Thousands Of Hindus Begin Holy Trek In Indian Kashmir
1 July 2007
Srinagar: Thousands of Hindu pilgrims chanted hymns as they trudged on Sunday to a cave shrine deep in the Himalayas, undeterred by reports that a naturally formed ice stalagmite they worship as symbol of Lord Shiva was melting. The two-month long pilgrimage, one of Hinduism's holiest, was delayed for a day due to bad weather leaving thousands stranded in tented colonies in Kashmir forests. Every year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims trek through treacherous mountains in the strife-torn region along icy streams and frozen passes to reach the Amarnath cave, located at an altitude of 3,800 metres (12,700 feet). On Sunday, the richer pilgrims flew in helicopters while old and infirm devotees rode ponies to reach the shrine which locals say was discovered by a Muslim shepherd centuries ago. 'I heard that Shivalinga is melting fast so I want to reach the cave as soon as possible to have glimpse of Lord Shiva,' Kuldeep Chaterjee, a Hindu pilgrim, said before he began his helicopter trip to the cave. The size of the stalagmite has varied in previous years depending on the weather. Scientists say it is melting due to both global warming and the body heat of the huge crowds. Last year, pilgrims were outraged when authorities reportedly used snow to create a stalagmite as the natural ice formation failed to show up at the start of the pilgrimage. Thousands of soldiers, most of them in battle fatigues, guarded the route to the cave and many others with sniffer dogs combed the muddy track for mines. The trek has been the target of several attacks by separatist guerrillas fighting Indian rule in Kashmir since 1989. Officials say more than 42,000 people have been killed since. Human rights groups put the toll at about 60,000.