Amarnath yatra begins

Amid religious fervour and slogans hailing Lord Shiva, the annual Amarnath pilgrimage was flagged off from Jammu on Tuesday morning.

Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Minister Nawang Rigzin Jora gave the green signal as the first batch of 2,096 pilgrims set out in 73 vehicles from Bhagwati Nagar.

Officials said the number of pilgrims this year will be an all time high because of "peace in the Kashmir Valley".

The pilgrims will reach the south Kashmir Pahalgam base camp and the north Kashmir Baltal base camp in the evening, an official said in Srinagar.

So far, 250,000 pilgrims have registered themselves with the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board for the Himalayan pilgrimage.

An on the spot registration too has been opened for pilgrims, arriving in Jammu or in Srinagar without prior registration.

Pilgrims are enthusiastic about the pilgrimage for two reasons - pleasant weather and greater sense of security along the route.

"It's great weather in the Kashmir Valley, and this is a blessing of Lord Shiva. These are signs of a successful yatra (pilgrimage)," said Shalini Meena from Sikar in Rajasthan.

But the authorities are not taking any chance.

"All security arrangements are in place," a police officer told IANS.

Vehicles of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Jammu and Kashmir Police would escort the pilgrim convoys from Jammu to the two base camps.

Nearly 30,000 personnel have been deployed for the security of pilgrims, all the way to the cave shrine.

At some places, pilgrims trek through the mountainous passes, some as narrow as one foot wide.

A transit camp has been set up at the Police Training School at Manigam, 27 km from Srinagar. Locals have opened kiosks to serve food.

"I have put up three tents at the transit camp. That would fetch me around Rs.300 a day," said Bashir Ahmad, 24.

Along the winding road from Srinagar to Baltal, locals have established tea stalls, dhabas and fruit shops for the pilgrims.

Hundreds of pony owners at Baltal are eagerly looking forward to the pilgrimage.

"I have kept my pair of ponies in good shape," said Bashir Khatana, 37, at the Baltal base camp.

Last year, nearly half-a-million pilgrims visited the shrine despite the summer unrest in the Kashmir Valley. The unrest left 110 people dead in clashes between mobs and security forces.

Locals are credited with the success of the Amarnath pilgrimage.

"It is not because of any security that the yatra without a hiccup. It is because of the cooperation and assistance of the locals that the yatris feel secure and comfortable," said Bashir Ahmad, a retired veterinarian in north Kashmir's Ganderbal district.

The cave shrine is located at a height of 13,500 feet above sea level.

A natural stalagmite of ice, called with reverence the Shivling, forms here. Its first darshan will take place Wednesday.

The pilgrimage is to last until Aug 13, when Hindus celebrate Raksha Bandhan.

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