Saturday, June 29, 2013
Colossal Himalayan Slides, Massive Pilgrims’ Stress and lessons from History: Gaia as Ardhanareshwar.
Gaia, the goddess who brought order out of chaos, was the appropriate title for a hypothesis about an Earth system that regulate its climate and chemistry so as to sustain habitability --- James Lovelock (author of Gaia, a new look at life on earth, Revenge of Gaia).
What Lovelock wanted to say, has probably been earlier (much earlier) incorporated in our life-philosophies by the duo of Shiva and Shakti. This philosophy is perhaps best incorporated in Himalayan Hindu (Indian) philosophies by the concept of Ardhanareshwar --- half Shiva and half Parvathi, a manifestation of Shakti. I will briefly describe below an interpretation (my?) for those unfamiliar. For a visual image of Ardhanareshwar I choose Amita Pandey’s interpretation (Fig below) of Ardhanareshwar (http://fineartamerica.com/products/ardhnarishwar-shiv-amita-pandey-poster.html) which has Shiva in a tandaav dance and Parvati (or Shakti) with fire (energy) in her hand. I will, for convenience, also use the term Gaia philosophy (or just Gaia) which means the sustaining of the earth ecosystem by regulation and redress of trespasses from excesses.
The Colossal Himalayan devastations of 2013 involve not only landslides of hill slopes into the rivers below but also involve the thrusting up of ill-prepared, soft, people from the plains to unfamiliar hilly terrains. It is the catering to the unpreparedness of the latter that could have precipitated the former. These devastations being over for the moment, this blog would speculate on what has to be kept in mind before one attempt a recovery.
I have been reading newspapers and watching television for the last week or so, to understand objectively what reasons could have been behind the recent Himalayan devastations of 2013 must have tremendously increased television channel TRP ratings/profits. I did not get informed any better nor did I really expect to.
One would have expected these channels to have studied the problem a little more in detail and highlight what could have happened from a studied historical/technological viewpoint. In this way they could have perhaps succeeded in injecting a sense of responsibility into their usual irresponsible, ill-researched, and unnecessarily dramatized shrieks and screeches for TV audiences that like saas-bahu serials.
So I read up further on things that could be important to see whether I could have reinforced my earlier impressions that were formed during my early (pre-1980) contacts with tree-hugging (chipko) environmental activists. At that time Sunderlal Bahagunaji was echoing earlier concerns that deforestation and road-building was causing havoc on the hill-slopes because pf landslides of proportions not seen earlier at that time.
Even earlier to that time of my first Himalayan walk, I had read about the Gaia theory, and it had been reinforced by those early landslides and during conversations with the original mountain people, many of whom were of Tibetan-Nepali ethnicity, They shared the same belief even if they would not have heard of Lovelock nor Gaia. These hill people, however, would have lived the philosophy and thereby created and contributed to the worship of Ardhanareshwar even if they may have known it.
The Gaia hypothesis could also extend to the dangers of peopling the mountains by plainsmen. The hill-people carry the load of visiting un-acclimatized pilgrim plainsmen who can hardly stand straight on these steep slopes when they first land there. In these early days the outsiders from the plains with different ethnicity kept calling the hill-people bahadur much to their resentment. Gaia, must be having her method to keep these unfit people away from places where only the ethnic or fit (and gods) walk.
Post the tragedy, there has been statements that there will be reconstruction on a more massive scale. The Gaia hypothesis would say that Gaia’s revenge would be proportionately damaging. It is time we stepped back and let nature rebuild the safest way that only she knows and she can.
This blog will essentially agree with the refreshing view of Tom Alter on NDTV (27-06-2013) who spoke so eloquently on how one should pause, look back, go back to the old ways and let the wounds on the Himalayas recover. The blog was written before the interview. It will outline the reasons why we should do so.
Gaia as Ardhanareshwar
I started this blog keeping in mind James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. I will save the details of this hypothesis for another blog. Most of the attention on Lovelock’s work concerns global warming. As some skeptic (Alain Bates) put it, some evidence for this hypothesis may lie in the changes in the size of swim-wears with increasing time of global heating as in the cartoon below.
I am not a skeptic, however. I like the concept of Gaia. The absence of global warming at rate predicted by Lovelock could only mean that Gaia is cooling down the earth by other mechanisms such as heavy rainfall, tornadoes, storms, landslides. The Gaia philosophy is, moreover, rooted in our blood, especially if we are not of the very clichéd and very real petit-bourgeois kind.
Just as a reminder or a paraphrase, this Gaia hypothesis is more familiar as a Mother Earth image that we (hindus and other pagans) instinctively have. It moulds (at least it used to) our mind to thinking that mother Earth looks after all her children equally. The essence of this philosophy is that in order to save the tiger one needs also to save the toads and the bugs and the weeds. This philosophy, I guess, should also include the notion that the very notion of looking after each other is more than just food for thought; it is food (or action) as well should we be hungry.
The Gaia hypothesis basically states that every harm that is seen by Mother Earth is redressed so as to restore the desired balance as perceived by her infinite wisdom and within her time-scale. The goddess Durga or Shakti (right of figure 1 below) are figures of worship of those who already the mindset of Gaia.
It is the goddess Shakti who, I think, has the energy to restore balance. For this, Shakti or mother Earth has Shiva doing his dance of creation and destruction. Amita-Pandey’s image of Ardhanareshwar is therefore appropriate for this blog.
Shiva would be very unforgiving at times if Shakti urges him to be so. We therefore pray more to Shiva for forgiveness during his redress of trespasses.
It is not as if the benevolent all-knowing mother Earth concept is not known to the ordinary Westerners. They may require giving it more tangible form especially once their religions bcame mono-theistic and institutionalized. One of these forms could be the goddess Venus (the yielding, watery female principle, essential to the generation and balance of life, --- Wikipedia). The birth of Venus is depicted in Fig 1, left (read legend, click to expand) as painted by Botticelli (1443-1510). As an aside, we should note that the main figure, Venus, in Botticelli’s very famous painting, Primavera (1482) has a very striking resemblance to the very young Simonetta Vespucci (1453-1476; Botticelli, I have read, was buried at the foot of her tomb 35 years after her death) who looks like Venus in The Birth of Venus. It is because of Simonetta that all of us ---certainly I --- like Primavera so much! It requires a lot of love for Botticelli to choose her as Venus the mother goddess. Boticelli’s image of Venus is probably the basis for the image of Gaia in the modern (1990s) Elsie Russell’s altar painting (middle of picture above) even if Russell’s interpretation of the painting has a mix of everything including Pan, Jimi Hendrix with guitar, the Green Man (European deity of virgin forest), a snake goddess, as well as Dionysus (god of chaos, spontaneity, freedom, fertility).
Landslides and McAdam’s peril.
The question here is whether the landslides and devastation in the Uttarakhand area is Gaia’s redress of one of its inhabitant’s excess. If one jumps to conclusions, as one must to begin with, it would seem (Fig 2) that the landslides are associated with man’s road building. In the image of landslides below (taken from a Landslide Blog of Durham University) it is clearly seen that the fan-shaped landslide begins from a point on a road. The devastation becomes bigger as the road become bigger and firmer with macadamized roads!
John Loudon McAdam, a Scot, laid his first roads in Bristol, Scotland. Wikipedia informs us “McAdam's method was simpler, yet more effective at protecting roadways: he discovered that massive foundations of rock upon rock were unneces sary, and asserted that native soil alone would support the road and traffic upon it, as long as it was covered by a road crust that would protect the soil underneath from water and wear”.
We forget that the soil on the Himalayan terrain is not protected from water and from wear. How come this is not schoolboy knowledge as yet?
It would seem that, at least, for some parts of the Himalayan topography there is a limit to the size of the roads that can afford such a Macadam protection. In such cases Gaia takes her revenge through landslides. Torrents of water cut fast and deep through loose soil to form deep gorges. Mountain roads in the Garhwal hills should then avoid such gorges. A Gaia-safe road path (say, in the future) in the Himalayas must traverse through firm rocky terrain! Geologists need to find such terrain for roads that Gaia could approve. The small, older paths which skirt river sides should be left to the local people and foot-pilgrims.
When the reconstruction happens, as there is every greedy commercial reason for it to happen, one would be making broader roads. Maybe there will find more profit if there were concretized roads. It will not stop the landslides, however; they will only become larger and more devastating.
This reminds me of the effort of a very ‘religious’ professor of the college where I did my Ph. D. in chemistry. This professor was researching for his Ph. D. on, what he said, was the milk of the “Ongole bull”. He must have meant cow but could have preferred the term “ongole bull” which was making news at that time (late 1960s). He had to digest the milk with acid or something in a sealed tube that was heated in a oil bath. He did it very rarely, probably waiting for an auspicious time. After some time the tube would explode. He would come back on another auspicious day. He would use stronger tubes. The explosion would be delayed but would be stronger when it came. This went for some time. It finally stopped when the explosion carried the oil bath along with it. That stopped his experiments. He continued with his thesis and wrote a virtual one using the results and language of another thesis submitted to the university and only changing the caption from cow to the specimen of the ‘Ongole bull’. He got his Ph.D.! Gaia let’s you get away with it in the small mind-scales.
The moral of this story is that if one thinks one has to go to the Uttarakhand for religious salvation, one may as well do it with a virtual trip from home. Mother Earth would be extremely happy.
We learn a bit further from the history of early landslides on Himalayan slopes.
Early Himalayan landslides.
One of my more favorite descriptions of landslides from my school days is that by Rudyard Kipling, Second Jungle book, Miracle of Purun Bhagat:
“There was a sigh in the air that grew to a mutter, and a mutter that grew into a roar, and a roar that passed all sense of hearing, and the hill-side on which the villagers stood was hit in the darkness and rocked to the elbow. Then a note as steady, deep, and true as the deep C of the organ drowned everything for perhaps five minutes, while the very roots of the pines quivered to it. It died away, and the sound of the rain falling on miles of hard ground and grass changed to the muffled drum of water on soft earth. That told its own tale.
“When (the day) came they looked across the valley and saw that what had been forest, and terraced field, and track-threaded grazing ground was one raw, red, fan-shaped smear, with a few trees flung head-down on the scarp. That red ran up the hill of their refuge, damming back the little river, which had begun to spread into a brick-colored lake. Of the village, of the road to the shrine, or the shrine itself, and the forest behind, there was no trace. For one mile in width and two thousand feet in sheer depth the mountain-side had gone away bodily, planed clean from head to heel.”
It is not clear if this landslide was Gaia’s revenge for some immediate man-made cause.
Kipling’s story was probably based on the great landslide of 1880 at Nainital. This landslide could easily have been due to the wrath of Gaia.
The Great Landslide of 1880 at Nainital. There used to be a wonderful, serene lake at Naini Tal, which was kept secret as a secluded piece of land not meant for ordinary mortals. The lake itself is thought to have been named after the eyes, Naina, of goddess Sati (Parvathi), consort of Shiva (see Wikipedia). Sati was burnt in the holy fire of an yagna (holy offering). Shiva danced his tandaav dance with the burnt body of Sati on his shoulder. During this dance parts from Sati’s body fell. A Naina Devi temple was built at the spot where the eyes fell. There are many Naina Devi temples in India (the current more famous one is at Bilaspur) indicating, logically, that the event occurred several times in the universal cycle of creation and destruction? One of these spots is at Nainital which is marked as a Shakti peet, a place of worship for followers of Shakti. Landslides at Nainital¸ especially those around the Naina Devi temple would therefore be appropriate to the theme of this blog.
A great landslide occurred in 1880 when the Naina Devi temple was washed away, along with a lot of the Nainital. Goddess Shakti, or mother Earth, did not require to be confined in a temple, after all.
The serenity of the Nainital lake could not be kept for long when people with different (say, monotheistic) attitudes became aware of it. The first westerners to visit Nainital were two Irish men of different attitudes. The contrast in their attitudes illustrates some of the main points in this blog.
One of the Irish was named Trail, a bureaucrat and Commissioner of Kumaon and Garhwal, who thought, like any other pre-existing environmentalist, that “crowds would violate the sanctity of the place” as he first saw it in 1823. Trail’s “power in Kumaon was practically unfettered and he exercised it jealously and disliked the possibility of any influx of European intruders in his domain” (based on J. M. Clay’s 1926 book on Nainital).
The more commercially appreciated person was the other Irish, Barron, a sugarcane merchant from Shajahanpur and hunter. He first saw the lake in 1839 and realized its potential as a hill resort. Barron carried with him a light 20-foot boat to the lake in 1940 and thereby became the first to boat in the lake to the delight of the local people who hailed him as Vishnu coming out of the lake. With the cunning that a modern CEO of a multinational developing, say, a Lavasa hill station would be proud of, Barron coerced the local thekedar, who claimed the lake and surroundings as his ancestral property, to take a ride to the middle of the lake in his private boat. He then threatened the thekedar, who did not know swimming, to throw him overboard if he did not sign the paper relinquishing his rights. Barron, who for some reason called himself a pilgrim when he wrote articles advocating Nainital as a resort, built a lodge for himself, Pilgrim’s Lodge, on a piece of land that was leased out to him for one-eighth of a rupee per year.
The rapid development of Nainital by the British is said to have started after the mutiny of 1857 as a refugee for civilians after its ‘horrors”.
The early serenity of the Nainital lake is perhaps captured in the 1867 figure on the top left of Fig 3. The question mark indicates asks whether the lodge on the hill could have been Barron’s Pilgrim’s lodge. The satellite image of Nainital as it stands now is shown on the top right of Fig 3. The Pilgrim’s Lodge compound (see circle in red in the figure below) still stands on the top of the Nainital club.
In 1880 there was the great Landslide in Nainital. This landslide occurred before Kipling wrote Kim. A very often quoted description of this landslide in (http://www.oldindianphotos.in/2011/02/landslide-in-nainital-september-1880.html) Is as follows:-
In September 1880 a landslide (the Landslip of 1880) occurred at the north end of the town, burying 151 people. The first known landslide had occurred in 1866, and in 1879 there was a larger one at the same spot, Alma Hill, but "the great slip occurred in the following year, on Saturday 18 September 1880." "Two days preceding the slip there was heavy rain, ... 20 inches (508 millimetres) to 35 in (889 mm) fell during the 40 hours ending on Saturday morning, and the downpour still lasted and continued for hours after the slip. This heavy fall naturally brought down streams of water from the hill side, … At a quarter to two the landslip occurred ,,, The total number of dead and missing were 108 Indian and 43 British nationals.
In this landslide the old Naina Devi temple was washed away.
The photos before and after the landslide of 1880 is shown in the bottom of Fig 3. The landslide washed away a path carved out of the hills. It is not clear whether Barron’s Pilgrim lodge is the structure located on the top of the landslide or whether the road that was washed away led to his house. There is little doubt, however, that the construction of the path or the house or both led to the landslide.
That could have been Gaia’s revenge.
Ravindra Pande (http://savethehills.blogspot.in/2012/04/nainital-landslide-town.html) has recently (April 2012) described Nainital as a landslide town noting that landslides continue to occur with three major ones occurring after 1880 which were caused by ill-conceived urban growth with their being about 25 instability incidences in 10 sq km area.
The landslides shown in Fig 1 and almost in all other images in the internet of mountain landslides may be clearly associated with road building. This aspect is what was asserted by Sunderlal Bahuguna in his early Chipko movements. My wife and I once walked with him --- we ended up walking all the way to Gangi --- along with an assortment of then budding and now prominent environmentalists, who made themselves comfortable in the luxury and hospitality of Sunderlalji’s Shilyara ashram. They did not venture outside as they were warned of the dangers of wild animals. My wife and I had come along more to see the Himalayas than to environment. So we went with Sunderlalji’s daughter to the then virgin rhododendron forests on the way to Gangi.
There were no motor-able roads in these rhododendron forests; just walking paths. There was also no landslide. Gaia was happy.
I should have discussed what led to the flash floods of the 2013 disaster. For this, I require a little more thought on the fragile nature of the ecosystem. I am examining the sand-pile model where a fragile system may be sustained in a self-organized critical state. In such a state a slight disturbance can lead to long-range catastrophes that stabilizes the system but again to another critical system.
Gaia and the Pilgrim’s Choice
Why the pilgrimage?
One could just say: “because it is there”!
There used to be times when only the brave, mainly those who trusted Gaia enough to be fearless, even if they were poor in health and wealth, who would take the pilgrim’s route to go to, what they thought, would be the abode of the gods. They undertook the trek up the hills because their god had many a time answered their prayers.
The pilgrims walked in those earlier days with their bundle on their heads. I have seen them. For a little while I may have even walked with them. It is not easy for us plainsmen to have walked on the hills. The pilgrims walked not because they had a choice, but because they wanted to. There is no penance without working for it.
Or, maybe, May-June is the time of the Dasar festival when the new moon is the brightest, when the water in the rivers are full, and they float lamps along the river. This is the time Ganga descends in mythology, and the time that the monsoon opens up in meteorology. This is the pilgrim’s time for a pilgrimage. It is not a pilgrimage to any particular god but perhaps to energy, the goddess Shakti, and her obeying consort, Shiva. Gaia could not be happier!
Where men are gods?
It is good to remember that the Uttarkhand area are not peopled by people from the plains. They have Tibetan (Kipling would call them Esquimaux) or Khasi features. The region around Nainital itself was called Khasi-desh. The Khasis still constitute nearly 40-50 percent of the population (as Khasi Brahmins or rajputs). These are people who are from the hills, who are used to the hills, are comfortable in the hills. They would not require vehicles to travel ten-twenty miles in a day. They do not require roads the way people from the plains do.
Gaia, who looks after all her people, would probably like the Hill-people to live on their own terms, terms with which they have been born with and terms that know how to walk the rugged terrain without leveling their paths.
Rudyard Kipling, through the sensitivities of Kim (and Perhaps Tom Alter), a plainsman, would make this distinction. I have been reading Kim lately, especially Chapter 14. The part I am quoting from this chapter is quite long. It saves me the trouble of being a fraction as clear. Kipling would write in Kim:-
Kim had all a plainsman's affection for the well-trodden track, not six feet wide, that snaked among the mountains; but the lama, being Tibetan, could not refrain from short cuts over spurs and the rims of gravel-strewn slopes. As he explained to his limping disciple, a man bred among mountains can prophesy the course of a mountain-road, and though low-lying clouds might be a hindrance to a short-cutting stranger, they made no earthly difference to a thoughtful man. Thus, after long hours of what would be reckoned very fair mountaineering in civilized countries, they would pant over a saddle-back, sidle past a few landslips, and drop through forest at an angle of forty- five onto the road again. Along their track lay the villages of the hillfolk - mud and earth huts, timbers now and then rudely carved with an axe - clinging like swallows' nests against the steeps, huddled on tiny flats half-way down a three-thousand-foot glissade; jammed into a corner between cliffs that funnelled and focused every wandering blast; or, for the sake of summer pasture, cowering down on a neck that in winter would be ten feet deep in snow. And the people - the sallow, greasy, duffle- clad people, with short bare legs and faces almost Esquimaux - would flock out and adore. The Plains - kindly and gentle - had treated the lama as a holy man among holy men. But the Hills worshipped him as one in the confidence of all their devils. Theirs was an almost obliterated Buddhism, overlaid with a nature-worship fantastic as their own landscapes, elaborate as the terracing of their tiny fields; but they recognized the big hat, the clicking rosary, and the rare Chinese texts for great authority; and they respected the man beneath the hat.
Kipling would write further:-
At last they entered a world within a world - a valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of a mere rubble and refuse from off the knees of the mountains. Here one day's march carried them no farther, it seemed, than a dreamer's clogged pace bears him in a nightmare. They skirted a shoulder painfully for hours, and, behold, it was but an outlying boss in an outlying buttress of the main pile! A rounded meadow revealed itself, when they had reached it, for a vast tableland running far into the valley. Three days later, it was a dim fold in the earth to southward.
'Surely the Gods live here!' said Kim, beaten down by the silence and the appalling sweep and dispersal of the cloud-shadows after rain. 'This is no place for men!'
Kipling must have meant the men from the plains when he said “this is no place for men”. Gaia protects them by landslides even if the mountain people may not like it that way.
By all indications the early peopling of the Himalayas were by hill people such as the bon people from Tibet who occupy Bhot-land at the border with Tibet. Some of the family names, such as Bhotia and Bhutia are said to be derived from the bon people. In the lower Uttarakhand, like the Kumaon, the features could be of the Khalsa kind. In the Figure 4 below the features of the people from Kumaon (left, probably three generations of women) become closer to those from the plains: those from Bhotland (Fig 4, right) have features closer to Tibetans.
The gods of the Uttarakhand are then those worshipped by the native mountain people of Uttarakhand. If they are also the gods of some people from the plains, then these people have memories of the Himalayas.
It is said that people from the plains fled to the hills to escape the Muslims. There does not seem to be ancient Muslim shrines in the Uttarakhand.
Maybe the hill people benefitted (or thought so) by the visit from the planes. My recent internet reading informs me that the Bahugunas are Bannerjees who came there 800 years ago and helped the local king to solve his problems. They became known as Bahugunas because of their wisdom in many areas. Despite their 800 years or so in the hills, I have a suspicion that they have the mentality of plainsmen.
Uttarkhand also does not seem to be an important place in our mythologies such as Ramayana except, perhaps, for Hanuman and the Sanjeevani episode. The Himalayas are more the abode of Shiva/Shakti worshippers. After all, the Dusshera festival of worship of Durga and her family in October-November --- when rivers freeze, farming ceases, and families reunite --- is most widely observed in Nepal and Bengal. The hill shrines of the Himalayas close.
Temple of the Gods
A little bit may be learnt from the style of the Himalayan temples. It is said that Shankaracharya built these temples. Little is known with certainty about Shankaracharya’s life. I discount these tales. If at all, one may concede that he or his followers may have helped in installing the yoni-lingam symbol there. Even those symbols seem to be fairly recent.
I may like to think instead that Shankaracharya’s philosophies or those attributed to him originated from Tibet itself. I have little evidence for that. It is said that some of our early yoga gurus learnt their philosophies there.
It is a moot question to me now of whether the temple arcitcetures also evolved from some of the Uttarakhand temples.
The temples in Uttaranchal were usually said to be made in Nagara style of architecture or the Garhwali Style of architecture. Some of the more popular panch-kedar temples are shown to the left of Fig 5. In the inset of this figure, a late nine-teenth century painting of the Bhimeshwar temple built on the edges of the Bhimtal lake in the Kumaon hills is shown. The Nagara architectural style is simple but striking with its tall curvilinear spire ‘Sikhara’ with an ‘Amalaka’ (capstone) on top of the spire. The Garhwal temples do not usually have the Amalaka but have a tiled roof resting on pillars. The function of this tiled roof is not clear to me. It could have been a rest/bed room or a place to escape from when there is a flood or when there are fear of marauders and wild animals, Sometimes the pillared structure on top has no base (especially if the shikara is small) and seems to be just placed on the stone shikara as in the Siva temple at Lakhamandal (Fig 5, bottom right). This temple also seems to have an an Amalaka typical of the classical Nagara style.
The original model for such temples could be the Mahasu devta temple (Fig 5, top right) at Hanol village near Chakrata This temple includes the room with a tapering roof in front of shikara at ground level. Such a structure is seen in almost all the temples.
The tapering brass kalash pinnacle is typical of all the -nath temples in Garhwal as seen from Fig 5 (click to expand).
The panch-kedar temples, including Kedarnath, are therefore likely to be of hill- or tribal- origin in style. They are supposed to be built around 8th-10th century AD when stone technology to build temples was evolving. The earliest Nagara style temples in Orissa started only around 8th century.
An early structure is the Lakhamandal structure near Chakrota. The area where this temple is found is said to be a tribal land where polyandry and polygamy is practiced. Following arguments which seem to be obvious to some, if not to all, the Pandavas of Mahabharata followed the same practice and therefore this should be Pandava land. The temples had to be built by the Pandavas. Could these legends be the basis that the Garhwal hills are associated with the Pandavas of Mahabharata?