From Domail (Baltal), at a place called Baltal, begins the shortcut to God. The Amarnath caves are just 16 km away from this piece of land the size of a football field — the Himalayas towering around it and the Sindh river gently gurgling past. Pilgrims begin the quickest climb to the shrine from here.
Shortcuts often come with dangers.
In the last six weeks, this piece of land 93 km from Srinagar has triggered one of the deepest communal divides in independent India in the Valley, with 10 people killed and more than 500 injured on the streets of Jammu and Srinagar.
On Saturday, the streets still burned, even as the Amarnath Yatra Sangharsh Samiti, the organisation demanding that the Baltal land be returned to a temple trust, climbed down a bit by agreeing to peace talks with Home Minister Shivraj Patil.
At Baltal’s Ground Zero, however, peace has never had to be talked out in the 30 years that pilgrims have been pitching tent here.
In an extension of a 160-year-old tradition of Hindu pilgrims being helped by Muslim workers on the older route to Amarnath from Pahalgam, around 300 Muslim labourers and seasonal workers escort people to the cave, carrying the old on their shoulders, providing mules to others, supplying water and helping with backpacks and other luggage.
There is little sense of the street rage and deep religious divide sweeping Jammu and Srinagar.
“I am here for more than a month, helping yatris,” said Ashiq Hussain (25), a resident of nearby Kangan. Hussain is an Arts graduate but could not get a government job. His three younger brothers, two sisters and widowed mother depend solely on him for livelihood.
“This is the time I earn for my family. We have no other means,” he said. Ashiq has earned around Rs 12,000 in a month.
The piece of land at the centre of the conflict has pre-fabricated structures, including latrines, bathrooms and shelter sheds.
The control over the conduct of the yatra, which rested with the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (which now looks only after religious matters), is now with the state tourism department.
On Saturday, about 200 yatris were ready to set out on the trek. Officials said 250 yatris had already left. Those who could afford were taking the helicopter service.
Abdul Gani Khan, another resident, said he had been associated with the annual pilgrimage for 15 years.
“We have never treated yatris like outsiders invading the Valley. They are like family,” said the 55-year-old.
Akhel Kumar, a 23-year-old Delhi student, agrees. “We have no problem here. When my friend Abhishek and I decided to leave for the yatra, friends and relatives advised against it,” he said. “We faced problems in Jammu. Agitators threw stones on our vehicle at Samba and Kuthua. We thought the worst might be waiting in the Valley. But we are surprised to see the hospitality and generosity of the people here.”
On the way from his home state Chattisgarh, driver Anil Kumar’s Scorpio was stopped at several places in Jammu by protesters who asked him to go back. “At Samba some people hurled stones at us,” said Kumar (35). “But it is all calm once I reached the piece of land over which battles are being fought.”
Om Prakash Karlekar (45), a pilgrim from Maharashtra, termed the rioting over the yatra as a “political stunt”.
“This is disgusting. We must not be swayed by what is being said and done,” he said.