The Hindutva express chugs into Kumaon

With the Lok Sabha elections only months away, Prime Minister Modi has turned his attention to temple sites in the region

Jageshwar Mahadev temple, Almora (Photo: National Herald archives)
Jageshwar Mahadev temple, Almora (Photo: National Herald archives)

Rashme Sehgal

Despite the catastrophic consequences of unabated tourism in the Char Dham circuit of the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, prime minister Modi wants to now extend the same devastating model to Kumaon.

Following a recent visit, Modi took to X to urge his Hindu brethren to visit Parvati Kund and the Jageshwar temple complex near Almora, stressing the natural beauty and ‘divine aura’ of these pilgrimages. Underlying the spiritual invocation is the fact that Kumaon has traditionally supported the Congress whereas Garhwal is more inclined towards the BJP. With the Lok Sabha elections round the corner, Modi is back to wooing the electorate.

The BJP has been making a systematic effort to wrest control of the historical temples of Kumaon from the Archaeological Survey of India.

Earlier this year, the Uttarakhand government had announced the Manaskhand Mandir Mala Mission to develop 15 key temples, which include the Bageshwar Mahadev and Jageshwar temples—both located in Almora district—the Suryadev temple in Katarmal, the Nanda Devi temple, the Bagnath temple located in Bageshwar city, and the Patal Bhuvaneshwar cave complex in Pithoragarh district. The state government wants to ‘develop’ 45 temples in all in this region.

The Bagnath, Bageshwar, Jagesh-war, Suryadev and Nanda Devi temples have been places of historical significance and, since Independence, have been under the care of the ASI.

Bagnath temple enjoys a rare historicity, built as it was in 1450 by the Kumaon king Laxmi Chand. The temple contains Sanskrit inscriptions which, according to the ASI, go back 2,500 years, from the post-Gupta period. Bagnath temple is located in the town of Bageshwar which is situated at the confluence of the Saryu and Gomti rivers.

Control of this site no longer seems to rest in the hands of the ASI, given that their rules are being flouted with impunity. The ASI stipulates that no structure can be allowed to come up within 200 metres of the monument. All that has changed in the past one year.

Dehradun-based environmentalist Reenu Paul was horrified to find ancient idols in the temple painted orange and puja being performed of idols within the complex. “These 15 temples that have been selected are sadly going to meet the same fate as have our Char Dhams. My fears are not unfounded because I now learn that a master plan has been prepared for the Jageshwar temple complex, which is going to be developed along the lines of Kedarnath and Badrinath by the same Ahmedabad architectural firm, INI Design Studio,” Paul said.

“There is apprehension that the houses located in the vicinity of the temple are going to be razed. Already, the area has been measured by the patwari. The residents of this area have gone public to express their fears about their future. The ASI no longer takes care of this complex which has been placed under a trust,” Paul added.

“Ghats have also been constructed on the riverfront in Jageshwar, whereas in the town of Bageshwar, they have put up rows of chhatris and are allowing aarti to take place in the mornings and evenings on the Gomti and Saryu rivers, as has been happening along the Ganga riverfront in Rishikesh and Varanasi.”

The Patal Bhuvaneshwar comprises a network of natural caves located in the Gangolihat in Pithoragarh district. The state government has identified 15 caves which they want to link with each other. This scheme is being grandiosely dubbed as the ‘Cave Circuit’. Some of these caves include Patal Bhuvaneshwar, Amar Maha-kali, Boleshwar, Gupt Ganga, Melchor, Daneshwar and Shaileshwar which were, thus far, under the protection of the ASI.

K.B. Sharma, an archaeologist with the ASI posted in this area, claimed that he was not aware of the project. However, another ASI officer said on condition of anonymity that there was no precedent—anywhere in the world—of caves like these being connected in such a haphazard manner.

“It is a huge undertaking which requires a great deal of research. It is a very bad idea to try and monetise natural resources like caves, rivers and hills. The state is already suffering because of these so-called developmental activities. We need to learn from our mistakes,” he said.

The Katarmal sun temple located 17 km from Almora is the second most important sun temple to have been constructed in India after the Konarak sun temple. With 44 smaller temples, the entire complex was built by the Katyuri kings in the 9th century. Being a monument of national importance, it too was maintained by the ASI.

With encroachments having come up steadily around this complex as well, precious panels and carved doors have been moved to the National Museum in Delhi for safekeeping.

This complex is going to be developed as Kumaon’s first ‘spiritual village’, with facilities such as a yoga centre, café and meditation centre to be built at a cost of Rs 13 crore. The state government has already sanctioned Rs 83 crore for this.

Last year, the state tourism minister, Satpal Maharaj, had called for amending the ASI rules so as to allow construction around these temple complexes and provide facilities for tourists within the temple precincts. In June 2023, a notice was placed by the National Monuments Authority (NMA), which works alongside the ASI, to the effect that the draft heritage by-laws for the Katarmal sun temple were being reviewed and that the public were welcome to offer their comments and suggestions.

Katarmal sun temple, Almora, Uttarakahnd
Katarmal sun temple, Almora, Uttarakahnd

Archaeologists are deeply apprehensive about the way our monuments are being taken over. “Whether temples or otherwise, they are part of our heritage and need special care and preservation. Allowing pandits to indiscriminately perform pujas and other ceremonies actually destroys their sanctity. The government has to focus on the preservation and maintenance aspects of these ancient temples as well,” said a leading archaeologist who did not wish to be named.

Dr C.P. Rajendran, seismologist and earth scientist with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, struck a sombre note of warning: “The Himalaya, which is the highest mountain range in the world, is facing some of the worst environmental issues, with huge implications for the survival of one-third of all humanity. Not only is it the source of some of Asia’s major rivers, it is a key driver in regulating Asian climate. Sadly, it is now in grave danger of losing its original splendour and power as a major climate-regulating force, thanks to human-induced climate change and human activity.”

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