Kedarnath: ‘Survivors took refuge in trees – and died of hunger’

Kedarnath floods
Image caption,Ram Karan Beniwal lost his wife and five other family members in the floods

On 16 June 2013, a cloudburst in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand caused devastating floods and landslides that destroyed several villages and towns. Thousands of people were swept away, and many bodies were never recovered. Ten years after the disaster, Ram Karan Beniwal – who was in the temple town of Kedarnath, one of the worst-affected areas – recalls the day the floods tore apart his family.

On 9 June 2013, my wife and I and five others (my two brothers, their wives and one more relative) left for Kedarnath from our home town of Jodhpur in Rajasthan. My children were busy with studies and work and decided not to join us.

My wife Chhota Devi and I had already visited three of the four main Dhams (the four Hindu pilgrimage sites of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri) earlier. Kedarnath was the only one left.

On 16 June, we reached the holy Kedarnath temple. After praying there, we headed down to Rambara (a small village that serves as a resting place for devotees). On our way there, it started raining heavily. We reached Rambara at 17:00 local time (11:30 GMT) and decided to spend the night there.

Click here to watch Ram Karan Beniwal narrate his story

Late in the night, we were sitting by the Alaknanda river (on the foothills of the Himalayas), chanting the name of Lord Ram. Suddenly, I heard loud noises from the river and rocks nearby.

It felt like the mountain began to tremble. It was pitch dark, so we couldn’t see clearly. Then huge boulders started rolling down, sweeping people into the violently flowing river.

I saw my wife and one of my sisters-in-law being swept away, followed by my elder brother. I couldn’t see my other relatives. I ran and stood by a large boulder, which protected me from the avalanche of rocks coming from the top.

Kedarnath floods
Image caption,Mr Beniwal and his wife, Chhota Devi

I noticed that the hills with large trees on them weren’t crumbling as quickly as the ones that were rocky and barren. I quickly ran up one of these hills and clung on to the branch of a tree. From a distance, I saw an entire mountain dissolve into the river in front of my eyes.

That is when my mind went numb. I couldn’t process what I just saw. It was freezing cold, and my clothes were wet. There were other people around me, also holding on to trees. But no one spoke a word. Everyone was gloomy and desolate. I dislocated my shoulder while hanging on to the tree, but I just put it back into place. It hurts even today.

I sat on the tree for the next four days as the floods and landslides continued. I saw people around me who had huddled near trees die of starvation, dehydration and the cold. All the mobile towers had washed away. There was no communication with the outside world. In my mind, I was convinced that there was no way I would survive. Only god could help me now.

On 20 June, a rescue helicopter arrived. The crew would rescue five people at a time, as and when the weather permitted. The helicopter took me to Guptkashi (a town near Kedarnath) where I changed choppers to reach Dehradun (capital of Uttarakhand). There, I was admitted to a hospital.

I was very weak after days of staying wet with no food and water. My skin was damaged and peeling off. I finally managed to contact my daughter, who hung up the phone the moment I told her that I was the only one left. A day later, my brother-in-law and nephew came to Dehradun to pick me up.

Kedarnath floods
Image caption,The floods destroyed many villages and towns in Uttarakhand

No one can replace the void a mother leaves, but my children were glad that at least I was back home. The bodies of my wife and the others were never found.

Initially, my children were in denial, thinking that their mother may have survived somehow. They were still hopeful that she would return home one day. But I was convinced of what I had seen, and my children also came to terms with reality over time.

Ten years later, I look back at the destruction and loss of life and property that happened. So many tourists, pilgrims and locals lost their lives. I still remember the parking lot in Gaurikund (the starting point of the trek to the Kedarnath shrine) where almost 5,000 cars were parked, including ours with all our belongings. We lost everything.

It was a natural disaster and god’s will. I think of it as a train journey where everyone chats through the journey, but has to get down when the station arrives. Maybe Kedarnath was my wife’s final station.

I now spend my time meditating and chanting god’s name to distract myself. If you ask me whether I would go to Kedarnath again, the answer would be an emphatic yes. There is no point in living with fear, and there is no fear now. In fact, I would take my children there as well.

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