Remembering Joshimath

Joshimath, the scenic, Himalayan town of Uttarakhand has sunk over 5cms in the last 12 days and the government has instructed authorities to not interact with the media! It is sad to see how a cozy, picturesque, happy hill town has fallen prey to human’s greed.

Joshimath is the gateway to many things, himalayan trekking, ski resorts, the pilgrimages of Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib etc. The view of Joshimath is a welcome sight especially when you have driven up there from Rishikesh. After a 10-12 hour journey in a state transport bus, cramped into a narrow seat in which you can barely fit, eating in the dhabas during breaks, curving through the notorious hill roads alongside some of the most holy rivers of India, arriving at Joshimath feels like a relief. The happiness of finally stepping out of a dilapidated bus after 12hrs is one, but the sight that welcomes you as you step out is a whole different level of happiness. This is my memory of Joshimath, that sudden gush of happiness.

Joshimath is built on the slopes of Nanda devi range of Himalayas. Surrounded by towering hills that are mollycoddled by thick, white clouds throughout the day, it’s never a dull view from the main street of Joshimath. We come across many towns in our travels and not all of them stay fresh in our memories. But Joshimath is different, it is much closer to heart than a random town along the route. On my hiking trip to the Valley of Flowers in 2019, I was lucky to spend a few days here and I can only remember how warm and welcoming the people were. I was coming down with a fever as I arrived here from Rishikesh and decided to spend a few days in Joshimath, recover and be fit again, before the climb. It was then that I connected with this town beyond its gateway role. 

It started with the staff at the government run tourist guest house where I stayed. The cook would serve hot meals and water to the room which was not the norm and show concern about my health. When the fever did not budge, it was them who directed me to the most jovial physicist, whom I still owe for my recovery. In the following days I would walk up and down the streets of Joshimath, cloud watch and people watch for hours and eat chats from the vendor where the road split, one towards Auli, an international ski destination and the other to Badrinath, one of the four most holy Hindu shrines. Why and how people decided to start living here? was something that I would repeatedly ask myself.

Joshimath was just a road, built into the slopes of a hill. Houses were stacked on both sides of this main road, above and below, and most of them could be reached only by stairs that were cut into the slopes between buildings. To reach school, work or transport, people had to climb up or down the stairs, depending on what side of the main road they lived on. Some houses were so precariously close to the edges and I wondered if they felt vertigo. Some of the houses were too far upon the hill that on a dark night, its dim light could very well be mistaken for a star. I would dread myself if I had to walk such a distance and climb those heights every morning and evening.  Human grit and determination always made me wonder. 

One evening when I was awaiting my token number to be called at the physician’s clinic, I got into conversation with a local who was in the queue with his little boy. They spoke about how Joshimath has changed over the years and how rapidly it has gone from the quaint, unfamiliar hill town to a town bustling with tourists and construction. They seemed confused about if it was for the good or the bad. There were power projects across almost every stream that was flowing down from the Himalayas and many more sanctioned. The resort town of Auli, just outside Joshimath, was catering to more people than it ever did and was now filled with resorts and hotels serving the skiers.  Before walking away to the call of his token number, he mentioned how deep down he wished it had stayed like before.

The physician, Dr. Bhandari, had a lot to say about the unforeseen surge in the name of development. The doctor almost sounded like an activist when he spoke about how the town has been systematically deteriorating over the years due to unchecked tourism and lawless development. The doctor had given up a government job in Dehradun and had moved here to serve the people around. He was agitated about how the politicians needed Joshimath for all sorts of new projects, power or tourism, but the nearest hospital with all facilities was hours away. Doctor mentioned how a land survey report made almost 50 years ago was unheeded by all governments and continued using Joshimath for their greed.

The town would get bustling every evening with locals flocking the shops for everything from fast food to groceries and as the evening got darker, the buzz would slowly reduce. The sound of adults talking to each other and laughter of little children walking with them would recede gradually. People climbed up or down the winding stairs, back into their houses, most of them carrying polythene covers filled with stuff that they bought on the main road. Shops would eventually shut and the street would fall asleep all by itself. I spent a couple of days in Joshimath, regaining my health with Dr. Bhandari’s prescriptions and the hot daal chawal, which the guest house cook would specially make. 

Fast forward to today, the fear seems to have come true. The land subsistence has reached an alarming level and the town of Joshimath is at risk. The town is sinking with every passing day and the residents are scrambling for their lives. It is unfortunate that the land termed as Devbhoomi, the land of Gods, has fallen to the hands of demons disguised as development and reached this sorry stage. A town’s foundation is being shaken to provide wider roads and easier access to pilgrims. A whole community is being put in darkness in order to light up other cities from the power projects. With cracks in the wall and ground widening everyday, it’s only a matter of time before this little town gives up. In this era where words like ‘responsible tourism’ and ‘sustainable development’ are repeated every hour, it is only fair to do a reality check. Along with that, this is also a warning, wake-up call for many towns across the Himalayan range. As long as the unchecked land destruction continues in the name of development, tourism etc., it’s not very long before they all wind up like Joshimath.

My heart goes out to Joshimath and its residents.


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