The installation of Adi Shankracharya’s statue in Kedarnath is a proud moment for Uttarakhand, as it provides a larger dimension to the revival of the pilgrimage site after the 2013 natural disaster. The reconstruction of the Dham was taken up as an opportunity to not just strengthen the infrastructure but also ramp up overall capacity and attraction. Just as Sardar Patel’s statue has proven a major tourist attraction, while at the same time enhancing Indians’ patriotic spirit, the Shankracharya statue will do the same in the religious domain.
Uttarakhand had, for too long, neglected the potential of its tourism and pilgrimage sectors. This unimaginative bureaucratic approach was continued even after the new state was formed. It has taken the Gujarati spirit of enterprise at the very top to identify the many dimensions in which the dynamic and unifying spirit of Adi Shankracharya’s Hinduism could be portrayed. The recent decision to revive the traditional Char Dham trek also acknowledges the long standing demand from young enthusiasts, and the section of pilgrims who wish to experience the gradual spiritual transformation it provides, with fulfillment on reaching the shrines. It made a lot of economic sense in the past when every village on the way benefited in numerous ways. In the present, it would go a long way towards breathing life into the increasing number of the state’s ghost villages. It will promote a sustainable lifestyle for the residents and strengthen the spirituality of the visitors. As usual, mostly urban based ‘green activists’ have a problem with such development, claiming that the erstwhile busy tracks should be allowed to completely disappear to ‘protect’ the environment. Their legitimate concerns should be accommodated but not allowed to derail the process.
A balance between pilgrimage and leisure tourism would ensure that Uttarakhand comes to be recognised for more than just the overcrowded mall roads of Mussoorie and Nainital. There is a lot to be done and the time is short because one never knows when there will be equally motivated governments in the state and centre again. Haridwar and Rishikesh, too, as centres of pilgrimage and take-off points for the mountain dhams, require development of enabling infrastructure based on modern technology and future potential. Mere patchwork development without a grand design will not lead to the kind of pilgrimage (and tourism) product suitable to this day and age.