Kedarnath Temple

Remembering 2013 Uttarakhand floods

How a giant boulder saved Kedarnath during 2013 Uttarakhand floods

The north Indian state of Uttarakhand is no stranger to floods and landslides. Its mountainous topography, nestled in the Himalayas also has had challenges with infrastructure growth.

The state, also commonly called Dev Bhoomi, the land of Gods in India is home to 141 major Hindu temples and countless local deities’ shrines. Thousands of pilgrims visit these temples each year.

In June 2013, a famous Hindu pilgrimage site, Kedarnath temple, devoted to Lord Shiva, was hit by a flash flood that caused massive landslides.

Uttarakhand is nestled in the Himalayas and over 80% of the state’s land is mountainous with elevation ranging between 200 to over 8400 meters above the sea level.

Kanha Guru, a Hindu priest, who is based in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, a state just south of Uttarakhand, grew up in Guptkashi, Uttarakhand, and spent his summers at Kedarnath temple where the floods hit the hardest. When he heard of the floods, he worried about his family and set out to reach them.

Guru’s family saw the tragedy first-hand. A day after the devastation, he made his way to his native village. Almost nine years later, the visuals from then are still fresh in his eyes.

“Nobody can forget the tragedy,” he said. “The journey that used to take me a day and a half from Lucknow took almost five days this time. I walked, trekked and made my way any way I could.”

Until he reached his village, he had no news of who from his family was alive and who wasn’t.

The “government hadn’t started declaring deaths until about two weeks or so after the floods,” he said. He recalled rescue operations being very slow, but he said he’s not angry about it. “Everything was disrupted. The roads were flooded, weather was terrible. You cannot even expect rescue operation in such conditions,” he said. “Nobody knew where anyone was. There was no way in or out. Even helicopters couldn’t fly in.”

He was able to trace down his family members but he lost some close childhood friends of his. “My eyes tear up when I think of them even today … we spent our entire childhood together,” he said. “Even after all these years, the memories make me shiver.”

“When the water came gushing down, houses and people came crashing down like a deck of cards. Nobody could help anyone, even if they wanted to, he said”

India is a land of mystic stories. Everywhere one goes, especially in famous temple towns, people will narrate stories, passed down through generations, about miracles happening. Now the natives of Kedarnath have another story to tell.

With the heavy flow of water, a massive rock was brought down. The rock rolled up to the temple and stopped right behind it.

“The temple is so big and there was water reaching its height … But, by Bhole Nath’s grace, a large rock came and landed itself behind the temple,” Guru said, referring to Lord Shiva.

The rock has since been named “Bhim Shila”, meaning the divine rock. Pilgrims now pray in front of the rock, seeking its blessings, Guru added.

When the rock came crashing down, it protected the old temple. Guru said nobody saw the rock coming down. When the chaos calmed down a bit and people came out to look for their loved ones, they saw the rock, he said.

“It wasn’t there before. Nobody saw it coming,” Guru said. “The rock divided the water stream into two and slowed its speed a bit. It saved the temple.”

Right outside the temple is a statue of the bull, Nandi Bail, Lord Shiva’s mount. The statue sits in open air, unprotected by anything, survived untouched. “It’s Devik Shakti” or God’s grace, Guru said.

“It all lasted less than a minute. It took less than a minute for our lives to change,” Guru said.

“I don’t know the science behind how it all happened,” Guru said.

The extent of the damage makes him tremble even all these years later.

In the 2013 flood, official estimates say some 6,000 lives were lost. Unofficially, local residents claim the number is far higher.

Guru volunteered in community-driven rescue efforts.

“Everything behind the temple was razed. Everything was wiped out … People couldn’t save each other … we all tried, but couldn’t. When homes were being wiped out, what are humans. There was no drinking water, no food, no clothing left. Some people also died of hunger, thirst and cold,” he said.

“Shankar ji [another name for Lord Shiva] reminded us he’s still here … he saved us but also taught us a lesson,” Guru said. “In less than half a minute, where the water came from where it went nobody knows.”

“When people began looking for their loved ones, they could hear cries of help from the thick marsh that was created by the flooding … But we had no means of rescuing our loved ones.”

His town Guptkashi is about 70 kilometers (about 44 miles) from Kedarnath. Guru had last visited Kedarnath a year before the floods hit — in 2012. After 2013, he couldn’t bring himself to go back up for his annual pilgrimage until 2019.

“I didn’t feel like going. My friends died there,” he said.

One village, Rambara, about 7 kms (about 4 miles) from Kedarnath temple got wiped off the map.

“Nothing is left there ... No houses, no temples,” Guru said.

Back in 2013, his brother’s family, parents, and many of his cousins lived there. Since the tragedy, some have moved further south to other holy cities like Varanasi and Haridwar.

“I used to go there to bathe and play as a child and nobody thought that pond could even have as much water. I don’t know what is true and what’s not, but something mysterious happened that day,” he said.

Note: The interview with Kanha Guru was done in Hindi and translated for this story.