JAMMU: More than 12,000 pilgrims started the trek for the Amarnath cave shrine on the first day of the pilgrimage in the Kashmir Valley on Saturday, even as over 20,000 Muslim workers, including 7,000 pony owners, joined them to offer services on the way.
Governor N.N. Vohra, who is also chairman of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh reached the cave, located at the height of 12,756 feet, by helicopter in the morning. “Feeling extremely blessed after visiting the Holy Cave… this morning. Jai Baba Bholenath!” Mr. Singh wrote on Twitter. He expressed satisfaction with “the foolproof security plan chalked out for the pilgrimage.”
Around 20,000 security men have been deployed on the routes of Pahalgam and Baltal. The Army installations have carried out combing operations in nearby forests. Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani recently said his group had no plans to attack the pilgrims.
Thousands of Muslims joined the Yatra, offering pilgrims services as workers, pony and horse drivers and palanquin-bearers. “Many youths from the Chenab Valley have been coming to offer services for six years now. I help aged pilgrims in climbing the difficult track of Chandanwari up to the cave on a palanquin,” said Ajaz Ahmad, a palanquin owner, of Wardwan, Kishtwar. Hundreds of Muslim workers have registered themselves and their ponies to offer services during the 45-day yatra.
Of the 12,576 pilgrims who left for the cave shrine early in the morning, 7,486 pilgrims took the Baltal route (a 14-km trek) and 5,090 started from Pahalgam (a 42-km). Among the pilgrims were 1,130 women, 71 children and 18 sadhus.
Mobile oxygen cylinders and medical staff have been deployed. The Meteorological department has warned of more rain in the next two days.
A SASB official said Vinod Kumar, 52, a resident of Shastri Nagar, Delhi, died at the Baltal base camp in the morning. “The cause of death is believed to be heart attack,” he said.