Severe ground shaking was felt over northern and eastern India from Punjab to Calcutta in the early hours of September 1, 1803. But for some sketchy written accounts of the damage incurred at certain places and that too with reference to some prominent structures, there exist no means of assessing the destruction actually caused by this tremor.
Mathura: The earthquake was described as dreadful from Mathura where it damaged many buildings. Falling tiles killed Noorul Nissa Balgam, an accomplished woman pregnant with her third child. The earthquake caused extensive ground fissures in the fields through which water poured with significant pressure, and continued to run for quite some time. Principal Mosque of the place erected by Ghauze Khan was shattered to pieces – the gateway was cracked from top to bottom, the upper portion of one of the minarets was thrown down, and one little corner kiosque of the mosque was also destroyed, but the dome was uninjured.
Delhi: The ground shaking was strong enough at Delhi to damage the upper part of Qutub Minar, 73 m high five storeyed victory tower built on the ruins of Lal Kot by by Qutb-ud-din Aibak, first ruler of the Delhi Sultanate in 1193. The Minar was originally surmounted by a cupola, which fell down during the earthquake and was replaced early in the nineteenth century by a new cupola in the late Mughal style by one Major Smith. It however looked so incongruous that it was brought down in 1848, and may now be seen on the lawns to the southeast of the Minar.
Aligarh: Aligarh Fort, one of the strongest forts in India, was strongly fortified and commanded by a French mercenary officer Pierre Perron. At the time of the earthquake the fort was under siege by the British 76th Regiment, now known as the Yorkshire Regiment, under General Lord Gerard Lake. The Fort was captured from the Marathas and French on September 4, 1803. Potentially long drawn military siege came to an end abruptly as a result of distress to the resisting Maratha forces, and breach of the walls of the Fort by earthquake shaking.
Devastation in the Garhwal region
F.V. Raper surveyed the area from Haridwar to Gangotri in search of the source of the Ganga river in 1808. Narrative of the survey published in the Asiatic Researches in 1812 has account of the damaged state of houses and temples in the region which is attributed to September 1, 1803 earthquake.
Uttarkashi: Most houses in Barahat (Uttarkashi) were poorly constructed and not in a habitable state due to the damage incurred by 1803 earthquake. Two or three hundred people were killed by the collapse of the roofs; and great numbers of cattle were destroyed by the earthquake that also damaged the Shiva temple.
Srinagar: The capital of the Garhwal Rajas that was described by Col. Hardwicke as being in a flourishing state in 1796 with 700 or 800 houses and a good bazar, was in a lower state of poverty and insignificance. Every house appeared to have felt the shock: in the main street, and not more than one in five was inhabited; of some the roofs had collapsed, of others the walls were torn apart, and many lay in a complete heap of ruins. The palace of the Raja was exactly in the same situation; some parts of it were entirely dismantled, and others in so tottering a condition, as to render it unsafe to pass under its walls.
Baird-Smith (1843): Baird-Smith who prepared the first historical summary of Indian earthquakes described destructive impact of 1803 earthquake being experienced mainly in the mountain provinces of Sirmaur, Garhwal and Kumaun, although its influence was extended throughout the plains of Hindustan. He described the impact to be terrible in the mountains where large portion of the population perished; whole villages were buried by the fall of cliffs, and sliding down of the faces of the hills. Baird-Smith could not however gather any specific information related to the ravages of the earthquake in Kumaon, beyond the fact, that these were not less severe there than in Garhwal, involving the destruction of life and property to a great extent.
C.P. Rajendran (2005): Besides a fort at Ojha Ghor and Chandreshwar temple in Yamuna valley, temples at Badrinath, Kedarnath and Gangotri were severely damaged in the 1803 earthquake event together with Mahamaya and Daksheswar temples at Haridwar, Gopinath temple at Gopeshwar, Raghunath temple at Devprayag, Vishwanath temple at Uttarkashi, Bhaskareshwar temple at Bhatwari and Tunganath temple at Makkumath.
The 1803 earthquake
September 1, 1803 earthquake was felt over a large geographical area and caused major destruction at Uttarkashi and Srinagar. In view of the intensity being strong enough to throw water and fish off a tank at Calcutta that is at an aerial distance of about 1300 km from the source and total area over which the earthquake was felt, the magnitude of the event is assessed to be between 7.4 and 8.1 on Richter Scale by various researchers.
The source of the earthquake is assessed on the basis of the isoseismic maps prepared from the description of its impact at various places. The epicenter of the earthquake is assessed as being located between the epicenters of Uttarkashi Earthquake of October 20, 1991 and Chamoli Earthquake of March 29, 1999; probably closer to the former. Its epicenter being located in Garhwal region of Uttarakhand Himalaya the event is identified as Garhwal Earthquake.
Implications for western UP and NCR
Losses incurred by the Garhwal Earthquake would not have been restricted to certain cities, historical monuments and temples as could be inferred from the description of the losses. The earthquake would have inflicted significant loss of both human lives and property in far flung rural areas as well. Though the exact details are not known, the losses in the Garhwal region would have been particularly high.
But for Garhwal Earthquake of September 1, 1803 there exists no account of any major seismic activity in the Himalayan region to the west of the Bihar – Nepal Earthquake of January 15, 1934 and east of the Kangara Earthquake of April 4, 1905. Entire Uttarakhand province lies in this region where stresses are getting accumulated continuously for more than 200 years. This region is therefore identified as a Seismic Gap Zone that has high probability of hosting a major earthquake in near future.
Despite having witnessed moderate magnitude Uttarkashi Earthquake of October 20, 1991 and Chamoli Earthquake of March 29, 1999 this region faces grave threat of a major earthquake as these earthquakes could release only a small portion of the accumulated stresses. The magnitude of this earthquake could be comparable to the Garhqwal Earthquake of 1803.
The devastating potential of this earthquake can be better appreciated from the simple fact that the energy released in it could well be more than 125 times the energy released in Uttarkashi Earthquake of 1991.
It is therefore required that the built environment in the region be made seismically resilient by promoting earthquake safe construction, training of masons and engineers in earthquake safe construction, compliance of building bye laws and mass awareness.
Though likely to be hosted by Uttarakhand, the devastation is certainly not going to be restricted to the geographical limits of the province. Like Garhwal Earthquake recent Bhuj Earthquake of January 26, 2001 has shown that massive devastation can take place during seismic shaking at places that are at a long distance from the earthquake source – aerial distance from Uttarkashi to Delhi and Lucknow being 260 and 500 km respectively, the distance between Bhuj and Ahmedabad being 300 km.
This is a major cause of concern for the western Uttar Pradesh (UP) as also National Capital Region (NCR) that are densely populated – population density of western UP and NCR being 828 and 840 persons per sq km respectively with that of Delhi being 1320 as against only 189 of Uttarakhand. Western UP and NCR at the same time house high value infrastructure and many strategic installations.
Seismic safety of structures and installations in western UP and NCR is required to be therefore given high priority as a high intensity seismic shaking in this region could have severe adverse impact on the economy and pace of development of the entire nation. .
Apart from improving seismic performance of strategic installations and lifeline buildings in this region, the earthquake early warning (EEW) system operated by the Uttarakhand Government should be put to effective use both for mass awareness and early warning. The people living in the highly vulnerable NCR and western UP should therefore be motivated and incentivised to download and install the application (Uttarakhand Bhookamp Alert) on their mobile phones to avail benefit of this EEW system.
In the end one must understand that it is not going to be easy to convince the masses as also administrators and policy makers that NCR and western UP can be hit hard by an earthquake having its origin in the Himalayas. Sincere, and sustained efforts would be required for changing their perception.
But then, we are left with no other option.
Remember, we are always in-between two major earthquakes – each passing moment is taking us closer to the one that awaits us in near future.
To end this article I quote Benjamin Franklin, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”