Photo Story: Amarnath Pilgrims at Baltal Base Camp
Amarnath cave is a Hindu shrine located in Jammu and Kashmir. The cave is situated in the snow clad mountains of South Kashmir about 141 km from Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir. According to Hindus, the shrine forms an important part of Hinduism, and is considered to be one of the holiest shrines in Hinduism. The cave is surrounded by snowy mountains. The cave itself is covered with snow most of the year except for a short period of time in summer when it is open for pilgrims.
The July-August popular annual Hindu pilgrimage, undertaken by the average of 600,000 or more pilgrims to the Amarnath cave shrine of iced stalagmite Shiv linga in the Himalayas, is called Amarnath Yatra.
Hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees make an annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave across challenging mountainous terrain. The peak pilgrimage occurs when the iced stalagmite Shiv lingam reaches the apex of its waxing phase through the summer months. It has been claimed that the lingam grows and shrinks with the phases of the moon reaching its height during the summer festival, although there is no scientific evidence for this belief. This year the Yatra was scheduled to commence on 28th of June and end on 26 August.
Pilgrims coming from India can hire cabs from Jammu to reach either Baltal or Pahalgam. From Baltal, it is a 1-2 day trek to reach Amarnath. However, the Pahalgam route is relatively longer and takes around 3-5 days. The distance from Baltal to the Cave of Shri Amarnath is a 14KMs and the trek is fairly steep. So most of the pilgrims take the Baltal route as it is more popular because of its shorter distance. At both the base camps (Pahalgam and Baltal), the pilgrims arrange for coolies or ponies to carry gear of food and clothes etc. Everybody remains busy making arrangements for the Yatra. The yatra is both a way of earning revenue by the state government by imposing tax on pilgrims, and making living by the local Shia Muslim Bakarwal-Gujjars by taking a portion of revenue and by offering services to the Hindu pilgrims.
The Amarnath pilgrimage was suspended many times particularly in July 2016 when a young militant commander Burhan Wani from South Kashmir was killed in force’s operation. Every year, thousands of central armed forces and state police personnel are deployed to provide the security to pilgrims. The forces position at various halts and also in the perimeter of the shrine.
Locals from these mountainous villages have expressed concern that the number of people participating in the Amarnath Yatra is having a negative impact on the area’s ecology. But as of date, the Government of India restricts travellers only on the basis of time window for the yatra and weather conditions.
Waseem Dar is freelance photojournalist working in Indian administered Kashmir. He can be mailed at email@example.com.