By Izhar Wani (AFP) – Aug 13, 2011
SRINAGAR, India — An annual pilgrimage to a Hindu cave shrine in restive Indian Kashmir came to an end Saturday with more than 600,000 pilgrims -- a record number -- having made the Himalayan trek, officials said.
Every year hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make the gruelling journey to the cave of Amarnath in the Kashmir Himalaya to look at a natural ice formation which is worshipped as a symbol of Shiva, the god of destruction.
The sacred phallic ice formation appears each year in the cave, which is one of Hinduism's top religious sites.
"The last batch of worshippers prayed at the shrine today thus marking an end to the pilgrimage," police officer Pervez Ahmed said, adding that India's top representative in Kashmir, state governor N.N. Vohra, was among them.
"Some 635,000 pilgrims visited the shrine which is a record," he said.
The pilgrimage, which draws Hindus from around the world to a site 3,800 metres (12,800 feet) above sea level, has been attacked in the past by Muslim rebels opposed to Indian rule in the region.
At least 32 pilgrims were killed in 2000, 10 more died the following year when militants opened fire, and there have been minor attacks in subsequent years.
Nonetheless Hindus came in large numbers as the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley has so far been largely peaceful this year, after three violent summers that left scores of anti-India protesters dead.
The pilgrims were not dissuaded despite high temperatures melting the ice stalagmite two weeks before the scheduled end of the pilgrimage.
In the first weeks of the pilgrimage, which started on June 29, devotees prayed before a 3.6-metre (12-foot) high formation, but by the end it had shrunk to a tiny stump.
"It was sad not to have a glimpse of a fully formed stalagmite but the shrine is equally important," said Ramesh Kumar from Mumbai, who made the trek with four friends.
A range of factors, from the body heat of thousands of pilgrims to global warming, have been cited as possible causes for the stalagmite's melting.
Meanwhile, police had to use batons to disperse scores of young men in the Indian Kashmir summer capital of Srinagar protesting against the arrest of a youth who had taken part in anti-India demonstration, police said.
The protesters forced a shutdown in Lal Chowk, the main commercial hub, and damaged several private and police cars.
Earlier, Indian soldiers recovered 43 kilograms of explosives on the outskirts of Srinagar, two days before India's Independence Day, the army said.
The anniversary is observed as "black day" by separatist politicians and rebels, who have staged attacks on the occasion in the past.
The insurgency, which erupted in 1989, has left nearly 40,000 people dead according to official statistics.
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