The Holy Amarnath Yatra in Kashmir region is one of the four major pilgrimages of India, which is open to devotees only during the summer months from June/July till August every year. Shri Amarnath Ji Yatra (SANJY) is an annual event wherein pilgrims from all parts of the country brave the rugged terrain and harsh weather to worship the sacred ice Shiv Lingam resting in the abode of Amarnath Peak in the Holy Cave. The Shiv lingam incredibly waxes and wanes with the sight of the moon. The presence of living God Lord Shiva, who is known as purifier of good and destroyer of evil, has been testified by astronomy, Vedic Math and even some rituals, which enthuses countless ‘Bhakts’ to undertake the journey which is believed to show them path of heaven after death. This year, after a gap of three years since the Abrogation Episode and spell of COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the conduct of Yatra, SANJY-2022 was held from 30 June to 11 August 2022, much to the relief of the nationwide devotees who were longing to catch a glimpse of the Holy Cave since 2018.
The first Aarti was held at Holy Cave on 14 June 22, in the presence of Sri Niteshwar Kumar, CEO SASB, other officials and military personnel. With the inauguration and flagging off of first batch of pilgrims from Jammu on 29 June 22, Yatra commenced on 30 June 22 and witnessed a huge footfall of highly motivated ‘Darshanarthees’, whose loud cries in the praise of Lord Shiva reverberated amidst the skies of the region. The swarm of devotees kept on increasing day by day, unrefuted by the natural calamities and health hazards in the high-altitude region. The sacred Yatra culminated on the traditional day of ‘Shravan Purnima’ i.e., Raksha Bandhan on 11 August 2022, with arrival of ‘Chhari Mubarak’ to the Holy Cave. The Yatra lasted for 41 days and lakhs of devotees paid obeisance to the heavenly abode of Lord Shiva, undertaking the journey from both Pahalgam & Baltal routes.
The Immortal Saga
The history of the Yatra can be attributed to mythological folklore of Lord Shiva and Mata Parvati, wherein the latter was desirous of knowing the reason of him wearing the ‘Mund Mala’, the beads of head. Lord Shiva replied that every time she was born, he wore a new head and that’s how the count of Mund Mala kept on increasing. To this, Goddess Parvati replied that she also wanted to become immortal like him and free herself from the cycle of life and death. So, Lord Shiva decided to narrate her the Amar Katha at a secluded place, so that only she could hear the story, for which he chose the Holy Cave nestled in the Amarnath Peak.During the journey, he left his ‘Nandi’ at Bailgaon (Pahalgam), Moon at Chandanwari, Snake at Sheshnag, his son Lord Ganesha at Mahagunas Parvat and five ‘Tatvas’ of the body at Panjtarni. Thereon, he reduced the surroundings of Holy Cave to ashes by ‘Kalagni’ and took ‘Samadhi’ on a deer skin. He then narrated the Amar Katha to Mata Parvati, upon which she also attained immortality. However, when Lord Shiva was reciting the Amar Katha, an egg of a pigeon was left undestroyed under the deer skin, from which eventually a pair of white pigeons came out. The tale goes that the pair of white pigeon also became immortal and to this day, can be seen in the Holy Cave by few fortunate ones.The legend further states that Sage Bhrigu was the first one to catch glimpse of Lord Shiva on the Amarnath Peak, when Sage Kashyapa drained the submerged valley of Kashmir through series of rivers and rivulets. Thereafter, the peak became an abode of Lord Shiva for all believers and site of an annual pilgrimage. References of the same are also found in the book ‘Travels in Mughal Empire’ written by a French physician, who accompanied Aurangzeb during his visit to Kashmir in 1663. The fact is further reinforced by an incident recorded in the 18th century, wherein a Muslim shepherd named Buta Malik was given a bag of coal by a Sufi Saint near the Holy Cave, which turned into gold as he reached home. Quite astonished and taken aback by the gift, he decided to go back and thank the saint but ended up finding the Holy Cave with Shiva Lingam. The Buta Malik family had since been custodians of the holy shrine alongwith sadhus of Dashnami Akhara and Purohit Sabha as caretakers till year 2000, whereon Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Board (SASB) was formed headed by the Honourable Governor of the State and custody of the pilgrimage was transferred permanently.
The Kashmir Conundrum & Threat to Holy Amarnath Yatra
Since the late eighties, the Kashmir Valley has witnessed clattering of bullets and ensuing violence caused by terrorism, which has engulfed numerous lives. The valley bathed in blood for almost three decades, wherein the security forces gave in their heart and soul in saving the motherland from perpetrators of terrorism and violence. Amidst the burning cauldron, the state saw the historic event of Abrogation of Article 370 in Jul 2019, which was preceded by numerous foiled attempts of the anti-national elements (ANEs) with intent of destabilising the region. The internal security situation since then became volatile and sporadic incidents of violence kept on happening time and again. Notwithstanding the looming threat and high pressure, security forces put best foot forward in keeping the inimical elements at bay. Likewise, the terrorist tanzeems also tried to maintain their footprints with evil designs, with varying modus operandi.The Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage being a sensitive event of politico-religious nature in the valley, affords ample opportunity to the ANEs to execute sensational acts to make a statement in the international forum. In this context, the Yatra has been privy to terror attacks in the bygone years repeatedly, which has claimed numerous lives. Consequent to same, high probability of terrorist attacks to disrupt the SANJY 2022 was appreciated by intelligence agencies, which was further corroborated through inputs received from various civil/ military channels and rise in number of encounters in the region as the date of the yatra approached. Moreover, the support and involvement of adversary during the fluid situation further compounded the threat perception to the Yatra. Besides the terrorist-initiated incidents, the threat of civilian agitation by radical and separatist elements and natural disasters also loomed large, which needed to be countered at all costs by all agencies involved in the event.
Security Arrangements by Indian Army
To ensure an incident free Yatra, the Indian Army was entrusted with the prestigious assignment of Operation SHIVA 2022 akin to previous years, to shoulder the responsibility of providing security to the pilgrims along both the routes and thwart the evil intentions of the adversary and terror groups. The Indian Army undertook the arduous task of ensuring foolproof security for the event, which was unprecedented for the fact of being held for the first time after the Abrogation of Article 370. The gallant men put best foot forward in executing the mammoth tasks in rugged conditions, which entailed major security and logistics challenges. The coveted assignment of national magnitude assumed greater importance for local populace also, who turned up in huge numbers to accrue economic dividends from the event, which had not occurred for three years with drastic financial effects. To facilitate safe and incident free conduct of SANJY-2022, a foolproof security plan for the yatra was planned and executed, wherein the synergy, coordination and team effort was displayed by all security agencies involved in the task. The Army, apart from its designated role of dominating the higher reaches, performed assorted tasks in coordination with civil administration, Para Military Forces (PMF), Civil Armed Police Forces (CAPF) and Jammu and Kashmir Police (JKP), to complement their responsibilities and augment the overall security grid. The Army prepared itself for the challenging task well in advance, with adequate foresight and immaculate planning.The Indian Army put best foot forward in executing all entrusted tasks with alacrity, which enabled conduct of an incident free yatra. The ensuing threat after abrogation of Article 370/ 35 A and persistent disturbances in Valley demanded heightened state of security across the state. The event of national magnitude was appreciated to be a major target for ANEs, who were eyeing an opportunity to preserve their relevance in the changing dynamics. However, the concerted efforts of the miitary and civil agencies resulted in smooth and safe conduct of Yatra, wherein the imminent evil designs of ANEs were thwarted by round the clock vigil maintained by the gallant troops.The event saw a huge footfall of Yatris on the both the routes over the duration of 41 days, who were assertive of tireless efforts of Indian Army and all other agencies in safeguarding them from terrorist threats and vagaries of nature. The close security provided to ‘Chhari Mubarak’, the sensitive event of carriage of the Holy Mace to the Holy Cave, prevented occurrence of any untoward incident.
Cloud Burst Incident at the Holy Cave
The responsibility to provide assistance to the Yatris in case of natural disasters was primarily that of the civil administration, through the deployment of National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) and State Disaster Relief Force (SDRF) teams. However, Army remained in constant touch with the civil administration and was prepared to provide any assistance, wherever required. On the fateful evening of 08 July 2022, a sudden cloudburst near the Holy Cave caused an enormous flash flood which engulfed countless Yatries along with few bhandaras and numerous accommodation tents pitched in the immediate vicinity. The Army immediately sprang into action and mobilised relief parties to evacuate the stranded and injured Yatris to safety. Notwithstanding the torrential rains and bad weather, the activation of Emergency Cluster of Accommodation was undertaken in minimal time, to adjust the colossal strength of trapped Yatris. At the behest of civil administration, the Indian Army troops immediately established a Medical Care Centre with available resources, to augment the civil medical infrastructure for critical care of patients. Concurrently, move of evacuation parties was also closely monitored to remain pre-emptively prepared for various types of casualties, which saved many a lives due to timely administering of aid. A Help Desk was established and flawless coordination with all civil and military relief agencies was done to ensure timely aerial evacuation of stranded/ injured pilgrims and mortal remains of few. The concerted efforts of the military and civil agencies in conduct of disaster relief operations resulted in saving of numerous lives and streamlined execution of search and rescue operations.
Indian Army – The Humane Face
Notwithstanding the security facet, the humanitarian angle was equally emphasized upon and utmost care was exercised to not interfere with the livelihood of the poor and refrain from causing discomfort to the Yatris. The ethos of Indian Army were upheld and a professional approach towards execution of security tasks minimized the hardships of Bakarwals, Gujjars, porters, pony handlers and all the civilians who had thronged the event to earn livelihood. The professional ethics and values displayed by troops glorified the humane image of Indian Army and earned the trust and support of locals. Liaison with the medical detachments of PMFs, CAPFs, SASB and other civil agencies was carried out prior to the commencement of the yatra, in order to synergize and optimize the resources not only for the pilgrims but also for the locals and porters. The local populace remained supportive of the Indian Army and reciprocated with positive approach, whenever their assistance or feedback was sought on various matters. The Army helped the Yatris in countless ways, to ensure successful completion of their yatra. There was an extremely large flow of pilgrims in the initial phase of the yatra and the situation was further compounded, as pilgrims were poorly equipped and not acclimatized properly. The troops amply exhibited the humane face of Army by going all out in aid of the distressed pilgrims. Patrols along the routes prone to landslides/ flash floods during inclement weather were specifically tasked to assist stragglers to the nearest camp. During periods of hostile weather, large number of pilgrims were stranded at various locations enroute. The Army worked round the clock to ensure safe passage of pilgrims to the Yatri camps, by combing the areas near track thoroughly after last light. During the Yatra, large number of civilians suffered casualties due to high altitude ailments, inclement weather, rough terrain and falls from horses. Medical aid and succor to the yatris as well as locals was provided by detachments deployed in the area. Warning Sign Boards along major landslide prone areas were placed for information of pilgrims. The yatra witnessed large number of cases wherein family members/ groups got separated enroute. Army provided assistance in locating them by contacting all army posts as well as other CAPF and JKP detachments enroute. To sustain the tough climb, a pilgrim requires not only devotion but basic necessities like water and seating/ resting areas. To fulfill such needs, the troops had established water points at all posts, which provided warm water, hot tea and medical aid to the pilgrims.
The yatra gave a major boost to Jammu and Kashmir’s economy, owing to the revenue generated by the huge turnover of pilgrims. The logistic set up for the yatra encompassing travel, food, tents, ponies, porters, travel agents/ tour operators entailed colossal earnings for all stakeholders. Yatris from different age groups either preferred walking or moving by hiring porter/ ponies/ palkies, for which the horse owners, palki operators and porters who were given permits from Labour Department earned immensely well. Organized labour which included taxi owners/ drivers, phone operators, tour operators and helicopter services also made a good earning. The tourism at Pahalgam and Sonamarg was also boosted proportionately, wherein hotel owners and shops made sizeable profits with huge influx of pilgrims. The yatra even had a direct and indirect impact on traditional livelihoods of agriculture, horticulture and handicrafts, especially after the spell of COVID-19 pandemic had marred the economy of of the region devastatingly. The event proved to be of great profit for the locals, who earned their livelihood on a greater scale this year, owing to the huge influx of the ‘Darshanarthees’. The Army and other forces upheld the humanitarian aspect without any dilution towards the civilians who were involved in providing services for the yatris. The locals also welcomed the yatris with open arms and joined hands with the forces to ensure a safe and incident free yatra amidst the challenges of security, natural calamities and administrative facets.
Operation SHIVA-22 has been a resounding success, which can serve as a model for demonstrating the synergy and jointmanship achieved by the Army working in unison with various PMFs, CAPFs, Police and civil agencies. Despite the imminent terrorist threats during the yatra, the streamlined efforts and bonhomie achieved between all the agencies, constant vigil and active domination of area ensured that no untoward incident occurred in the region. During the event, the brave Indian Army troops showcased sheer professionalism and upheld the highest traditions of the organisation in executing all tasks, which earned admiration from all yatris, civilians and all other agencies. The contribution of Army in successful conduct of the Yatra received wide media coverage. The Amarnath Yatra was a reflection of our composite culture and how people belonging all the faiths contributed wholeheartedly in making it successful was an epitome of our nation’s ‘Unity in Diversity’. The event was also a celebration of ‘Kashmiriyat’, wherein all the local people ensured hospitality and comfort of pilgrims and making their yatra successful. Overall, the successful conduct of yatra showcased the nation’s unity and pride in the national as well as international forum, which profited the country in all realms enormously.