I Am A Pilgrim, And A Stranger, Travelin’ Through This Wearisome Land

India is full of important religious sites, which attract thousands of devoted pilgrims each year. Last year a massive flood devastated mountain villages in Uttarakhand, a state in the country’s Himalayan North. How did this happen?

Glacial lakes have fed India’s rivers for thousands of years, melting just enough to fill the streams that run down to the plains and form the country’s many rivers. But nowadays the glaciers are melting too fast, filling the lakes far faster than they can drain, and eventually either overflowing the margins or bursting the natural dams — creating unpredictable flash floods that wipe out whatever settlements are downstream.

One villager described the destruction: “The fields just disappeared into the river so the food-grain you are growing for the next year is not going to be there. The disaster that has happened today is also affecting tomorrow and a year from now.”

These areas are major pilgrimage centers, so many of the local residents make their livings serving the thousands of religious travelers who pass through the area every day. For them…

…a typical morning was suddenly transformed into a life or death struggle. The young and strong scrambled up the mountain. Older men, like Bhist, sought whatever cover they could find.

“I found a tree and threw my arms around it. I thought, ‘If the tree is washed away I will go along with it.’ I hung on alone,” Bhist said.

His son ran off with the younger men.


The pilgrimage route, and the entire town of Rambada, had washed away. There was no way up and no way down. It was as if the world they had known all their lives had been erased.

For four long days, Bhist and the rest of the older men huddled amid the ruins of Rambada, surviving on crackers and bags of bread dropped by an air force helicopter. The weather was too rough to land. Fearing the river was contaminated, they shared four bottles of water scavenged from a local shop, rationing their sips to make it last. Finally, the air force was able to evacuate them.

There was no sign of the young men who had scrambled for higher ground. Neither Bhist’s son nor any of the others ever came back.

“I waited four days hoping they would come back, but the people who went up the hill did not return,” Bhist said.


Countless thousands of people lost their lands, their loved ones, their livelihoods, and their lives — not to mention the approximately seventy-thousand pilgrims who were stranded in the mountains for weeks. These Himalayan valleys, pretty tough traveling in the best of times, saw hundreds of bridges washed away in a few seconds of torrential flooding, along with roadways, hotels, schools, stores, and homes.

And, as you might guess, climate change is at the bottom of it all. unseasonally severe rainstorms, a warmer snowpack, and a generally unstable glacier all combined to create a fatal day in the mountains — the kind of day that is going to become more common in the future. “Since local scientists became aware of the issue of climate change, they’ve observed that the snow has been coming later and the rains earlier every year. At the same time, the sudden cloudbursts that most often cause flash flooding have become more frequent. (snip) This year, unseasonal rains lashed Uttarakhand and parts of neighbouring Himachal Pradesh for three straight days.”

Climate change abounds in ironies. These floods portend water shortages throughout the SubContinent, as the glacial icepack is depleted. Meanwhile, all that water is accumulating in thousands of glacial lakes, over 200 of which have been identified as “potentially dangerous.”

Remember, just one dam gave way; just one lake flooded the downstream area — and that was enough to wipe out dozens of villages and leave thousands homeless.

The music of Uttarakhand is a fabulous mix of Indian modality and propulsive rhythms. Bagpipes, perhaps a legacy of the Raj, are found fairly frequently. The “Choliya Dance” is common at weddings in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand:

The turi (तुरी), nagphani (नागफनी) and ransing (रणसिंघ) belonging to the brass instrument family are traditional instruments of the Kumaon division, were earlier used in battles to increase the morale of the troops, are used.

Percussion instruments like dhol (ढोल), damau (दमाऊ) which are also native to Kumaun are played by professional musicians known as dholies.

Masakbeen(मसकबीन) or Bagpipe introduced by the British in Kumaun as instruments played in marching bands were assimilated into the wide range of instruments played.

Woodwind instruments like the nausuriya muruli (नौसुरिया मुरूली) (lit. the nine note flute) akind of flute and jyonya (ज्योंया) (lit. twin flute) a type of double flute native to Kumaun is also played.[5]


The next piece (“Dhol, Damau, and Masak Baja”) showcases the bagpipe and some terrifically exciting drumming:

And a traditional dance from the area with lots of young people gettin’ down:

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