Baltal: Over the years Kashmiri people are known for hospitality and brotherhood and the same is showcased during the decades old annual Amarnath Yatra, particularly at a time when security concerns of pilgrims have become a major talking point in the country.
However, help and assistance to Hindus by local Muslims paint a portrait of communal peace and Kashmir’s old syncretic ethos.
For the local Muslims, who are major service providers, Amarnath yatra means more than doing a business and earning their livelihood.
Risking their lives and braving the difficult trek, rains, hot and humid weather conditions, mud, and what not all along the route up to holy cave, local services provided includes ponywallas and palanquin bearers who manage to provide a safe and comfortable journey to the Amarnath pilgrims.
The Kashmiri Muslims make a major part of the service providers who facilitate the annual Hindu pilgrimage every year showcasing the communal harmony. Instrumental in the running of the annual pilgrimage is the role that the local Kashmiri Muslims have played over the years whatever the situation be.
Thousands of Kashmir Muslims join the non-Muslim service providers during the Yatra, offering pilgrims’ services as workers, ponymen and palanquin-bearers thus helping aged pilgrims in climbing the difficult trek of Baltal up to the cave on a palanquin.
Hundreds of locals every year also put up stalls at the yatra base camps at Baltal in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district and Pahalgam in south Kashmir offering different kinds of materials for the pilgrims.
Besides being a business provider for the locals, the Amarnath Yatra also showcases the bonding between Kashmiris and the pilgrims.
“We are coming here for years now to provide services to the Amarnath pilgrims who reach base camp and then leave for holy cave for darshan. Cutting across the religious lines we being hosts ensure that the guests don’t face any inconvenience and also ensure their safety and successful pilgrimage” Muhammad Akbar, a local service provider said.
"It doesn’t mean only business for us. Besides earning livelihood it gives us an opportunity to serve and help the people of other religions which give us satisfaction” another local service provider said. Mushtaq Ahmad, a local horseman who has been taking pilgrims to the cave for many years during annual Amarnath yatra , said that he cares more for the devotees than for himself during the journey. “I am used to such high terrains but the devotees are our guests. I thank God when I drop them safely at the entrance of the cave and return to get another batch,” he said.
Ferrying yatris on a palanquin , Liyaqat Khan has same thing to say. Khan along with three other colleagues ferries aged and ailing yatris to Amarnath cave from Baltal camp on his middle-aged shoulders.
While the yatris relax on the comfortable chair , Khan and his colleagues ferry the palanquin from Baltal to Amarnath cave and back to Baltal, a distance of 32 Km to and fro.
"The oxygen level dips during the trek, as the cave is situated 13,000 ft above sea level. The weather also changes unexpectedly during the journey, from sunny to rainy to snowy, adding that braving everything we ensure to give a safe journey to the pilgrims" Khan told the Greater Kashmir.
The Amarnath pilgrims are also all praise for the hospitality and helping nature of the Kashmiri people facilitating and providing different kinds of services to them to ensure a successful pilgrimage.
The yatris also hail the gesture and services of local Muslim service providers. A group of pilgrims from west Rajasthan, said the cave offers the best lesson on how people should live.
“This is the best example for the world on how we all should live in peace and harmony,” they said. Ajay Sharma, a young devotee, said the Amarnath pilgrimage is a great example of interreligious harmony.
The fearlessness and enthusiasm of the pilgrims can be seen during the arrival and stay at base camps with the whole area also reverberates with the chants of ‘Bam Bam Bholey.’ The pilgrims are seen freely moving around the base camp busy clicking pictures buying different kind of things available in the market.
Once a parson leaves the base camp for cave shrine, the shorter route to shrine cave is just about 14 km long, but has a very steep gradient and is quite difficult to climb. It starts from Baltal and passes through Domial, Barari marg, and Sangam to reach the cave.
The pilgrims to reach cave shrine by foot or by chopper with majority of the pilgrims prefer pony ( horses) or palanquin (a kind of a bed carried by four people on four sides). Local Muslims are seen carrying pilgrims either on ponies or their shoulders.
The treacherous route to the holy cave is abuzz with Yatris chanting ‘jai bole’ and Kashmiri Muslims simultaneously advising pedestrians to stick to the hill end and not move on the valley end in order to prevent fatal falls.
Enroute one finds many tea stall with photographs of Shivlingam on the hoarding of almost every shop. In addition to it, the civil and police administration also work tirelessly to ensure successful and peaceful annual Amarnath pilgrimage.
Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, civil and police administration has made all the arrangements for the annual yatra. Besides heightened security arrangements have been made to ensure a peaceful yatra.
The UT government had made all the required arrangements including medical facilities, water, electricity, ration and other to ensure successful yatra.
Meanwhile, the Yatris said that they were impressed by the facilities having been arranged for them by the J&K administration besides also being touched by the hospitality of the Kashmir people.
The transit camp at Shadipora in the Sumbal division of the district received the first batch of pilgrims on Thursday and from here the group after some rest will take the Baltal route via Sonamarg to reach the cave shrine.
Young Umavikal from Delhi who is on her first trip to Kashmir, visibly elated, shared: " It is my first and best experience in Kashmir. The interaction with the local people and the hospitality they show makes one happy. Apart from this, the facilities at the camp--food to night stay and secure atmosphere around us feels superb," she said.
The local PRIs, DDC, BDC's and other senior officers in the administration apart from the local Muslims welcomed the pilgrims on Thursday amid the heavy security at the transit camp and also garlanded them.
"This time after a long gap, devotees have arrived in numbers for the Amarnath Yatra. We welcome them with open arms and want record-break pilgrims to arrive in the valley. We also want to let them know that all Kashmiri people and administration are here to facilitate them," Rather Mehraj, a local public representative said.
Shivali, another pilgrim who arrived at the camp along with family and friends for the Amarnath Yatra said they were 'impressed with the facilities arranged for them. "All the facilities from every department are perfect but what touches the most is that every officer, whatever the rank is, ensures even at the personal level that we don't face any inconvenience," Shivali said.
( With Inputs From Owais Farooqi in Bandipora)