Srinagar: The annual Amarnath yatra ended on Sunday with 2,85,006 devotees paying obeisance at the 3,888 meter above sea level, in the high cave-temple in Kashmir, Himalayas during the two-month long pilgrimage.
This is the highest number of pilgrims to have visited Amarnath in the past three years. In 2016, only 220,000 pilgrims had visited the cave-shrine, which was the lowest number since 2004. The decrease in the numbers of pilgrims was attributed to the unrest in the Valley, set off by the killing of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, and also because the naturally formed ice lingam of Lord Shiva at the cave-shrine had completely melted in just first 13 days of the yatra owing to the rise in temperature.
In 2017, the number of the visitors stood at 2.60 lakh. In 2015, as many as 352,000 pilgrims had paid obeisance and had had darshan of Shivaling at the cave-shrine. In 2011 and 2012, the figure stood at 6.21 lakh and 6.30 lakh, respectively. The decline in numbers started in 2012.
This year’s 60-day yatra had started on June 28 from both traditional Paha-lgam and shorter Baltal routes. The authorities he-aved a sigh of relief as the pilgrimage which has been dogged by many controversies in the past and also witnessed a terror attack last year in which 8 pilgrims were killed and 19 injured, has passed off peacefully.
But as many as 38 people, that include mostly pilgrims and their local hosts including ponywallas and other service providers, died in landslides and other weather-related incident or due to natural causes, mostly cardiac arrest, during this year’s pilgrimage, officials said.
A spokesman of the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) said that the pilgrimage will conclude on Sunday with the coinciding of Shravan Purnima. Bhupinder Kumar, additional CEO of the SASB, along with Piyush Singla, deputy commissioner, Ganderbal, visited the cave-shrine early in the morning and “prayed for sustained peace, harmony, progress and prosperity in the state”.
According to the SASB, the pilgrimage concluded with the arrival of Charri Mubarak or the holy mace of Lord Shiva at the cave-shrine on Shravan Purn-ima amid chanting of religious hymns in the spiritual ambiance of the lower Himalayas. Mahant Depen-dra Giri who carried the Charri to Amarnath from its abode in Srinagar was joined by dozens of sadhus and other pilgrims at the rituals.
“The Shravan Purnima, which coincides with the Raksha Bandhan, witnessed serene religious fervour with the arrival of the Holy Mace of Lord Shiva at Amarnath after a night halt at Panjtarni, the third and final halting station en route the cave-shrine,” an official said.
Mahant Giri will bring the holy mace back to its abode at Dashnami Akhara in Budshah Chowk locality of Srinagar during coming week after offering thanks giving prayer at Pahalgam.
The official statistics suggest that the number of pilgrims visiting the revered cave-shrine during this year’s yatra started declining steadily from third week of July, prompting many of those associated with the annual event to call for reducing the yatra period and restricting it to one month only in future. It was on July 22 when the highest number of 22, 550 pilgrims visited Amarnath in a day. The week beginning on July 10 also witnessed heavy rush of pilgrims with at an average about thirteen thousand of them praying every day at and having darshan of the iced stalagmite Shiv lingam at the cave-shrine.
In view of the “progressive decline” in the number of arrivals, one of the important players called Shri Amarnathji Barfani Langer Organisation (SABLO) made a strong plea for reducing the yatra period to one month. The SABLO in a presentation made before the SASB stressed that the pilgrimage data for the past five years shows that more than 90 percent of pilgrims perform darshan at the cave-shrine in the first thirty days of the yatra. On the basis of this pattern and citing various other reasons, the SABLO argued that the period of pilgrimage should be restricted to thirty days.
Also, this year’s yatra was disrupted on several occasions due to hostile weather. It remained suspended for three days along both Baltal and Pahalgam routes from June 29 and again on July 4 and 5 after the tracks turned slippery and were also hit by landslides and shooting stones.
For same reason, the yatra was suspended on the 13-km long track between the base-camp of Baltal and the cave-shrine on July 6, causing inconvenience to thousands of pilgrims. However, the helicopter services between Pahalgam and Amarnath as well as Baltal and Amarnath remained largely unaffected.
The Baltal route is the preferred route of most pilgrims as they return to the base-camp about 96-km north of summer capital Srinagar on the same day after performing darshan at the cave-shrine. The 34-km Chandanwari-Amarnath track of the traditional Pahalgam route, on the other hand, is a two-night stay journey. Normally, a pilgrim has to stay for one night each at Sheshnag and Panjtarni halting places en-route before relocating to the cave-shrine.
The SASB officials said that the main reason for majority of pilgrims choosing to visit Amarnath during first few weeks of the yatra is that the ice-lingam is in its full glory during that period. After the first couple of weeks, the ice-lingam starts melting for two reasons- the number of the visiting devotees staying very high and also because of increasing temperature, a phenomenon witnessed is the Valley beyond second week of July.