When J&K Governor NN Vohra and his wife Usha Vohra paid obeisance at the sanctum sanctorum of the Amarnath shrine on second day of the yatra on Thursday, at least 20,000 Muslim labourers and 7,000 Muslim pony owners joined in to ensure safe and secure pilgrimage of devotees scheduled to come from the lengths and breadths of the country.
"I have been serving pilgrims
for many years and will do so this time too. Protests across the valley are against security forces' and nobody has asked me to close down my guest house. Even Sayeed Ali Shah Geelani, who is considered radical, has not come out against the yatra per se. Even if he does nobody will pay heed to him," Majid Khan told Hindustan Times over phone from Sonamarg, where he owns a guest office.
Sonamarg, which was bustling on Thursday, is one of the two main stopovers for devotees to start arduous mountainous terrain to reach the holy cave situated at an altitude of 13,000 feet (3952 metres). The other route is Pahalgam in south Kashmir. The shrine is more than 30 km trek from the second route.
It was rain in the afternoon that played spoilsport at Sonamarg for pilgrims but bustle and enthusiasm was on the high note.
"There is no fear. See around it's all normal and peaceful," grinning Krishna Dev, a devotee, told the newsmen, while chanting Bam Bam Bole.
The recent spurt in violent protests in the wake of killings of civilians and protesters in security forces' action might have vitiated the atmosphere but the main stopovers --- Pahalgam and Sonamarg - are peaceful and bustling.
"The towns the pilgrims have to pass through are tense and under curfew but tourist places like Pahalgam and Sonamarg are peaceful. Hundreds of Muslim pony owners and hotel owners are enthusiastic about the yatra. I see no less enthusiasm this time," said Deputy Superintendent of Police Bashir Ahmad, posted in south Kashmir to ensure safety of pilgrims.
The police officer said pony owners have been busy washing horses and preparing wooden carts for weeks now.
Minister for Tourism Nawang Rigzin Jora also launched helicopter services from Pahalgam-Panjtarni, other such service is available at Baltal.
Senior Muslim religious figures and moderate separatists have discounted the notion that the violence is stoked to disrupt Amarnath yatra.
"We welcome pilgrims. I don't think anyone opposes yatra in Kashmir," said Mufti Mian Bashir, state head priest.
Moderate All Parties Hurriyat Conference chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq sees dangers in correlating yatra and protests and seeks separation of the two.
"We want yatra to pass off peacefully and successfully. Our protests are against the human rights violations and unabated killing of innocent civilians in Kashmir," said the Mirwaiz.
The moderate separatists said even during the Amarnath land row and last year Shopian agitation, pilgrims visited the shrine without any disturbance.
"The reportage by Indian national media is unfortunate and partial. The reports aired by some national TV channels dubbing the peaceful Kashmiri protesters as 'rioters and mischievous elements' and justifying their killing in firing by the security forces. This is completely out of tune with the reality. Similarly, other wrong perceptions about Kashmir are being conjured up by the media," he added.
Another senior separatist leader, who was presented before the court today, also welcomed the pilgrims.
"We have been welcoming them for decades now," Shah told the media.
It was hardline Geelani who last month tried to stoke a controversy by demanding decrease in the yatra period from 45 days to 15 days. The demand died a silent death as it failed to galvanize any public support in the valley.
Al least 15,000 pilgrims are on the way to the holy cave as part of the first batch.