The pilgrimage to the Char Dhams of Uttarakhand has always been hazardous, particularly for the elderly and the infirm. Not so long ago, when it involved an arduous trek through the hills and mountains, braving the weather and wildlife, people from the plains would perform their ‘pind dan’ before coming, as it was by no means certain that they would return. They came spiritually prepared for the possibility. The yatra was undertaken mostly after one’s worldly responsibilities were over. It was a period of contemplation and spiritual advancement and, by the time one reached the holy shrines, one had shed worldly concerns and was in a pure enough state to worship the Deities.
In the present, however, it has become more of a tourist experience. The process is far less important than the objective. Becoming one with nature and the mountain environment is not considered important – convenience is. Even having to wait in line at the shrine is bothersome. The consumer is king and the pilgrimage a service industry.
For the government and those involved in the commercial aspects of the Yatra, it has become primarily an income generating business. So, the more the merrier, with pilgrims ideally being processed like factory lines. It is understandable, but the original impulse for the Yatra must not be forgotten. There is reason to be grateful that, fundamentally, the devotion that brings pilgrims to the Char Dham remains, even if its nature has changed to suit the modern world.
The recent deaths due to cardiac problems of a number of pilgrims should be seen in this context. It is Uttarakhand’s responsibility that they return safely, for which they are expected to take certain precautions. The rise in the number of pilgrims after two years of limitations does not come as a surprise, but it is still proving overwhelming. The preparations were made and now the response to the increased challenge is being put in place, but it still remains a hazardous journey. And it is not just the government that should be taking responsibility for the pilgrims’ well-being – a culture needs to be developed in which every local resident should be prepared to help in numerous ways to make the journey fruitful and enjoyable. The impression should not be communicated in any way that the Yatra culture is exploitative and centered on profit-making. Please the Deities and the bounties will naturally follow.