Old or sick pilgrims are carried up to the Kedarnath shrine on the backs of men who compromise their health in the process.
Luxmi, our Community Correspondent from Uttarakhand, has been hearing about the pilgrimage to Kedarnath from her grandparents for years. Each time, they would describe the majestic beauty of the 1000-year-old temple situated in the peaks of the Kedarnath range. Once, they told her not just about this holy shrine, but about the 14-kilometre uphill journey, and about the men who carry old or sick pilgrims on their backs.
For the first time in her life, Luxmi recently decided to make this journey herself and document the hard lives of these men. The shrine is located at an altitude of 3584 metres and is submerged in snow during winter, so it stays open from May to October. During these six months, men who are called ‘palki-walas’ carry travellers who are not able to walk up to the holy site themselves. On average, it takes four men to carry one ‘palki’, and they make the trip in two hours. Luxmi, determined to go by foot and fully experience the journey, left in the morning at 6am and reached the shrine at 2pm – she took eight hours. Her family went up on horses.
The Kedarnath temple is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites for Hindus, as it is the home of one of Lord Shiva’s jyotirlings. Thousands of pilgrims make the journey every year during the six months of summer. The temperature, even during this time, is chilly during the day and very cold at nights. These ‘palki-walas’ have become used to it, but still suffer from colds and sometimes find it hard to breathe as they climb higher with the weight on their backs. They come from villages in the surrounding area, and return to their homes when the shrine is closed. As they are mostly uneducated, they take up small jobs in farming and manual labour.
For each journey, the ‘palki-walas’ earn Rs.500 each. In the six-month period, they make about Rs.40,000 but at the cost of their health. They have no other means of earning, so every year they go back to the same job. Luxmi told us at VV that she saw the most beautiful scenery and wildlife on this journey. But the hardships of these men overrule the beauty, and as she articulates in the video, she hopes they are given both respect and infrastructural support so that they can have a better quality of life.