Anandiben was ecstatic as her cherished desire of paying obeisance at the holy Amarnath cave came close to getting fulfilled. She, along with four members of her family, reached Jammu last Friday.
As she reached the City of Temples, the starting point for the annual pilgrimage to the holy cave in Kashmir, her excitement knew no bounds. The slogans of "Bum Bum Bhole" and "Har Har Mahadev" echoing at the Bhagwati Nagar situated Amarnath Yatri Niwas in Jammu seemed to make the atmosphere ‘electric,’ she recalled.
This 64-year-old woman from Gujarat and her family — like all other devotees keen to catch a glimpse of the holy lingam — had no inkling of the ordeal that awaited them when trouble erupted in the valley following the gunning down of Burhan Wani, the self-proclaimed 21-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen commander.
Apprehending trouble in the Valley, the yatra was suspended on 8 July, leaving several thousand pilgrims stranded.
The yatra resumed on Tuesday evening after the government decided to adopt a multi-pronged security strategy to ensure hassle-free passage of pilgrims. In addition to providing security cover to convoys heading towards the shrine, pilgrims were instructed to undertake the trek only at night.
“In view of the Centre’s directive, the state’s security apparatus has adopted a multi-pronged strategy. Vehicles ferrying yatris are provided security cover along the routes they travel, they are allowed to move only with convoys of Army, CRPF or in some areas under police protection,” said a senior police official.
“They are not allowed to move during daytime due to the situation and the threat of stone-pelting,” he said, adding, "All the movement to the base camps, ie Sonamarg and Pahalgam, is allowed during the night under the full protection of security forces. The same drill is being followed when they return from the cave."
Further, he said, “The 25,000 pilgrims who were stranded in Pahalgam and Baltal base camps after having taken darshan had been provided safe passage till Jammu under strict army vigil by Tuesday evening.”
Sharad Kumar, director, Srinagar Airport Authority of India said that 38 flights are operating from Srinagar International Airport.
“Due to the prevailing situation, flights coming to Kashmir are not even half-occupied. Yet there is no curtailment in their number. We are trying our best to make it easy for pilgrims and tourists to leave the place,” he added.
The yatra that resumed on July 12 was abruptly called off again on Thursday morning, this time due to heavy rainfall in the higher reaches and the possibility of landslides.
As uncertainly looms over the status of the annual pilgrimage, the faith of devotees is being tested.
There have been good experiences, and bad ones too: Some, like Kavita Lahiri from Kolkata, have been lucky. She reached Jammu on Monday evening and was back at the Amarnath Yatri Niwas two days later, having covered the arduous journey on foot for the most part. Although the treacherous terrain did get difficult to navigate during the night, she is upbeat at having made it. “I won’t deny it was risky because one could slip and fall into the deep gorge below, but then walking on ordinary roads these days is risky too, isn’t it?” she asked.
“We are very happy and perhaps lucky too, because there are others here in this hall who have been waiting here since Sunday,” she said, pointing to a bunch of five sitting next to her on the floor.
One of these, Ashwajeet Kumar Sonkar, president of a human Rights organisation in Mumbai, has a different story to tell. He has been in this camp for the past four days. Two of his friends, who he thinks were more sensible, headed back home after giving up hope. They were running out of money too, he tells. As the fan above them whirrs slowly and the people in the huge but jam-packed hall sweated profusely, he blamed it all on the lack of a proper information counter.
The additional district commissioner of Jammu, Arun Kumar Manhas, however denies this. Regular announcements are being made even as the people at the help desk are going out of the way to assist the yatris, he insisted. “There is a control room from where regular announcements are being made from time to time. Besides, the pilgrims entering the premises to get a ticket for the holy darshan are handed a brochure in which all emergency contact numbers have been clearly mentioned,” he said.
“Yes, people have faced difficulties but that is because of the extraordinary situation we are facing this time,” he added.
The announcements are indeed being made.
The ADC insisted that the people who decided to visit Shivkhori (another cave shrine in the Reasi district) or Vaishno Devi in the wake of the suspension of the yatra are the only ones who have faced delays. For now, there is no information about the possibility of the resumption of the trek. As a result, hundreds can be seen whiling away their time under sheds and even under the scorching sun.
But that does not seem to deter the devotees.
It is terribly hot. And humid. In spite of it, the queues are long and the faith unflinching.
Even as Rakesh Gupta and his family who reached Jammu barely two hours ago are already thinking of going back, blaming it all on 'poor arrangements', there are hundreds who are happy to brave the 44°C weather to get a ticket for the holy darshan.
The author is a freelance writer