Umar Manzoor Shah, July 21, 2019
In the midst of majestic mountains and emerald streams, Younis Iqbal has been spending days and nights in makeshift tents. He hasn’t visited his home even once in the past 15 days as he is busy taking Hindu pilgrims to a holy cave in Kashmir considered a symbol of Lord Shiva.
Younis has been acting as a helper of the pilgrims for a number of years at Baltal, on the route to the Hindu shrine Amarnath.
For him, the annual yatra which runs from mid-July to mid-August, is a source of income and he waits for its commencement eagerly every year.
Thousands of local Kashmiri Muslims, most of them youth, work as porters, horsemen and guides for the lakhs of Hindu pilgrims. They help them trek through treacherous mountain paths to have a glimpse of an ice stalagmite that forms each year on the wall of a remote cave there.
The nine-foot-tall ice sheet, shaped like a phallus, is considered as the symbol of Lord Shiva, one of Hinduism’s three most revered gods. Amidst tight security arrangements made by the Jammu and Kashmir government to thwart militant attacks, the Amarnath Yatra symbolizes harmony between the Hindus and Muslims.
Shouting ”Hail Hail Shiva” and ringing ceremonial bells, the devotees are taken to the cave by Muslim horsemen and porters.
The cave shrine is located 14 km from the Baltal base camp and involves a rigorous trek through rocky pathways, snaking around mountains where oxygen levels dip and weather changes unexpectedly from sunny to rainy to snowy as it is situated 14,500 ft above sea level.
Ishtiyaq Ahmed, a horseman says he earns his livelihood from the yatra but at the same time he feels a sense of satisfaction in serving the devotees.
“There are so many ways to earn money but here I serve the devotees and help them in attaining solace. It gives you a great sense of satisfaction,” Ahmad told South Asian Monitor.
According to him, the government shouldn’t politicize the pilgrimage and should allow it to happen as it used to be for centuries.
The pilgrimage started in the late 1770s when a shepherd discovered the peculiar ice formation in the cave. A Hindu priest visited and declared it the mythical home of Lord Shiva. Until India became independent in 1947, pilgrims were only a few thousands, mostly ascetics and pilgrims from adjoining areas.
But the numbers rose in the mid-1980s and then dipped when armed militancy hit the region. But by 2010, the number of pilgrims had steadily increased to 600,000, and the duration of the pilgrimage, traditionally two or three weeks, was slowly increased to six, and then eight weeks.
On July 1 this year, India’s Central government led by Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) came up with an order declaring a ban on vehicular movement on Jammu and Kashmir’s National Highway, the only road link that connects the Kashmir Valley with mainland India. The government also suspended rail services that link internal areas of the state.
The decision has been taken to ensure the security of the Hindu pilgrims. The curbs will end in August when the pilgrimage concludes.
Also, more than 100 army bunkers have been erected at various places in the region with frisking of the local population becoming routine.
The government has defended such measures by citing the suicide attack of February 14, this year as a reason. More than 40 army men were killed when a local suicide bomber rammed his explosive-laden vehicle into an army convoy that was passing through the National Highway at Pulwama.
On 10 July 2017, militants targeted a bus ferrying Amarnath Yatra pilgrims in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, killing seven and injuring 19 people. This was the biggest attack on the annual pilgrimage since 2000, when 21 people were killed in a grenade attack by militants.
So far, 44 pilgrims have been killed by militant groups in various attacks in Kashmir. Six pilgrims were killed in 2001 and eight were killed the year after that.
However, locals are angry due to the new orders, terming them uncalled for and bizarre.
According to Abdul Majeed Sheikh, a Kashmiri Muslim who works as a helper during the pilgrimage, the massive security measures have created panic among the pilgrims too.
“For god’s sake, it is a religious pilgrimage. Don’t make it a security drill. For centuries, Muslims and Hindus have been providing the best example of religious harmony and tolerance to the world. Instead of pushing local Muslims to severe hardships, they should be felicitated for helping the Hindu pilgrims,” Sheikh said.