The number of pilgrims visiting the cave shrine of Amarnath in south Kashmir this year was reduced almost to half as compared to the last year.
As against 6.21 lakh pilgrims who visited the cave shrine last year, this time the number plummeted to 3.53 lakh. In 2011, 6.3 lakh pilgrims undertook the Yatra.
The steep decline in number of pilgrims can be attributed to number of factors. The major one being the tragedy scare after the Uttarakhand disaster, which stuck the hill state on June 16.
Other factors, including compulsory health certificate, Supreme Court guidelines on age bar for pilgrims, tougher registration norms, violent incidents in Gool and Kishtwar during the Yatra period and earthquake, which struck the Doda area, also led to the decline in numbers.
Even the longer duration (55 days) of the Amarnath Yatra this year failed to translate into increase in number of pilgrims. Last year, the Yatra duration was of 37 days.
This year, the first batch of pilgrims left Jammu on June 27 and performed darshan on June 28.
Director, tourism, Sujanay Sharma counted a number of factors for a dip in number of pilgrims for the Amarnath Yatra. "The tragedy in Uttarakhand in June scared yatris. Tragedy created a fear psychosis among pilgrims. There has also been a dip in pilgrims visiting Mata Vaishno Devi at Katra after the tragedy."
"We are witnessing a change in behaviour of mountains all over the country. Also, there was a major earthquake in the Doda region of Jammu in May and tremors were felt even on Monday and a few days ago. Usually prior to the Char Dham pilgrimage, majority of pilgrims first undertake the Amaranth Yatra. After the Uttarakhand tragedy, many people cancelled their pilgrimage," he added.
The director, tourism, added that, "As per the Supreme Court guidelines, no one below the age of 13 years and above 75 years was allowed to undertake the Amaranth Yatra this year. This factor also contributed to decline in the number of pilgrims."
Besides this year, Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) took tougher stance by not allowing any unregistered pilgrims undertake the Yatra.
This year, the SASB has fixed a quota of 16,000 yatris per day with 7,500 pilgrims from each Pahalgam and Baltal routes, while 1,000 yatris were allowed to take the aerial route.
Another reason behind decline in the number of pilgrims was compulsory health certificates while seeking registration for the pilgrimage.
After last year's high rate of casualties of pilgrims during the Amarnath Yatra, the Supreme Court took a strong view and directed the SASB to evolve a mechanism to control such high rate of mortality. Last year, 93 pilgrims died during the Yatra period.
To the apex court's credit, only 13 pilgrims have died this year.
The Yatra remained suspended on a couple of occasions. First, for a day due to violence in the Gool area and then for two days due to clashes in Kishtwar. Both these incidents caused fear among pilgrims.
The Yatra that started on May 28 has almost ended as no fresh batch of pilgrims left from Jammu base camp on Monday. Only a few pilgrims in the transit will perform darshan in next couple of days.
The Amarnath Yatra will culminate on August 21 on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan.