Porters with essentials leave for Amarnath on Sunday. (PTI)
Srinagar/Calcutta, June 24: Fear of a faith-based backlash has proved more potent than the power of the elements on an arduous but revered trail in Jammu and Kashmir.
The Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, which regulates the annual pilgrimage, flagged off the renowned yatra today in spite of risky slushy patches on the twin routes leading to the cave shrine.
The Amarnath cave is where devotees believe Lord Shiva divulged the secret of immortality (Amar Katha) to Parvati. The yatra is considered “the greatest pilgrimage” for Shiva devotees.
Officials would have liked to wait for a few more days for the snow-fuelled slush, which makes some stretches of the route slippery and unsafe for pilgrims, to settle down.
But the officials feared that any change of schedule would gift ammunition to groups such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which have been keeping close tabs on the yatra since 2003, to stoke trouble. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject.
The launch of this year’s yatra was preceded by weeks of confrontation between the groups and the Amarnath board, headed by governor N.N. Vohra, over the duration of the pilgrimage.
The board curtailed this year’s yatra to 39 days from 45 in 2011, citing hostile weather conditions as the prime reason.
But the VHP accused the board and the Jammu and Kashmir government of shrinking the duration to appease hardline separatist groups.
“It was not possible to postpone the pilgrimage further because of obvious reasons,” an official said, making an indirect reference to the fear of a backlash.
The first batch of around 2,100 pilgrims was flagged off from Bagwati Nagar base-camp in Jammu by tourism minister Nawang Rigzin Jora early today.
Official sources said the twin tracks — Baltal and Pahalgam — were still slippery and slushy at some places because of accumulated frozen snow. “It is risky to walk over these patches and it can cause injury and, God forbid, something worse,” an official said.
The pilgrims, expected to reach Pahalgam and Baltal by this evening, are scheduled to leave for the cave tomorrow morning. “We will take care to ensure the pilgrims are safe,” the official added.
A Raj Bhavan spokesperson said governor Vohra had directed camp directors at Sheshnag to remove the accumulated snow from “the more vulnerable camp areas”.
Situated in a narrow gorge at an altitude of 3,888 metres, the holy Amarnath cave is 44.8km from Pahalgam. The ancient Pahalgam route can be covered in four days. The new Baltal route is more popular now as it is shorter though the climb is steeper.
Although some saw in the differences over the schedule a conflict between the temporal and the spiritual, others said it should not be viewed so. Rather, the latter felt, it is a controversy engineered by those with very earthly objectives.
This section pointed out that the scriptures do not clash with the climatic realities. According to scriptural prescriptions, the yatra should take place in the month-long period between Guru Purnima (on July 3, this year) and Sravan Purnima (August 2, this year). This window coincides with Jammu’s summer that stretches up to August.
The scriptural schedule suggests that the yatra could have started a week later. But the VHP claimed that the yatra should last two months and should have commenced on Jyeshtha Purnima, which fell on June 4 this year.
On the trail, hardship is considered a given. “The arduous trek to Amarnath, being so full of challenges, acquaints one with the journey of life itself, fraught with hardships. Lord Amarnath is the bearer of the mantra that carries one beyond death. So death need not mean the end of life but the fear of the end. This fear is what the trek helps one transcend,” said Swami Stavapriyananda of Belur Math, who made the pilgrimage in 2007.
Around 3.65 lakh pilgrims have already registered for the yatra. The officials are expecting the number to cross last year’s record 6.3 lakh.