Around 200,000 devotees are set to undertake the arduous pilgrimage to the Hindu cave shrine of Amarnath in Jammu and Kashmir that begins on Wednesday, with a three-tier security arrangement in place to ward off terror strikes.
Situated at 11,000 feet above sea level in south Kashmir's Anantnag district, the cave houses a 'lingam', or stalagmite structure that is seen as an icon of Lord Shiva, one of the Hindu Trinity. The annual pilgrimage will unfold over a two-month period.
Around 200,000 pilgrims from different parts of the country have already registered their names for this year's journey.
They hope to catch a glimpse of the ice structure inside the cave that reaches its maximum height on the night of Shravan Purnima in August when the final prayer is offered inside the cave, concluding the pilgrimage.
The administration has put in place a three-tier security arrangement to guard the pilgrims. The outer security tier for this year's Yatra is being manned by the army, the middle tier by the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the inner tier by the police.
Since the outbreak of separatist violence in Kashmir in early 1989, the 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.
Pilgrims use two routes to reach the cave shrine. The south Kashmir route passes through the tourist resort of Pahalgam from where the trek to the cave is mountainous and tiring.
Pilgrims have to walk the 32-kilometre track from Pahalgam to Amarnath, which usually takes four days with halts at Chandanwari, Sheshnag and Panchtarni.
The authorities have set up a base camp for the pilgrims at Nunwan (in Pahalgam) where arrangements for their security, board and lodging have been made.
The north Kashmir route passes through Baltal on the foothills of the Zozilla Pass in Ganderbal district where another base camp for the pilgrims has been set up.
The uphill 12-km trek from Baltal is treacherous passing through some of the highest Himalayan glaciers and narrow ravines.
Private operators are providing helicopter services to pilgrims, both directly from the Srinagar airport and from the north Kashmir Baltal base camp to the cave shrine.
"We have made extensive arrangements for the security and comfort of the pilgrims. God willing, everything will move smoothly," said Mehboob Iqbal, Kashmir divisional commissioner.
The Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), headed by the state governor as its chairman, has set up pre-fabricated hutments at Baltal for the pilgrims.
The SASB, headed by the outgoing governor S.K. Sinha, has been in the eye of a storm here because of the controversial allotment of 14 hectares of forest land to the board by the state government.
The National Conference headed by former chief minister Farooq Abdullah and both factions of the separatist Hurriyat Conference have been bitterly opposing the land allotment to the SASB, asserting that it not only violates the orders of the country's apex court pertaining to use of forestland but also puts in danger the fragile ecology of the region.