The ghost towns of Uttarakhand one year after floods

Kedarnath shrine on Sunday 15 June 2014
Image caption The shrine and the temple compound is the only place of any visible activity in Kedarnath

Towns stand empty as skeletons still surface one year after devastating floods swept away thousands of people in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, BBC Hindi's Nitin Srivastava reports from Kedarnath.

A trail of death and destruction was left across the 4,000 villages of Rudraprayag district when floods engulfed the famous Hindu shrine of Kedarnath.

At least 5,700 people missing were presumed dead while more than 540 bodies recovered from the mountains were buried in the aftermath.

A year later, skeletons of missing people continue to be found.

Sanjay Sharma, a pilgrim from Delhi, says news of 12 more bodies found in the Kedarnath valley last week have made him afraid.

"Naturally I am scared and am planning to wind up the trip in a few days. Looking at the debris, I am sure many more bodies would be buried right here," he said.

Rudraprayag District Magistrate Raghav Langar says the government has constituted a special force for intensive combing operations to find the thousands who are still missing.

"We may find more bodies in the coming weeks as snow has begun to melt, and with the onset of the monsoon they are likely to come to the surface," he told reporters on Sunday.

Still cut off

There was compensation for bereft families and the temple reopened for prayers last September.

But despite a year of relief and reconstruction efforts by the government and aid agencies, many of the villages which were completely washed away by the surging waters of Mandakani river remain cut off.

Image caption Janardan Rai and wife Anjula, who survived the floods, are back for prayers

For the thousands who were displaced and provided shelter by the government in various towns, it appears a long wait to return home.

"I lost my home and a few relatives in the floods but have suffered more in the last few months. My tea stall has no visitors and tourists are absent this year. How will my family survive?" asked Proornanand Bhatt, a resident of Rudraprayag.

Every summer, hundreds of thousands of devout Hindus make a pilgrimage to the Kedarnath shrine as part of the Himalayan Char Dham Yatra (Four pilgrimages) to four temple towns in Uttarakhand. Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri are the other three pilgrimage spots.

But that was until last year.

Fear appears to have kept away those who have been regulars to this region this year, affecting local businesses badly - the only means of livelihood for hundreds of people living in the higher mountains.

Newly constructed roads leading up to Guptakashi, near Kedarnath, are empty and so are the hundreds of lodges and hotels lined up next to the river.

"I'll give you an 80% discount over the regular room rates if you stay with us," a tourist lodge owner pleaded with us in Guptakashi.

'Thank god'

The temple town of Kedarnath, meanwhile, continues to resemble a ghost town with hundreds of damaged homes and lodges covered with boulders, mud and silt.

An expensive chopper ride from Guptakashi remains the only way to reach the shrine and the temple compound is the only place of any visible activity.

Some, however, have returned to offer prayers for having survived last year when a glacial lake above the town burst after days of heavy rainfall.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Thousands remain missing a year after the devastative floods

Janardan Rai and wife Anjula were only a few miles away from the shrine when news of the flooding reached them.

"It was God's wish that we are alive. So we are here to thank him and offer prayers. I agree things here are in a bad shape, but that should not come in the way of faith," Mr Rai said.

The government of Uttarakhand, meanwhile, has been working hard to restore normalcy to the affected areas and work is going on to repair damaged roads and bridges.

In a bid to woo more pilgrims, the government is offering cheap accommodation and food to pilgrims who wish to visit the shrines in the near future.

But with the entire economy of Uttarakhand so heavily dependent on religious tourism over decades, this appears to be a race against time.

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