We need to find God and
He cannot be found in noise and restlessness.
God is the friend of silence. See how nature grows in silence;
See the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence.
We need silence to be able to touch souls.
~ Mother Teresa
Since ages gods and goddesses have been invoked by men for very shallow reasons. A naturally occurring stalagmite formed by ice -- a common cave formation -- was found many years back by an illiterate Muslim Kashmiri shepherd high up in the snow capped mountains of Pahalgam, Kashmir. To the ignorant herdsman it appeared strange. He went down to tell his folks and soon the word spread. Immediately myths were woven around and meanings given to it. The usual metaphors. Holy blabber. Connotations got added on at an amazing speed and shortly afterwards the fantasy was complete.
The lunatic Hindu right wing – always looking for rhymes to whip up religion for their own motives – suddenly had a new slogan: “Come all you devoted, top of the world, in the mountains of countryside Kashmir, amidst the pine fragrance. Come to the subtle sonance of Pahalgam”. Come and see your Lord. Attend to your patriotic duty. Visit in your hundreds. Thousands. Hundreds of thousands.
Thus every year in June for two whole months the annual march of lemmings begins. Mendicants. Bootleggers. Ex under trials. Idlers. Sadhus who never bath. Slugabeds. Jobless. Vagabonds. A very unholy mix of people volunteers to descend upon Pahalgam and wreck it in an eight week long orgy. From a mere 12,000 in the early 90’s to 4,50,000 last year. There would be upwards of a million footfalls this summer. Newspapers say that is a whopping 40% increase.
The entire pictorial roadway from Jammu to Pahalgam is temporarily transformed into a graffiti zone. The CRPF, BSF and state government join hands to paint every possible glade in garish colors to welcome the Bhang-high pilgrims. Banners are erected, boulders are smeared and religious imagery is put up on a grand scale. The arrangements are crude and tasteless. It is such a pain to see such graceful surroundings being run over by some uncouth, unaesthetic fellows, who know next to nothing about conservation and of course absolutely zilch about ecology.
The so called pilgrims -- overwhelmingly poor – usually have toilet habits that range from bad to worse. They shit in the open along the Lidder in endless rows. Defecating on the banks of one of the most beautiful, clean and trout-filled waters in India is such a sham. They litter the landscape with tons of junk and holler like ignorant fools who seem to be in some sort of a perpetual reverie, not believing their divine luck, camping around a real ice-cold river.
Most Indian rivers are like gutters that stink. To a bum who spends most of his nights in Plus 45 degree centigrade amongst notorious mosquito infested plains of mainland India; this might appear like a chunk of Swarg [Paradise]. Like madmen, they run amok. They climb the highest perches and undo their trousers to pee on wild flowers.
In my student days I usually took a cab to home -- from Delhi -- during my summer break. It was the Yatra [pilgrimage] time and one could see the Yatris [pilgrims] frequently stopping over to purchase bottles of cheap liquor – and country made beer -- from roadside vendors on the Jammu-Srinagar highway. Naively I approached one of them and asked, “Why are you buying liquor? I thought you are undertaking a holy journey.” “Kid, the elderly man whispered in my ear, you have no idea how mischievous Boley Nath was”.
Pleased at his rather uncouth observation, the liquor-laden yatri quickly let out the Yatra slogan aloud: Bum-bum. His half-stoned, half-drunk comrades immediately echoed him: Boley. The cab drove on. I knew the bums would toss the empty bottles in the woods.
Apparently most of these volunteers are illiterate and have no idea of what faith is. They simply join the yatra for the element of fake jingoism attached to it by the fringe right wing lunatics. And also becuase these guys have nothing much to do at home.
Our mohksha-seeking pilgrims often travel in run down Sumo cabs and rickety Class IV state busses for the journey of their life. News reports say that thousands of these vehicles – emanating obnoxious fumes -- are now allowed to go up high in the beautiful mountains, triggering disaster for the wildlife. Experts on glaciology fear rapid environmental degradation and adverse impact on some of the sightliest glaciers, near Baltal, if the route was allowed to be over-used by pilgrims. In contrast the Amaranth board is asking the state government to transfer more forest land for road construction. What pity?
The government isn’t exactly unaware of this. There is a proper board that oversees the Amaranth Yatra. It is headed by the governor and filled with petty officials. The sole aim of these gentlemen is to increase the influx of pilgrims to Pahalgam. No wonder last year the Yatris dumped around 55,000 Kgs of garbage, including polythene and plastics in the virgin forests of Pahalgam every day during the pilgrimage. The left-overs of packed food could be seen strewn all along the route to the cave.
Ironically the neighboring state of Himachal has put a cap to restrict pilgrim flow to Gangotri – one of the most sacred Hindu sites -- to only 150 per day, after ecological concerns. Nearby – the timeless Pahalgam will see 10,000 pilgrims a day this year. And that is an environmental tragedy. The delicate eco-system of God’s country cannot bear this mindless influx. As Albert Schweitzer, the Nobel laureate once averred, ‘Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth’.