Despite violence, Amarnath sees record Hindu pilgrims (Lead)

August 14th, 2008 - 7:28 pm ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Amarnath Shrine
By Sarwar Kashani
Srinagar, Aug 14 (IANS) Undeterred by the violence and tension that have created deep divisions in Jammu and Kashmir, the two-month-long Hindu pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave shrine is drawing to a peaceful end - helped no less by Muslims at every step. Muslims have acted as porters, guides and hosts to more than 600,000 Hindus who have this year undertaken the arduous trek to the Amarnath cave temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, one of the Hindu Trinity, in the south Kashmir Himalayas.

While the main towns and cities are burning with violence - with land for Amarnath pilgrims ironically at the centre of the controversy - the Kashmir hills have remained an abode of peaceful coexistence.

This year the number of pilgrims has been record-breaking, an official said, adding that in 2003, a record 500,000 pilgrims had visited the temple shrine when the pilgrimage was first extended to a two-month period.

The pilgrimage, which began June 18, will end Saturday with the arrival of the holy mace of Shiva at the shrine. The mace remains with a Hindu ascetic in Srinagar through the year.

The Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, which officially manages the pilgrimage, remains at the heart of the tension in the state.

The land was allotted to the board for raising temporary structures for pilgrims. But the order was revoked following violent protests in Muslim-dominated Kashmir valley who feared that this could mark the settlement of “outsiders” in the state that enjoys constitutional protection for its unique identity.

The revocation sparked off a violent counter campaign in Hindu-majority Jammu.

With conflicting claims over the land, Hindus in Jammu and Muslims in Kashmir are ranged against each other, almost pushing the only Muslim majority Indian state to the brink of division on religious lines.

At least 40 protesters have been killed in nearly two months of violence in the state.

But pilgrimage to the cave has apparently remained untouched by the unrest — a reminder of the culture of coexistence and brotherhood between Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir.

While in the cities and towns, the political divide over the row is blatant, the symbiotic relationship as reflected in the pilgrimage has amazingly prevailed - a fact that has not been highlighted by the media.

Hindus have continued trekking the 16-km long hilly stretch to the cave, from Domail in the Baltel base camp, with the help of Muslims.

“I don’t think the violence in anyway affected the pilgrimage,” Abdur Rehman, who sells Kashmiri handicrafts near the Baltel base camp, told IANS.

“Surprisingly, we have seen a record breaking number of pilgrims this year,” said Rehman, happy with his earnings during the pilgrimage period.

Muslims - porters, horsemen and palanquin bearers who carry the ailing and the aged up the hills - have kept playing the real hosts.

In fact, the journey to the cave shrine is inconceivable without Muslims. The shrine was discovered by a Muslim shepherd, Buta Malik, who had gone with his flock to the area and found a huge natural stalagmite, seen as an icon of Lord Shiva, one of the holy Hindu Trinity.

Astonished at the beauty and height of the ‘lingam’, he reported it to a Hindu priest in his village.

There have been enough tales through the years to keep the nebulous concept of “Kashmiriyat” - or co-existence - going.

In August 1996, for instance, more than 240 devotees were killed and several hundreds wounded and trapped at the Himalayan heights when snow and rain lashed the area. But the Muslim community in areas like Mattan, Anantnag, Pahalgam and Qazigund rose to the occasion.

They lodged pilgrims in their homes, fed them - even taking care not to cook mutton - and helped them communicate with their relatives in the plains.

Meanwhile, blaming “communal forces” in Jammu for the turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir, separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani said that Kashmiri Muslims have nothing against the Amarnath Hindu pilgrimage.

Geelani reportedly made these remarks to spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar when they met here Wednesday, sources close to the hardline Hurriyat Conference leader said.

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