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Hindu pilgrims trek through mountains to reach the holy Amarnath cave shrine, where they worship an ice stalagmite that Hindus believe to be the symbol of Lord Shiva, near Pahalgam  in Indian-occupied Kashmir on July 27. — Reuters

In pictures: Amarnath Yatra and communal harmony in Indian-occupied Kashmir

The six-week Hindu pilgrimage in IoK's Pahalgam began on July 1.
Updated Jul 29, 2019 11:34am

India is hailing a Hindu pilgrimage to a holy cave high in the snow-capped mountains of Indian-occupied Kashmir (IoK) as an example of communal harmony in the Muslim-majority region.

India's Hindu-nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made "pilgrimage tourism" a focus, spending huge sums on January's Kumbh Mela festival, where more than 100 million Indians came to bathe in the holy Ganges river.

The Jammu and Kashmir government has spent a record $72 million on preparations for the six-week Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage in the Pahalgam area, which began on July 1.

Amarnath Cave, covered by snow almost all year round, contains an ice stalagmite that is considered a physical manifestation of Lord Shiva, a Hindu god.

Hindu pilgrims trek through mountains to reach the holy Amarnath cave shrine, where they worship an ice stalagmite that Hindus believe to be the symbol of Lord Shiva, near Pahalgam in Indian-occupied Kashmir on July 27. — Reuters
Hindu pilgrims trek through mountains to reach the holy Amarnath cave shrine, where they worship an ice stalagmite that Hindus believe to be the symbol of Lord Shiva, near Pahalgam in Indian-occupied Kashmir on July 27. — Reuters

Hindu pilgrims make calls at a stall run by a Kashmiri Muslim before their journey towards the holy cave of Amarnath, where they worship an ice stalagmite that Hindus believe to be a symbol of Lord Shiva, at a base camp near Pahalgam in Indian-occupied Kashmir on July 26. — Reuters
Hindu pilgrims make calls at a stall run by a Kashmiri Muslim before their journey towards the holy cave of Amarnath, where they worship an ice stalagmite that Hindus believe to be a symbol of Lord Shiva, at a base camp near Pahalgam in Indian-occupied Kashmir on July 26. — Reuters

Saffron-clad Hindu ascetics, some barefoot and with photos of the cave around their necks, trudge the 46 kilometre route to the cave across glaciers and waterlogged trails.

Kashmiri villagers in long woollen coats clear the way of snow and ice, and thousands of Indian troops are deployed for security.

"It is a perfect example of religious harmony," claimed Anup Kumar Soni, additional chief executive of the Amarnath Ji Shrine Board, which organises the pilgrimage.

The route is arduous. One in four of the 300,000 pilgrims who have visited this year have required medical treatment, and 24 have died, mainly from heart attacks and hypertension, according to government statistics.

Goats are pictured next to a sign painted on a rock along a route of the on-going Hindu pilgrimage to the holy cave of Amarnath, where Hindu worship an ice stalagmite that they believe to be the symbol of Lord Shiva, near Pahalgam in Indian-occupied Kashmir on July 27. — Reuters
Goats are pictured next to a sign painted on a rock along a route of the on-going Hindu pilgrimage to the holy cave of Amarnath, where Hindu worship an ice stalagmite that they believe to be the symbol of Lord Shiva, near Pahalgam in Indian-occupied Kashmir on July 27. — Reuters

'Always friendly'

The Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage has been the target of violent attacks in the past — the last time in 2017 when eight pilgrims were killed in a gun battle. This year, the government has set up a bar-coding system, allowing only registered people onto the trail.

While thousands of Kashmiris work to clear the path of the pilgrimage, thousands more rent out ponies and palanquins to the pilgrims, and tents for them to sleep in.

"Everyone is always friendly, there is no hostility here," said a Hindu pilgrim who give his name as Abhhinav, hiking up a steep track in driving rain to one of the passes on the route that reaches nearly 4,500 metres in places.

Indian security force personnel (L) stand guard as Hindu pilgrims trek through mountains to reach the holy Amarnath cave shrine, where they worship an ice stalagmite that Hindus believe to be the symbol of Lord Shiva, near Pahalgam in Indian-occupied Kashmir on July 27. — Reuters
Indian security force personnel (L) stand guard as Hindu pilgrims trek through mountains to reach the holy Amarnath cave shrine, where they worship an ice stalagmite that Hindus believe to be the symbol of Lord Shiva, near Pahalgam in Indian-occupied Kashmir on July 27. — Reuters

A source of livelihood for Kashmiris

Kashmiri fighters' push back against the Indian government's heavy-handed tactics to maintain control in the region has affected farming and tourism. In Pahalgam, the pilgrimage offers a lifeline for many families.

"There is no private sector here, and so educated youth and many other Kashmiris are depending on the Yatra [for their livelihood]," said Firoz Ahmed Wani, a history graduate and part-time tutor renting out two tents to pilgrims paying 200 Indian rupees ($2.90) a night, at a camp along the route.

"We're ordinary people. The conflict is something for the politicians to decide."

A Kashmiri man cuts snow to make way for Hindu pilgrims to trek to reach the holy Amarnath cave shrine, where they worship an ice stalagmite that Hindus believe to be the symbol of Lord Shiva, near Pahalgam in Indian-occupied Kashmir on July 27. — Reuters
A Kashmiri man cuts snow to make way for Hindu pilgrims to trek to reach the holy Amarnath cave shrine, where they worship an ice stalagmite that Hindus believe to be the symbol of Lord Shiva, near Pahalgam in Indian-occupied Kashmir on July 27. — Reuters