SRINAGAR, India — Tears flowed as thousands of Hindus who fled a Muslim insurgency in Indian Kashmir Saturday prayed at a revered shrine many had not visited for decades, as troops kept a tight vigil.
An estimated 200,000 Hindus fled the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley, where the main city Srinagar is located, after the insurgency against Indian rule erupted in 1989.
They re-settled in the Hindu-dominated southern part of the state, Jammu, and other parts of India.
But some are now trickling back as violence has sharply declined in the scenic Himalayan region since India and Pakistan started a peace process in 2004.
The two nuclear-armed rivals hold the region in part but claim it in full.
With flower petals in their hands, devotees gathered at the Kheer Bhawani temple in Tulmulla, 30 kilometres (20 miles) northeast of Srinagar, for the annual festival.
"This is the first time I am here. Everything looks so refreshing," said Ravi Koul, 24. Koul said he was only four when his family fled in the dark of night from a Srinagar suburb.
"All these years I have been longing to see my birthplace," he said.
The devotees hugged and kissed each other and many wept as their Muslim friends and neighbours came to meet them amid tight security at the temple.
As violence continues to drop, authorities have reopened more than a dozen Hindu temples across the valley and are trying to entice the small community to return permanently.
Before the eruption of the insurgency, Kashmiri Hindus, popularly known as Pandits, had lived in harmony with their Muslim neighbours for centuries.
Many feel the peace process has given them hope.
"Things seem to be normal here. I will surely return to my village for rest of my life," said Omkar Nath, a 73-year-old farmer.
Nath said he left his native village in southern Anantnag district after some Hindus were killed in Srinagar.
"We have gone through hell. I will return to my village and do what I do best -- farming," he said.
Officials say 219 Hindus were killed by suspected militants in different attacks in the Kashmir valley since 1990. Some 3,500 Hindus continue to live in the valley.
Muslim Kashmiri separatist politicians have urged Kashmiri Hindus to return.
Last year, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said refugees who wanted to return to their homes would be given 750,000 rupees (16,304 dollars) per family.
"I hope that our Kashmiri Pandit brethren return to their homes soon," said Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah.
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