×

India Hindus begin pilgrimage in Kashmir amid heavy security

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Thousands of Hindu devotees began an annual pilgrimage Thursday through mountain passes and meadows to an icy Himalayan cave in Indian-controlled Kashmir amid heavy security in the Muslim-majority region.

Officials say pilgrims face heightened threat of attacks from rebels fighting against Indian rule and have for the first time tagged devotees with a wireless tracking system. They also have deployed drones for surveillance.

The religious activity has been the target of past attacks by suspected Muslim rebels who accuse India of using it to reinforce its grip over the disputed region. This year’s pilgrimage comes after two years of suspension because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The worshippers began their arduous trek early Thursday through forested mountain passes with a view of snowy peaks. Some rode ponies or wooden litters carried by porters. Some chanted religious hymns on their way to pray at the hallowed mountain cave’s Amarnath shrine, where Hindus worship Lingam, a naturally formed ice stalagmite inside the cave, as an incarnation of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration.

In massive security arrangements, tens of thousands of police and soldiers carrying automatic rifles and wearing flak jackets have been deployed to guard the pilgrimage. They have set up checkpoints, barricades and temporary camps along the routes leading to the cave.

At a mountain base camp, a group of devotees said they were ecstatic to see elaborate arrangements and praised Indian soldiers for the security measures.

“It feels like I’m walking in my village,” said Pravin Kumawat, a pilgrim from northern Rajasthan state.

Rajinder Sharma, a Hindu ascetic from central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh said he has been undertaking the pilgrimage for the last two decades.

“I prayed (the last time) that Article 370 must go, and it happened,” Sharma said, referring to India’s constitutional provision that gave Kashmir semiautonomy, which was revoked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government in 2019 amid total lockdown and communication blackout. “Now I will also pray that our country becomes a Hindu nation.”

Muslim rebels fighting for decades against Indian rule in Kashmir accuse Hindu-majority India of using the pilgrimage as a political statement to bolster its claim on the disputed Himalayan region.

NEWSLETTER

Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *
   

COMMENTS

Starting at $3.69/week.

Subscribe Today