To most people, a country’s natural heritage and architectural heritage seem to be completely different spheres. Those who save trees and rivers seem to inhabit a world entirely different from those who save temples and monuments. But this fractured vision obscures individuals whose lives have linked the two spheres.

Chandi Prasad Bhatt, widely admired as the pioneer of the Chipko Andolan, is among them. The Chipko movement of the 1970s, which resulted in Himalayan villagers successfully saving their forests from felling by threatening to hug trees, is celebrated by environmentalists worldwide. Unremembered, though, is that around the time he was saving forests, Bhatt also successfully saved, in a manner of speaking, the Hindu shrine at Badrinath. Unlike trees, the temple would not have disappeared. But had it not been for Bhatt, its traditional fabric may well have been destroyed.

It is a forgotten story, of how a celebrated environmentalist became the saviour of a famous temple. It also brings into focus other individuals equally passionate about their ecological inheritance and cultural patrimony. In Bhatt’s life, these appear as connected parts of the same world, and his actions, in fact, were an outcome of this integrated vision.

Making a fascinating find

Research leads, as I know from experience, can come out of casual conversations. And so it was when I first met Bhatt on December 6, 2017, at Ashoka University, where I teach. He is now past 85 but seems much younger. This is not merely because his head of hair is still black, even though his beard is white. His aura is young and hopeful. There is no cynicism in his attitude to what he sees around him. In addition, he has a razor-sharp recollection of the time gone by.

As a historian of archaeology, I asked Bhatt about Uttarakhand’s built heritage and the threats that it has faced. He answered by recalling an agitation around Badrinath in the mid-1970s he had been closely involved with. He saw the agitation not in religious terms, he said, but as one aimed at saving the cultural character of the shrine. Much to my surprise and delight, he told me he had donated the file relating to this agitation to Ashoka University. Bhatt, in fact, was on the Ashoka campus that afternoon because he was being felicitated for his work. It was in the course of that conversation with him in Sonepat and several more in Dehradun and Gopeshwar, where he lives, as also through the letters and newspapers in the Bhatt files and government reports, that I learned about his involvement with the Badrinath temple.

The Badrinath temple with its Himalayan backdrop. Photo credit: Nayanjot Lahiri

Putting heritage at risk

The story goes back 45 years to a cold December day in 1973, when Bhatt struck up a conversation in Gopeshwar with a visiting wood worker named Muhammad Yaqub. In this small town, such visitors were common and they would have recognised Bhatt, a familiar figure in the hills after he had founded the labour cooperative Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh in 1964. Emphasising local employment generation, the cooperative had in 1973 successfully fought against the forest department’s decision to allot hornbeam trees in the Mandal Valley near Gopeshwar to Symonds Co. of Allahabad rather than to local peasants for making agricultural implements. This was the first of several successful protests that Bhatt led as part of the Chipko Andolan.

When the visitor saluted him, Bhatt casually asked him what he did. Yaqub said he was working at the Badrinath temple. Was the temple broken? Bhatt asked. It wasn’t, but large-scale construction was going on nevertheless. A two-hour conversation followed, during which Bhatt learned for the first time about the nature of the Badrinath renovation project. It was being funded by the Birlas, through their charity – the Jayshree Trust, named after the daughter of Basant Kumar Birla – which had also got the design of the new construction prepared. A massive wall of cement and steel was being built, enveloping the temple’s garbagriha, or sanctum sanctorum. The concrete cladding was already several feet high and, in anticipation of new construction, the sabha mandapa, or audience hall, had been broken.

Yaqub’s description alarmed Bhatt. Usually, in repairs of historic temples, the local idiom is followed. Here, however, in the name of repair and renovation, an entirely new kind of construction was being undertaken. In his mind’s eye, Bhatt would surely have seen Badrinath becoming part of the national chain of massive Birla temples, very different from the charming and understated temple complex that existed. He may also have drawn a connection between the forest department’s agenda, against which he had just led an agitation, and that of the Badrinath Temple Committee. Just as the hornbeam trees allotted to a sports goods company in distant Allahabad would have disrupted a customary way of using forests, a distant entity in Calcutta, if permitted to construct in this way, would have turned upside down the traditional architecture of the shrine.

Simha Dvara fronts the Badrinath temple. Photo credit: Nayanjot Lahiri

Much as he wanted to, Bhatt could not go to Badrinath immediately. Winter had set in, the roads were carpeted with snow, and the shrine had been closed to worshippers. But in the first week of March 1974, he met with Badrinath’s former chief priest in Joshimath. The priest was aware of what was happening and admitted it was wrong. When Bhatt asked why he was keeping quiet, he asked him to have faith in the power of Badrinath.

Not content with depending on the power of the deity, Bhatt went to the site in April to see it for himself. The temple had opened a little earlier than usual, so that pilgrims who had come for Maha Kumbh festivities in Haridwar could combine it with a visit to the shrine. When Bhatt reached the temple, he first saw a large billboard near the historic Simha Dvara, proclaiming the work was being done by the Birla family in the manner of “Devanam Priya Ashoka” – the Mauryan emperor Ashoka from the second century BCE. A temple known by the name of Badrinath was not only acquiring the Birla stamp, its rich new patrons were advertising their work as comparable to that of an ancient emperor, that too a Buddhist one.

When Bhatt stepped inside the temple’s courtyard, the half-finished construction he saw was exactly as Yaqub had described it: the small shrine on the brink of being engulfed by a monstrosity of concrete. He went to the office of the Chief Executive Officer, where the chairman of the Temple Committee, Ramnarayan Pandey, was also present. The Chipko leader was well-known in Badrinath because of the struggles he had led in the hills and because Bhoodan Patrika, a Sarvodaya magazine he was associated with, used to be sold there. He was introduced to Pandey as a “Sarvodaya wallah”.

Bhatt asked Pandey about what was happening at the temple. “Can’t you see?” Pandey retorted. “You are a Sarvodayi, the temple is being renovated.” Bhatt persisted. Some of his queries were about the ecological threat that building a tall structure would pose, he said. The Alaknanda river constantly cuts the rather fragile bank on which the temple stands. Was the increased elevation viable and would it withstand icy winter gales? Other queries related to the use of cement, steel and concrete. Had the Samiti, before the restoration work began, consulted traditional shilpa shastra experts and archaeologists about this unfamiliar construction material? He also asked about the source of the funds. Couldn’t the money have been raised by appealing in the name of, and to, the people of India?

The Alaknanda river constantly cuts the rather fragile bank on which the Badrinath temple stands. Photo credit: Nayanjot Lahiri

While Pandey had no answers, he accused Bhatt of being envious of what the Birlas were doing and declared with arrogant certitude that there was no such thing as an Uttarakhand architectural style.

After hearing all this, Bhatt left. But he told himself: “This won’t happen. This is Angad’s foot and it will not now move.” Angad’s unshakeable posture is an allusion to the Ramayana story of Ram’s trusted monkey-soldier planting his foot in such a way in the court of Ravana that no one could move it. Bhatt would, in much the same way, be unswerving in his determination to save the temple from losing its heritage features.

Winning the fight

Bhatt planned this fight in the way that he had taken on ecological challenges. He explained that an andolan, or agitation, is always the last means for seeking redress.

A satyagrahi, to begin with, has to acquire and disseminate correct information. So Bhatt spoke with people, especially old residents who had “experience-based knowledge”, gathered material about the environmental fragility of the slope on which the temple stands and its historical features. In May, Bhatt returned to Badrinath, this time accompanied by some colleagues. They included Govind Singh Rawat, block pramukh of Joshimath who was Bhatt’s close associate, an important leader of the Chipko Andolan and a member of the Communist Party of India. They were joined by Balakrishna Bhatt, a young lawyer, and the journalist Dhananjaya Bhatt. The idea was to disseminate information and help give the matter some publicity.

Badrinath’s makeover was first reported in the Hindi weekly Dinmaan, edited by the literary critic and journalist Raghuvir Sahay. He was known to Anupam Mishra, a journalist closely associated with Bhatt who would later write the first history of the Chipko protests. The story was picked up by a large number of newspapers, and through regular reports from May to July 1974, people in different parts of the country learned about the project. As Bhatt explained, this was necessary because if matters escalated, those supporting the renovation could spread all kinds of disinformation.

It is fascinating to read newspaper reports from that time and get a flavor of the reactions the news evoked. The Uttarakhand Observer of June 17 compared the Birla trust to the East India Company saying that, under the guise of renovation, it was attempting to control this holy shrine, a move opposed by local people. There was also a poignant description of how stones removed from the temple in the course of renovation now lay by roadsides – stones that had seen pujas were now being used to make cooking hearths for workers and travellers.

The Birla Mandir in Delhi. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Janyuga reported on July 4 that red sandstone from Agra, typical of Birla structures, had reached Badrinath and would be used in the renovation work. The Birlas had been told that local stone was traditionally used in hill temples, but the financiers insisted on red sandstone. From the height of the structure to the stone being used, all seemed to underline that Badrinath, with its historic “pahadi shaili” or Pahadi-style architecture, was on the brink of becoming like Delhi’s Birla Mandir. In fact, on July 8, the Uttarakhand Observer dramatically informed the people of the hills that Bholaram’s soul was asking them from heaven why they had sold their “Vastu Kala”, or architectural arts, to the Birlas. The invocation of Bholaram would have touched a sensitive spot since he was the master craftsman who, generations ago, had overseen the creation of Simha Dvara.

In spite of such adverse publicity, work at the temple clipped along. So, Bhatt took his fight to the government. He travelled to Delhi and met MN Deshpande, director general of the Archaeological Survey of India. The meeting was arranged by his nephew, Budhi Prasad Bhatt, who had been Deshpande’s student. Deshpande pointed out that since the temple was not a protected monument, it was outside his jurisdiction. Had it been under the ASI, the director general added, he would have immediately stopped the work. Still, he felt something should be done and told Bhatt if he got the work stopped, the ASI would find a way to intervene. Bhatt promised he would try to do something within 10 days.

Bhatt then went to Lucknow to see Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister HN Bahuguna. He explained what the Jayshree Trust was doing at the temple. Apparently, the chief minister was convinced and told Bhatt if the temple was damaged, his government would severely punish those responsible. He also asked him to submit a memorandum that very evening. Bhatt went out and got a memorandum typed, but when he returned, the chief minister’s personal assistant did not let him in. Bhatt thought that the assistant had been approached by those he was opposing in Badrinath. He eventually decided to submit the memorandum to some influential legislators. Photostat facilities were not easily available in those days so he had a dozen copies typed overnight.

Chipko Andolan, whereby Himalayan villagers successfully saved their forests by hugging trees, is celebrated by environmentalists across the world. Photo via Twitter

He left Lucknow the following day, despondent and wondering if and how an agitation to preserve the temple could be launched. Nonetheless, he helped form the Uttarakhand Mandir Bachao Samiti and started preparations for an agitation. Unknown to Bhatt, his memorandum soon resulted in the matter being raised in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, with several legislators across parties demanding a halt to the renovation work. On July 13, the chief minister assured the Assembly that his government would get the director general of the ASI to ascertain whether Jayshree Trust had changed the temple’s historical form. He also set up an inquiry committee under ND Tiwari, then finance minister, and ordered that until it submitted a report, work at the temple must stop. Deshpande was made a member of this committee and he would play a proactive role in ensuring that the shrine’s traditional architectural form was preserved and the new concrete walls demolished.

In Gopeshwar, Bhatt learned about these developments when he tuned his transistor to listen to the evening news. He rang up the acting district magistrate, who was in Badrinath, and told him what had happened. The official had also heard the news and he summoned the superintending engineer of the Birla trust. The engineer pleaded helplessness, stating that he could not halt the work until his employer told him to. “Yadi tum band nahin karvate ho to main tumhe band karta hoon,” the magistrate replied. If you don’t stop the work, I will put you behind bars. The threat worked and construction was stopped. By then, the concrete walls had been raised to nearly 22 feet.

The final stretch

From his vast experience as an activist, Bhatt knew the government’s assurances could melt away as quickly as they were given unless popular discontent was demonstrated against what the temple’s management and the Jayshree Trust had done. So a public meeting and a procession were planned at Badrinath around Janamashtami, which fell on August 10. Bhatt arrived with people from Gopeshwar a day before, along with his wife and daughter. Nearly a hundred of Bhatt’s followers decided to go to the temple that very day. They had the support of dimris, pujaris and lawyers there, even political parties. But the Brahman pandas vehemently opposed them, and targeted Bhatt in particular. Walking at the edge of the procession to keep watch, he was isolated and gheraoed by the pandas who shouted slogans branding him a Chinese agent (or Communist) and “Seth ka Virodhi”, or opponent of the Birla seth. At the temple, Bhatt’s comrades were met by pandas waiving black flags and shouting slogans. In spite of the provocation, the protestors remained peaceful, for it was integral to how Sarvodaya workers conducted themselves.

The big procession was to be held the next day. When Bhatt woke up, he learned that hostile posters had been put up all over Badrinath, again with messages like “Chinni agent so raha hai” (Chinese agent is sleeping here) and “Birla aur mandir ka Virodhi kaun?” (Who is the opponent of the Birlas and the temple?). But the procession and the public meeting proceeded as planned, peacefully. Over a thousand people came from across Chamoli, alerted through a network of contacts as also by Hayat Singh, a Chipko activist who knew the terrain well. The demonstration was led from the front by Gaura Devi, Bhatt’s doughty comrade who had led the women of Reni village to save their forest in the spring of that year.

The procession was about half a kilometre long. The villagers had come with jhaanj (clash cymbals), bugles and traditional bajas, while women of Mana village arrived in beautiful garments, adding colour, music and song to the march. Alongside slogans such as “Bharat Mata ki jai” and “Mahatma Gandhi ki iai”, the rally resonated with slogans to save Badrinath. And the Sarvodaya song, “Bair bhav todne, dil ko dil se jodne...chale chale, chale chale”, was lustily rendered, with Bhatt leading the singing. The successful deployment of the organisational strength of the Chipko movement was clearly visible that day.

A young Chandi Prasad Bhatt (right) with Gaura Devi and Hayat Singh.

How the agitation helped propel the Tiwari committee’s work and, later, the dissolution of the temple committee led by Pandey is for another story. At the end of this story, what remains embedded in my mind is that the same friends who were closely associated with the Chipko protests – Bhatt, Gaura Devi, Hayat Singh – also led the Badrinath Bachao Andolan. They protected the shrine the same way they did their forests because they saw them as interconnected parts of their common heritage.

If I was asked under what conditions monuments and archaeological sites could be best preserved, my reply would be based on what this forgotten episode from the life of Chandi Prasad Bhatt reveals. Our built heritage will survive when we see it as an integral part of our lives and beliefs – and when we are willing to fight for it just as we do for our forests and fields. This story illuminates Bhatt’s courage to hold firm to his vision of heritage in which fighting to safeguard a temple’s traditional form mattered as much as saving trees.

Nayanjot Lahiri is a professor of history at Ashoka University. Her recently published book, Time Pieces – A Whistle-Stop Tour of Ancient India, helps bring alive monuments and environments of ancient India.