JAMMU, India, July 2 (AP) - Thousands of Hindu worshippers began a tough
pilgrimage Monday to an icy stalagmite worshipped as an incarnation of
the god Shiva in a Himalayan cave in Kashmir, as authorities stepped
up security to prevent attacks by Islamic guerrillas.
Accompanied by doctors and soldiers, the first batch of 3,000
pilgrims, mostly saffron-clad Hindu hermits, left in a security convoy
from a sports stadium on the journey to the Amarnath shrine in
The pilgrims will be allowed to visit the shrine for a month.
The state government has brought in 15,000 troops to provide security
to Hindu devotees. Many are checking the route for land mines and
The pilgrims shouted religious slogans, chanted Hindu hymns and
cheered as they boarded buses for the tourist resort of Pahalgam,
their first stop. Many Hindu hermits clambered on top of buses,
raising slogans in praise of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction
believed to live in the Himalayan mountains.
In previous years, Islamic guerrillas have made public threats and
carried out attacks on the pilgrims or accompanying security forces.
Thirty-five pilgrims were killed last year. In shootouts between
soldiers and suspected militants, 102 people were killed.
Armed soldiers in bulletproof vests kept watch over the pilgrims from
bunkers along the Jammu-Pahalgam highway where the buses passed.
Pahalgam is the base camp for the pilgrimage and the last motorable
point. Pilgrims will thereafter undertake an arduous trek of 45
kilometers (27 miles) to the deeply revered shrine, located in a cave.
The Amarnath shrine is located at a height of 13,500 feet (4,110
meters), and houses an icy stalagmite worshipped as an incarnation of
Shiva. Children and elderly pilgrims cover most of the trek on ponies
and wooden palanquins.
Policemen and paramilitary soldiers will be posted along the entire
pilgrimage route, the state's police chief Ashok Kumar Suri said
Sunday. Ambulances and oxygen cylinders will also be on standby.
Volunteer agencies have set up free food stalls.
An estimated 100,000 pilgrims are expected to make the pilgrimage this
year in separate batches. It will conclude in the first week of
August, with the main prayers scheduled for Aug. 4, a full moon night.
The start of the Amarnath pilgrimage comes two weeks before a crucial
summit between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Gen. Pervez
Musharraf of Pakistan, in which the Kashmir dispute will be discussed
between the two leaders.
Meanwhile violence continued in Kashmir. Four rebels were killed in
separate gunbattles with security forces, which also left an army
major and a soldier dead, a police statement said.
India accuses Islamabad of arming, training and funding Pakistan-based
Islamic guerrillas, who have sustained a violent 11-year campaign
against Indian security forces in Kashmir. Pakistan says it backs them
with ideology, not weapons.
Most of the dozen militant groups operating in Kashmir are based in
Pakistan. More than 30,000 people have been killed since the
insurgency began in 1989.