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Explained: As Amarnath pilgrimage begins, the origin, route and security concerns around the yatra

The Amarnath Yatra to the cave of Lord Shiva, perched high in the Himalayas, is considered to be one of the most revered pilgrimages in the country. Each year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims travel to the shrine.

Some 3-4 times the usual strength of security personnel have been deployed around the yatra in the light of a greater potential threat from militants this year, PTI reported.

After a gap of two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Amarnath pilgrimage started from Jammu on Wednesday (June 29) morning, with the first group of devotees setting off on the yatra amid high security.

Some 3-4 times the usual strength of security personnel has been deployed around the yatra in the light of a greater potential threat from militants this year, PTI reported. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags and drone surveillance are being used to ensure the pilgrims’ security.

This year’s Amarnath Yatra would be “historic”, Union Information and Broadcasting Secretary Apurva Chand had said in April — some 6-8 lakh pilgrims would visit the shrine, “twice the size than ever before”.

In 2019, the last time the yatra was held, the government had cancelled the pilgrimage mid-way, ahead of the constitutional changes in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.

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The origin myth of Amarnath

The Amarnath Yatra to the cave of Lord Shiva, perched high in the Himalayas, is considered to be one of the most revered pilgrimages in the country. Each year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims travel to the shrine.

Based on a legendary account, when Lord Shiva decided to tell Parvati the secret of his immortality (Amar Katha), he chose the Amarnath cave, located deep inside the Himalayas in south Kashmir.

According to lore, the cave was discovered by a Muslim shepherd named Buta Malik in 1850. Malik was in the mountains with his herd of animals, when a Sufi saint gave him a bagful of coal. After he returned home, Malik opened the bag, and found it to be full of gold. The ecstatic shepherd ran to the mountains to thank the saint, but he could not find him.

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Instead, he found the cave and its famous ice lingam. Believed to represent Lord Shiva, it is formed by a trickle of water from a cleft in the roof of the cave. As the water drips, it freezes to form a tall, smooth ice stalagmite. It gets its full shape in May every year, after which it begins to melt, and by August, it is only a few feet in height.

The yatra route

The Amarnath cave is situated 3,888 metres above sea level and it can only be reached on foot or by pony. Located deep inside the Himalayas, the cave shrine can be accessed through the Qazigund-Anantnag-Pahalgam axis and the Qazigund-Anantnag-Pulwama-Srinagar-Bandipore-Ganderbal-Sonamarg-Baltal axis.

There are two routes by which pilgrims can visit the holy site. Most people take the Baltal route, a shorter 16 km trek from Baltal to the shrine along a steep, winding mountain trail. This route takes pilgrims 1-2 days.

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The other is the Pahalgam route, which is approximately 36-48 km from the cave and takes 3-5 days to cover. While this is a longer journey, it is a littler easier and less steep.

Security preparations

Jammu and Kashmir police have been advising people across the Union Territory to check their vehicles and luggage for any foreign objects that might be IEDs.

Early in May, the police found a packet of 3 sticky bombs in plastic lunch boxes near the international border in Kantiwala-Dayaran village of Kanachak, nearly 30 km from Jammu city. Small magnetic IEDs such as these have been found at regular intervals since February 2021.

Jammu SSP Chandan Kohli said that additional forces were being deployed in Jammu so as to “totally secure” all the places where pilgrims would be lodged, besides their token and registration counters. Multi-tier-security measures involving police and other security agencies are being put in place for the smooth conduct of the yatra, he said.

“The threat of magnetic IEDs is there, but we are ready to face the challenge,” he said.

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Despite the heightened threat perception, the administration has sought to welcome pilgrims. In late May, the Kashmir divisional commissioner directed officials to install banners welcoming Amarnath pilgrims in all panchayats in the Valley that fall on the route to the cave shrine.

While the tourism department and non-governmental organisations do install welcome banners on the route, this is the first time that the government has specifically asked for them to be erected.

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Threats to the yatra

The first security threat to the pilgrimage came in 1993, when the Pakistan-based Harkat-ul-Ansar announced a ban on the yatra — ostensibly to protest the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and to demand the removal of bunkers at the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar.

There was widespread condemnation of the diktat, and the yatra progressed unhindered through the years of peak militancy.

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The first direct attack on pilgrims took place in 2000 — 25 people, including 17 pilgrims, were killed in a massive militant attack on the Pahalgam base camp. Over the next two years, several yatris were killed in big and small attacks.

There were no major incidents after 2002. Yhe yatra remained unaffected despite the massive protests against the transfer of government land to the Amarnath Shrine Board in 2008.

Even as some parts of the Valley and Jammu were sharply divided along communal lines, mohalla committees organised langars for yatris in Srinagar and Ganderal districts.

The peace continued through the 2010 and 2016 summer uprisings. In July 2017, however, seven pilgrims were killed in a terror attack on their bus.

Days after the attack, the government told Lok Sabha that 53 pilgrims had been killed and 167 injured in 36 terror attacks on the annual Amarnath Yatra in the 27 years since 1990.

First published on: 29-06-2022 at 05:32:26 pm
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