For many, a holy pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi means a dip in the Ban Ganga river which meanders around the sacred shrine. But this year there is disappointment in store as the river is almost dry.
While some attribute this to developmental activities and the toll the huge number of pilgrims takes, others say things will improve with a good monsoon.
The river originates from a 200-foot- high cliff in the Samkhal area. "The Samkhal pond is almost dry following scarcity of rainfall in the last few years which has also dried up the Ban Ganga river," P.B. Gupta, assistant CEO of the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board (SMVDSB), told IANS.
Gupta is, however, optimistic of a good monsoon: "We are optimistic that there will be good rainfall this year and expect things to improve."
However, Mangar Singh, who owns a hotel in Katra town, said: "I am saying this with a very heavy heart that Ban Ganga is virtually dead. I have been living here for the last 30 years and this is not the first time when there is less water in the river."
"Earlier, the river used to overflow between September and April but now its condition has turned dismal. There is hardly any water flowing in Ban Ganga," he said.
The Samkhal area is five kilometres away from Ardh Kunwari - half way between Katra town and Vaishno Devi shrine.
According to Hindu mythology, when demon Bhairon Nath chased goddess Vaishnavi she ran towards the Trikuta hill and on the way she felt thirsty and shot an arrow into the ground and the river was formed.
Concerns have been raised over ecological degradation on the Trikuta mountain range due to a huge influx of Vaishno Devi pilgrims and alleged felling of trees, which directly affects the Ban Ganga river.
Said an SMVDSB official at Vaishno Dham, Jammu: "Brisk developmental activities on the 13-km track from the Katra base camp to the cave shrine have been posing an ecological threat to the Trikuta hills and the biggest challenge before the board is to maintain the ecological balance."
According to records, every year more than six million pilgrims visit this shrine and to provide accommodation to these devotees, rampant construction has been going on which has in turn led to deforestation.
"See the level of development that has taken place in the area in the last 10 years...For development works, we need to cut mountains and fell a large number of trees - which is bound to disturb the ecological balance in the
hilly area," a senior board official said.
Even pilgrims are disappointed at the condition of the Ban Ganga river. "I visit Vaishno Devi twice a year during Navratri but this this time I am really disheartened to see the holy river running dry," Neha Bhaumik, a pilgrim from Bihar, told IANS.
Another devotee, Ratan Pandey, said: "I remember bathing in Ban Ganga every time we used to come to Vaishno Devi and I am very disappointed to see that there is hardly any water in the river. The river has mythological significance add eco-friendly steps should be taken to restore it."
Many believe Kashmir may be experiencing the effects of global warming, with high altitude glaciers melting at an unprecedented rate, threatening the eco-system of the valley.
Most of the small glaciers in Kashmir have melted completely, while the larger ones have been reduced in size. According to experts, this has resulted in the melting of the famous Sonmarg glaciers in Kashmir which is the starting point of the Amarnath Yatra.
"Apart from global warming, there are several reasons for the melting of Sonmarg glaciers like deforestation, setting up of cement plants near forests and emission of carbon dioxide from factories," local environmentalist Mubsir Zilani said.