Enthusiastic about the reopening of the Amarnath cave shrine for the pilgrimage after a gap of three years, hundreds of pilgrims made their way up to the cave from the twin routes of Sonamarg and Pahalgam on Day 1 of the yatra on Thursday.
At the first light, hundreds of pilgrims, including sadhus and women, queued up and left the Baltal base camp located at an altitude of 2,743 metres and trekked to an altitude of 3,657 metres to perform darshan at the shrine in central Kashmir.
Many batches of pilgrims opted for the toughest route in south Kashmir’s Pahalgam where they trekked more than 30 km and climbed the highest peak of the Mahagunas Pass located at an altitude of 4,276 metres to reach the shrine. It was the traditional route to the shrine.
“We had registered for the yatra in 2020 and 2021 but could not perform darshan of Barfani Baba due to COVID-related restrictions. We are excited that our long-held wish to perform darshan is coming true this year,” said Dilip Sharma, a pilgrim from Rajasthan’s Jaipur.
Hundreds of Muslim labourers provided pony and palanquin services for women and old pilgrims who could not trek. “I have been shouldering the palanquin of pilgrims for the past one decade. It has been a source of earning also,” said Majeed Checha, a labourer in Sonamarg.
Scores of Muslims are offering tent accommodations to the pilgrims. Around 30,000 labourers, drawn from parts of the Valley, are registered this year to meet the rush of pilgrims. Officials are expecting the highest figure of eight lakh pilgrims this year.
In the morning, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha performed a puja to kick-start the 43-day yatra. Mr. Sinha on Wednesday held a meeting with senior leaders to discuss the preparations for the yatra.
“At the meeting, all the senior leaders, speaking in one voice, observed that the yatra is like a big festival, a celebration of Kashmiriyat for the common man of Jammu and Kashmir and each and every citizen of the Union Territory will ensure warm hospitality and comfort of the pilgrims,” a Raj Bhawan spokesman said.
Top leaders of the regional parties, including the National Conference, Peoples Conference, Apni Party and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) welcomed the pilgrims.
Senior members of the Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry Kashmir (ACCIK), the Hoteliers Club and Kashmir traders also welcomed the pilgrims. “Yatris don’t need security as the biggest security for them are the locals who have for centuries provided all the support,” said Mushtaq Ahmad Chaya, who heads the Hoteliers Club.
Tariq Rashid Ghani, who heads a traders’ body, said, “Traders and hoteliers have assured full support to the local administration for the grand success of the yatra”.
The yatra is being held after a gap of three years. In 2019, it was cut short ahead of the Centre’s decision to end the special constitutional position of Jammu and Kashmir. The two waves of COVID pandemic also resulted in the cancellation of the yatra in 2020 and 2021.
This year, security has been further heightened for the yatra following reports of threats purportedly issued by militant outfits. Scores of fresh bunkers have been set up on the yatra route to keep militants at bay. High-tech gadgets have been put in place for round-the-clock surveillance.
More than 30 militants have been killed, many in districts in south Kashmir through which the yatra passes, in June in the stepped-up anti-militancy operations.
Meanwhile, the police said around a dozen mechanical and scrap shops inside the yatra camp were closed in Panthachowk “as a precautionary measure”. However, the closure of shops sparked protests from shopkeepers on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, PDP president and former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said trucks carrying livestock into Kashmir were being stopped causing massive losses and inconvenience. “Hope the administration takes note and ensures free movement, especially since Id is around the corner. I understand the need to ensure safety of yatris but unnecessary paranoia won’t help,” Ms. Mufti said.