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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, around 352,000 have made the journey, with the highest number of pilgrims on a given day at 20,822.
After passing through the first security check, where an officer searched us for banned goods (such as liquor and tobacco) and verified our identities, we began the steep, two-mile ascent to the Pissu Top, following a pathway carved from the barren mountains. There were concrete steps to assist us at several points. With each step, my backpack—crammed with my MacBook, cell phone, camera, medicines, a few notepads, a jacket, and a water bottle—grew heavier. The noon sun was at its peak, forcing me to wrap my scarf around my head like a turban to protect myself from the burning heat.
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.
The path to the temple was dotted with officials from India’s Border Security Forces. There are various points where the security forces, along with the local police and other paramilitary forces, have set up camps. A few years ago, according to the locals, the Indian government even installed a massive iron gate to patrol the road into the valley containing the cave.
When we finally reached the summit, which overlooks a stream, we saw a few hastily assembled tents that formed a community kitchen, or langar. Some of the tents belonged to the Indian paramilitary forces. The Indian flag could be seen waving all around.
We were served tea and food in plastic cups and steel plates. Officially, plastic is banned at the camp. In 2000, the government, led by the National Conference Party, created the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board to oversee the pilgrimage. The board prohibited the langars from using plastic materials to serve food or beverages because the path to the temple was getting strewn with litter. Somehow, these items still make it into the camp. Plastic bottles, wafers, polythene bags, and empty cigarette packs mark the route. In fact, if you lose your way, the trail of garbage always helps you get back on track.
FEEDING THE PILGRIMS
Around noon, a few other travellers arrived at Pissu Top and a langar worker offered them water, packed wafers, cooked food, tea, and chutki (a variant of tobacco that is used as mouth freshener). Several makeshift toilets had been installed on a nearby foothill. Behind the camping grounds, all the food and human waste had been dumped in a few trenches.
Anand Kumar, 34, who works at one of the langars, was making the trek for the fifth time. He came from Delhi to serve as one of several hundred volunteers. The work is considered an honor and an expression of devotion to the faith. Sitting behind a buffet table, Kumar told me, “There is no better deed than to feed the pilgrims.”
Perhaps. But that feeding generates a massive amount of solid waste: around 22,000 pounds a day, or roughly 1.3 million pounds over the two-month pilgrimage. The board usually provides four 26-gallon trash bins to each langar—two green ones for biodegradable waste and two blue ones for all other trash. All non-biodegradable bins must be brought to designated collection sites in Baltal and Pahalgam at the cost of the langar owners. Naturally, these guidelines are rarely followed, as are other hygiene regulations. Langars have to provide safe, potable drinking water to travelers and ensure against the use of plastic water bottles. Pilgrims also pollute the bodies of water in the area by defecating, bathing, or dumping solid waste in them. These flow down to the populated areas of southern Kashmir. In the past, locals have complained that, during pilgrimages, they have come down with waterborne diseases like jaundice.
Shakil Romshu, the Head of Kashmir University’s Geology department, says that even 10,000 pilgrims a day would overtax the delicate ecology of the Pahalgam valley and its forests and waterfalls. But Amarnath can see upward of 20,000 pilgrims a day. “Open defecation and showers by so many people—around 50,000 in the area on two routes—has affected the bodies of water,” Romshu explained. “The inflow of people, including the tourists, should be regulated.”
After another five-mile stretch, my friends and I reached the mid-route base camp at Sheeshnag, one of the picturesque lakes in Kashmir. It was dusk. The pilgrims always stay overnight at Sheeshnag before moving ahead. There, board authorities check identity cards and search the luggage of the pilgrims. At least a dozen concrete structures have been started near Sheeshnag, some of them still under construction. These structures will be used as overnight shelters for travelers and members of the Indian forces.
While we were sipping tea at a tent shop, a group of officers approached us. “Are you the ones from press?” one of them asked. We affirmed that we were, and, to our surprise, one said, “But you are not supposed to come here without a prior permission from the board.” To that we explained that we were also Kashmir locals.
That is when we learned that the Kashmiri are not allowed at the shrine if they are not pilgrims or hired to assist with the pilgrimage. One of the first to question us was a member of the military intelligence. He noted down our names, addresses, and phone numbers. That began an investigation that dragged on until midnight. Nine different officials from India’s various security agencies came to take down the details we had already given the first officer. We were continuously questioned for over several hours. The police seized our cameras and other equipment. At the end of the ordeal, no decision was made on whether we could finish our journey, but the police let us stay overnight while they deliberated.
Last year, Romshu tried to take a group of students on the same trek through the Chandanwari route to study the ecology of the Sheeshnag Lake. He was not even allowed to pass the gate at base camp. “I wanted to camp at Sheeshnag for three days to study the water quality,” he told me. “But the board authorities and the paramilitary forces didn’t allow us.”
Even though it was never announced, the board appears to have forbidden visits to Amarnath by researchers and journalists, which makes me wonder: What is there to hide? In the past, several of my colleagues, who are also local Kashmiris, had gone to visit the cave without any hassle or need to seek permission.
That concern is most likely related to the ongoing tensions between the two main political parties governing the state: the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party and the Muslim Jammu and Kashmir Peoples’ Democratic Party. The political polarization between the two regions was heightened after the 2008 dispute known as the Amaranth land transfer row. On May 26, the state of Jammu and Kashmir agreed to transfer 39 acres of forestland in the Kashmir Valley to the board in order to create shelters and other facilities for Hindu pilgrims. But Kashmiri Muslims deeply opposed the transfer of land. Hundreds of thousands protested and the government responded with force, killing around 80 Muslims. Eventually, the land transfer was cancelled, but the tensions remain. Hindu nationalists in Jammu blocked the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway, the only road that connects India with Kashmir Valley, causing weeklong shortages of essential commodities like medicine and food in Kashmir. This led to a large protest march on August 11 toward the Line of Control, the de facto border between the two sides of the divided Kashmir, to demand that it be opened to let in essential supplies. Indian forces responded by opening fire, killing five civilians.
The next morning at Sheeshnag, I awoke to the sound of choppers flying over the camp, transporting pilgrims who did not want to go on foot to the cave. Again, we met with the police, who told us we had to turn back. A few policemen accompanied us back to the Chandanwari base camp. Locals from Pahalgam later told us that many of them have not been allowed to move beyond the gate either.
For me, the experience in Sheeshnag left me feeling as if nothing had changed in Kashmir since partition. The mountains, the plains, and even the air are still controlled by uniformed men who consider civilians a threat. Sometimes it seems as if the relationship between India and Kashmir is best explained by the Panopticon, a hypothetical structure that philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed in the eighteenth century. In it, an authority figure can sit atop a tower, spying on the rest of the building, divided into cells, without being seen.