In the footsteps of Shiva

A file picture of hundreds of pilgrims on their way to the Amarnath cave during last year’s yatra for a glimpse of the ice-lingam.

Forty-eight-year old Mohammad Ramzan,  a pony walla from Pahalgam in south Kashmir is eagerly waiting for the Amarnath yatra to begin. The annual pilgrimage is scheduled to begin on June 29 and culminate on August 13.

The yatra is undertaken on two routes -- the traditional route via Pahalgam and a shorter one via Baltal. From Pahalgam, pilgrims trek 30 kms to reach the holy cave of Amarnath, located 14,000 feet above sea level, and the journey is completed in about two to three days. From Baltal, the distance up to the holy cave is 15 kms and often pilgrims complete the two-way journey on the same day. Pahalgam is 96 kms from Srinagar. The yatra is a source of income for thousands of ponywallas, tentwallas and labourers from Pahalgam, Baltal and the adjoining areas. They form the backbone of the yatra every year.

The Amarnath cave was first discovered by a Muslim, Buta Malik. Since then the local Muslims continue to remain closely associated with the pilgrimage. The pilgrims have to reach from Nunwan base camp at Pahalgam to the cave “darshan”. According to Hindu belief, Amarnathji is considered to be one of the major Hindu dhaams. The cave is the abode of Lord Shiva, enshrined in the form of an ice-lingam inside the cave. The lingam is formed naturally and is believed to wax and wane with the moon.

 “We never think that it is a religious affair of Hindus only. We remain part and parcel of this pilgrimage. The pilgrimage has been feeding our family from generations and continues to do so at present also,” Ramzan said. He said he still remembers when during his childhood his father used to move from his home with his pony as the yatra began and returned only at the end of the pilgrimage. ”At that time our financial condition was very weak. The income during yatra helped us survive,” he said.

Mehboob Ahmad, another ponywalla, said it was the Amarnath yatra last year and also in 2009 and 2008 which helped him and others of his ilk to feed their families as the civilian unrest during the three years had badly hit tourism. “This year too we are hoping a great rush of pilgrims,” Ahmad said.

Mohammad Ilyas, a shopkeeper, said it is not just the money factor but the pilgrimage creates an emotional bonding between the local people and the pilgrims from different states. “I get telephone calls from some pilgrims and they inquire about our wellbeing. This gives a great feeling,” he said.

Like Ramzan, Mehboob and Ilyas, others are praying for a peaceful situation so that the pilgrimage concludes without any untoward incident. “We are hopeful that the pilgrimage concludes peacefully. There is no visible threat or danger to the yatra as of now.
However, the security forces and the police will continue to provide security to the pilgrims,” said Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, General Officer Commander (GOC) of Srinagar-based 15 Corps and security advisor to the state government.

The security forces have started sanitising the pilgrimage route. Army personnel provide the security cover on the outer ring. They occupy mountain peaks to foil any attempt by militants to carry out attacks from there. The police, the CRPF and some other para-military forces set up check points and frisk people. The bomb disposal quads look for explosives buried underground. “Everything is going on smoothly. The pilgrimage will start as per schedule and entire security arrangements will be at place till then,” said Mohammad Amin, a police officer.

Rehan Ahmad, another government official, said there is snow at some places on the yatra route. ”We had frequent snowfalls last winter. With the mercury level rising now the snow will melt and by the time the yatra begins the route will be safe,” he said. Rehan said that because of the snow at some places the state government decided to commence the pilgrimage from June 29. Some Hindu groups wanted to start the pilgrimage earlier but the authorities felt that doing so will be risking the lives of pilgrims.

In 1996, snowfall and avalanches caused large-scale damage to life and property during the yatra following which the government set up the Nitish Sengupta Commission to enquire into the incidents. The commission recommended restricting yatris to 3,500 per day including 700 via the Baltal route for 30-days event. The pilgrimage also witnessed a series of militant attacks in 2000, 2001 and 2002. In one such attack on August 1, 2000, in Pahalgam 21 yatris, eight civilians and two police personnel were killed. The then National Conference government set up a committee headed by the then Corps Commander, Lt General J R Mukherjee, to probe the massacre.

The committee, among other things, recommended that the duration of the yatra in that time security environment and the commitment of security forces in the state should be restricted to one month. It was of the opinion that when normalcy returns the duration could be increased. The panel also recommended that the number of yatris be strictly controlled and limited to the capacity of the administrative and security infrastructure.
Hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani had last year demanded reducing the duration of the pilgrimage. Since his demand was ignored by the people, he preferred observing silence on the issue this year. Even the transfer of government land temporarily to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), which conducts the pilgrimage, is no longer an issue now. The matter was laid to rest in 2008 in both Kashmir and Jammu regions and the collapse of the Ghulam Nabi Azad led Congress-PDP government.

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