Annual Amarnath yatra begins
Jammu, June 24 (IANS) With a thick layer of snow still covering the Amarnath shrine in Jammu and Kashmir, the first batch of pilgrims set out from here Sunday to two base camps shouting religious slogans.
Tourism Minister Nawang Rigzin Jora and Industries Minister S.S. Slathia flagged off the first batch of 2,098 pilgrims to the base camps at Pahalgam and Baltal.
Accompanying them were security and medical vans.
"The pilgrims will reach the base camps in the evening. They will start from both the routes from the base camps Monday," Jora told the media here.
He said the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and police as well as the army were keeping vigil on mountainous heights.
Jora said the authorities were paying a lot of attention to medical facilities this time as there were over 100 health related deaths last year.
"No one without a registration or medical fitness certificate will be allowed to take the pilgrimage."
Officials have said that the progress of the pilgrimage would depend on weather conditions.
According to Jora, 3.65 lakh pilgrims have already registered for the Amarnath yatra.
Despite the uncertain weather condition, there was great enthusiasm among the pilgrims of all age groups.
Said Rupa Sharma from Delhi: "This is first time I am going on this pilgrimage. I am so excited. We have heard that there is still snow cover at the shrine and places en route. It is going to be fun."
Said Jatinder Solanki of Surat: "I am coming for the fifth time. The number of pilgrims is increasing every year due to faith and the return of peace to the (Kashmir) Valley."
The pilgrimage will continue till Aug 2.
The cave shrine is situated at a height feet 3,888 meters above sea level. It has two routes leading to it.
One is from Pahalgam, about 100 km from Srinagar, and another from Baltal, 110 km from the state's summer capital.
Pahalgam is the traditional route of about 45 km but the pilgrims these days prefer the much shorter Balta route.
The Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) stated Saturday that the Amarnath shrine as well as the many camps along the route were still under snow.
The ground can often be slippery and full of slush, making the pilgrimage a difficult affair.
An ice lingam or a naturally made stalagmite of snow considered as an icon of Hindu god Shiva is the main attraction of the cave shrine.
More than 630,000 pilgrims visited it last year, breaking all previous records.
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