At dawn on Saturday, thousands of pilgrims began their journey to the holy Amarnath shrine in south Kashmir from the Baltal base camp, some 120 km from Srinagar.
“It’s my 18th Yatra and all I will ask Bhole Baba once I reach the cave is to bless all humanity,” said Satpal Verma, 53, from Rajasthan, as he began the trek with a wooden walking stick.
The 48-day pilgrimage to the holy shrine, located at an altitude of more than 3880 metres, through the two routes of Baltal, around 15km long, and Pahalgam, around 40km long, is expected to be taken by about 400,000 visitors.
Speaking to HT, chief executive officer of the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board, PK Tripathi said that a total of 12,576 pilgrims started off for the cave on the first day through the two routes – 7,486 through Baltal and 5,090 through the other.
Inside the cave, a natural ice formation is considered the Shiva Lingam by Hindus. Union home minister Rajnath Singh and Governor NN Vohra also offered prayers at the holy cave on Saturday morning.
As cold winds swept the Baltal camp, pilgrims began their trek on foot, horses and palkis, chanting “Bum Bum Bholey” amidst a massive security set-up comprising personnel from the state police, army, CRPF and BSF.
Tosha Devi, 50, a pilgrim from Jammu, said she was excited to begin her first trek and determined not to take a horse but walk up to the cave.
Since Friday evening, the scene at the Batal base camp was that of exuberance — with tents put up for lodging the pilgrims by various religious bodies, multi-coloured lights and devotional songs blaring out of loudspeakers.
Hundreds of pilgrims crossed the arduous security checks to enter the camp and the langars put up in a large tent adorned with posters of Shiva serving vegetarian meals.
The security arrangement for the annual pilgrimage became a major concern this year following a series of militant attacks in Kashmir in the last few weeks, including a major one on a CRPF convoy in Pampore.
Late on Friday night, a CRPF camp was attacked by militants, leaving three personnel injured, hours after Union home minister Rajnath Singh reviewed the security arrangements for the Yatra.
Sources said more than 12,500 central paramilitary personnel and 8,000 state police officers were being deployed.
But pilgrims with whom HT spoke said although they were aware of the spike in attacks in the Valley, they were not scared because of their “faith”.
“We are not scared. For whom we have come this far, will protect us no matter what. The heart says, ‘He is there’. We want to come again and again,” said Atul Dhir, a clothes trader from Ludhiana who is on his second pilgrimage.
Dhir’s friend Raghubir Nanda has taken this journey 12 times, every year since 1995. For Nanda, too, the “message” to go every year comes straight from his “heart”, and he doesn’t care about the security issues.
Some pilgrims also said the presence of a large number of troopers and personnel was reassuring.
“I read about the rise in attacks. I also read about the Friday stone-pelting and know how volatile the Valley is. But the presence of personnel from all security agencies and the cooperation extended by Kashmiris here is reassuring,” said Deepak Kumar Dixit, from Alirajpur in Madhya Pradesh, who is on his 15th Yatra.
Also, a 53-year-old pilgrim from Delhi was found dead inside a camp in Baltal area on Saturday morning and officials added the probable cause has been diagnosed as a heart-attack.