After a two-year gap due to the restrictions of the ‘covid pandemic’ over a million pilgrims have already started making the six-month-long pilgrimage to the Hindu shrines of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath.
The Char Dham Yatra which commenced on May 3 begins in the summer months of April or May and closes with the onset of winter during October and November when the high-altitude shrines close to the public for six months of the year.
According to figures reported in several Indian news outlets, as of May 31, 108 pilgrims have tragically lost their lives in the first 27 days of the Yatra.
While the somewhat perilous pilgrimage results in several recorded deaths each year, this year the Char Dham Yatra has been marred by an unusual spike in deaths that has Indian authorities scrambling to find an explanation, as its health system is put under immense pressure.
Indian authorities have launched an investigation into the unusual and sharp rise in deaths, which has seen mortality rates of participants skyrocket as opposed to previous years.
Figures reported by the Times of India (TOI) show that around 1.2 million pilgrims have already embarked on the Yatra. Alarmingly, the numbers of deaths have already exceeded the total yearly deaths recorded over much larger participation numbers in previous years.
“Around 12 lakhs have been on the Yatra so far in 2022. In comparison, 32 lakhs attended the pilgrimage in 2019 and 26 lakhs in 2018,” the TOI wrote.
To put these figures into perspective a ‘lakh’ represents an Indian unit of measurement equivalent to one hundred thousand.
By our calculations based on official data, out of the 2.6 million people who participated in the Yatra in 2018, 102 people died, which equates to 17 deaths on average per month or .0039% over attendance numbers.
In 2019 out of the 3.2 million people who participated, 90 people died, which equates to 15 deaths on average per month or .0028% over attendance numbers.
The periods of 2020 and 2021 cannot be accurately calculated as pandemic restrictions prevented the Yatra from occurring in its usual fashion.
This year, 2022 figures show that out of the 1.2 million people who have already participated in the first month of the Yatra, 108 people have died. This equates to 108 deaths in the first month with 5 months of the pilgrimage to go.
If this tragic trend continues it is plausible that many more hundreds of pilgrims may lose their lives over the next five months of the Yatra.
As authorities attempt to find the cause of the massive spike in deaths, some are attributing some of the deaths to hypothermia and lack of oxygen due to high altitudes.
However, these have always been contributing factors that have sadly led to the loss of lives in previous years.
Amid a state of panic and speculation, serious questions are being raised as to why the death toll is so high this time around.
The Indian government is currently doing everything in its power to limit participant figures and has imposed pre-pilgrimage health checks in an effort to prevent further deaths. The surge in deaths has also led the government to publish a raft of new ‘guidelines’ for pilgrims attempting the journey.
The Times of India has reported that health authorities and experts are working to establish the cause of why so many people making the pilgrimage this year have died in such a short period.
As experts desperately search for causal links, some believe that the ‘after effects’ of covid may have potentially played a part, however, the Indian government said it needs to examine metadata and question families and relatives of the deceased to establish a true root cause.
It is reported that Indian Health authorities will also examine medical histories and post-mortem results to help identify the causes of the excess deaths, however, they are being met with resistance by many who are citing privacy concerns.
Director of General Health Shailaja Bhatt told the Hindustan Times,
“We have decided to make the medical screening mandatory for all the pilgrims aged 50 and above, who are coming for Char Dham Yatra.”
Chief Medical Officer of Rudraprayag, BK Shukla said:
“The pilgrims found medically unfit to embark on the journey further are being advised to return, and we are also taking an undertaking from those pilgrims who refuse to comply and are adamant about reaching the shrine.”
As the region’s health system has been thrown into chaos, some experts have speculated that the high number of deaths may be due to factors such as the weakened immunity of pilgrims, the after-effects of covid infections, weather conditions, and high altitudes, and hypothermia.
Chief Medical Officer of Rudraprayag, BK Shukla, however, told the Hindustan Times,
“Most of the pilgrims died due to heart attacks.”
CMO BK Shukla said authorities are considering this to be an ‘alarming situation,’ adding that while authorities ‘feel’ the after-effects of covid may be a contributing factor, he said:
“Unless metadata is collated, the rise in deaths cannot be properly attributed to a single cause.”
In the aftermath of the 108 deaths observed in just the first 27 days, it is reported that the government has stationed 112 ambulances along with 25 specialists, general medical officers, nurses, and paramedics along the pilgrimage route, with an emergency helicopter service on standby. Indian authorities are still working to find the cause of the severe spike in deaths, as it is expected that millions more will make the