Thousands pay obeisance at cave shrine on day one of Amarnath yatra
More than eight thousand pilgrims visited the holy cave of Amarnath as the annual Hindu pilgrimage to the shrine in Kashmir began on Monday amid tight security.
Governor Satya Pal Malik, who is chairman of the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) managing the pilgrimage or yatra, paid obeisance at the sanctum sanctorum and participated in the prayer ceremony.
“Yatra to the holy cave of Shri Amarnathji, commenced today from both Baltal and the Pahalgam route… 6884 Yatris left from Baltal and 1241 from Pahalgam route for the Holy Cave. On the first day of Shri Amarnathji Yatra, 8403 pilgrims paid obeisance at the holy cave,” a Raj Bhawan spokesperson said.
From early morning, thousands of people who had gathered at Baltal and Pahalgam base camps overnight were allowed to move towards the cave of Amarnath at a height of 3888 metres.
Pilgrims trek 32 km through the treacherous mountainous paths to the cave shrine from Chandanwari camp in Pahalgam in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district while Baltal route is shorter but at higher altitude and yatris have to trek for just 14 km.
“The yatra commenced smoothly and security arrangements are properly in place. I assure safe environment for the pilgrims,” said Khalil Poswal, senior superintendent of police of north-eastern Ganderbal district which houses Baltal base camp.
“We allowed some 6800 yatris through the mountainous route for the darshan while another 400 used helicopter services. Those who trek take four hours on an average to reach the cave,” said Shafaqat Iqbal, additional district development commissioner of Ganderbal district.
From the longer route of Pahalgam, another 1270 devotees started their trek towards the shrine.
Over 1.5 lakh pilgrims from across the country have so far registered themselves for the 46-day long yatra.
“I am very excited. This is my first yatra. It is like heaven here. We will seek health from Bhole Baba and protection for our country,” said Divya Sharma, a young woman from Delhi.
Other than 40,000 security men and officials who provide security and logistics to the annual pilgrimage, hundreds of Kashmiris toil hard to ensure that the arrangements are in place for the annual Hindu pilgrimage.
Kashmiri horse owners, palanquin carriers and porters trek up and down daily to supply food, water and kerosene to the camps on the route besides carrying elderly and weak pilgrims.
Governor Malik lauded the people of Kashmir for making this annual pilgrimage a successful event ever since it has started. “Appreciating the valuable support of local people in conduct of this yatra, he described their role in this yatra as a true essence of Kashmiriyat which is exemplary for its communal harmony,” a government spokesman said.
The cave shrine houses an ice stalagmite and devotees believe the structure symbolises Lord Shiva. It was discovered by a Muslim shepherd in the 15th century.
Multitier security arrangements involving police, army, CRPF, ITBP and other forces have been put in place for the security of the yatra. Eight pilgrims were killed after gunmen attacked their bus in south Kashmir’s Anantnag in 2017.
Chinar Corps Commander Lt Gen KJS Dhillon, accompanied by Maj Gen Johnson P Mathew also paid obeisance at the shrine.
“We are just a ‘means’; Shri Amarnathji Yatra is made successful by Kashmiri people and the spirit of Kashmiriyat. Every Kashmiri works for the yatra’s success. Horseman, cart puller, taxi drivers, or a common man. Kashmiris make this yatra successful and this is Kashmiriyat,” General Dhillon said.
“Security arrangements for safe and secure yatra are firmly in place. All devotees can undertake pilgrimage without any fear,” he said.
The pilgrims travel in buses from Jammu with police and CRPF escorting the convoys even as the vehicles have been fitted with RIFD chips to track their movement. Identity cards provided to yatris have been bar coded and security check points at important locations along the route have been provided with bar code scanners. CCTVs have been installed at vulnerable points.
The government also barred civilian traffic along J&K highway between 10 am to 3pm everyday from Qazigund to Nashri stretch during which only pilgrims’ vehicles will be allowed.
A senior police officer in Jammu said, “recent incidents like February 14 Pulwama terror attack on a CRPF convoy and a similar attempt on another CRPF convoy in Banihal on March 30 prompted the security establishment to put a restriction on civilian traffic movement between Nashri and Qazigund. Though there is no complete restriction and those with genuine reasons can seek permission of the respective magistrates in Ramban and Srinagar.”
The officer also said that lateral link roads and localities on the highway were used by explosive laden cars to ram convoys. “So, the decision has been taken purely on security reasons,” he added.
The measure will remain in place for 46 days, until the conclusion of the pilgrimage on August 15. The stretch between Qazigund to Nashri is 97 km.
But the traffic restriction has drawn fire from locals in Jammu.
Sanjay Gupta, president of the Batote Beopar Mandal said that the restriction was totally uncalled for and unjustified.
“We also want safety and security of Amarnath pilgrims but security forces have banned movement of civilian traffic from the link roads to the highway. Many people including students, office goers and trading community, who have to travel distances for their daily works, will be handicapped,” said Gupta.
“My wife was ailing and I could not take her to Jammu today for treatment. This decision has hit the commoners hard. We appeal the governor to revoke this ban,” he added.
(With inputs from Ravi Krishnan Khajuria in Jammu)