Pilgrimages come in all shapes and sizes. Since the 12th century, hikers have walked the mountain footpaths of France into Spain on a 1,000 mile spiritual journey to the church at Santiago de Compostela. Some who have trekked “The Way” have gotten closer to god while the less devout consider it a bucket list experience worth the blisters.
In 1930 Gandhi launched his padayatra or journey by foot to protest England’s salt tax on its Indian subjects. His 248 mile Salt March started with just 78 marchers but ignited a million man revolution. Contemporary Gandhis are trying to save environments they hold dear by lacing up their sandals and hitting the trail and road. Fired by a peace and planetary loving zeal, coupled with Buddhist religious teachings, they seek to reverse the ravages of overpopulation in a globally warmed world.
Their self-sacrificial stand against pollution and erosion are aimed at awakening the populace as well as governments who can’t or won’t solve the problem. These are not supremely fit trekkers who have trained for months to hike through the lung busting Himalaya, but true believers who are convinced their efforts and suffering will be seen by the villages they pass through. The hope is that the locals will be catalyzed to join their eco-crusade. These India-based padayatra crusaders include Gyalwang Drukpa and T R Ananthapadmanabhan.
Kung Fu Nuns to the Rescue
Jigme Pema Wangchen was born on a pilgrimage in Himchal Pradesh 50 years ago and now is the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, or spiritual leader of Ladakh, India. Ladakh is a remote once pristine Himalayan region whose principal drainage is the Indus River. The Ladakh range peaks average 19,700 feet and many of the mountain passes are above 16,400 feet. Although the Drupka suffers from chronic asthma, the idea of spending weeks leading 700 of his students on a 450 kilometer trek through this above tree line desert didn’t faze him.
Wangchen is a new school Buddhist leader who has adapted today’s environmental teachings with ancient conservative Buddhist texts. In founding the Druk White Lotus School that blends traditional Buddhism teaching with modern education of girls, the Drukpa is an emerging global leader who has received UN recognition. He is that rare holy man who has the guts to go beyond his pulpit to put his life on the line to fight the good fight. Dr. Martin Luther King who led civil rights pilgrimages (March on Washington, 1963) was another.
The Drupka’s emphasis on educating girls and making young women leaders is a radical concept in Ladakh, but crucial to the success of his first padayatra in 2009. The group’s backbone was a collection of young Buddhist nuns dubbed the Kung Fu Nuns in a BBC documentary. At 4 a.m. every day the quiet is broken as they practice martial arts, wailing and kicking. Many of these women were rejected by their families but have become role models in the region. They consider themselves stronger and smarter than the monks who have traditionally dominated Himalayan Buddhism. Their physical and mental toughness helped many of the struggling marchers get through the padayatra. Several trekkers had to be rescued by helicopter while the nuns carried others to villages to recuperate.
The Drupka undertook the mission after seeing how global warming was carving up Ladakh’s villages. Intense storms with cloudburst rains that dump up to two inches of rain in 60 seconds are decimating villages with flash floods and mudslides. Abnormal rain patterns and increasing glacial melts caused the torrents.
“It’s not a natural disaster, it’s a manmade disaster, but this is the turning point,” the Drupka told filmmaker Wendy Lee in the making of her documentary, “Pada Yatra: A Green Odyssey” that has been shown at film festivals in the U.S.
Striking Balance on the World’s Rooftop
The film chronicles the magnificent but harrowing 40 day journey the Drupka lead from Manali to Leh. Early snows clogged mountain passes, rivers ran high but the group slogged on starving, cold and injured. The group was held together by the Drupka’s eternal smile and confidence that the padayatra would succeed. It attracted hundreds of local villagers drawn to him seeking to hold his hand. Women in traditional heavy turquoise beaded costume ambled with the marchers listening to the Drupka’s daily teachings about the need to plant trees and how to avoid erosion. “The need of the hour is to strike a balance between the old and the new, so that the quality of life for the rural populations can be uplifted without compromising their culture, traditions and heritage,” the Drupka told India newspapers.
The trek helped stop Westerners from looting several villages of antiquities and also hauled off a half ton of plastics on the back of marchers. Over 50,000 trees have been planted and the seeds of spiritual environmentalism were sowed in the deeply religious but poor villages.
The Drupka’s follow up annual padayatras in Mumbai and Sri Lanka more recently have been successful gaining converts to eco cleansing. The Drupka knows his limitations but hopes others will join the fight. “I know I can’t clean up the Himalaya dragging 700 students with me one time, but this is an example for the whole world.”
Saving Pilgrims from Themselves
Pilgrimages by their very nature are destructive. When thousands of modern pilgrims descend on a religious site by foot or bus, the environment gets consecrated. Just ask Ananthapadmanabhan whose life work is cleaning up after the 30 million Hindu pilgrims who come to the Sabarimala Temple in the hills of Kerala, India. For the last 19 years, Ananthapadmanabhan, a former bank clerk, has walked thousands of kilometers and has hauled off tons of garbage from the pilgrimage route. The pilgrimage is one of the world’s largest but among the most polluting.
The Swami Ayyappa Temple in the Sabarimala Hills is the most sacred site and most trashed. The temple elders don’t have the manpower to clean up after the pilgrims and the environment takes a big hit. Elephants in the area have plastic in their dung and Anan collects their turds to show the pilgrims that they should not dump plastic in the forest. Tigers have been found dead by forestry officials because of toxic waste. Anan treks the route carrying banners decrying the use of plastic and his small cadre of volunteer followers has grown from 300 and now approaches 1,000.
“Ayyappa is everything for me. I want the Sabarimala Temple as well as its route to the shrine to be clean. I will do whatever I can to make it a no-plastic zone,” Anan told The Times of India. He has formed the Eco-Pilgrimage Trust to raise money and awareness of the problem.
World’s Highest Dump
Since the early 1970s climbing Nepal’s Mount Everest has been a top bucket list item for mountaineers. More recently mainstream tourists see climbing the mountain as their own pilgrimage. This traffic jam to the top of the world has turned parts of Mount Everest’s ecosystem into a UNESCO World Heritage garbage dump. With over 30,000 trekkers and accompanying 80,000 support staff on the mountain annually the garbage has been building. Without a sustainable waste disposal system, over 50 tons of waste gets generated and left each year. The trash zone includes the Sherpa villages en route to the base camps and extends into the kill zone over 20,000 feet. Carcasses along with discarded oxygen canisters, clothing, ripped tents and tattered climbing ropes litter the sacred mountain.
The padayatra to rid this mountain of rubbish is a coalition effort led by European NGO EcoHimal and has enlisted the support of Nepal’s government and local companies. This padayatra is driven less by religious fervor but more by wanting to stay in business. For Nepal’s government the trek circuit around Everest is big business. Others such as Dr. Kurt Luger want to restore the Everest ecosystem’s once pristine patina.
Leading the Saving Mount Everest Project is Austria’s EcoHimal and its founder Dr. Luger. He first came to Nepal in 1984 as a tourist and his son, Maurizio Everest was conceived at Everest base camp in 1993, Luger jokes. He is a University of Salzburg professor of international communications and has taken a familiar NGO approach to cleaning up the third world. Raise money in Europe and have the work done by the local Nepalese who need jobs.
He raised funds from Sweden’s Postcode Lottery and Stockholm law firm, Hannes Snellman then organized clean up teams led by Everest summiteers and high altitude porters. They trekked into the Everest high country in 2011 and hauled down 8.1 tons of trash. The three month effort made a dent in the debris, but the project has long lasting effects. An incinerator was built and trash bins made from fallen trees were installed on the mountain.
For the project’s long term success Luger says it will be up to the Nepalese to continue the work and he is trying to improve communications between villagers so they can run it. Economic incentives from recycling the waste are being developed.
Let’s hope the Nepalese get a dose of the same kind of environmental religion that has fueled the Drupka and Ananthapadmanabhan campaigns in India. A clean Everest would be a global example of how even the highest and most remote place on the planet can be restored.