The Himalayan Environment

Vasukhi Tal
The Himalayas have much to offer, but the environment is fast changing and can have a potentially disastrous effect on human populations. Climate change has had an impact on some pilgrimage places. The Chorabari glacier, some 12,800 feet above sea level in the steep glacial cirque above Kedar temple, is the headwater for both the Kanthi Sarovar and Vasukhi Tal lakes. Kanthisarovar is also known as Gandhi Sarovar, and it is the place where Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were immersed upon his cremation.

The area finds mention in a story of the epic, the Mahabharat, where the Kaurava Karna and his king Duryodhana go for a pilgrimage for Shiva, has been retreating year after year and is now the focus of intensive research to determine just how fast the glacier is melting.

In the three years between 2004 and 2007, the snout of the glacier retreated some ninety feet, and it is now being studied carefully by glaciologists. The retreat and thinning of the Chorabari glacier does not necessarily affect pilgrimage traffic to this high Himalayan shrine, but it does presage short-term flooding and long-term effects on the water supply, since the river that emerges from this glacier is one of several tributaries of the ganga. This and other Himalayan rivers supply water to a region where more than one-sixth of the world’s population lives. The deterioration of these mountain rivers is potentially a serious problem for the plains of India.

Ironically, in certain lore and texts of India’s cultural milieu, the rivers that arise from the Kedarnath region are termed as the saptachakra or the seven chakras, referring to the psychic energy centers that are said to make up the human body.

Other problems abound. Photographer Stephen Hyde cites one particularly scary bus route from Leh in Ladakh to Srinagar, Kashmir: “The mountain valley is strewn with crashed vehicles,” he recalls. “One summer 150 people died when the snows came early – the pass is only open from May to August – they got snowed in and froze to death.” Ironically, this area contains the samadhis or burial sites of many famous sages and saints. He is, nevertheless, very impressed with the scenery and culture of Kashmir, although it’s too dangerous to travel there at present. “It combines the natural beauty of the foothills of the Himalayas, the exquisite lakes of Srinagar and a way of life which is thousands of years old.

Still more problems exist such as arsenic, found in and around Mount Kailash, an important pilgrimage place, usually underlying the rivers which find their origin near it. In Bangladesh, arsenic levels are highest in the south, presumably because the arsenic accumulated there when the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers washed soil down from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. The arsenic, which occurs in more recent, shallow deposits of clay, dissolves in underground water by processes that remain disputed. Aquifers deeper than 200 meters are believed to be free of the mineral.

 
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