Kashmir Pilgrimage Offers Hope for Hindu-Muslim Unity

December 10, 2008

Author: Sameer Mohindru

Source: The Wall Street Journal


The annual pilgrimage to Amarnath cave in the southern Himalayas has been a rare example of Hindu-Muslim unity in India for centuries.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of Hindus trek through snow-clad peaks to the sacred cave of Amarnath, 3,888 meters above sea level, during a two-month period between June and August.

This year, the pilgrimage drew a record 550,000 travelers to India's only Muslim-majority state. Yet it also sparked unprecedented religious violence and led to the fall of the Jammu and Kashmir state government.

Elections are under way in the province, with results due at the end of this month. Thousands of soldiers have been deployed to provide protection during the campaign. At least two anti-election protesters were shot after attempting to prevent citizens from voting.

The annual Amarnath journey is believed to be one of the world's oldest religious pilgrimages; historical references date back at least 2,000 years.

Each winter, a natural stalagmite forms in the sacred grotto in a shape that many Hindus associate with the Hindu god Shiva. Thanks to the high altitude and cold temperatures, the formation is still there in early summer when religious trekkers first arrive; it melts gradually during the summer months.

The pilgrimage is a crucial source of income for local Muslims who have long welcomed the travelers -- housing and feeding them, selling religious memorabilia and even sheltering trekkers during deadly storms in the scenic but sometimes harsh environment.

A Kashmiri hiring out a pack pony to Amarnath cave visitors stands to earn more than 3,000 rupees ($61) a trip, and can make at least 30 such trips during the two-month pilgrimage season. This adds up to a large amount in an area where the average annual income is about 16,000 rupees.

Tourism has traditionally been a mainstay of Kashmir's economy. The industry was badly damaged when separatist violence and deadly terror attacks peaked in the 1990s. But the immensely popular pilgrimage has helped sustain the sector.

"Most pilgrims spend a couple of days visiting other places in Kashmir, which has added to the number of tourists," said Mohammad Ashraf, a Srinagar-based cab driver.

The Kashmir region is divided between nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan. The nations have fought two wars over Kashmir since their independence from the U.K. in 1947.