Pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave in the lap of the Himalayas has always been a big event. The annual yatra (pilgrimage) takes place sometime during the summer and, fifty years ago, it used to last for 7 to 10 days. Now, of course, it is a massive operation for arrangements for the pilgrims and the pilgrimage lasts for around a month with lakhs of pilgrims moving from the country’s heartland as well as from fringes in batches to Jammu & Kashmir.
Sometime in June I was told that the chief minister would be holding a meeting about arrangements for the Yatra at Pahalgam circuit house and that I had to be present with necessary information about my department’s arrangements. GM Sadiq was the chief minister during those days and he was to travel to Pahalgam for the meeting. Pahalgam, as many would know, was kind of a launching pad for the Yatra. It continues to be so even now but there is an alternative available by way of Baltal which too acts like Pahalgam for the pilgrims as a base from which to commence the Yatra.
I along with a junior collegue set off for Pahalgam in my Standard Herald. Pahalgam used to take about two hours and the road passed through some picturesque country. It was then untrammelled by present-day high incidence of vehicular traffic which made the drive a matter of pleasure.
We hit the circuit house on the dot. We could hear the hum of a large assembly of people waiting for chief minister. We added ourselves to the crowd. Soon the chief minister drifted in along with his personal staff. The meeting began with the announcement of a much larger number of pilgrims who were expected for the Yatra. We were told that around 75000 to a 100000 pilgrims could be expected and the chief minister emphasized that the arrangements should in no way fall short of requirements. It used to be a massive effort for the state government which has progressively become more so as the years went by. In those days the state government had limited financial and human resources yet it used to put its best foot forward to deal with the extraordinarily heavy influx of people, strainng its all kinds of resources, especially the one relating to maintenance of law and order.
The Postal Headquarters in Delhi had given a go ahead to the proposal for a travelling post office to accompany the Yatra. The idea was to make available to those interested the facility of sending mail back home with postmarks of Chandanwari, Panchtarani, Sheshnag and Amarnath Cave, the stages of the Yatra. Curiously, three ponies were hired to carry the post office and its men to the Cave. I had a mind to take the Yatra but since our boss was in it I had to stay back. Later, when people returned after touching the Holy Cave and witnessing the ice lingam I thought it was just well that I couldn’t do it. Everybody came back with burnt peeling off skin. At high altitudes, like that of Amarnath Cave which is located at higher than 13000 ft., the sun is very strong and tends to burn up the exposed skin. Then, of course, there were problems of food and sanitation – the arrangements being of very rudimentary character.
What came out very strongly during the exercise, however, was the whole-hearted commitment of the state government to a Hindu age-old pilgrimage. It might be relevant to mention that in those days such “secular” activities were routine although the state government, barring a few Indian Administrative Service officers, was manned generally by local Muslims at most of the levels. From those who used to hire out their horses or ponies to others who looked after the entire pilgrimage were mostly Muslims. This was perhaps the finest example of “Kashmiriyat” (indigenous cultural values of pluralism of Kashmir), if ever there was one. In case of any snag in the arrangements the government used to take them as an affront to it and deal with it seriously.
The Amarnath Yatra has now magnified many folds and there is a conscious effort to get more and more pilgrims. An Amarnath Shrine Board has since been created which takes care of the pilgrims and takes up infrastructural work for their ease and comfort. Keeping the same reason in view it has opened an alternate route to the Cave via Baltal, a valley that used to be very beautiful. Surely it would not be so any longer when services have to be provided to thousands of pilgrims, their horses and ponies, their vehicles, and helicopters. The number of pilgrims have shot up to around 5 lakh or thereabout in recent years.
Perhaps time has now come to cap the numbers of pilgrims. After all, those rugged mountainous places from where pilgrims trek to the cave host a fragile ecology. It has a low carrying capacity and certainly will not be able take ever-increasing numbers of pilgrims. In recent years the army has come in a big way to protect the pilgrims from attacks of terrorists. This adds to the numbers using the natural resources that just cannot sustain so many people. A more reasonable and balanced view of the matter is necessary to allow the pilgrimage to only as many as the region can conveniently support without causing damaging to the area by way of environmental degradation.