the Himalayan mountain range is the Abode of Shiva, the home of the Hindu god of destruction — but destruction in this sense is meant as a positive force. Shiva’s energy destroys the old, unnecessary, outmoded, unconscious; he is the transformer. Lord Shiva is one of Hinduism’s great figures, one of the Trimurti (along with Brahma and Vishnu). It was through Shiva’s locks that Ganga descended to earth — ironically to protect mankind from being deluged.

Uttarakhand, and especially the Garwhal region through which the Ganga flows, is one of the most sacred in India. Along its banks seers and sages have gathered since time immemorial to chant invocations to the gods and meditate on the nature of being. The Ganga tumbles from its mountainous source at Rishikesh, which virtually means “land of rishis” (sages), before heading toward the great plains. Rishikesh is one of my favourite places in India, and I have written about it often. It is an extremely picturesque spot, filled with deeply peaceful, sonorous energy. Though seekers have been drawn to Rishkesh since ancient times, it sprang to prominence in the west when the Beatles visited 45 years ago. Rishikesh is often called the yoga capital of the world, as it is chock-full of ashrams, yoga courses, teachers, gurus, sadhus, temples and students from all over the world.

Rishikesh Lakshman Jhula, Yoga, India

Yoga capital of the world: Rishikesh, India

About 30 kilometres down the river from Rishikesh is the city of Haridwar, one of seven sacred cities of India, according to Hindu belief. The other six are all in south India. Haridwar is also Shiva’s city, and an important pilgrimage centre. I have been to Haridwar often, usually to see the evening aarti that honours Ganga. In between these two centres, off the highway and surrounded by meadows, is Aurovalley Ashram, which has been my spiritual home since I first visited seven years ago last month.

North of this region, way up in the mountains, are the four Char Dham pilgrimage centres that mark the various sources of the Ganga: Gangotri, Kedarnath, Yamunotri and Badrinath. Also upriver is Uttarakashi. Many of these places were deluged by the torrential waters, and may take years to recover — which will be a blow to the pilgrimage tourism industry of Uttarakhand.

Man’s role in the Uttarakhand tragedy

The Ganga is the mother river of India, the country’s life blood. Virtually one in 10 people on the planet depend on the Ganga for livelihood. She flows 2,525 kilometres, from her source in the mountains of Uttarakhand to the Bay of Bengal. Considering the importance of this river, the sacredness of her source region and the size of the pilgrimage tourism business in Uttarakhand, you would think sustainable development would be paramount. You would be wrong.

Photos of the floods from the Deccan Chronicle.

The hand of man played a large part in the tragedy that has befallen Uttarakhand. Mining, deforestation, and pilgrimage tourism have contributed to defacing the state’s natural ecosystem, which would have slowed and contained the monsoon-swollen rivers. It is ironic that a region that is deemed to be one of the most sacred is also one of the most devastated.

Uttarakhand India Rishikesh floods

Devbhoomi literally means ‘land of the gods’

A wake up call to stop rape of Himalaya

It’s also ironic that one of the world’s leading environmental activists, Dr. Vandana Shiva, is from Uttarakhand. Her ecological centre, Navdanya, is in Dehradun, near Rishikesh. Dr. Shiva, who was educated in Canada, recently wrote an unequivocal blog titled: The Uttarakhand Disaster: A wake up call to stop the rape of our fragile Himalaya. In the blog, she wrote:

“The sources of the Ganga, which is the lifeline of India, were made sacred sites in order to protect the Ganga Himalaya, and hence India. The ecologically fragile Himalaya , and our sacred rivers are being raped . The disaster which has led to 5,000 deaths on current estimates and the disappearance of nearly 100,000 people is a wake up call to stop the rape. We need to learn once again to have reverence for our mountains and rivers are sacred. We need to be informed by the latest of ecological sciences, not by an obsolete “development” model which is nothing more than an exploitation model which has led to the tragic disaster in Uttarakhand. The disaster is clearly manmade, not a natural disaster, and politicians, decision makers, businesses need to take responsibility for the disaster their actions and policies have caused.”

Many others on the internet were also blaming business and government for the disaster, including Travel and Tour World, who called for a sustainable tourism model: “What one cannot understand is how so many pilgrims — about 28 million  — were allowed to visit the state during this season, where the population is not even half of that amount. The state was determined to extract the maximum out of tourism and therefore hurriedly built its infrastructure to try and accommodate the huge tourist rush.”

A yogi who lives in Rishikesh on the banks of the Ganga — Sadhvi Bhagawati of the popular ashram Parmarth Niketan — wrote about the tragedy for the Times of India’s Speaking Tree. “Year after year, Ma Ganga had tried to warn us; year after year breaking bridges, overflowing banks, demolishing buildings, roads and lives. Voiceless, she had used every means in her hands to make us understand. Yet, blinded by our own agenda, foolish in our wisdomless knowledge, reckless and deluded, we ignored her message — again and again.

That which we sow, so shall we reap. If we sow unchecked and illegal construction, vision-less development, deceptive politics and pockets lined with commissions — if we sow consumerism as the highest good, we shall reap the fruits of destruction and devastation.”

Puja in Varanasi for Ganga, the mother river of India.

Puja in Varanasi for Ganga, the mother river of India.

Responsible travel & sustainable tourism is the key

I have long wanted to do the Char Dham pilgrimage into the Shivalik mountains of Devbhoomi — Uttarakhand — and now Kedarnath and Badrinath are likely to be closed for two or even three years. It is obviously time for policy makers to curtail growth and take a much more eco-conscious approach to tourism and resource development, in Uttarakhnand and elsewhere. This is why I joined EcoAdventure Media. I hope to help promote responsible travel and sustainable tourism. I just hope people will finally  wake up to the need to protect our fragile planet.

It is about time we started to treat the sacred earth as sacred.

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24 Responses to Protecting the Abode of Shiva

  1. Prasad Np July 2, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

    This is the tragedy of this country, the river Ganga which is considered mother, the Himalayas that are considered to be abode of Gods are all abused for profit. The worst part is all political parties are involved in trying to get media miles from relief efforts. Some body has got a Rambo rescuing pilgrims and somebody is flagging off relief materials. Let us hope when we start rebuilding the devastated pilgrim towns we are more considerate to the delicate balance of nature that has been built over millions of years by mother nature.
    Prasad Np recently posted..Around the World With Jazz in Eighty MinutesMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward July 2, 2013 at 8:29 pm #

      Thanks, Prasad, that is my hope too — that we learn to develop with more consciousness. Perhaps tourism could lead the way, what do you think?
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Why content is king and story is queenMy Profile

      • Prasad Np July 3, 2013 at 2:41 am #

        You are right Mariellen, at least for the tour guides, the priests, trekkers and even the pilgrims if some kind of sensitization program can be created then they will be able to spread awareness. Awareness about the issues can be the first step.

        I remember visiting Yosemite National Park in California, and at the campsite we were shown a movie on do’s and don’t in the Park area. I see no reason why it can not be started for people visiting various places in Himalayas.
        Prasad Np recently posted..Around the World With Jazz in Eighty MinutesMy Profile

  2. shubhajit July 2, 2013 at 4:04 pm #

    For nature everything is same. She is neutral, She doesn’t have ego like us to attach with things. it is from our human side we think it’s our tragedy. Isn’t it a tragedy for hundreds of animals blew by devastation. Isn’t it a tragedy for thousands of plants, uprooted because of the same Ganges water? From the point of cow, mass slaughter is a tragedy, so do with pigs and plants. We think we destroy nature, of course we are destroying it, but why we think man is powerful than nature. No he is not, nature works in a mystical way that is beyond the imagination of human mind.

    Where I am staying right now or you are, perhaps it would be a natural abode but if we see all our developments these are all against nature. Nature never says go and build buildings,, your home so that you can live life in a sensual comfort. Nature says go and eat, and stay off the land, do you thing on your own, in your own time..

    Personally, I felt very sad and attached when I saw and heard the news. I was in Rishikesh 4 days ago after I visited mountains in upper Himalayan region. Uttarakhand is always my second home, especially Garhwal where I know almost all the interior villages, stayed in many of them, mixed with people and spent lots of time there. I feel bad, but I comfort myself by seeing the fallacy of human development and our selfish way of analyzing things.

    Anyways, your write-up is emotional and written in a very good spirit. Thank you.

    • Mariellen Ward July 2, 2013 at 8:34 pm #

      Thank you Shubhajit, for a beautiful comment. You are right, “…nature works in a mystical way that is beyond the imagination of human mind.” We can see so very little, and usually through our own little self-interested window. There is so much more behind so-called reality. But we live int he field of space and time, and must do what we can. Thanks again for a great, thoughtful comment!
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..The green 13: Introducing EcoAdventure MediaMy Profile

  3. Manish July 3, 2013 at 2:38 am #

    Finally the disaster ends with lives and hopes of many lost may be in god or the government. No one knows whom to believe and whom to blame but the blame game continuous and this is where India as a developing country lacks. One price settle the losses but our joint efforts can definitely ensure that nothing as such happens again. My heart prays for the life lost…..
    Your write up was amazing and indulged me into emotions…………………….. Thanks

  4. Destination Infinity July 3, 2013 at 5:19 am #

    I think we need to rethink the basic concept of what DEVELOPMENT means.

    In India, as you might have seen, the extremities are abundant – There are people who want to participate in development activities for getting good meals everyday and there are also people who want to do so for multiplying their (already abundant) wealth.

    But the concept of development as a way to increase the economic wealth is something new and maybe even exciting. But, the long-term consequences are something that people are feeling across sectors, not only in mountains/rivers.

    What amplifies the problem is the lack of strong central policies to check hap-hazard development. But what much can anyone do if the authorities are as ignorant as the masses? Or worse, as corrupt as the masses?

    Destination Infinity
    Destination Infinity recently posted..My Autobiography: HAHK & DDLJ – BLOCKBUSTER Indian Movies??My Profile

    • Mariellen Ward July 3, 2013 at 9:34 pm #

      Yes, I know India faces big challenges, compounded by the lack of responsible leadership. But perhaps the tide is turning. If people keep speaking up, demanding better government, more accountability, more respect for human rights and the environment, it’s bound to change … I am ever the optimist …
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Why content is king and story is queenMy Profile

  5. farzana & aliasgarmukhtiar July 3, 2013 at 8:42 am #

    sad times,
    farzana & aliasgarmukhtiar recently posted..( One evening with me ) at Manchester United , PuneMy Profile

  6. Tim Moon July 3, 2013 at 10:26 am #

    The comparison photos of Shiva is nothing short of stunning. Even with those shots it’s hard to conceptualize the volume of water that is rushing by and devastating peoples lives. The yogi’s quote can be applied to so many other situations around the world. Hopefully, we can turn things around. Articles like this definitely help raise awareness. Cheers!
    Tim Moon recently posted..Photo Friday #24: Hwaseong Fortress (화성) in Suwon, South KoreaMy Profile

  7. Shalu Sharma July 6, 2013 at 1:18 am #

    I was actually born about 20 metres in a hospital on the banks of the Ganga in Patna and lived in Varanasi for major part of my life. I can say that the attitude of the people have changed. The river is no longer Holy, in fact just a select few are still hell bent on taking a dip in the holy water. Many would rather stand on the banks to watch the view, this is the scale of the pollution and devastation of the Ganga. Pure human greed is the main cause of loss of life, plain and simple.
    Shalu Sharma recently posted..Personal experience of visiting the Taj MahalMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward July 6, 2013 at 12:31 pm #

      Shalu, I’m afraid you’re right. My biggest fear about India is that in the race for material prosperity, the country’s long-standing values such as spiritual devotion will be lost. India needs to properly feed and take care of all citizens of course — but I believe the world needs India’s spiritual understanding. Most of the rest of the world has become consumed by materialism and race for more “stuff.” We don’t need more stuff. We need to take care of people and respect nature and understand the world is a sacred ecosystem that needs also to be properly cared for.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Why content is king and story is queenMy Profile

  8. Mary July 8, 2013 at 9:09 am #

    Ganga flooded Shiva. Looks horrible.
    I hope everything will be allright, really!
    Mary recently posted..CateringMy Profile

  9. Nicole @ Green Global Travel July 13, 2013 at 8:09 am #

    What a tragedy. The photos of the Shiva statue before and after really tell the story of the incredible force of water. I’ve been part of a flood before. It is just so powerful and scary.
    Nicole @ Green Global Travel recently posted..5 Incredible Eco Friendly Initiatives That Will Change The WorldMy Profile

  10. bheemtal July 17, 2013 at 7:13 am #

    uttarakhand is called devbhoomi because there are many temples . uttarakhand is also a very famous for it’s beauty or hills station like nainital,bhimtal,,almora ,auli etc

  11. James @ Africa Tours July 19, 2013 at 1:57 am #

    Mariellen, Thanks for sharing information about Devbhoomi uttarakhand. I have visited Rishikesh, Haridawar temples. I also saw this Monsson rains flood but couldn’t take pictures so thanks for sharing images.
    James @ Africa Tours recently posted..Cristine C.My Profile

  12. Arpan July 25, 2013 at 1:07 pm #

    Loved the article… it is sad to know so many innocent lives were lost in that beautiful part of the country, and it is a bit ironic that God’s own land has been subjected to its wrath.. hope things return to normal at the earliest…

    Love your site, M!
    Arpan recently posted..A boring rainy week in HyderabadMy Profile

  13. Dharshini August 10, 2013 at 7:09 am #

    really feeling surprised

  14. bhoj sanmbhy November 17, 2013 at 2:28 am #

    Agree with every word you have written, it is certainly a man-made tragedy.

    People have long forgotten the warnings given by our ancestors.

    Many say that moving the idol of Dhari devi caused this destruction; I have tried to understand the science behind the Dhari devi idol.

    Link to blog http://bhoj11.blogspot.in/2013/09/dhari-devi-do-not-move-her-she-controls.html

  15. Dinesh November 26, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

    i cannot agree more that tragedy was bad but wasnt it Karma?….I have heard people saying India is beautiful and everything,but do Indians realize this?…where is this Nation i mean people going?…i just hope people learn the lesson from inevitable and fare better…

  16. c. March 29, 2014 at 3:55 pm #

    I understand that it is a very dramatic event for people living there. It’s must be very hard and saddening for them.
    I hope I won’t offend anyone by saying that I find the first photo with the statue of a meditating Shiva immersed into the furious and raging dark water; yet still smiling at the universe and unmoved in a deep meditating state; a very beautiful and inspiring image.

    I don’t want people to feel that I’m showing disrespect toward the people who are deeply hurt by this disaster. I just wanted to say that this was an amazing image.

    Thank you for your blog, I loved reading it since the past few day. Thank you for sharing your life and experiences with everyone.

  17. Usha D April 28, 2014 at 7:38 am #

    It really pains to see the tragedy of the people around. The argument is whether it is man-made or natural? Is it because of the rising pollution level, deforestation, increasing global warming that called this tragedy or we blame it on Karma?

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