Inclement Weather, Risky Route: Why Amarnath Yatra Remains Dangerous
Flash floods near the Amarnath cave in Kashmir claimed at least sixteen lives. Why is the pilgrimage so risky?
A cloudburst and flash floods near the Amarnath cave in Kashmir earlier in July claimed at least sixteen lives, while 65 others were left injured. They were all devotees who were en route the holy pilgrimage. Two are still missing.
Amarnath Yatra resumed after two years in June 2022. It was canceled abruptly in 2019 before the abrogation of Article 370 when tourists were asked to leave the Valley. No yatra could take place in 2020 and 2021 owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Read | One Year After Article 370 Revoked In J&K, What Changed?
Before the start of the pilgrimage this year, officials had said the Yatra would be the 'biggest' with around 6 lakh pilgrims. After the tragic incident, the yatra was suspended for a few days before being resumed on July 12. The rescue operations to trace the survivors of the flash flood near Baltal base camp lasted for nearly a week.
The incident has once again raised questions about the safety of pilgrims and the fragile ecology along the route which consists of the trek in high altitudes.
BOOM spoke to pilgrims, workers, and security officials to understand why the Amarnath yatra remains so dangerous despite the safety measures.
'The Road To Amarnath Temple Is Dangerous'
Surinder Kumar, 33, had just returned from the Amarnath Cave temple and was resting in his tent when he heard a loud sound. When he stepped out to see where the sound was coming from, he found rocks and water gushing down from the mountain. He managed to escape unhurt, but several tents with pilgrims in them got washed away within minutes.
He couldn't sleep that night. "The trek is risky and the roads too dangerous," he said.
Another pilgrim, Angad Kumar, witnessed how water and debris rushed toward the camp where the pilgrims were resting. Not everyone managed to escape. Angad saw a group of pilgrims being washed away with their bags in the river. "It was a terrifying experience," he recalled.
Riyaz Dar, a tent seller, recalled heartbreaking scenes from the July 8 incident. "I have been working here for the past 13 years, and have never witnessed such a catastrophe," he said. Dar was fixing tents near the cave when he heard a noise that sounded like "a bomb had gone off".
The cloudburst incident forced many pilgrims to leave Kashmir without paying a visit to the sacred temple."Cloudburst took away everything that came in its way and we were left with nothing," one of the pilgrims said. Many of them who left said they want to return again next year to finish their incomplete pilgrimage.
Why is Amarnath one of the most dangerous religious sites to visit?
Iitiyaz Hussain, a 22-year-old boy lost his life while trying to save a piligrim en route to the holy cave last week. Hussain was ferrying a pilgrim on a horse when he realised he was sleeping and seemed to be falling off the saddle. As he rushed to wake him up, Hussain lost his balance and fell into the 300-feet-deep gorge. "He was the only bread-earner of his family. The lone brother of four sisters and son of a blind father," Nizar Ahmed, Hussain's uncle, told BOOM.
The Amarnath Yatra to the holy cave has two routes–one via Pahalgam in south Kashmir, the other through Sonmarg in Ganderbal district. Both the routes — trodden on foot or on ponies — are narrow, hilly and slippery, risking the lives of the pilgrims, locals, and security personnel deployed there. High altitude and frequent rains make it worse.
But, over the years, some safety measures have been put in place.
Bashir Ahmed, Deputy Superintendent of SDRF at Baltal base camp, mentioned a few locations like Brarimarg en route the Amarnath cave which is prone to landslides. "It becomes dangerous when some pilgrims insist on travelling at night," he said.
Keeping in mind the safety of pilgrims, the darshan time for the devotees has been reduced from 6 pm to 4 pm, an official of the Shri Amarnath Yatra Shrine Board told BOOM.
He said that the road to the cave snakes through massive hills is just 6 feet wide. "If anyone slips, there is no chance of survival. In some cases, even the dead body cannot be retrieved because of weather and terrain," the officer said, adding that fencing has been done along the route to ensure safety.
In the past few years, fencing has been done along the route leading up to the cave, said Nazir Ahmed, a pony driver. He also said that lights have been installed over the last two years. However, heavy snowfall in the winters has damaged the fencing.
So far, no official has visited Hussain's home nor has the government extended any monetary help to the family, his uncle Ahmed said.
"While the topography is challenging for the pilgrimage, it is a challenge security-wise as well," former Director General of Police SP Vaid told BOOM. "The yatra has faced terror threats since 1990," he added.
Read | Amarnath Yatra Attacks Only When BJP In Power? Data Does Not Support The Claim
Did safety measures fail?
An official, on the condition of anonymity, said that while the government has taken safety measures, no one could have predicted a natural disaster like a cloudburst. "We had made enough arrangements. It was all due to sufficient arrangement that the loss was minimised. We had left no stone unturned to conduct a smooth pilgrimage. But all of sudden, higher areas of the cave received massive rainfall within one hour," he said. "What could have been done to avoid this?" he asked.
Director of the meteorological department Sonum Lotus echoed the same opinion and said that the natural disaster couldn't be predicted. "It was all clear till 5 PM on July 8 and suddenly clouds gathered and the disaster took place," he said.
The Indian Meteorological Department releases a special weather advisory for Amarnath Yatra every year. The general, daily forecast for the district on 8th July was a yellow alert. Even the evening forecast on Amarnath Yatra website at 4.07 pm said 'partly cloudy sky with possibility of very light rain" for all along the route from both Pahalgam side and Baltal side." There was no accompanying warning.
Read | KCR Says Cloudburst Is 'Foreign Conspiracy'. But Can It Be Artificially Created?
Although the weather alert said "dry", 28mm rain was recorded from 5:30 pm to 6:30 pm, swelling the river that flows along the Baltal camp, and eventually washing away several tents.
According to officials, the pilgrims are asked to carry warm and waterproof clothes for cold and rainy weather. They're also advised not to stop at places marked as "danger zones" and wear suitable, skid-proof footwear.
After the disastrous floods of July 8, an alternate route to the cave was created by the army soldiers, away from the river. Troops from the Indian Army immediately set to task and worked overnight to clear the area and prepare an alternative route, carrying out ground leveling and preparing stairs using sandbags.
The authors are independent journalists from Kashmir.
Do you always want to share the authentic news with your friends?