In June 2013, massive flooding ravaged Northern India, destroying hundreds of homes and holy buildings and killing as many as 10,000 known people in the process.
Maryville College professor of religion and chair of humanities Dr. Brian Pennington, who has conducted research in and around the Uttarkashi district of Northern India for the past 10 years, felt this tragedy in a very personal way. Pennington was able to observe and aid in the relief of the Uttarkashi region first hand.
“It’s really sobering stuff to see,” Pennington said.
The city of Uttarkashi is the focal point of much of Pennington’s research. This research, which he began in 2003, aimed to chart the many new religious developments in the Uttarkashi region, which occurred as a result of large scale economic and infrastructure development since the separation of Uttarakhand—the state that encompasses Uttarkashi—from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in 2000.
Uttarakhand’s recognition as an independent Indian state has led to an influx of funding for development in the region.
One of the most distinctive features of the Uttarakhand region is the temple of Kedarnath. This city is one of four cities involved in Chota Char Dham, a major Hindu pilgrimage across the Indian Himalayas. Religious tourism to this city has grown in the past decade, especially with the installation of several new roads between the pilgrimage points in the last few years.
However, as dramatically as tourism increased in recent years, the damage done by flooding in the past months has wiped away much of the area’s prosperity.
“This was a region that depended largely on tourism, especially religious tourism or pilgrimage, and all of that’s gone,” Pennington said.
Upon his return to Uttarkashi this January, Pennington found many of his friends without jobs and most of the city whose development he had spent the past 10 years tracking reduced to debris.
“At one point, there were sections of the city that were occupied by streets and buildings that were businesses and homes and schools and things like that, and where all those things once stood, now was just simply empty space,” Pennington said.
According to Pennington, the story has been under reported in the West. A Google search for “Uttarkashi flood” or “North India floods” returns little information beyond the reports of major Indian news stations, and there are even fewer from American news sources.
The most easily traceable article from CNN about the disaster is a short news report which claims a death toll of 150 despite the Uttarakhand government’s own report of at least 5,700 “presumed dead.” The actual death count may be much higher. Pennington said that a conservative estimate of the casualties caused by the flooding numbers at least 10,000.
In addition to the thousands reported missing by villagers throughout the Uttarakhand region and Western Nepal, Pennington said that “there are a large number of itinerant holy men and women in these sacred places in North India that don’t have identity cards or families they’re attached to that could report them as missing.”
These unidentified casualties, as well as numerous Nepali migrant workers without any sort of documentation, could place the death toll well over the mark estimated by Pennington.
Other sources seem to agree in this aspect. Uttarakhand chief minister Vijay Bahuguna released an official report indicating the same estimate of at least 10,000; however, the true number will remain unidentifiable as the extent of the flooding has made it possible to only recover around 800 of the victims with some being found as far as 500 miles away from the affected areas.
Until the recent onslaught of natural tragedies in the Uttarakhand region, the cities of Uttarkashi and Kendarnath flourished. Now, little remains in many areas beyond the temples themselves. Roadways, schools, homes and businesses have all been affected by the flood.
In light of these events and the relative lack of publicity that arose from them, little is being done to assist the people of the Uttarakhand region.
However, some concerned individuals, such as Pennington and his colleagues, continue to support the region, understanding fully the depth of its religious and historical importance.
Pennington set out to help Uttarkashi in his first trip back to city after the flooding. By collecting all that he could from family, friends, and fundraising, Pennington joined fellow activists in a grassroots mission to provide direct relief without the fees and intermediation of large NGOs or similar organizations.
Pennington and those he worked with used these funds to provide school uniforms, books, fees and other necessary supplies to the Uttarkashi region, as well as food staples and general supplies for the one hospital in the district.Pennington’s research in the region, while impacted by the flood, continues.
“The story has been, up until this point, a story of rapid growth and religious entrepreneurialism in the bustling marketplace, of hope and optimism about the future, and of tragedy and devastation,” Pennington said.