Make Amarnath Shrine tracks yatra ready

Romesh K. Pandita
The Lingam and the Cave at Holy Amarnathji is stated to find its reference in texts as old as the Nilamata Purana. Nilamata Purana (v.1324), a 6th century Sanskrit text depicts the religious and cultural life of early Kashmiris and details of early Kashmiri’s own myth.
It is also stated that Cave’s existence also finds its reference in the text like “Bhrigu Samhita” and the “Amarnatha Mahatmya”. The Bhrigu Samhita is a Sanskrit astrological treatise attributed in its introduction to Maharishi Bhriju, one of the Saptrishis of the Vedic period. The shrine’s existence is believed to be around 5,000 years old and the pilgrimage to the Holy Amarnath Cave has been going on since the 12th century. The Himalayan Pilgrimage is the oldest organised travel system evolved over time by Hindu sages. Combination of sprit of wonder, adventure and spirituality attracted sages, saints and sadhus to organise a systematic pilgrimage to temples in Himalayas especially journey to the cave of Amarnathji from centauries. The pilgrimage to Holy Cave of Shri Amarnathji Shrine via traditional route from Pahalgam passes through beautiful mesmerising landscape. The pilgrims have to walk on a very difficult but adventurous track with high snow clad mountains on both sides.
Earlier the footfall of pilgrims consisting of sages, saints, sadhus from all across the country and local pilgrims from Jammu and Kashmir travelling to the holy cave of Shri Amarnathji used to be small. The number of pilgrims to the shrine swelled many folds ever since Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) came into existence (after it was created by Government of Jammu & Kashmir in the November 2000). The number of pilgrims further increased due to wide publicity of the Shrine in 2008.
The Holy Cave Shrine of Shri Amarnathji is situated at the end of a three Kilometre long narrow gorge at an altitude of 3891 meters (12765′), 34*12′ 53.76″N and 75*29.52″ N) in Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir, India. The Holy Cave falls in Seismic Zone IV. Geologically, this area largely consist of limestone inter-bedded with quartzites and slates (upper Triassic), Shale and Phyllites with inter-bedded limestone (middle Triassic) and also Panjal Traps (Lower Triassic to Permo-Carboniferous). The rock type is found weathered (thinly to moderately bedded limestone along with other discontinuities. The physical conditions around the Holy Cave and its approach from Sangam-top or Kalimata along the banks of sacred Amravati stream (having fragile hill slopes on both sides), have been subjected to topographical changes over centuries of their existence due to occurrence of repeated damages by way of rock slides, slips, rock falls, snow storms, weathering and avalanches during winter months.
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 KM from Baltal route; from the nearest road heads, to pay obeisance and have darshan of the Holy Ice Lingam at Holy Cave. They believe, Lord Shiva (Bholey Shankar) narrated the Secret of Immortality to Maa Parvati “Amar Katha” at Holy Cave of Amarnathji.
On an average 40 percent of pilgrims travel on traditional route from Chandanwari, by foot a distance of 32 KMs, halting at intermediate Camps at Sheshnag and Panjtarni or both to reach Holy Cave. The other pilgrims travel by foot 14 KMs via Baltal route to reach Holy Cave.
There has been a progressive improvement in the facilities over the years, ever since the formation of Shri Amarnathji Shrine Boards, under the Chairmanship of Governor of the state. In view of the sudden increase of traffic of the devotees, Access Control Gate’s to regulate registered pilgrims on day to day basis on both traditional Pahalgam route at Chandanwari and other route from Balatal at Domel, were established in the year 2012 before start of Yatra. It was also during the same year Hon’ble Supreme Court of India took Suo Moto notice of the reports appearing in the press regarding deaths of many pilgrims in early period of yatra.
In response to Hon’ble Supreme Courts directions several initiatives were taken in respect of; i) streamlining of flow of yatra on day to day basis by way of a fixed ceiling on daily flow of yatries from each route depending on the carriage capacity of the tracks ii) improvement in healthcare facility by deploying medical teams en-route to Holy Cave at regular distance not exceeding two kilometres, with large number of medical teams at the glaciers, iii) construction of Sewage Treatment Plants at Base Camps Baltal & Nunwan iv) construction of Shelter Sheds along passages /walking tracks at regular intervals vi) widening of walking tracks/ passages vii) improvement in water supply vii) improvement in Power Supply viii) increase in dismountable Toilets & Baths ix) measures for treatment of sewage by microbial means, improvement in garbage collection and disposal and scores of other initiatives. These initiatives have been progressively taken for running the yatra smoothly by SASB and State administration.
Among other directions, the Supreme court in its judgment also desired up-gradation of tracks/passages by way of widening and providing of retaining walls and railing; the width of passage not less than 12 feet. The walking tracks should be covered with either prefabricated rough cement tiles or such other material which is most appropriate for the benefit of pilgrims.
There has been a progressive improvement in all sectors including widening of tracks, construction/restoration of crated retaining walls, providing of railing in critical stretches.
The lien departments limit their activity to the annual restoration of fair weather tracks and its widening before commencement of Yatra every year by manual means within the short working window available. Completion of restoration work of the tracks by manual means, in high altitude area with unfavourable weather, hostile topography and prevailing subzero conditions remain a challenge to the lien departments. No mechanical equipments and/or machinery are allowed to be deployed in absence proper forest clearance.
Some suggestions for future improvement in the facilities and track improvement;
Initiate action on up-gradation of tracks/passages by way of widening and providing of retaining walls in a phased manner; the width of passage not less than 12 feet; separate one way should be provided for palkies/horses & pedestrians. All walking tracks should be covered with either prefabricated rough cement tiles or such other material which is most appropriate for the benefit of pilgrims.
The up-gradation of tracks shall have the following advantages:
i. shall help save huge avoidable expenditure on annual restoration;
ii. save pilgrims from injuries due to slippery track;
iii. provide smooth tracks for pilgrimage to the Holy Cave;
iv. action will also pave the way for stabilization of sliding zones in future;
v. facilitate easy cleaning of track from pony dung;
vi. proper drainage and cross drainage;
vii. separate tracks for horses and pedestrians shall save pilgrims from avoidable injuries.
* Provide proper Cement Concrete Pedestals for anchoring hold fasts for dismountable mild steel railing posts (for railings) on downhill slope side to give adequate strength to the railing along tracks.
* Remove all protruding boulders in the track, which result in reducing the effective width of the tracks at such points to 5 feet thereby leading to huge jams and chaos in movement of pilgrims and ponies.
* Take appropriate measures for slope stabilization on uphill side in slide prone reach of the track, kilometre 3rd & 4th of Domel-Holy Cave track by way of soil conservation measures; providing check walls, plantation of suitable species of shrubs like junipers or any other initiative considered suitable to save pilgrims and service providers during pilgrimage.
* As a long term solution; consider running of battery cars from base camp Baltal to Domel followed by extending the service to Railpathri subsequently to Brarimarg in phased manner in the interest of safe and quick pilgrimage to Holy Cave. Running of battery cars to Brarimarg and back in few years time will help in reducing night stay of pilgrims at camp near Holy cave. Such service can also help in improvement in cleaning of camps/track and sanitation of prefabricated toilets/baths along track; quick service in supplies, efficiency in disaster management, supervision and several other vital sectors.
* Few suggestions for decongestion of Upper lower Holy Cave area camps;
i) optimising number of Langars in view of scarcity of space and environmental concerns;
ii) minimizing pitching of tents and shops for night stay of pilgrims.
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′ properly upgraded by stone pitching & 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;
v. 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 of 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;
vi. The service providers need to be motivated for arranged high quality tents to suit the climatic conditions and subzero temperature in the area;
vii. Though SASB through its outsourced agencies has been doing its best to keep upper and amp; lower camp areas clean, but handling of garbage generated during initial Yatra period when the yatra runs at peak remains a big challenge due 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.
(The author Ex. GM, SASB)