Amid religious chants and hymns hailing Hindu god Shiva, about 2,500 devotees launched the annual pilgrimage to the holy cave shrine of Amarnath in south Kashmir from Jammu on Tuesday.
The first caravan of pilgrims was flagged off by Inspector General of Police (Jammu Zone) K Rajendra Kumar.
The 400 km journey will take them from Jammu to Srinagar and further to Baltal. Thereafter, they will have to climb a steep mountain to reach the cave shrine. Situated at 11,000 feet above sea level in Anantnag district, the cave houses a 'lingam', or stalagmite structure that is seen as an icon of Lord Shiva, one of the Hindu Trinity.
Around 200,000 pilgrims from different parts of the country have already registered their names for this year's journey.
Raising religious slogans like "Bom Bom Bhole" and "Jai Baba Barfani", and waving enthusiastically to the people who had come to see them off, the first batch of pilgrims set off in cars and buses. This year, the last batch is scheduled to end the pilgrimage Aug 16.
Pilgrims were particularly enthusiastic following reports that the naturally formed ice 'lingam' had risen to a height of 14 feet this year. The past two years, it had melted by the time the pilgrimage began.
"I feel blessed that Lord Shiva has beckoned me to undertake this journey," Subash Kavia from Sikar, Rajasthan said. "This time the Shivlingam is there. It is the sign of good times."
Since the outbreak of separatist violence in Kashmir in early 1989, militants have attacked Amarnath pilgrims several times. The worst guerrilla attack on pilgrims took place at the Pahalgam base camp in 2000 in which 35 people, including pilgrims, local Kashmiris and securitymen were killed.
This year, the administration has put in place a three-tier security system to guard the pilgrims. The outer security tier for this year's journey is being manned by the army, the middle tier by the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the inner tier by the police.
"There is peace in Kashmir, this is the best time to visit the shrine. There is no fear," said Madan Mohan from Amritsar.