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Struggling in the wake of the 'Himalayan tsunami'

Villagers' livelihoods depend on flood-hit temple reopening

Struggling in the wake of the 'Himalayan tsunami'

Villagers and priests of Deoli-Bringhram discuss their future

Ritu Sharma, Guptkashi

September 10, 2013

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Some 4,000 residents of a sleepy hamlet in the mountains of India’s northern Uttarakhand state face an uncertain future after recent flash floods left almost all the men in the village unemployed.

Around 70 percent of the people in Deoli-Bringraham, in Rudraprayag district, were priests at Kedarnath temple, one of the country’s most revered Hindu shrines.

As for the rest, some offered services taking pilgrims to the hilltop shrine on mules, while others offered accommodation or shops serving the pilgrims in the Kedarnath Valley.

But the June 16 the “Himalayan tsunami” washed away everything except an 18th century temple in the foothills, some 55 kms from the village, which was damaged beyond recognition.

Besides the main temple, the valley was home to a host of smaller sacred sites. As pilgrim numbers increased over the years, a lot of businesses sprang up, giving a source of income to many.

“We lost our livelihoods after the calamity. We are back in our village doing nothing and living as if we are already dead,” Keshav Tiwari, head priest at Kedarnath temple, told

He said this time of year was the height of the pilgrim season because after October the temple doors were closed due to heavy snow. The income earned before the winter closure was enough to survive until May when the temple reopened.

Deoli-Bringraham, which has no road and involves a two km trek up a steep mountain to reach, is inhabited by mostly high-caste Hindus, the only class the Hindu religion normally accepts as temple priests.

Some men in the village have been priests for the last 15-20 years and because of the caste factor and given their age, it is difficult for them to get another job.

“We only want to be priests. Why should we do anything else? Our ancestors have been leading prayers at the temple for generations,” said Keshav, as other priests from the village gathered behind him.

He and the others are eager to return to the temple and want the government to allow access. But the government is not allowing anyone near the temple because the paths leading there are now considered very dangerous.

“We do not want any loss of life. All trek routes were washed away in the floods and new ones are being laid. But currently landslides or rain make it too risky to travel,” said Raghvendra Langar, a district magistrate.

Even those who owned land and other property at the site are not allowed to go there.

“I had two lodges there on my own land. How can I leave that? We want to rebuild our lives again,” said Vimalchandra Tiwari.

If people were allowed,he claimed, they would clear the area of debris because “we own that place and are desperate to restart business there as soon as possible."

Ram Swaroop Tiwari, another Kedarnath priest, said if the government does not listen to them, they would be forced to beg or steal.

“People are getting frustrated. We have been sitting idle for more than two months,” he added.

As well as the thousands of tourists who perished in the floods, 54 men from Deoli-Bringraham also died. 

Manoj Purohit, 60, lost his brother and three nephews in the Kedarnath flood.

“My brother was a priest there and we had lodges in the valley. Nothing is left now and we have no source of income,” he said.

Purohit said they still have not been able to recover the bodies of his family members because the valley became inaccessible after the disaster.

“It’s the same with other villagers. No one has been able to bring their dead home and cremate them,” he said.

He said the government has given compensation to dead people’s families, but it should also think about those who are dying now after having lost everything.

“We want the government to help us rebuild our lives and not turn a blind eye as if we do not exist."

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