(Last Updated On: June 29, 2018)

Weather played spoilsport on the first day of the Amarnath Yatra as heavy rainfall delayed the commencement of the annual pilgrimage, resulting in only 1,007 pilgrims paying obeisance to the naturally formed ice-lingam at the holy cave shrine. As for 1,735 other pilgrims, they are stranded at the Nunwan base camp.

A report in The Indian Express said the pilgrims at the Nunwan base camp are stranded at makeshift tents, waiting to begin their 28-kilometre trek to Sheshnag.

To do that, they’ll have to get approval from Roop Raj Bhagwan, police officer in-charge of the camp, and the person who took the call to postpone the yatra on Thursday. “We calculated the risk factors after our teams conducted a risk analysis of the routes. It takes around six hours for the pilgrims to leave Pahalgam and finish their journey for the day at Sheshnag camp. As per our information, the rains had caused a two-hour delay. I made the choice to postpone the yatra,” Bhagwan was quoted as saying on The Indian Express.

The yatra was earlier suspended on Thursday morning, when intermittent rains during the day forced authorities to suspend the yatra briefly on the Baltal route and ask pilgrims to stay put at the Domel camp. However, as weather improved, the pilgrimage was resumed in the afternoon, a report on news agency PTI said.

“The commencement of the Amarnath Yatra was considerably delayed on Thursday morning due to continuing rain since Wednesday. As it could commence only in the afternoon, from both the Baltal and the Pahalgam routes, only 1,316 yatris were able to start the journey through the Baltal route and 60 through the Pahalgam route,” a spokesman of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) said.

Second batch of pilgrims

But more worrying is the fact that a second batch of pilgrims has already departed from Jammu for the twin routes of Pahalgam and Baltal. And considering the base camp can only accommodate 3,600 pilgrims, of which 1,735 are already stranded there from Thursday, things could get crowded.

“We should be able to accommodate many of them (second batch of pilgrims), but the others will have to look for hotels in the surrounding area. We also have 10 huts which can accommodate around 100 more pilgrims,” Surender Mohan, camp director at Nunwan, told The Indian Express.

Lending a helping hand

With so many pilgrims converging on an area with inadequate infrastructure to handle the rush, locals have helped out in whichever way possible. A report in The Hindu detailed how nearly 20,000 Muslim hotel owners, pony-wallas and palanquin lifters joined the pilgrimage on both Pahalgam and Baltal routes.

Hundreds of locals register with the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) to offer services such as catering and horses and palanquins. Only registered locals have been allowed to offer their services.

One such local who spoke to The Hindu was Mushtaq Pahalgami, who says he’s been offering tent services to yatris for decades. “It’s always Muslim hands that lift the palanquin of a pilgrim to take him safely to the cave after over 30 kilometres of arduous trek. From supplying porters to ponies, Muslims keep Kashmir’s brotherhood alive. It is a slap on the faces of communal elements… I invite them to visit Pahalgam to see how the centuries-old brotherhood is kept alive,” Pahalgami said.

Tightened security

The 60-day yatra will conclude on 26 August, on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan. Two lakh pilgrims are expected to have offered their prayers by that date. Last year, 2.6 lakh pilgrims had done so.

The government is, for the first time, using radio-frequency (RF) tags to track the Amarnath-bound vehicles, while the CRPF has introduced motorcycle squads with cameras and various life-saving equipment.

The security has been heightened for this year’s yatra in view of the militant attack on a bus carrying Amarnath pilgrims last year that left eight of them dead and 18 injured. Around 40,000 security personnel from the Jammu and Kashmir Police, paramilitary forces, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the army have been deployed for this year’s pilgrimage.

Considering the condition of the existing tracks and other infrastructure, the SASB has also decided to allow 7,500 pilgrims on each route per day.

While the pilgrims undertaking the yatra via the shorter Baltal route usually return to the base camp within a day, those taking the traditional Pahalgam route have to trek 42 kilometres, with an overnight stay at one of the halting stations, before they can pay obeisance at the cave shrine.

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