Pilgrims trekking to the Hindu shrine of Vaishno Devi in the Himalayan foothills of Jammu and Kashmir will be able to breathe easy when a tunnel with electro-rail comes up to shorten the distance and also protect them from the vagaries of nature.
The two-kilometre tunnel will link Audhkuwari and Saanji Chhat, about two-and-a-half kilometres short of the shrine. It will cut the 13-km trekking route between the base camp of Katra and the shrine and reduce the risk of landslides and boulders as well as impediments of rains and snow.
The shrine, one of the most popular Hindu pilgrim destinations, is located about 60 km north of Jammu. While most pilgrims trek along the 13-km route, some take a chopper that goes up to Saanji Chhat.
According to a member of the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, which manages the affairs of the shrine, it would take four to five years to complete the tunnel as its geological aspects are to be studied before project plans can be drawn up.
The shrine, which used to attract about 800,000 pilgrims a year before the board took over the management, now gets seven million devotees a year. The number is expected to cross the 10-million mark in a couple of years.
"The tunnel will be fully lighted. It will have electro-rail. The aged and the children can make use of that train. Those who wish to walk to the shrine can do so by the side," the board member said.
"We are hopeful that once the tunnel comes up, there will be a regular and smooth flow of pilgrims to the shrine, as there will be no clogging of the visitors en route.
"Moreover, it will save the pilgrims the steep climb up to Haathi Matha before the descend starts for Saanji Chaat," said the member who has been associated with the shrine board since it came into existence in 1986.
During monsoons and winters, landslides often block the five-kilometre track between Audhkuwari and Saanji Chaat, the two major stopovers. The rocky boulders have sometimes injured and even killed pilgrims.