By Izhar Wani (AFP) – Jul 5, 2010
SRINAGAR, India — Thousands of Hindu pilgrims are trekking along slippery trails to reach a shrine high in the mountains of Indian Kashmir despite violent protests in the Muslim-majority region.
Strikes and demonstrations have paralysed the Kashmir valley over the killing of 11 civilians in the last month by Indian police and paramilitary forces struggling to control separatist rallies.
However, the annual Hindu pilgrimage to the Amarnath caves in the Himalayas has still attracted tens of thousands of devotees to see the natural ice formation that is worshipped as a symbol of Shiva, the god of destruction.
By Monday, the sixth day of the two-month pilgrimage, more than 50,000 Hindus -- including scores of ash-smeared holy men -- had made the gruelling climb to the shrine, which is set 3,900 metres (12,800 feet) above sea level.
Authorities expect 500,000 people to visit this year and security is tight.
The pilgrims have to travel through the curfew-hit town of Anantag to reach the base camp at Nunwun, 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of the Indian Kashmir summer capital Srinagar.
Separatists leading the recent unrest have welcomed the devotees, despite most Kashmiri Muslims resenting that the region is ruled from New Delhi as part of Hindu-majority India.
"They are our esteemed guests and they should be looked after very well," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a senior separatist politician.
Most of the pilgrims prefer the traditional Nunwun route, which takes five to six days to complete the return journey -- compared to a one-day trip via the steeper Baltal route.
From Nunwun, the pilgrims start a 50-kilometre trek up treacherous mountain paths to reach the shrine.
"Thousands of devotees are reaching the base camp every day for their onward trek," said Tara Chand, Kashmir's deputy chief minister.
The pilgrimage has previously been the target of Islamic militant groups battling Indian rule in Kashmir.
At least 32 pilgrims were killed in 2000 and 10 more died the following year when militant gunmen opened fire.
Authorities have deployed thousands of police and paramilitary forces to guard the devotees, though the risk of militant attack has fallen dramatically in recent years.
"Adequate security arrangements for the smooth conduct of the 'yatra' (pilgrimage) are in place," Kashmir's tourism minister Rigzin Jora said.
Convoys of trucks and buses carrying pilgrims are being protected by armed troops, while officials said that more than 3,000 border guard personnel have also been flown in to boost security.
Tensions over Amarnath rose again two years ago when the state government transferred land to the Hindu worshippers for them to erect temporary structures during the pilgrimage.
Muslims held violent protests against the land transfer, triggering riots by Hindus who backed the plan. The land agreement was abandoned due to the months of clashes, in which more than 50 people were killed.
Nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan have each administered part of Kashmir since the partition of the subcontinent after the end of British rule in 1947.
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