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 c