Saturday, 22 June 2013

Remembering Gaura Devi

In 1925, Gaura Devi was born in the village of Latha, in the Garwhal region of the Himalayas, in the upper Alakananda Valley. Around that time, the area was covered with pristine forests, dark, deep, thick forests – this was also the source of their traditional agricultural economy. In keeping with tradition, she was married off at the age of 12 to Meherban Singh, in the nearby village of Reni. Singh was a small farmer, with a small piece of land, reared some sheep and traded in wool. They were by no means rich but they certainly had a comfortable life devoid of hardship and penury. The inevitable happened.  Meherban Singh died 10 later, and when her son grew up and had children of his own, they all worked together to keep the family going.  As tension grew between India and China, their trade suffered, but the forests produce kept her family going. She became a grandmother and step into her role of a matriarch. She then went on to become the head of the Mahila Mandal. 

Gaura Devi
A little down the Alakanda Valley, the Chipko movement started taking roots –  Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Govind Singh Rawat started to protest against the felling of the deodar trees in a forest near the village. It was the year  1974, and about 2500 deodars trees were marked for felling.  Gaura Devi joined the protest movement  and actively campaigned for protection of the trees.

Ten years later in an interview Gaura Devi said “Brothers, these forests are like our maternal home (maika). We get herbs, fuel fruits and vegetables from them. Cutting the forests will result in floods." 

And today, in a flood-ravaged Uttarakhand, that has destroyed Kedarnath  and other large parts of the state have been washed away and battered , leaving thousands, possibly missing or dead, thousands homeless,thousands of mules and cattle dead , I remember the wise Gaura Devi and her caution.

The disaster that we see today in Uttarakhand cannot be blamed only on the heavy rains - the devastation that we are seeing today  is largely due to deforestation, illegal construction, reckless damming of rivers and a complete abuse of our rivers and our natural resources.

Gaura Devi  may not have been to school but she had the wisdom of our ancient teachers and rishis . All our Hindu scriptures, from the  Mahabharata to the  Ramayana, the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Puranas and Smriti contain the earliest messages for preservation of environment and ecological balance.

Gaura Devi knew this then but sadly, those who have been charged with protecting  our people and our forests, still don’t know this. Indeed, they have morphed themselves  from being protectors to predators.

Soil ours, water ours, ours are these forests. Our forefathers raised them, it’s we who must protect them.

 Old Chipko Song


  1. Thanks so much Viva for an excellent, holistic and deeply touching account about Gaura Devi and the current disaster, and of great hope and dashed hope. But we cannot loose hope as we must support the birth of the next generation of Gaura-stories as you narrate is one way of doing it.

    1. Push, thank you.
      I try to be optimistic - but then I think that there are so many Uttarakhands in the making - across India, Brazil, China - reckless construction and damming of rivers - and rising temperatures, more intense summers , frequent extreme weather events,heat waves, flooding , deforestation - will take its toll on civilisation.
      Meantime, our work is cut out for us and there is lots to be done!

  2. Schumacher was able to see the problem a long time ago before neo-environmentalism became fashionable, he used the term "footloose" to describe large cavalier movements of people.

    large numbers of people going more places and accessing more is in the nature of democracy, people hardly want "rights" to contemplate on the meaning of life.

    Our old architecture, medicine, food etc was organic but modern progress is a Jurassic Park and it is not politically correct to contest this.

    until either civilisation understands that democratic availability will have to go we are stuck but nature cannot wait forever, and as is so tragically evident the present starkness at Kedarnath is a back to the future scene.

    I am very sorry indeed!

    1. Rita thank you and thank you for the ref to Schumacher. His book Small is Beautiful left a huge impression on me

      But now this entire business of development versus environment is flawed - it appears that our right to development means a right to forest destruction and that is the fundamental problem - in fact our economy and wealth lies exactly in what our government deems fit to destroy.

      So bleak,quite frankly.

  3. Miss you are absolutely clear. We forget the importance of women like Gaura Devi and their fight & values. We wakes up when water rises above our head.I love Himalaya and can't see destroying it!

  4. hi,
    iam a PhD scholar writing on"WOMEN AND ECOLOGY IN KUMAON". with your interests in the environment, i would like to ask you for your help in my writings. Mam,please guide me about topics and fields i should include .