Staff Reporter

Jammu: Overcoming the fears of terror attacks, more pilgrims are flocking to the shrine of Vaishno Devi. Their numbers

reached a new high of 6.2 millions in 2005. The shrine, situated in the picturesque Trikuta hills of Udhampur district, attracts the second highest number of pilgrims in the country after the Venkateswara temple at Tirumala.

In the last 20 years there has been a manifold increase in the number of pilgrims trekking the approximately 14 km to the shrine and the authorities have responded by carving out new routes for them. For instance, a new route has halved the time taken to trek between Adhkawari (midway between Katra and Bhavan) and Bhavan.

It is the topographical proximity of the Trikuta hills to militants' operational zones that makes the Vaishno Devi shrine vulnerable. On the northern edge of the Trikuta hills are the militancy-affected areas of Gool-Gulabgarh. Six companies of the Central Reserve Police Force provide security for pilgrims and at various points on the trekking route, pilgrims have to pass through machines that detect explosives. The Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, set up in 1986, regulates the pilgrim flow through a set of guidelines. It issues yatra slips at Katra town, which is the base camp, to be produced at Bhavan in order to enter the shrine.

The Board has limited the number of slips to 25,000 a day. The pilgrimage to the shrine forms the backbone of State's economy after the outbreak of militancy in 1989. In fact 90 per cent of the domestic tourists to the State are those visiting the shrine. Rohit Heera, a hotelier, says,