People participate in a protest to save Himalayan cedar trees at the holy Jageshwar Dham in Almora district of Uttarakhand. Special arrangement

Hundreds of men, women and children gathered at the holy Jageshwar Dham in Almora district of Uttarakhand on March 8, on the occasion of Mahashivaratri, not just to offer prayers but also tie raksha sootra (thread for protection) around the region’s famous Himalayan cedar trees, considered sacred. Some of the trees are over 500 years old and they surround one of the largest clusters of 125 temples within one complex in the world, situated at 1,870 metres above sea level.

The raksha sootra was tied around more than 1,000 trees that were to be axed for a road widening project under the State government’s ‘Manas Khand Mandir Mala Mission’ that aims to improve connectivity to about 50 temples in Uttarakhand. Jageshwar is one among them. When the Public Works Department earmarked these trees in a three-kilometre stretch from the Artola village to the Jageshwar chain of temples, locals decided to launch a non-violent resistance, similar to the famous Chipko movement of the 1970s to protect Uttarakhand’s forests from the increasing destruction due to rapid industrialisation.

The protest, which began as letters to government officials. Later, the hashtag #SaveJageshwar became a trend on social media platform X, and petitions were launched via change.org. The massive public outcry drew widespread criticism against the government. Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami took to social media and said officials had been asked to look for another route for road construction.

“We are committed to take the State on the path of development without compromising with ecology,” Mr. Dhami CM said.

Soon after Mr. Dhami’s remarks, officials painted black the trees that had been earmarked for felling. But locals are fearful that the decision resulted from mounting pressure during elections, and may not be permanent.

“It’s election season, so the trees were saved, but no one knows what will happen to them after the elections. Even if some other route is chalked out, trees have to be cut as this temple is surrounded with trees in all directions,” Naveen Chandra Bhatt, member of the temple priests’ committee, said. Mr. Bhatt met Kumaon Commissioner Deepak Rawat along with locals to request that the revered Daruk van (forest) of Himalayan cedar trees should not be touched.

Mr. Bhatt said the Himalayan cedars, which tower above the temples at Jageshwar Dham, are revered as manifestations of Hindu deities. He added that when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Jageshwar Dham in October 2023, Mr. Modi was mesmerised by the trees that dwarfed everything around them.

Shankar Singh Bisht, 23, founder of the non-profit Himgiri Green Foundation, which too participated in the March 8 event, agreed with Mr. Bhatt’s apprehensions.

“The government is not very serious about environmental causes. My friend Pramod Bisht and I had walked around 700 km from Chaukhutia to the Parliament in Delhi in 2022 in view of the rising [number of] forest fires in the State. I was promised that the State would constitute a committee to look into the concerns but nothing has moved since then,” Mr. Bisht said.

According to government data, around 54,800 hectares of forest cover has been destroyed by wildfires in Uttarakhand since the formation of the State in 2000.

Vimla Devi, 45, who lives in the market near the Jageshwar temple complex said that the temples’ significance would be lost if the trees were cut. She walked 25 km through densely forested hills to participate in the event of March 8. “If these trees will be destroyed, the temples will also collapse eventually as the trees hold the soil. When the temples will go, the locals who survive by the little economy that runs around temples will be jobless,” Ms. Devi said.

This is not the first time that the State government had drawn criticism for its allegedly reckless cutting of trees to aid development in Jageshwar. The Uttarakhand High Court in September 2018 had banned all construction activities around the temple site until the government framed building bylaws. The HC, taking suo motu cognisance of the “unplanned and unauthorised” construction around the Jageshwar temple complex, also ordered to stop the construction of the Aartola-Jageshwar road.

“The beauty of Jageshwar is not just these temples but also these trees. Lord Shiva had decided to live amid these trees. I have no idea why government wants to turn his abodes, mostly in secluded hills and forests, into a busy crowded city where anyone can easily reach. It’s like destroying Shiva’s choice,” D.N Bhatt, a local, said.



Source link