Hindu pilgrims brave Kashmir violence to seek salvation at cave shrine
Protest strikes, curfews and violent demonstrations have paralysed Muslim-majority Kashmir valley over the killing of 15 civilians in the past month and the deaths blamed on government forces.
Thousands of police and paramilitary soldiers are struggling to control near daily street protests that have grown into bigger anti-India demonstrations recently.
But tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims chanting hymns are daily trudging to a cave shrine where they worship a naturally formed ice stalagmite as a symbol of Lord Shiva, the god of destruction and one of the most revered Hindu deities.
Undeterred by violence in Kashmir, over 153,000 pilgrims have so far paid obeisance at Amarnath shrine, one of the holiest in Hinduism.
Last week, New Delhi said intelligence inputs indicate that militants may use the unrest in the Kashmir valley to target pilgrims — triggering a red alert from the security agencies.
But more than 10,000 pilgrims arrive daily in Kashmir for the holy trek through treacherous mountains in the strife-torn region along icy streams and frozen passes to reach the cave shrine, located at an altitude of 3,800 metres (12,700 feet).
Thousands of police and paramilitary soldiers, most of them in battle fatigues, guard the route to the cave and many others with sniffer dogs comb the muddy track for mines.
Kashmiri separatists who are leading the anti-India protests, have welcomed the Hindu devotees and appealed to Muslim protesters not to attack pilgrims or vehicles carrying them.
“Yatris (pilgrims) are our guests and our protests have nothing to do with them,” said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chief of separatist alliance All Parties Hurriyat Conference.
The two-month long annual pilgrimage has been the target of several attacks by separatist guerrillas fighting New Delhi’s rule in Kashmir since 1989.
The richer pilgrims fly in helicopters while many devotees ride ponies to reach the shrine which locals say was discovered by a Muslim shepherd centuries ago.
According to Hindustan Times, at least 20,000 Muslim labourers and 7,000 Muslim pony owners joined in to ensure safe and secure pilgrimage of Hindu devotees scheduled to come from all over India.
Hindu charities provide free food at camps along the treacherous trek and Kashmiri Muslims carry the old and infirm on palanquins.
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