Romesh K. Pandita
The Holy Cave Shrine of Shri Amarnathji is situated at the end of a three Kilometres long narrow gorge at an altitude of 3891 meters in Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir, India. The Holy Cave falls in Seismic Zone IV.
Every year lacs of Hindu Pilgrims from far off places within the country and abroad travel by foot, a distance 32 kms on traditional route from Chandanwari (Pahalgam) or a distance of 14 kms from Baltal route; from the nearest road heads, to pay obeisance and have darshan of the Holy Ice Lingam at Holy Cave; because they believe, Lord Shiva (BHOLEY SHANKAR) narrated the SECRET of IMMORTALITY to MAA PARVATI “Amar Katha” at Holy Cave of Amarnathji.
Almost entire length of last 3 kms distance of pilgrimage from Sangam-top or Kalimata to holy cave remains covered with a snow depth more than 2 metres (in some stretches depth of snow is 5metres or more) during the initial 15 days of Yatra; when yatra runs at its peak and the pilgrims have to cross over track cut across the snow depth. The sacred Amravati stream is visible, only in few selected stretches as it runs under the snow in a major portion. The approach to the Holy Cave from Sangam-top on one side and Kalimata on the other, consists of fair-weather tracks on the both banks of sacred Amravati Stream developed along toe of two close placed mountain ranges running almost parallel to each other.
The Shrine at Holy Cave of Amarnathji is opened for darshan in the last week of June or 1st week of July; depending upon extent of snow fall received in the Yatra area during the preceding year (from November to March), prevailing weather conditions, restoration of track, development of infrastructure and establishment of security grid. The Yatra period varies from year to year depending on date on which Shravan Purnima/Rakhsha Bandan (the day of Yatra concludes every year).
A floating population, close to 20,000 souls reach holy cave area on each peak yatra days which include about 15000 Yatries from both the routes (Chandanwari & Baltal), officers/officials conducting Yatra, Army, security agencies, teams from MRT, SDRF, Health and other departments, service providers including Tent owners and Pony Walas. Due to close proximity of two steep mountain ranges running almost parallel and Amravati stream running in-between; a limited area comprising of sloping, undulated, rugged terrain is available for developing of temporary accommodation for various security agencies, army, police, officers & officials deputed to conduct yatra smoothly, pitching of tents by service providers, Langars for providing free food, health care facilities, helipads and other facilities. The weather in the area remains highly unpredictable with frequent rain and snowfall with night temperature often dipping to sub-zero range.
Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) in close coordination with various centre and state government agencies in its endeavour to provide facilities to yatries has to complete all works in very small working window available before start of yatra every year.
Understandably, due to heavy snow fall and occurrence of avalanches during winter months, no permanent accommodation for officers/official, security forces or yatries is possible. All such arrangements are developed on temporary bases in a span of few days just before start of pilgrimage every year.
Repeated occurrences of avalanches, slides and slips during winter months lead to change of topographic features in the area which makes the task of building infrastructure in a very small window more difficult with minimum man power both skilled and unskilled available in the area. Non availability of construction material, eatables, carriage by head load and shelter for staff and storage of construction material at sites make the task even more difficult due to huge snow depths.
The health department has been establishing health facilities at all camps and routes at a regular intervals and at lower/upper camps of Holy Cave during yatra period and rendering their services in very harsh and challenging conditions to save many precious lives in the past.
Suggestions for decongestion
1. The Camp area in between lower and Upper Holy Cave is required to be decongested by way of;
i. Optimising number of langer’s in view of scarcity of space and environmental concerns;
ii. Minimizing pitching of tents and shops for night stay of yatries.
iii. Allowing only optimum presence of army, security forces, police and other agencies in formation of security grid;.
iv. Progressively extend all weather stairs/track further from Holy Cave towards Sangam Top/ Kalimata along both banks of Amravati with a minimum width of 12′ in stone pitching with proper grouting using local construction material available without compromising on environmental issues to provide good track for pilgrimage. The construction of path shall save the track from damages due to avalanches during winter months and prevent squeezing of track due to encroachment by tent shop vendors during yatra days.
2. Construct terraced platforms in area in-between two stairs, (each of 12 feet width; one meant for up-going to Holy Cave & 2nd down coming); to provide levelled platforms for assembling/erection of prefabricated hut accommodation & also save the area from further scouring / damage.
The terraced platforms shall also protect already constructed stairs in Devri Stones from damage due to avalanches, scouring and undercutting during winter months.
Construct one more fool proof Security Gate at mouth of Holy Cave near Nandi point without changing external ambiance in view potential security risk of Holy Cave during winter months.
Hypothermia a major cause of death of many pilgrims in lower and upper Holy Cave camp areas, due to pitching of tents over the snow in the initial days of yatra by the service providers for providing accommodation to the stranded pilgrims has remained unnoticed. The practice of pitching the tents on snow need to be stopped and all possible alternatives considered to decongest camps in the Holy Cave area. Providing accommodation in safer area in between Brarimarg and Kalimata could be considered for construction of clusters of dormitories for the visiting and/or stranding pilgrims.
The service providers need to be motivated for arranged high quality tents to suite the climatic conditions and subzero temperature in the area.
Though SASB through its outsourced agencies has been doing its best to keep upper & lower camp areas clean, but handling of garbage generated during initial Yatra period when the yatra runs at peak remains a big challenge due to non-availability of suitable garbage collection and segregation area for segregation into biodegradable and non-biodegradable part. Equally challenging is the carriage non-biodegrade (Plastic) to base camp Baltal for suitable disposal. A suitable area for handling of garbage scientifically, is required to be identified by way of appropriate decongestion of area.
Romesh K. Pandita