Narrating Amarnath Yatra: A Sociological Walk – Analysis


Last year, I visited Baltal during the iconic Amarnath Yatra season for a general sociological observation of the Yatra mechanism, the pattern of pilgrim influx, government arrangements at place and social relations shaped up between locals, local police, security forces and more importantly the pilgrims.

Framing narrative as social inquiry in exploring the Sociology of Amaranth Yatra will offer a fresh and inviting slant on the holistic sociological enterprise which is the need of the hour. This narrative explains the observed experience and the contemporary social analysis and social reality of the Amarnathji pilgrimage which usually starts in the last week of June, every year and lasts for 45 to 55 days.

Besides Pahalgam (Nunwan), Baltal is the main base camp about 15 kilometers away from Sonamarg to the north and 100 kilometers from the Srinagar capital. This base camp is 15 Kilometers away from the Holy cave and considered shortest way to the cave. I reached Baltal in the morning and started to roam around. The very first observation which shocked me was in the vehicle, that I was boarding from my native place was already boarding four Yatris. On reaching the Baltal, I found that none of them was registered despite government’s claims that no unregistered Pilgrim has made the passage to the Holy cave. All of them made it to the last point of Baltal and left for the holy cave. This Base camp (Baltal) was visited in mid-July, 2011, during the iconic Amaranth Yatra season for a general sociological observation of the pilgrimage mechanism, the pattern of pilgrim influx, government and SASB arrangements at place and social relations shaped up between the locals, police, other security forces and more importantly between the pilgrims and the locals.

At the very onset, I found whole Baltal was sunk in dust and filled with filth and noise everywhere, with no sanitary arrangements visible. Every man had a story to tell. Just one thing was positive that pilgrims were happy with local people who they feel are very hospitable, friendly, humane, sincere and very helping. However, most of the pilgrims especially the female ones complained about the lack of mobile latrines on the track after Baltal.

Bimla Devi who had came from Maharashtra said, “Everything is good, locals are too good and helping, however one thing which is most embarrassing is the non-availability of latrines on the route”. While interacting with the local shopkeepers, drivers of all kinds of vehicles and others, I observed that many people were not happy with the arrangements made by both state administration and Shrine Board.

Most of the people also complained about everything and taking me as a journalist though I explained my identity to everyone, complained about the ignorance of media that hardly bothers to highlight general problems beset to one and all there, according to some vendors and transporters. People say representatives from the media visit just on the first day of the Yatra and then disappear till the end.

Langgars (Free Food Points): Of Charity and Social Service

Many Dhaba owners (temporary small hotels) and Langgar (free food stalls) owners provide free but quality food to Yatris at base camps like Baltal as a charity and for earning the good will of Lord Shiva. Baltal remains full of food distributing Langgars and free mess I saw even people associated with these Langgars distributing sweets, snacks, etc, to one and all.

The spirit of social service and regard for Yatris becomes the work ethic of these Langgars, who work day and night. However, in conversation with many of such Dhaba or Langgar owners, certain loopholes of SASB and government come to fore. They complain of drinking water shortage and a limited supply of LPG given to them by the management.

It was also observed that free food points are for pilgrims only and for locals no good eating points are available. Health care is also a big issue and needs quick redressal. Pilgrims prefer eating at such free food packets for they take this food as sacred and auspicious for them. Some locals also eat in such Langgars.

Of Health Care

I visited the government hospital (health centre) to have an observation of medical facilities available to Pilgrims at Baltal. A good number of medicos, Para-medicos and other staff remains deputed at Baltal and Pahalgam and enroute during the whole Yatra season. While talking to public including some pilgrims about health care system, most of the answers, revealed dissatisfaction of locals and a mixed response of pilgrims.

While I reached the premises unaware of the hospital location, I came across a lady and asked her, “Ma’am, may I speak to any doctor here”? Very irately she replied in Kashmiri language, “chea kya daleel chhy” which means, what is hell with you? I was shocked to see the level of politeness, courtesy, credibility and public handling style of employees and later I came to know that she was a doctor. If such is a treatment meted to a researcher, imagine what can be the fate of a poor laborer, a tribal and other downtrodden working there.

As I proceeded towards the office, nobody was inside as it was the late evening time; I found all of them in a small shed outside the health centre around the fire. All of them so eager to eat that were almost ready to be served. I could smell mutton and the desperate faces of all medical staff. Though they invited us as well but most of them avoiding us by their mono-syllabic and irrelevant answers to our questions. It was obvious from their desperate interest in dinner as if it was the last dinner to be enjoyed on earth.

On the Role of Security Agencies

Security agencies be that Army, BSF, CRPF and State police (J&K Police) are back bone of the Yatra security and management. While interacting with people on the spot, it was found that locals and pilgrims too have no issues with these agencies/forces barring CRPF, who locals claim oppress the horsemen and other labourers enroute the cave. Of Army and BSF, almost all locals think are delivering their job well.

I interacted with the Commandant of BSF at Baltal and found him very cooperative. As it was raining, the commandant ordered special shoes for me so that I can roam around well and to my joy provided a comfortable vehicle to me to talk to other stake holders of the Yatra smoothly. On interaction, many things regarding the system lapses came to discussion, however, BSF too wishes widening of narrow paths at vulnerable spots which usually leads to skidding of pilgrims or horses and at least construction of bathrooms at vulnerable places.

I also had a conversation with CO (Colonel) 10 GARH RIF of Army posted at Baltal, who candidly explained me the pros and cons of their role in security maintenance at Baltal. While inviting me on the lunch, he said, “The role of army is exclusively of security of all especially pilgrims and the safety of pilgrims from any terrorist attacks or to check any infiltration of terror elements in the Yatra zone”. The Colonel further said, “In addition to this army helps pilgrims on the route in case of emergency and during inclement weather, which it has proved in the past instances efficiently as well”.

Army also opens a canteen including food stalls and distributes warm garments among needy pilgrims during the peak of the Yatra. I was given a respectable treatment by Army at Baltal base camp and was honoured with a beautiful cap on my head and while winding up my observation trip was provided a special cab along with some security that dropped me back home comfortably.

BSF and CRPF act as an auxiliary security agencies and thus help in the Yatra management on the vulnerable route, besides providing tenting and food to a large proportion of Yatri’s at base camps. Local police also manages the Yatra mainly on route and at base camps of Baltal and Nunwan (Pahalgam) besides handling pilgrim flow to base camps right from pilgrims’ entry to the valley and supervises their movement on all the roads taking help from CRPF.

I stayed at Baltal for two days and one night. I was offered a comfortable and free residence by CO CRPF Baltal. As I entered the premises of their quarters, I saw a chain of tents so beautifully laid. I asked the Dy. Commandant of CRPF regarding the complaints of many locals and especially Ponny walla’s (Horse pullers), of beating them ruthlessly on various places on the way to holy cave. However, he refuted all the blames by locals and complained of the mess created by the huge number of labourers and horse owners. I observed the hospitable treatment of CRPF and other security agencies alike, and observed their dedication to their duty and devotion to the Yatra.

The role of all these forces is commendable in facilitating the Cornmunitasi thereby manufacturing peace and managing the massive Yatra hassle free. The night at Baltal in CRPF’s beautiful tent was wonderful as it was a chilly night and still I could hear Sadus’ (hindu guru’s) chanting mantras/prayers loudly throughout the night on speakers and loud slogans of Bam Bam Bolay and Har Har Mahadev (holy chanting and praising Lord Shiva) spreading far in the vast environs, therefore, colouring the whole space with sacred fervor and religious ethos.

Amarnath Yatra: A sustainable Source of Livelihood.

The Yatra brings with it the abrupt formation of a mini-Kashmir both at Baltal and Pahalgam areas (Baltal and Nunwan base camps) which is the source of a seasonal livelihood for many who keep waiting for the arrival of devotees for the full year. If the increased number of visitors brings relief on the faces of labourers across almost whole valley especially workers and business community of the areas in the vicinity of Pahalgam and Ganderbal zones. The fact is due to haphazard thronging of numberless labourers and horse men, many of them do not get enough employment and opportunity at base camps due to bulk of labourers. Due to helicopter service locals have received a set back as a considerable proportion of pilgrims prefer helicopter service from Baltal.

Though a sufficient number of pilgrims either travel by foot employing local labourers to carry their luggage (pittu men), others travel on horse backs employing horse men and certain elderly usually prefer palanquins(palki’s) that is carried by four labourers like a cot in the air up to the cave, giving a handsome earning to local workers. Business also flourishes well, tons of fruits and vegetables are sold, petty shop keepers earn good profits during the season, as fruits, water and other basic items like tele-communication are needed by locals themselves also besides shopping by pilgrims. Hence a formation of a temporary but an interdependent community set up comes into being or a pluralistic community on wheels gets evolved every year throwing the colures of unity within diversity, cultural contact, mutual social interaction, exchange of ideas, knowing and exposure to each other’s cultures, etc,.

As per dataii available, the state earned, Rupees 6142.86 lakhs in 2011-2012, including the directorate of State tourism, Kashmir, Tourism Jammu, Kargil development authority, SKICC, and other stake holders of the state tourism.(in 2010-2011 it was 4495.98 lakh rupees), reflecting the growing contribution of tourism to Kashmir economy. At the same time, certain types of tourists/Nature Lovers are particularly attracted to remote areas because of their high cultural, wildlife and landscape values like the massive Amaranth Holy Cave pilgrimage where people engage themselves in different services to the pilgrims to earn handsomely in the pilgrimage season every year.

The alarming unemployment among youth (about 6 lac unemployed youth in J&K)) need widespread and development of employment policies and widespread tourism industry at first place and one of the most important steps should be focus on the involvement local people in the tourism and allied business. Those who work to bring and welcome the tourists and those who make-up the rest of the community need sympathetic handling and equal concern. Developing a new socio-economic and potential tourism institution will have its positive and prosperous effects on the social but conflict torn social environment of the valley, be it employment opportunities for youth and their move from anti-social/national behavior like stone pelting, clashes with security forces, creating lawlessness like situations, anomie and wider public chaos.

Tourism as a livelihood opportunity can serve as an effective instrument in integrating entire universe of the valley with the rest of India and the world. With development of technology, mobility from one place to another has become quite easier and this is considered as a positive sign for the development and growth of tourism Industry.

The Baltal Base Camp: On Ecological Concern and other Woes

Baltal remains sunk in dust throughout the Yatra season except during rains when it turns too muddy and filthy. The lack of civic sense has always been a direct threat to the health of people, to the rich and serene atmosphere. Therefore, some urgent steps form the Shrine Board authorities and the State government must be taken and timely implemented to make at least the base camps a little hygienic and pilgrim friendly. The lack of mobile latrines and bathrooms for both locals and pilgrims is an alarming problem and turns the very base camps, small routes, water bodies, etc, into dirt and filth. The fact remains that general conduct of both pilgrims, visiting pilgrimage centers and workers/ locals towards the environmental and religious sanctity of our pilgrimage sites has never been both hygienic and eco-friendly.

Visitors including locals are polluting whatever comes their way be it water, air, soil, etc, without any collective social responsibility. Pilgrimage tourism, on one hand is the boon of Kashmiri economy but on the other it has become a problem due to lack of efficient management and public concern. Also due to the increased and haphazard movement and high unsystematic influx of people to the pilgrimage centers problems seem to be increasing day by day.

“They devotees are not well disciplined and they never maintain the sanctity, sanitation and decorum of the sacred places like Amarnathji’s cave,” shared Janzeb Pathan, a local guide. He further said: “After Domail (Baltal’s base camp’s last point), no mobile latrine is available and pilgrims particularly female ones face a tough time, the irony is no one really cares for human dignity here.” A police man wishing anonymity says, “The mushrooming of dhabas, hotels, shops and restaurants has added more trouble to the area, given it a shape of a slum, defaced the beautiful area and still the lack of basic amenities has been creating lot many inconveniences to one and all on the way to the shrine premises.”

The environs of Pahalgam, Sonamarg, Baltal and other related places get environmentally degraded during this period not because of Yatra mobility but purely due to lack of proper Yatra arrangements and dearth of eco-friendly mechanism at place. Parvez Bhat, a local Pony-walla (horse owner), shared his concern that, “ The number of pilgrims is not a problem but the pilgrimage should continue hassle free and not to bring a bad name to Kashmir and our government but maintenance and environment must be the priority. Besides lakhs of Yatris should not be allowed to go for the Darshan (to pay obeisance at holy shrine cave and to have a glimpse of Shiv Lingam) on a single day which creates mess and leaves everything unmanageable for the administration”.

The fact is pilgrims to the Amarnath mostly come for Darshan, however a proportion of pilgrims also come over for leisure and recreation, to explore Kashmir and undertake pilgrimage as a means to enjoy the Kashmir beauty. Vinay Kumar, a pilgrim from Madhya Pradesh is MBA and on his purpose to come for pilgrimage says, “Yatra is an opportunity to explore Kashmir Valley, I have come to see not only the Holy Cave but to see all important worth seeing places here”.

Ghulam Hassan, a Tata Mobile goods carrier driver, believes that the chaos still prevails. He says, “We as drivers only get police abuses and bashes both from CRPF and Police and have to manage without any parking and health care facilities here and nobody is there to take care of the problems which arise due to tourist influx. You know, last year six lakh thirty thousand registered pilgrims visited the cave excluding the unregistered ones, who ferried them here? We, but we the drivers have no facilities and just compromise and adjustment is the fate”. A state police officer says, “The ordered and systematic passage of pilgrims needs to be restricted on the two routes to the cave and people should not be left to visit the cave in a haphazard manner. Also transport facility must be improved to the extent of satisfaction, besides pilgrimage period must be shortened”.

The field observation and interaction with the people revealed that people especially working class is not contented with the arrangements of the shrine board, who they feel is not worker friendly. It has been ages since the Kashmir valley started hosting Yatra and every year lakhs of pilgrims come to Valley adding to the economy of the State of Jammu and Kashmir.

There is a specific board, Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) dealing with the affairs of Yatra and State Governor is the ex-officio head of the board. Manzoor a small shopkeeper said: “Pilgrims throng to the place like anything, thereby degrading the environs and spoiling the sacred fervor of the place, which should be handled well by the local administration and SASB”.

Also, he adds,  “The use of polythene and lack of drinking water to us and all locals here is actually the big problem and lack of proper policing in and around Pahalgam, Baltal or other routes or en route the holy cave has still not been controlled strictly, which are the prime concerns”.

The Supreme Court on July 13, 2012, took Suo-moto cognizance of the increasing pilgrim death on amaranth en-route. citing article 21 of the constitution, Right to life, it sought report from the state and union governments regarding the facilities provided to the pilgrims and the Apex court asked certain questions regarding medical facilities to handle causalities, steps taken regarding environmental protection handling of massive crowd of Yatra, infrastructure available to manage Yatra, large influx of pilgrims permitted than scheduled, etc,.

However the fact is till date the concerned authorities have hardly taken any step to curb the pilgrim deaths, eco-degradation, crowd management, etc,. In 2012, Yatra season atleast100 pilgrims died (107 deaths in 2011 and 68 during 2010 and 45 in 2009) on the way to holy cave located at more than 12000 ft altitude due to cardiac arrests, skidding of pilgrims on bad roads and for the road is very narrow on which massive crowds of pilgrims either walk on foot or on horseback or in palanquins etc,. Government had earlier planned to construct a motor able road to the cave however; strong agitation was launched by the separatist camp and people also including some mainstream leaders citing eco-concerns and local employment concerns. The government has though timely declined the construction of any such road due to public pressure/anger and to maintain the law and order in the state keeping in view the previous summer unrests be that infamous Amarnath Land Row, (2008) and the violent unrest of 2009 (Shopian Double rape and Murder case row) and 2010 (Machil Fake encounter Row which lead to the 117 civilian killings).

The fact is during pilgrimage season pilgrims and workers leave tons of plastic, polythene, bottles, dirt and other solid garbage, unmindful of their duty to keep the local environment clean and unpolluted, which invites the ecological concern. Like the heaps of waste products and garbage along the river banks, drainage from bath rooms, latrines, small eating stalls, hotels, etc, leads to the soil water pollution. The river flowing from Pahalgam flows through various villages and is the only source which means the pollution goes down to other villages through this river, giving rise to water borne diseases. The new practice of air transportation for politicians, top officials and rich pilgrims visiting the holy cave has added to the woes despite making the Yatra of some elites easy. The Baltal remains too noisy for the full day due to helicopter service operation, thereby disturbing the peace of mind. Moreover, the frequent use of helicopters, tremendous noise, more use of fire has resulted in the increase of temperature which leads to the melting of ice-lingamiii (Shiv lingam), disappointing the faith holders and pilgrims all around since many years. “Air transport should be totally abandoned for it creates too much noise in whole of the Baltal and Yatra means pilgrimage by foot and by hard work, it also affects the livelihood of all kinds of laborers be that Dandi Walla’s (Panquin men), Pithu men (coolies), Ponny walla’s (horse owners), etc..” said a local, Gulla Chechy with concern and dismay.

However, the fact of the matter is, if valley’s all other shrines and revered places are connected well by concrete motorable roads, why only the motor able road for Amarnath pilgrimage is opposed by one and all and turned into a political crisis. If environs have not been degraded by connecting all other shrines through concrete roads then why only the Holy cave connectivity becomes the pollution issue. It is also being argued that road up to the cave will directly hit the labourer community, horsemen and all other workers but does that mean Amarnath pilgrims and other visitors are solely responsible for the livelihood of local unemployed youth or other poor and for that their safety and convenience is put at stake.

After all reason has to prevail and human dignity has to be respected, life and safety have to be the utmost priority, which however currently seems off the scene.

Suggestive Rectifications

  • Despite being lauded by the majority of pilgrims, Amarnath Pilgrimage management needs more improvement and empowerment.
  • Shri Amarnath Shrine Board in collaboration with state run administrative mechanism has still not succeeded in efficient Yatra management. SASB needs to relook at its administrative vis-à-vis implimentative policies.
  • There is a dire need to maintain a cohesive relation between various administrative agencies and local populace including security agencies. Local populace has always proved beneficial in handling the yatra well but has not been credited for that till date.
  • The Amarnath Yatra needs a serious social policy intervention on various fronts. A strong academic study can provide the necessary policy inputs in this regard.
  • To look into the issues and challenges of a successful beginning and blissful completion maintained with professional skills along with the use of latest technology and keeping in view the human sensitivity, health conditions and dignity.
  • To frame a stable plan by providing a definite time period, registered laborers with proper identity cards, rate list set for every kind of labour and more place to local people for work.
  • To draft a stable policy of active engagements of all the security agencies with clear cut duty distinctions in order to make pilgrimage more efficient and convenience for Yatris.
  • To look for adjustment ways for those who are working for pilgrims and looking into the hazardous sanitary system in the whole ecosystem.
  • To identify the design and the need for developing a more efficient pilgrimage tackling mechanism s and frame a model for guaranteed lively -hood for local youth.
  • To provide an effective suggestions and policy inputs to remodel the whole pilgrimage mechanism frame work by provision of new hygienic system.
  • The roads need to be widened and repaired so that the pilgrims can be saved from skidding and many health hazards. If a motorable road is not constructed in order to save rich environs but that does not mean roads should be left as such to let pilgrims die day in and day out.
  • To look into the accounts of Dhaan (donations given by pilgrims) and use the amount for the welfare of local workers, pilgrims basic amenities at the place. Besides all Hindu and Muslim trusts should be made accountable and audited properly.
  • Already packaged tours organized from New Delhi, the huge money spend by tourists mostly circulates outside the valley, proving fatal to Kashmir economy and to the livelihood of transporters, hoteliers, tourism affiliated workers, etc, which needs to be given a serious thought.
  • There must be a stringent decision to reduce the number of pilgrims visiting the holy cave for efficient management, health concerns and care.
  • The suggestion put forth by some mainstream parties earlier and now by some Separatists as well that, ‘let kashmiri Pandits manage Amarnath Yatra’, needs not to be paid much heed as such political stunts though seem public friendly but in reality are for petty interests. Given the fact that SASB is a board of credible members who are equally concerned about Yatris and other issues. Besides Shri Amarnath Shrine Board is an organization like the Muslim Waqf Board operating in the state. If there are no slogans against Waqf Board, why politics on Shrine Board, one fails to understand? It must be rejected though I do acknowledge that Kashmiri Pundits have equal rights upon it. Instead of such gimmicks, some practical and secure steps for Pandits home return must be taken that will actually bind them back to their home land. Hence will craft peace and brotherhood in this part of the world.
  • The smooth road of tourism in the valley of Kashmir has to be chartered out immediately, through efficient policy, planning and the effective implementation on the ground otherwise; the tourism boom in India would be lost to other states.
  • The duration of the Yatra must be restricted to 15 or 20 days.

Dr. Adfer Shah

Dr. Adfer Shah, (Adfer Rashid Shah, PhD) is a New Delhi-based Sociologist and Social and Political analyst.He writes his columns for various reputed international and national media groups. He has been writing on South Asia's Socio-political realities especially on Kashmir sociology and Conflict Situation at Eurasia Review since 2012, where he is a Special Correspondent for South Asia Affairs and Associate Editor since January 2014. His recent publications include his three books (1)"Kashmir-Yearning for Peace: A Socio-Political history of Uncertainty and Chaos,2016" (ISSN: 978-3-659-55971-6), (2)'Social Science Research in Conflict Zones,2017' (ISBN: 978-620-2-47937- 0) and (3)'Tibetan Refugees in India: Struggle to Survive,2018' ( ISBN 81-8324-919-1)]..

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