Every summer, thousands of Hindus complete the pilgrimage to the Amarnath temple, located in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. A large, phallic block of ice inside the Amarnath cave is believed to be a Shiva lingam, or a sign of the Hindu god Shiva. In the popular telling, a Kashmiri Muslim named Buta Malik discovered the Shiva lingam in the eighteenth century. Since then, in July and August, the steep path to the cave has been regularly overrun with devotees.
In recent years, though, the shrine has become a political flashpoint between Hindus and Muslims. Amarnath is at the center of a dispute between Kashmiris and the Indian government, and, over the years, India has used the pilgrimage to assert its political control over the area. As Professor Ian Reader at the University of Lancaster, who has visited the cave, wrote in his book Pilgrimage in the Marketplace, “Hindu nationalist organizations have encouraged Hindus to participate in the Amarnath pilgrimage as a statement of Hindu pride and in order to reinforce Indian claims to the region and to demonstrate their opposition to Pakistan’s counterclaims.” Indeed, such efforts have increased the number of pilgrims that make the trek—from 12,000 in 1989 to 634,000 in 2011 (the highest number of visits to date).
TRAIL OF TRASH
Last month, I decided to make the 20-mile journey to the Shiva lingam, which sits at an altitude of 12,756 feet. In the early morning, together with two friends, I left from Pahalgam, a tourist destination in South Kashmir, to Chandanwari, the location of the first base camp.
Before we began the hike, an Indian paramilitary officer greeted us at a tea shop with a gun and a bag of tear gas canisters slung over his shoulders. He said that it was the last week of the pilgrimage and that few people were visiting. While checking a small notebook, he said, “Yesterday, only 160 pilgrims arrived.” So far this year,
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