Paths Cleared For Hindu Pilgrimage In Kashmir
8 July 2005
Srinagar: Indian troops have been deployed in strength and tracks cleared of snow for the annual pilgrimage by Hindus to one of their holiest cave shrines in Indian Kashmir, officials said. The main track leading to the shrine from southern Pahalgam village, a popular picnic spot, will be thrown open for thousands of pilgrims on Saturday although a smaller but riskier route opened on June 21 for security force members and unregistered pilgrims. The cave is situated at a height of 3 800m in the Himalayas and is regarded as the abode of Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. 'We have made extremely tight security arrangements to ensure a smooth and violence-free pilgrimage,' said senior police officer Hemant Kumar Lohia. 'Everything is in place and we are constantly monitoring the situation and reviewing the security apparatus.' The pilgrimage has been targeted by suspected Islamic rebels in the past - in 2001, 10 pilgrims were killed and in 2000 at least 32. However, there were no major attacks in 2002 and no attacks or threats at all in 2003 and 2004. While none of the dozen rebel groups fighting Indian rule in mainly Muslim Kashmir has threatened this year's procession, security officials say they are taking no chances and that troops will be on high alert - especially after an attack by unknown militants on a disputed holy site in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya on Tuesday. The devotees start their journey from Jammu, the Indian Kashmir winter capital, by vehicles under tight security to the base camp of Nunwan, near Pahalgam - a distance of about 300km. They then set off early the next day from Nunwan into the mountains for a 46km trek to the Amarnath cave shrine to offer prayers to an ice stalagmite they believe depicts Shiva. Pilgrims also have a choice of using a shorter but risky route from Baltal, 80km north- east of the summer capital Srinagar. The Baltal route takes only one day compared with the five to six day return journey on the Pahalgam trek. Besides the security threat to the pilgrims, the tracks and weather can also pose problems to devotees. Governor S.K. Sinha, India's top representative in the region, made an aerial visit to the shrine and some of the overnight halting spots at the weekend, according to Arun Kumar, a top state government official. 'The tracks are ready and all the infrastructure will be in place before Saturday,' Kumar said. He said snow had been cleared from the tracks but cautioned that pilgrims would have to walk over dangerous glaciers at a few points along the way. Slippery tracks and bad weather led to the deaths of 200 pilgrims in 1996. The pilgrimage comes amid a wave of fresh violence by suspected Islamic rebels, including attacks on government ministers and a massive car bomb in Srinagar which killed nine Indian soldiers and injured more than a dozen. Violence has continued despite a delicate 19-month-old peace process between India and Pakistan to resolve all pending disputes, including Kashmir which they both hold in part but claim in full.