By Yusuf Jameel
The annual pilgrimage to Amarnath, one of the holiest shrines of Hindus nestled in Kashmir Himalayas at a height of 3,888 metres above sea level and dedicated to Lord Shiva or Siva, has been caught in confusion again, mainly due to overcrowding and mismanagement.
Ironically, Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB), the consortium responsible for organizing the event which draws more than half a million devotees from across India and abroad in summer, appears to be grappling in dark and as well looking for scapegoats outside it instead of looking within for the chaos being witnessed in the Kashmir hills as the pilgrimage evolves.
Apart from the visitors finding the amenities available at various locations in the pilgrimage area insufficient and facing other problems like scarcity of cooking gas and overpricing, more than fifty pilgrims have died, most of them due to cardiac arrest, during the first fortnight of the event which officially began on June 25. Narendra NathVohra, the Governor of Indian-administered-Kashmir who is also the chairman of the SASB has publicly expressed his serious concern over the increasing number of fatalities and asked for taking urgent measures towards addressing the health related issued during the remaining period of the 39-day-long yatra as the pilgrimage is called in the Hindu jargon.
He has also directed the concerned government officials and agencies to critically analyze all possible causes for the mortalities to identify the short terms which could probably contain and reduce the numbers of fatalities. In this connection he, on Monday, asked the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the SASB, Navin K. Choudhary, to issue immediate instructions to all concerned officers in various yatra camps to further augment healthcare facilities in the entire pilgrimage area including increasing the deployment of specialist doctors at the base camps and at critical places like Brarimarg, Sangam, Pissu-Top, Zojibal and Nagakoti to attend to the seriously ailing patients.
Army’s help sought
The Governor also asked CEO to immediately contact the (India) Army and seek their help in urgently setting up a medical-check camp in the Sangam area, where the two tracks to the cave-shrine meet, whereas the Director of the Health Department in Jammu and Kashmir as the official name of the part of the divided territory under New Delhi’s control goes has been requested to further gear up the arrangements for shifting of critical patients to the base camps and, thereafter, to identified hospitals in Srinagar for prompt appropriate treatment.
But what is being ignored rather suppressed is the fact of overcrowding at the base-camps, halting places, along the tracks and even at the cave-shrine. On Monday, as many as 43,401 pilgrims were allowed to perform darshan (glimpse) of the Shivling at the sanctum sanctorum, taking the number of devotees visiting the revered place of worship in first 15 days to 3,43,218. This suggests that the SASB has allowed at an average more than twenty two thousand pilgrims to pay obeisance at the cave-shrine every day which is in total disregard of the rule book.
In 1996, thousands of pilgrims on the way to the Amarnath were caught in an untimely snowstorm resulting into the death of 273 pilgrims and scores of their Kashmiri hosts and helpers including ponnywallas and labourers. Nitish Sengupta Committee, formed by the government after the catastrophe, had in its report released on December 2, 1996 made several recommendations which included regulation of the number of people visiting the cave-shine and making registration of the pilgrims and allocation of fixed quota to various states in India mandatory. The report had asked for allowing a total of 3,500 pilgrims to the cave-shrine every day-2,800 from traditional Pahalgam and 700 from shorter Baltal routes.
Travel without requisite permit
Though the SASB has publicly-and repeatedly so-asked the intending pilgrims to relocate to the base-camps of Pahalgam and Baltal only after getting themselves registered with it, these places are being thronged by unregistered pilgrims in large numbers on daily basis right from June 25 itself and, in fact, about fifty thousand people had reached there two to three days prior to the commencement of the yatra. Ironically, none of the unregistered pilgrim was turned back by the SASB officials. The leniency not only made the job of various government agencies and security forces more difficult but also caused inconvenience to the registered pilgrims. In reality, the SASB encouraged overcrowding in the pilgrimage area by announcing instant registration facility has been made available near the base-camps. This, said experts, tantamount to pushing the lives of pilgrims-registered and unregistered-to extreme risk.
The officials of various government agencies including police make no bones about the unregistered pilgrims causing massive problems for them and the registered pilgrims, resulting in chaos in the hills apart from premature draining of resources made available to them. Health department officials said that the doctors who have examined the pilgrims at the base-camps and other halting place en-route to Amarnath found most of them were suffering from shortness of breath, persistent dry cough, bright red stained sputum, weakness, fatigue, drowsiness, chest tightness, congestion and increased heart rate.
It was also found that majority of the pilgrims had not bothered to get themselves properly checked up medically and were carrying with them mandatory health certificates just for formality. Most of them had not followed the ‘does and don’ts’ issued by the SASB yet they were allowed to proceed beyond the base-camps.
Also, a majority of the pilgrims come from the low altitude and before embarking on journey in the high altitude area should be made to acclimatize at least for 48 hours. But they begin their trekking immediately after arriving at the base-camps in vehicles, which is the main reason for the mountain sickness that ultimately results in pulmonary edema or oedema, an abnormal accumulation of fluid beneath the skin or in one or more cavities of the body that produces swelling, and cardiac arrests.
The mismanagement on the part of the SASB leading to overcrowding at the cave-shrine is also causing both physical and emotional pain to the pilgrims who make it to the place of worship after travelling through difficult terrain which at places touches a height up to 14,000 feet. They have to wait in long queues for more than eight hours before they can reach near the sanctum sanctorum to worship and pay obeisance to the Shivling. The heavy unmanageable influx of devotees may lead to fast and premature melting of the Shivling, the most interesting phenomenon of the annual event, and those planning to visit Amarnath during the last days of the yatra scheduled to conclude on August 2, coinciding with Shravana Poornima and Raksha Bhandan, two major Hindu festivals, may only return a disappointing lot as did happen on several occasions in the past also.
The Amarnath cave at a three-day trek from Pahalgam-Kashmir’s premier retreat in a sleepy village surrounded by meadows and fields and 96-km southeast of summer capital Srinagar-is believed to be the holiest of Hindu shrines in north India.
The legend is that during the month of Sawan or Shravan, an ice stalagmite forms a natural Shivling or ice-lingam that of Shiva, which waxes and wanes with the phases of the moon at Amarnath-the interesting phenomenon that attracts tens of thousands of devotes from across India every year.
History records that the first pilgrimage to the cave-shrine was undertaken in 1000 BC, though little else is known of the antiquity of Amarnath.
The pilgrimage is normally undertaken in July-August (Shravan) when thousands of devotees walk, some on ponyback, or are carried, to pay obeisance at the cave-the abode of Lord Shiva. By the side of Shiva’s are two other ice lingams, believed to be those of Parvati, and their son, Ganesha.
Although the road from Pahalgam to Chandanwari (16 kms.) is on fairly flat terrain, and can be undertaken by car, from there (Chandanwari) onwards the trek becomes much steeper, being accessible on foot on by pony.
11 kilometres from Chandanwari is the mountain lake of Sheshnag, after which 13-km. Away is the last stop-Panchtarni. The Amarnath cave is 6 kilometres from there.
Hindus believe that it that here on a Shravan day, Lord Shiva narrated Amar Katha (the secrets of the cosmos) to his consort goddess Parvati, the beautiful daughter of the Himalayas. As Parvati fell asleep during the discourse, two pigeons heard Lord Shiva’s story and attained immortality. Since then the holy place came to be known as Amarnath, and every year on the full moon day of Shravan, a pair of pigeons is seen inside the cave. But as has been witnessed during the past few years, majority of the pilgrims opt for shorter but steep Baltal route via Srinagar, the summer capital of the scenic region, to embark on for reaching Aamarnath. Amarnath is at a distance of only 14 kilometres from Baltal compared to 46 km from Pahalgam and 30-km from Chandanwari, the start point of the track from the traditional route.
It is said that some 300 years ago (another version says 400 years) a Muslim shepherd Bota Malik while looking for his missing goat came across a sadhu (hermit) who gave him a sack of coal. When the man returned to home with it, he discovered that the black fuel had turned into sparkling gold. He rushed back to thank his benefactor but could not find him. But what he found was a cave that is now the famous Amarnath cave-shrine. Another story goes; while chasing the goat the shepherd relocated to the cave. And when he returned home, he visited a nearby temple to narrate the story about what he had seen inside the cave to a priest.
The Malik’s had been fully associated with the yatra till the formation of the SASB in 2000. Bota Malik’s descendant who live in Bota Kote village, a few km short of Pahalgam, complain that they have been denied access to the cave-shrine during the twelve years. In summer 2008, the region had witnessed widespread disturbances following the local Muslim population objected to government’s diverting a piece of forest land to the SASB.
However, with Kashmir Valley witnessing peaceful summers last year and, so far, this year too after being through three rage-filled summers in a row that left hundreds of people dead and injured, not only the number of worshippers who turned up at Amarnath has increased substantially, the annual pilgrimage which has been dogged by many controversies in the past is evolving peacefully except the chaos set off by overcrowding.
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