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Dhārī Devī – Goddess of the Stream

A deity at the interface of ecology and disaster

Coordination: Frances Anke Niebuhr

Abstract

Unfinished platform of the new Dhari Devi temple with makeshift shelter currently containing the idol (2014)

Unfinished platform of the new Dhari Devi temple with makeshift shelter currently containing the idol (2014)

This Subproject of MC 9.2 dealt with the environmental struggle and the entailed interwoven religious and ecological discourse perspectives revolving around the relocation of a goddess and her temple on a sacred river of the upper Ganges basin due to the construction of a hydroelectric power plant.

In the Fifties in India amidst the secularization of the political sphere, water became part of the immanent paradigm shift and transformed into a mere economic resource, a source of energy- and energy independence, as well as a vehicle of progress. During the inauguration of the Bhakra dam Nehru even declared hydropower projects the temples of modern India.

In the Eighties, still against the backdrop of the then formulated paradigm, a hydropower project was planned at Srinagar on river Alaknanda in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.
Already at its planning stage it was known that the lake forming behind the dam would submerge the temple of the locally popular Kali goddess Dhārī and the company in charge had proposed to shift the statue to a newly built temple. Like the Ganges also its tributary the river Alaknanda forms part of the Himalayan devbhūmi, the soil of the gods. Accordingly, the building site and the temple of goddess Dhārī consist a part of the sacred land- and waterscape and they stand in close connection with the pilgrimage routes leading along the mountain rivers to their venerated sources in the high mountain areas.

The case study of Dhārī Devī investigated the conflict that revolved around the construction of the Srinagar hydroelectric power plant and the removal of the goddess in the midst of the Uttarakhand flood disaster in 2013. The study sketched the clashing imaginations concerning the trajectories of a present-day waterscape in Srinagar and beyond. Future visions in this regard were either consisting of an emerging technically-engineered waterscape with the temple and the goddess integrated into this picture. On the other hand, efforts to keep up or re-establish an ecological and cultural balance of the Himalayan space, encompassed discourses for the preservation of the original temple with the statue.

The instrumentalisation and agency of an imagined space in the context of an environmental conflict proves to be powerful though contested (Seth 2016). Accordingly, the investigation highlighted the role of a sacred space defined by water at the centre of an environmental conflict. A major part in the respect became the analysis of the ecological engagement of the religious spectrum with its struggle for a nirmal (unspoilt) and aviral (uninterruptedly flowing) Ganges, which peaked during the Srinagar/ Dhārī Devī conflict. Since the issue concurrently epitomized the failure of the religiously driven engagement, the shortcomings of its controversial agenda have been broadly discussed. Light was shed as well on the powerful role of the nexuses of economic powers and politics subjected to a prevailing paradigm of development with regard to the construction of the dam and the translocation of the goddess. However, also some of the religious actors are participating in these nexuses with existing religious corporate networks employing cultural heritages and practices for economic interests as well as through interrelations between religious groupings and politics.

The struggle revolving around Dhari Devi is also an indicator of how formerly established knowledges and practices connected to water-conflicts re-emerge and become modified under the influence of contemporary dynamics and tendencies unfolding in a specific place and by the agendas of participating actors. In this context has been shown that and in which way the conflict in Srinagar unfolded on the basis of former anti-dam movements.

The conflict of Dhārī Devī and Srinagar dam displayed unique characteristics with an ecological protest movement laying its focus on a religious symbol, the emergence of a protest-counter-movement equally claiming the religious symbol for its own purposes and the rise of religious authorities as promoters of eco-activism. Despite its distinctness, the case represents a testimony of the kaleidoscope of major driving forces surrounding dam development projects in present day India and promotes their understanding as well as providing a basis for a much-needed national water-based environmental dialogue.

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Coordination

Frances Anke Niebuhr