Inside a shrine overlooking snow-capped mountains, Hindu priests heaped spoonfuls of puffed rice and ghee into a crackling fire. They closed their eyes and chanted in Sanskrit, hoping their prayers would somehow turn back time and save their holy — and sinking — town.
For months, the roughly 20,000 residents in Joshimath, deep in the Himalayas and revered by Hindu and Sikh pilgrims, have watched the earth slowly swallow their community. They pleaded for help that never arrived, and in January their desperate plight made it into the international spotlight.
But by then, Joshimath was already a disaster zone. Multistoried hotels slumped to one side; cracked roads gaped open. More than 860 homes were uninhabitable, splayed by deep fissures that snaked through ceilings, floors and walls. And instead of saviours, they got bulldozers that razed whole lopsided swaths of the town.
The holy town was built on piles of debris left behind by years of landslides and earthquakes. Scientists have warned for decades, including in a 1976 report, that Joshimath could not withstand the level of heavy construction that has recently been taking place.
“Cracks are widening every day and people are in fear. We have been saying for years this is not just a disaster, but a disaster in the making… it’s a time bomb,” said Atul Sati, an activist with the Save Joshimath Committee.
What is causing the town to sink?
Joshimath's future is at risk, experts and activists say, due in part to a push backed by the prime minister’s political party to grow religious tourism in Uttarakhand, the holy town's home state. On top of climate change, extensive new construction to accommodate more tourists and accelerate hydropower projects in the region is exacerbating subsidence — the sinking of land.
Located 1,890 metres above sea level, Joshimath is said to have special spiritual powers and is believed to be where Hindu guru Adi Shankaracharya found enlightenment in the 8th century before going on to establish four monasteries across India, including one in Joshimath.
Visitors pass through the town on their way to the famous Sikh shrine, Hemkund Sahib, and the Hindu temple, Badrinath.
“It must be protected,” said Brahmachari Mukundanand, a local priest who called Joshimath the “brain of North India” and explained that “Our body can still function if some limbs are cut off. But if anything happens to our brain, we can’t function. … Its survival is extremely important.”
The town’s loose topsoil and soft rocks can only support so much and that limit, according to environmentalist Vimlendu Jha, may have already been breached.
“You can’t just construct anything anywhere just because it is allowed,” he said. “In the short term, you might think it’s development. But in the long term, it is actually devastation.”
At least 240 families have been forced to relocate without knowing if they would be able to return.
Prabha Sati, who fled Joshimath in a panic last month when her home began to crack and tilt, came back to grab the television, idols of Hindu gods and some shoes before state officials demolished her home.
“We built this house with so much difficulty. Now I will have to leave everything behind. Every small piece of it will be destroyed,” she said, blinking back tears.
Authorities, ignoring expert warnings, have continued to move forward with costly projects in the region, including a slew of hydropower stations and a lengthy highway. The latter is aimed at further boosting religious tourism, a key plank of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
In 2021, Modi promised a prosperous decade ahead for Uttarakhand. It is dotted with several holy shrines and improving the state’s infrastructure has already led to a steady rise in pilgrims over the decades. Nearly 500,000 passed through Joshimath in 2019, state data shows.
“In the next 10 years, the state will receive more tourists than it did in the last 100 years,” Modi said.
One of India's toughest pilgrimages
A big Uttarakhand tourism draw is the Char Dham pilgrimage, one of the toughest in India.
The route takes people to four, high-altitude Hindu temples. Pilgrims traverse challenging terrain, dropping oxygen levels and harsh weather between Badrinath, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Yamunotri temples. In 2022, over 200 out of the 250,000 pilgrims died while making the journey. Authorities said the rise in visitors was straining existing infrastructure.
Already underway, the Char Dham infrastructure project, aims to make the journey more accessible via a 10-metre wide and 889-kilometre long all-weather highway as well as a 327-kilometre railway line that would crisscross through the mountains.
It is a controversial project with some experts saying it will exacerbate the fragile situation in the upper Himalayas where several towns are built atop landslide debris.
Veteran environmentalist Ravi Chopra called the project a desecration when he resigned from a court-ordered committee studying its impact. To create such wide roads, engineers would need to smash boulders, cut trees and strip shrubbery, which he said will weaken slopes and make them “more susceptible to natural disasters.”
Urban planning expert Kiran Shinde suggested a pedestrian corridor instead, noting these places were never meant for cars nor crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
“The highway is the most disastrous thing to happen to the Char Dham,” said Shinde, a professor at Australia’s La Trobe University who has written on religious tourism. “Let people walk.”
Cracks continue to form. Located near a rail line construction site, Sangeeta Krishali’s home in Lachmoli, about 100 kilometres from Joshimath, has them. She fears for her safety: “It happened there, it can happen here, too."
In Joshimath’s foothills, construction was paused on a road for the Char Dham project that would ferry tourists faster to the Badrinath temple after cracks emerged in people’s homes.
Locals feared it was too late. A long, jagged crack running across one of the front walls in the famed Adi Shankaracharya monastery had deepened worryingly in recent weeks, said Vishnu Priyanand, one of the priests.
“Let places of worship remain as places of worship. Don’t make them tourist spots,” he pleaded.
Why is hydropower a problem?
It’s not just the highways. For the past 17 years, Atul Sati, the Save Joshimath Committee member, has been convinced that a hydropower station located near his town could one day ruin it.
He isn’t alone. In late January, hundreds of residents protested against the National Thermal Power Corporation’s Tapovan project. Posters reading ‘Go back NTPC’ are plastered across the town’s main market.
“Our town is on the verge of destruction because of this project,” Sati said.
Locals say construction blasts for a 12-kilometre tunnel for the station are causing their homes to crumble. Work has been suspended but NTPC officials deny any link to Joshimath’s subsidence. An expert committee is still investigating the cause, but state officials earlier blamed faulty drainage systems.
The state government announced interim relief packages, including compensation worth 150,000 rupees (€1,715) to each affected family, said Himanshu Khurana, the officer in charge of Chamoli district where Joshimath is located. Various government agencies were conducting surveys to determine what caused the damage, he added.
The crisis in Joshimath has reignited questions over whether India’s quest for more hydropower in the mountains to cut its reliance on coal can be achieved sustainably. Uttarakhand, home to more than 30 rivers and surrounded by melting glaciers, has around 100 hydropower projects in varying stages.
In 2021, 200 people died after the Tapovan plant near Joshimath was submerged by severe floods caused in part by fast shrinking glaciers, and over 6,000 were killed in the state after a devastating cloudburst in 2013.
The heavy construction required for hydropower, like blasting boulders, diverting river flows and cutting through forests, in a region already vulnerable to climate change, could do irreparable damage, experts warn.
It could also displace entire villages, as residents of a hamlet near Joshimath found out.
Villages have become dumping sites
Haat, a village along the Alaknanda River, was once a sacred hamlet that traced its origins to the guru Adi Shankaracharya, who is said to have established another temple here in the 8th Century.
Today, it is a dumping site for waste and a storage pit for construction materials after the village was acquired in 2009 by an energy enterprise to build a hydropower project.
The Laxmi Narayan temple, encircled by grey stacks of cement, is the only part of the village still standing. All of its residents left over the years as authorities began razing down their homes, said Rajendra Hatwal, once the village chief who now lives in another town nearby.
The project, he fumed, had killed Haat.
“What sort of development requires destroying these priceless places? We don’t want any part of it.”
A court last year directed authorities to stop dumping waste near the historic temple, which was once the last rest stop for devotees on their pilgrimage to Badrinath.
Hatwal and a few others still check in on the temple often. A caretaker, who refused to leave, lives in a makeshift room next to it. He sweeps the grounds, cleans the idols and prepares tea for the odd guest who comes through.
They feared its days, like their homes, were also numbered.
“We are fighting to protect the temple. We want to preserve our ancient culture to pass on to a new generation,” said Hatwal.
“They have not only destroyed a village - they have finished a 1,200 year old culture.”