THE RAINS have been unrelenting. And every morning, a five-man road-opening party from the BSF has been conducting threat assessment operations from Chandanwari to Sheshnag. In between the two base camps, is the most difficult part of the Amarnath Yatra: Pissu top mountain, a punishing 3-km trek involving a steep ascent 11,000 ft above sea level over narrow tracks covered in mud.
The BSF party, the Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) and the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) warn the Nunwan base camp that the “track is dangerous” due to “continuous rainfall”. The Sheshnag base camp director, too, requests his counterpart to not send anyone through. But despite the red flags, officials at Nunwan show the green light.
“The pilgrims kept insisting that we allow them to leave Pahalgam. Many of them had started to become agitated,” says Surender Mohan, the director of Nunwan base camp.
“Sometimes, people’s devotion trumps security,” says Roop Raj Bhagwan, the police officer in charge at Nunwan who had decided earlier to not allow the pilgrims through.
This leaves the camp director in Sheshnag, Kishore Singh, seething. “They should not have sent the first batch to Sheshnag and it was a blunder of Himalayan proportions. The people who reached our base camp had been through a lot,” he says.
And so, on June 29, the first batch of pilgrims reaches Chandanwari, 16 km away, on private vans. At the security gates, they argue with officers and shrine board officials to let them pass. Finally, 1,564 pilgrims are let through.
As the pilgrims pass through the security gates, an imposing stairway carved into Pissu top greets them, and so do workers hauling rucksacks, aluminium doors, steel rods and other equipment for the langars at Pissu top. The sheep-herding community of Bakarwal Gujars try to convince the pilgrims to hire their ponies for the trek. Many do not. “They will repent, there was a lot of rainfall,” says a pony rider.
Meanwhile, a group has already started racing to the top. But with just 1 km left, the stairway disappears under the muddy waters. And the first casualty strikes. The broken body of a black pony lies dead with its eyes barely open and its feet broken.
“It carried a lot of weight and fell down the slope,” says Ziyafat Ahmed, a pony rider. Last year, the shrine board had compensated 75 pony-owners for the loss of their animals on the Yatra — a total of Rs 22.5 lakh was paid with Rs 30,000 for each pony killed.
The trek to Pissu top over, the pilgrims start making their way to Zoji Bal and Naga Koti before reaching Sheshnag 9 km away. “This year, the pilgrims have been made to run. I don’t know what the hurry is for,” says Surender Kumar, the shrine board in-charge at Pissu top.
The women cry as the BSF officers smile, holding their hands as they traverse the icy Lidder river cutting across their path. By now, MRT officers and emergency response teams are anxious. “Some children are missing. They were last seen 4 km from Pissu top and were accompanied by two adults. There is also a lady with a red bag who has not made it past our checkpoint,” says an MRT officer.
By now, most of the pilgrims have reached Sheshnag camp. The SDRF and BSF teams posted at Nagakoti have started to close the track, even as scores of pilgrims on ponies go the other way — a total of 513 pilgrims decide to return to Chandanwari.
“Many of them were not allowed to cross Sheshnag. There was at least six inches of snowfall at Mahaguns top and they wanted to reach the holy shrine in one day. The Met department had already predicted rains and we had equipped our men. We don’t know why the pilgrims were allowed to leave Chandanwari in the first place,” says Paramendra Kumar, BSF Commanding Officer at Sheshnag base camp.
“The rains have choked the entire route. I have no money and have to take the trip back through Pissu top. They should have never let us pass through Chandanwari in the first place,” says Dinesh Kumar, a 31-year-old businessman from Delhi.
Only two km remain to Sheshnag but 40-year-old Chamundi and her mother Rajeshwari, from Bengaluru, have started to cry. The mother grabs at her knee while the daughter consoles her. “It’s just a short distance, ma,” the daughter says. Rajeshwari thinks she is “going to die”.
Among those who have caught up are three sadhus — from Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. One of them, 46-year-old Selvaraj, breaks into a wide grin. “Slowly, slowly,” he says, describing how they made their way up.
The BSF officers get to know that the missing children have been tracked, and the woman with the red bag has been traced. At the the Sheshnag camp, Rajeshwari is given hot water and a hot water bag. She hugs the water bag and starts crying softly.