Kedarnath, June 17: Rajiv Desai, 33, a graphic designer from Bangalore, had to get to Kedarnath on June 16.
“I want to remember my father who died here last year. I want to pray for him by being physically present at Kedarnath. I want to go there, pray near the temple for peace of my father’s soul,” Rajiv said, waiting for the fog to clear so that he could make the eight-minute helicopter ride.
The wait stretched over two hours from noon, when Rajiv and five others boarded the helicopter only to have to get off because bad weather ruled out a take-off.
At Phata helipad, 45km from Kedarnath, Pawan Hans is one of five companies that offer helicopter rides to the temple. Each helicopter takes six visitors and brings them back after about an hour. But the service is often interrupted by fog, rain and winds and usually wraps up by late afternoon.
“Let’s pray to the weather god,” said the pilot, Colonel (retd) Sukhvinder Singh, as he retired to the crew’s resting room. “If it rains, the visibility may improve.”
Twenty-five pilgrims were waiting, among them Sulabh founder Bindeshwar Pathak who was on the same flight as Rajiv and this correspondent. The temple gates close at 3pm for two hours, so chances of making the trip seemed dim.
“Pura pack hai sir,” the voice on the walkie-talkie conveyed bad news. It was raining at Gaurikund, 12km from Kedarnath. On this day last year, at least 5,000 people were killed in flash floods that devastated this hill region of Uttarakhand.
Rajiv’s father Sadanand Desai, 73, had fulfilled a long-cherished dream when he made the trip to Kedarnath. He reached on June 14 with four friends, attended the evening aarti on June 15 but was caught in the flash floods on June 16. His body was found at Rambara, near Gaurikund. Rajiv’s brother and some relatives had come then to claim the body.
Rajiv, who lost his mother a long time ago, was making his pilgrimage a year to the day.
Finally, at 2.15pm, the wireless set crackled to life. “Sir ab take-off kar hi lo aap. Mausam samanya hote ja raha hai (Sir, you take-off now. The weather is clearing.)”
Soon, the helicopter was airborne and, within minutes, landing at Kedarnath.
From the air, the trail of devastation was still visible a year on. The road the pilgrims would take to cover the last stretch on foot had disappeared, a landslide had disintegrated a hill and the Mandakini whose flash flood had caused the destruction looked like a rope hidden in the jungle.
All around the temple complex were signs of the devastation. While the temple stood out, no road to it could be seen from above. The rubble remained, surrounded by damaged guesthouses that can no longer be used. The 500-metre walk from the helipad to the temple involves negotiating several small hidden slabs of concrete from the buildings that were destroyed.
It was at 2.45pm that Rajiv, with the rest, reached the temple gate where all six pilgrims were registered before being allowed in. The last batch, before gates closed at 3pm.
“The ritual of performing puja is just one part of our way to reach God. The other is to serve the poor. What is more important is the journey through the fog, rain, the cyclone that we face on the way to the pilgrimage,” Bindeshwar Pathak said.
The other three passengers on the last helicopter trip to Kedarnath on the first anniversary of the destruction were two pilgrims from Uttar Pradesh and one from Dehradun, who had come yesterday because they thought it would be less crowded, as it was.
Rajiv knelt on the floor, breaking down before collecting himself and, with the help of a priest, chanting the prayer for peace to his father’s soul.
His father was restless to come to Kedarnath, he said. “I have no answers to troubling questions. But I have completed a mission to come here like my father had completed his by coming here,” added Rajiv, himself a father of two.