SRINAGAR, KASHMIR, INDIA – Lalan Kumar, 28, a resident of Bihar in eastern India, made his pilgrimage to Amarnath, a Himalayan cave and Hindu shrine in Indian-administered Kashmir, in July 2012.
He fasted while completing the treacherous three-day trek up the mountain to visit the shrine with 10 of his co-workers.
“We were very, very tired, and someone told us that all our tiredness would vanish if we would bathe in the ice-cold water,” Kumar says. “We had a bath, and all the tiredness went away.”
His faith made the challenging trek easy, he says. But that isn’t the case for all pilgrims.
“On the first day, eight people died,” Kumar says, “and we also saw another man dead on the second day.”
For the pilgrims who come mainly from hot Indian plains, adapting to the weather and altitude of the Himalayas is difficult, Kumar says. But driven by faith, many trek at a brisk pace for three days despite ailments such as diabetes, obesity or orthopedic problems. The pilgrims also don’t stay to acclimate themselves before beginning their journey to the cave.
He says the pilgrimage has become crowded and dangerous.
“It is too crowded, especially near the cave,” he says. “I was afraid of being killed in a stampede at the mouth of cave. There were so many people there, women and children too. We were being crushed against one another while waiting for our turn at the cave.”
For many, the pilgrimage also raises environmental concerns.
There are few latrines along the route, so many pilgrims relieve themselves outside, Kumar says. In addition to human waste, pilgrims also leave behind plastic bottles and food wrappers. There is neither a proper system of waste disposal nor restrictions on carrying plastic or other nonbiodegradable items, he says.
Each year, half a million pilgrims make their way through forested mountains, glaciers and riverbanks to Amarnath cave and shrine. Environmentalists say the pilgrimage has become an ecological nightmare for environmentalists. Others acknowledge that it has become a dangerous undertaking for the devout Hindus who make the journey. Political and religious differences also complicate the issues surrounding the Hindu pilgrimage into a primarily Muslim area. After the state hesitated to follow the federal Supreme Court’s direction to build roads to and lodging by the shrine, a Supreme Court committee is reviewing the case and is expected to rule on the future of the pilgrimage next week.
Between June and August, Hindus from all parts of India trek through rugged terrain to catch a glimpse of an ice lingam, a stalagmite ice formation, believed to be a symbol of Lord Shiva. It hangs inside the Amarnath cave approximately 13,000 feet above sea level in the Himalayas of Indian-administered Kashmir.
This year, more than 600,000 pilgrims made the journey, according to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board, an autonomous board headed by the governor of the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir with assistance from the state government. More than 100 pilgrims died, mostly because of health problems.
Once a limited