India promotes Hindu pilgrimage as sign of peace in Kashmir

India is pitching a Hindu pilgrimage to a snowy cave shrine in disputed, Muslim-majority Kashmir as evidence of peace in a state marred by decades of armed conflict amid popular resistance to Indian rule.

The annual yatra, or spiritual journey, to the Amarnath shrine, the hallowed mountain cave where devotees revere an icy stalagmite as an image of Lord Shiva, presents an opportunity for the state of Jammu and Kashmir to show something beyond the frequent skirmishes between armed separatists and Indian soldiers that have cost tens of thousands of lives.

The pilgrims, many of them barefooted ascetics, chant hymns and ring bells as they travel through forested areas in Kashmir’s Himalayas. The worshippers approach the shrine through two routes, a traditional one via the southern hill resort of Pahalgam and a shorter one through northeastern Baltal. Some also use helicopter services to pay quick obeisance.

The Amarnath cave is covered with snow most of the year except for a short period in summer when it is open for the pilgrims.

The state, run by a governor appointed by India’s Hindu nationalist-led central government, has spent huge sums on an advertising campaign, including ads in two of India’s highest circulation dailies, and on security. Some 40,000 security personnel were deployed to protect pilgrims who have been repeatedly targeted by militant groups, most recently in 2017, when seven were killed as their bus was attacked leaving the shrine area.

Modi’s government sees the potentially lucrative side of Hindu pilgrimages. It has spent handsomely on the Hindu mega-fest Kumbh Mela in January and to build an amenity-laden corridor linking the Ganges River with an important Hindu temple in the city of Varanasi.

Jammu and Kashmir Gov. Satya Pal Malik, appointed by the president of India nearly a year ago, says that despite the beefed-up security for the yatra, the violence in the Kashmir Valley has been exaggerated.