Heaven then, hell now, says 1997 Kailash pilgrim

Twelve years later, when the retired deputy director of the Gujarat State Financial Corporation went on a trip to Kailash once again with a private tour operator who has offices in New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Kathmandu, she found it a hellish experience.

Though the 53-year-old woman and her 23-year-old nephew were among the 15 people who finally did the rounds of the sacred mountain in Tibet out of a group of 56, she says she was appalled by the chaos and callousness shown by the tour operator.

"The ministry insists on stringent fitness tests. After the pilgrims are selected by lottery, they are given a list of tests they have to undertake to prove they are physically fit. Then after they arrive in New Delhi, they are subjected to tests by officials once again," Rathore told IANS.

But private operators, eager to make a quick profit, can't be bothered with fitness certificates even though it is often a matter of life and death.

"After crossing the Nepal border into Tibet, we halted at a place for the night. There was a commotion outside and we found that an 83-year-old woman, who was travelling unaccompanied in a group assembled by the same operator, had been left to fend for herself outside the lodge at freezing temperatures in the night," said Rathore.
The woman, Sarala Devi from Chennai, was also without her luggage.

"Her luggage had been misplaced by the tour operator. It contained her medicines. She was in tears asking for her bag but it couldn't be found," Seema Thakur, a housewife from New Delhi who was in Rathore's group, told IANS.

"We were shocked. How could an 83-year-old woman, who couldn't even walk two steps, be allowed by the tour operator?"

Though Rathore's group made room for Sarala Devi in their already crowded room, she did not make it to Mt Kailash. The woman, who told her fellow travellers that she belonged to the family of former Indian president Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, died of exhaustion and other complications. Her body was taken back to Kathmandu.

Of the confirmed seven deaths during the yatra so far, the pilgrims say the fatalities could have been averted had there been doctors, medicines and oxygen bottles with the groups.

"With the MEA-organised trip, you have all three. Also, there is just one group a week. They are all accompanied by government officials who stay in constant touch with New Delhi," Rathore told IANS.

The pilgrimages to Mount Kailash and Mansarovar is held sacred by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains alike, especially by Hindus who consider it the abode of Lord Shiva, one of the Hindu Trinity. While Mt Kailash rises 6,638 m above sea level, the nearby Mansarovar lake lies at 4,556 m.

During her current trip, Rathore said the team was accompanied by a man who was "permanently drunk", "always haggling for money" for any little service and constantly lying.

The food was usually half-cooked to save fuel and the rice was the kind "that has gone bad and is meant to feed livestock".

"It is a financial killing machine," said a doctor with Rathore's group whose care and personal medicines saved at least two lives.

"They profit from death. If you die on the way, it is so much better for them because they save money. Someone should put a stop to this," said the doctor who did not want to be named.

The trip organised by the Indian government passes through the state of Uttarakhand and lasts 28 days. Pilgrims are briefed thoroughly before the trip and put through intensive medical fitness tests.

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