JOSIMATH, India (AP) — At a shrine overlooking snow-capped mountains, Hindu priests piled spoonfuls of puffed rice and ghee into a crackling fire. They closed their eyes and sang, hoping that their prayers would somehow turn back time and save their sacred – and sinking – city.
For months, Joshimath’s 20,000 or so residents, entrenched in the Himalayas and revered by Hindu and Sikh pilgrims, have watched the earth slowly swallow their community. They begged for help that never came, and in January their desperate plight came under the international spotlight.
But by that time Joshimath was already a disaster area. Multi-storey hotels slumped to the side; cracked roads gaped open. More than 860 houses were uninhabitable, scattered through deep gorges. And instead of rescuers, they got bulldozers that leveled parts of the city.
The holy city is built on piles of rubble left behind by landslides and earthquakes. Scientists have been warning for decades that Joshimath could not withstand the heavy construction that has taken place in recent times.
“The cracks are getting bigger every day and people are scared. … It’s a time bomb,” said Atul Sati, a Save Joshimath Committee activist.
Joshimath’s future is at stake, experts and activists say, due in part to a push by the prime minister’s political party to grow religious tourism in Uttarakhand, the holy city’s home state. On top of climate change, extensive new construction to accommodate more tourists and accelerate hydropower projects in the region is causing subsidence – the sinking of land.
Joshimath is said to have special spiritual powers and is the place where Hindu guru Adi Shankaracharya found enlightenment in the 8th century before founding four monasteries across India, including one in Joshimath.
Visitors pass through the city on their way to the famous Sikh shrine of Hemkund Sahib and the Hindu temple of Badrinath.
“It needs to be protected,” said Brahmachari Mukundanand, a local priest who called Joshimath the “brain of North India,” explaining that “our body can still function if some limbs are cut off. But if something happens to our brain, can we function it.… Its continued existence is extremely important.”
The city’s loose topsoil and soft rocks can’t support much, and environmental activist Vimlendu Jha may have already crossed that line.
“In the short term you might think it is development. But in the long run, it’s actually devastation,” he said.
At least 240 families have been forced to move without knowing if they will be able to return.
Prabha Sati, who fled Joshimath last month when her home began to crack and topple, returned to seize her belongings before state officials demolished her home.
“Now I will have to leave everything behind. Every little piece of it will be destroyed,” she said, blinking back tears.
The authorities ignored experts’ warnings and have continued to develop costly projects in the region, including a slew of hydroelectric power stations and a long highway. The latter is aimed at further boosting religious tourism, an important part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party.
Dotted with several holy shrines, Uttarakhand would see a surge in tourists in the next decade thanks to improved infrastructure, Modi said in 2021. Nearly 500,000 passed through Joshimath in 2019, state data shows.
A major draw is the Char Dham Pilgrimage, where pilgrims traverse challenging terrain and harsh weather conditions to reach four high-altitude temples. In 2022, 200 of the 250,000 pilgrims died making the journey. Authorities said the increase in visitors was straining existing infrastructure.
The Char Dham infrastructure project, already underway, aims to make the journey more accessible through a long and wide all-weather highway and a railway line that would criss-cross the mountains.
Some experts fear the project will exacerbate the fragile situation in the Himalayas, where several cities have been built on rubble.
To build such wide roads, engineers would have to break boulders, cut down trees and clear brush, which would weaken slopes and make them “more susceptible to natural disasters,” said veteran environmentalist Ravi Chopra.
While construction on the project near Joshimath was halted last month, locals feared it was too late. A long crack in one of the front walls of the famous Adi Shankaracharya monastery had deepened alarmingly in recent weeks, said Vishnu Priyanand, one of the priests.
“Let houses of prayer remain houses of prayer. Don’t turn them into tourist traps,” he pleaded.
It’s not just the highways.
In late January, hundreds of residents protested the National Thermal Power Corporation’s Tapovan hydroelectric plant near Joshimath.
“Our city is on the verge of destruction because of this project,” said Atul Sati, member of the Save Joshimath committee.
Local residents say construction explosions for a 12-kilometre-long tunnel for the station are causing houses to collapse. Work has been suspended, but NTPC officials deny any connection to Joshimath’s subsidence. Several government agencies conducted investigations to determine the cause of the damage, said Himanshu Khurana, the officer in charge of Chamoli district where Joshimath is located.
The crisis has once again raised the question of whether India’s quest to increase mountain hydropower to reduce its dependence on coal can be achieved sustainably. Uttarakhand has about 100 hydropower projects in various stages.
The heavy construction needed for hydropower could cause irreparable damage to a region already vulnerable to climate change, experts warn.
It could also displace entire villages, as residents of a village near Joshimath discovered.
Haat, along the Alaknanda River, was once a sacred hamlet where the guru Adi Shankaracharya is said to have founded another temple in the 8th century.
Today it is a rubbish dump and building materials storage pit after the village was taken over by an energy company in 2009 to build a hydropower project.
The Laxmi Narayan Temple is the only part of the village still standing. All residents have moved, said Rajendra Hatwal, once the village chief, who now lives in another town.
Hatwal and a few others are still checking in at the temple. A janitor, who refused to leave, lives in a makeshift room next door. He sweeps the grounds, cleans the idols and makes tea for the strange guest who comes by.
They feared that the days were numbered.
“We fight to protect the temple. We want to preserve our ancient culture to pass on to a new generation,” said Hatwal. “They didn’t just destroy a village, they completed a 1,200-year-old culture.”
AP photojournalist Rajesh Kumar Singh contributed to this report.
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