The people of Bhutan rate high in their happiness index inspite of their poverty as measured by the western yardstick. So happiness is something that is more than the comfort that comes from economic wealth. While in the Paro region of Thimpu, the capital city, most modern facilities are available, the basic structure of all the buildings follow the traditional norms because of which, even under heavy rains or seismological activities, the damages are mitigated. The traditional façade also adds to the beauty.
Thimpu, Paro in Bhutan
No wonder the people here are high in the happiness index as they adhere to the basic principles of sustainable living based on time tested methods. While Bhutan has maintained the core principals of traditional architecture, still attracted tourists in large numbers and given them all modern amenities to live by, in adjacent India, the facilities in the Himalayan circuits leave a lot to be desired. Barren Without the Banj The lower to middle Himalaya, has been home to varied species of flora and fauna. One among them has been the White Oak tree, called Banj by the locals. This Banj tree had been pivotal to the ecosystem of Himalaya so much so that the ecosystem of the Himalaya had grown around this tree. Let us look at the roles this tree has played.
Water retention – the broad leaves of this tree retain water and proliferation of this tree meant more water evaporation during summers and so more rain and snow in the upper reaches of the Himalaya and hence more river water flow during summer again. Water percolation – the falling leaves of the Banj on mulching, created a thick carpet of Humus on the floor of the forests making it conducive for bushes, plants and other undergrowth under these trees, which again contributed to increasing the humus on the floor of the forest. This Humus absorbed the rain water falling and allowed it to percolate slowly into the ground rather than just get washed away down the slopes. This percolation led to increase in ground water and water springs at various places along the slopes. Preventing Soil Erosion – The carpet of Humus held the soil firmly and prevented it from getting washed away down the slopes along with the waters. This prevented landslides and consequently breaches and flash floods.
Banj Tree with Undergrowth, Humus
Unfortunately from the times of the British, these massive oaks were felled and instead replaced with Chir Pine trees for their quick commercial value. Chir Pine was suitable for resins and timber and had a quick turn around. But what no one looked into was that the leaves of the Chir Pine were fine and needle shaped. What did that imply?
The fine needle shaped leaves of the pine tree reduced the water retention, water percolation drastically and increased the soil erosion. This difference came to light when the local Pahadi, women of these hills started noticing reduction in fuel wood and ground water. Nobody had concerned themselves with the Banj trees and hence the women could use their lower branches as fuel wood. Pruning the lower branches regularly also allowed more sunlight to reach the ground and aid more undergrowth and humus. Sadly, it was too late. Most of the Banj had gone. The local women who wanted to safeguard the few left behind rallied round under a movement called the Chipko movement during the 1970s. The Pahadi women formed human chains and hugged the Banj trees to prevent them from being felled. The word Chipko means to hug, to stick to.
Chipko Movement 1970s – Women Hugging Banj Tree
The barren landscape of the hills today tells us the remaining part of this story as to what happened to these women and their trees. Were we not shortsighted when we could see the money in Pine but not the boon in Banj? Did we make a mistake, when we felled all the Banj trees off the Himalaya? What typically causes flashfloods in the Himalaya? Flashfloods occur commonly in the Himalaya due to cloudbursts which bring down torrential amounts of rain in a short span of time. Being a hilly region, the voluminous amounts of rain waters from the cloudburst, cascade down the hills with tremendous force causing landslides and flashfloods. But the major and root cause for such damage is the cloudburst. Cloudbursts occur when huge columns of monsoon clouds, heavily laden with water molecules are triggered by either a physical barrier or other dynamics in the atmosphere to discharge their heavy payload in a rush. This leads to rapid and voluminous rainfall in a short duration. It is like a Tsunami but from the skies. Here is where the rain making bacteria comes into act. The presence of this rain making bacteria in the atmosphere causes ice crystalization in the clouds earlier and rain to fall sooner. This prevents huge build up of clouds, causes precipitation then and there in many places, reducing the potential for formation of conditions that can lead to heavy cloudbursts. Basically it acts to decentralize the clouds and distribute the rains rather than converge into a huge cloud capable of bursting. So, when the green cover in the Himalaya was more healthy and conducive for the bacteria due to the presence of the Banj trees, these rain makers were many and they were busy making rain and preventing cloudbursts. With the disappearance of the Banj, its undergrowth and the humus on the floor of the hills, we have driven the rain makers away and clouds are bursting uncontrolled. The sheer fact that many of the old shrines and old settlements have survived so long in these hills in the same places that are reporting frequent landslides, flashfloods, cloudbursts and casualties today, is an indication that these hills were perhaps not so perilous even till a few centuries ago. Man, flora, fauna and the elements had struck a perfect chord and were in harmony with each other. How can we engage this rain maker again?
The guardian deity of the Uttarakhand region is Dhari Devi, a goddess, whose idols stood near the village Dhari, named after Her. This temple stood on the banks of the Alakananda in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand. This Dhari Devi temple was not some new temple that had come up in the last 50 to 100 years. It was a Shakti Sthal, one among the 108 Shakti Peeth, a seat of Shakti, which means it has been there and venerated continuously by the majority people of the land for more than a couple of millennia. Shakti Sthal are places where the Shakti Tattva, subtle energies are considered to be manifest. The Dhari Devi temple had a subtle connect with the temples of Kali Math and Kedarnath. These temples were designed and installed at specific angles with each other to balance the Shiva – Shakti energies. Shiva in Kedarnath and Shakti in Dhari Devi and Kali Math.
One day prior to the deluge, the idol of Dhari Devi was removed from its consecrated, long standing location to make way for a dam to be constructed there. Angles were well known in this land for it was the ancient Indian science of Trikonamiti which gave rise Trigonometry, a branch of modern mathematics. Kona means corner, angle. Trikona is a triangle. The eahst coast town of Konarak, famed for its ancient Sun temple was also built in specific angle to the Sun, which is why it was aptly named as Konarak. Angles denote alignments. Concept of angles, their meanings and the powers in alignments, whether of planets in the sky or objects on the ground, was well known to this civilization. Without realizing the meaning, the purpose of these angles and the precision with which these temples had been located where they were, the Dhari Devi temple was shifted consequent to Supreme court order. While development should happen around such ancient and honoured places, here development has been ordered by overturning the places of honour. While the Shakti Peeth has been there beyond human memory and would have continued to be there for some millennia more, these modern dams have a life of just 100 – 200 years. These dams can be built in this valley or the next. “Can structures of timeless nature, which form the heritage of the land, be moved in the name of short term development projects?” is the question that a full bench of the Supreme court has to analyze now.
Tampering with the Shakti Peeth could well have been the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back, inviting the wrath of Shakti, the power in the fury of Mother Nature, for the cumulative destruction that we have caused to her over the last 300 years. That the shifting of the Dhari Devi temple could have invoked the wrath of Shakti to cause such a catastrophe, can be a faith based reason, which the modern rational mind would not be willing to agree upon as a point of argument. The underlying fact however is that the Chardham Yatra, the pilgrimage to all these temples, the whole trek and experience is founded on the same faith that has come down from eons and millennia. So, dismissing the shifting of Dhari Devi as one of the causes for the catastrophe, as just a faith based or an irrational reason, would not be looking at this incident from a wholistic perspective. The whole system there is faith based. Now we are left with the faith that perhaps atleast this Uttarakhand disaster, even at the cost of so many lives and damage, will shake us out of our apathy towards environment and tendency for quick and dirty, ill planned solutions that bear ill effects. It is a lesson on how not to be overpowered by greed. It is not that we in present times have discovered new technologies or commercial avenues. Our ancients had known many too. But they had discovered something more … how to live sustainably with Nature – when to use technology and when not to. Technology and commerce go hand in hand and shape lifestyle. It is easy to discover new technology. The difficulty is in deciding when, where and how much to use. The difficulty is in limiting it to catering to needs and not greeds. It is a lesson on how to respect ancient traditions. It is not that they do not work, we do not understand them well enough to make them work. It is a lesson on how not to tamper with Nature. It is easy to cut a tree, a forest even. But is it possible for a man or a machine or even another type of tree to substitute for its function the same way, from the very next moment? Even if a sapling of the same type of tree is planted, who can perform the functions of that tree for the interim years till this sapling can grow into another tree? It is a lesson to tell us how every being on this planet has a role to play, be it a human, a tree or a bacteria. How each of us – humans, trees, organisms and natural elements like rain and earth are all part of one single eco system. Acts of each, impact the others. It may not show in the short term but over time it will and when it does it will seem like the hand of fate and then it will be too late.