Beginning of the great Hindu pilgrimage to Indian Kashmir

Hindu devotees travel on foot, on horseback and carried by porters along a mountain path during their pilgrimage to the rock shrine of Amarnath, near Baltal, on June 30, 2022. – AFP pic

Saturday July 02 2022 08:45 MYT

PAHALGAM, July 2 – Thousands of chanting devotees from across India began crossing the Himalayan passes in Indian-administered Kashmir on Thursday at the start of a huge pilgrimage, accompanied by a major security operation.

Critics accuse the Hindu nationalist government of using the annual Amarnath procession to bolster New Delhi’s claims to the disputed Muslim-majority region.

Authorities expect around one million people to take part in a pilgrimage to the 3,900-meter (12,800-foot) cave shrine containing a sacred stalagmite over the next 43 days.

The procession, which sees pilgrims climb the hill for several days or be transported by donkey or helicopter, has not taken place for two years because of the pandemic.

Worshipers chanted religious hymns on Thursday as tens of thousands of Indian soldiers guarded the twin roads of Pahalgam and Baltal leading to the shrine of the Hindu god Shiva.

More than 400 sandbag bunkers manned by armed soldiers dot the Himalayan landscape surrounding the sanctuary and along the routes to two base camps.

Authorities have banned residents from visiting the two tourist resorts of Pahalgam and Sonmarg which serve as base camps during the pilgrimage.

All traffic was halted on the main road to the start as convoys guarded by armed soldiers passed, with all connecting roads blocked with spools of razor wire.

Dilip Sharma, from Rajasthan in northern India, said he was delighted to be able to undertake the pilgrimage again after three years.

“You cannot imagine how happy I am to be able to pay homage to the lord again. I want to thank the Indian government for their very good arrangements,” Sharma told an AFP photographer on the way to the shrine.

The event was low-key, with a few thousand pilgrims in attendance, until an armed insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir broke out in 1989.

Since then, religious practice – and the security mobilization that accompanies it – has grown, as has its political significance.

The territory is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both.

Rebels have often said the pilgrimage was not a target but have warned in the past that if the religious event was used to establish Hindu rule over the territory, they would act.

In 2017, suspected rebels attacked a bus, killing 11 pilgrims.

On Thursday, some of the pilgrims chanted a slogan equating Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a deity, an AFP videographer said.

As an added security measure this year, authorities have issued all pilgrims with a unique radio identification tag to closely monitor their movements. —AFP

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