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India

Ecological harm from Hindu glacier pilgrimage

Critics argue that the event has lost much of its genuinely religious nature as it has been marred by fakery and manipulation

Umar Manzoor Shah, Srinagar

Umar Manzoor Shah, Srinagar

Updated: June 13, 2019 07:34 AM GMT
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Ecological harm from Hindu glacier pilgrimage

Ascetics queue up to register for the Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage on July 3, 2018. (Photo from IANS)

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During next month's Amarnath Yatra Hindu pilgrimage the faithful will trek across the magnificently beautiful but treacherous and ecologically fragile Himalayan terrain of Indian Kashmir.

More than 200,000 Hindus are expected to pay homage to an ice stalagmite, which is regarded as being representative of the linga symbol of the Hindu god Shiva.

The 45-day pilgrimage starts July 1 to a cave where, according to Hindu mythology, Shiva narrated a story about eternity to his consort Parvati.

The name Amarnath, meaning God of Eternity, comes from this belief.

Traditionally, the pilgrimage spanned 15 days, and only about 1,000 people, mostly wandering ascetic holy men known as sadhus, undertook it.

However, particularly since the 1990s, the demographics of this pilgrimage have changed with mass participation from across India for the longer period.

The Indian army these days assists the pilgrims to walk the mountainous path through Jammu and Kashmir, India's only Muslim majority state, which is close to the border with arch-rival Pakistan.

But the expanded pilgrimage is proving catastrophic for the sensitive ecosystem, according to environmentalist Suneel Wattal.

He said because of increased human activity, glaciers are melting and the snow is being replaced by slush while blaring loudspeakers put an end to past serenity.

"With the causing of such encumbrance to an environment that is supposed to be devoid of habitation, the damage is unimaginable," Wattal said.

"Every year, we are looking at a 1,000 metric tonnes of human excreta, three million litres of liquid waste and more than a hundred tonnes of plastic being added to the ecosystem."

With no structured waste treatment, waste is discharged directly into the environment, polluting glaciers, rivers, and forests.

"The impact on plant, animal and aquatic life is something that no one has even bothered to study, leaving aside the three million litres of waste water that mixes with rivers which happen to be the source of drinking water for hundreds of downstream villages,” he said.

Riyaz Ahmad, a social activist based in central Kashmir's Genderbal area, said the government is pursuing "a single point agenda" of increasing the number of pilgrims without being bothered about its impact on environment.

The has been no cap imposed on the number of pilgrims, he complained.

"In 2006, the government's own pollution control board highlighted how the glaciers there were melting and the river streams were becoming murkier,” Ahmad told ucanews.com.

However, the government to this day had not acted on that report, he added.

Hindu scholar and prominent social activist Swami Agnivesh says there is no longer anything genuinely religious in Amarnath and that what is being projected is all "fake and farce".

"The water drops from above inside the cave and freezes due to the extremely low temperatures," Agnivesh said.

"It is a mere coincidence that the frozen water attains the shape of something which is similar to the linga of Lord Shiva. It is a natural phenomenon and has nothing to do with the divinity."

He said that a few years ago a surge in temperatures resulted in the stalagmite melting ahead of the pilgrimage.

The state government airlifted in an "artificial stalagmite" so that pilgrims did not turn away disheartened. "All this is deception and nothing else," said Agnivesh.

In 2017, a Kashmiri coalition of civil society organizations produced a detailed report claiming that the government increased the pilgrimage's duration owing to pressure from Hindu socio-religious groups.

It said such groups are involved in the pilgrimage, by their own admission, to further their cause of making India a Hindu state.

The pilgrimage first started when a shepherd discovered a peculiar ice formation in the cave in the late 1700s, which a Hindu priest visited and declared to be the mythical home of Lord Shiva.

Numbers of pilgrims rose in the mid-1980s and then dipped when armed militants in the region demanded that Kashmir be freed from Indian rule.

On July 10, 2017, Islamic militants targeted a bus carrying pilgrims in south Kashmir's Anantnag district, killing seven people and injuring 19 others.

That was the worst attack on the annual pilgrimage since 2000 when 21 people were killed by militants using grenades.

So far, a total of 44 pilgrims have been killed by militants in Kashmir.

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