One of the few structures in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand is the Kedarnath temple, which escaped relatively unscathed in the devastating floods of 2013. The temple is located in the Kedar valley below the Chorabari glacier, which is the source of the river Mandakini. While little is known about the glacier’s history, a lichens study revealed clues to the glacier’s past and the temple’s present.
Studies also indicate that until a few years ago, the basin area of the glacier was about 38 sq km, of which the glacier occupied 15 sq km. The glacier has advanced and retreated several times over centuries of climatic variation and therefore its dimension may have been altered. Knowing when and why these events happened could help understand long-term climate change in the region. Lichens have provided a clue to the geological history of the region which has helped demonstrate the resilience of the Kedarnath temple.
A clue to the glacier’s history
Lichens are a composite organism developed through a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi. Ravinder Kumar Chaujar, a retired professor from Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun, studied lichens growing on the rocks of Chorabari’s moraines to determine the glacier’s history.
Ravinder identified four well-defined moraine loops present at altitudes of 3,160 m, 3,320 m, 3,440 m, and 3,640 m. Moraine loops are formed of soil and rocks. As the glacier recedes, the ice melts, leaving the moraine behind. Moraine loops indicate the path taken by the glacier over time.
Ravinder found that the yellow-green lichen, Rhizocarpon Geographicum, on the rocks grew at the rate of 1 mm per year. Using the size of the lichen and some statistical refinements, Chaujar suggests that the climatic changes in the area started nearly about 258 years ago.
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What came first: temple or glacier?
Located in the middle of Chorabari’s moraine loops, Kedarnath temple was supposedly built by the Pandavas. Religious literature and archaeological studies too suggest the minimum age of the temple is about 3,000 years. However, the inscriptions on the wall of the temple date back to 650-850 AD. They describe the beauty of the temple, but there is no mention of snow, glaciers or ice. Ravinder says this raises three possibilities: (a) There was a glacier but it was beyond the present location of the temple ; (b) the temple was built when there was no glacier in the area, or (c) there was a glacier and the temple was constructed after cutting through the ice.
Ravinder believes the temple was built before the glacier existed in the area. He says the glacier could have developed during the Little Ice Age (1300–1900 AD). The glaciations around the temple would have started during the mid-14th century and may have continued till around 1748 AD.
400 years under ice
Ravinder’s findings suggest that the Kedarnath temple remained submerged in the glacier for at least 400 years. And however, it survived due to its sturdy construction. Striations on the wall of the temple, which could have formed when the glacier moved around the structure, further supports the theory.
It is believed that large amounts of water flowed down from the Chorabari lake formed by the melting of ice or glacier. This was severely worsened by excessive rains in Uttarakhand. Ravinder says that most of the water came down from the left channel which put the Kedarnath settlement at risk as the river was at a higher level compared to the settlement. However, photographs show the hotels and residences around the temple are destroyed and the area buried in rubble. While the temple itself seems to not have incurred much damage.