September 18, 2011
By Peerzada Arshad Hamid
PAHALGAM, India (AlertNet) – A very long way from home, Arvin Prasad Goel clutched his wife’s hand as they prepared to eat in a makeshift communal kitchen set up on the Himalayan mountainside.
They were weary from a four-day trek through rough terrain and cold weather to visit the Amarnath cave, perched at an altitude of 12,600 feet (3,880 metres) in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
The cave is revered by many Hindus as a shrine of the god Shiva, whom they worship in the form of an ice stalagmite known as the Shiv lingam. Over a 45-day period each year, more than half a million pilgrims make the arduous, 60 km (38 mile) uphill trek to pray before the phallus-shaped formation.
Goel, a 60-year-old resident of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh state, has made numerous pilgrimages to Amarnath, and said his faith made the journey possible.
"For our age and health this trek is simply impossible, but it seems Bolay (Lord Shiva) infuses in us the intrinsic power to climb the difficult terrain," he said.
But this year, faith was no match for warmer conditions on the mountain, as the couple found when they finally arrived at the cave.
"To my dismay, the lingam had melted and I could not do the darshan (religious observance),” said Goel. “I couldn’t let my wife see the holy lingam.”
When this year’s pilgrimage began on June 29, the ice stalagmite stood 15 feet (4.6 metres) high, according to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), which oversees the pilgrimage.
EARLY ICE MELT
But by ten days prior to the end of the pilgrimage period, the stalagmite had completely melted, disappointing thousands of devotees like the Goels.
Shrine Board officials attribute the early melting of the ice to the effects of climate change on the region. In their view, this important cultural practice is at risk from a warming planet.
“The Shiva lingam melted simply because of a warm summer this year,” said. R. K. Goyal, chief executive officer of the SASB. "The overall increase in temperature is the reason.”
But Sonam Lotus, head of the Meteorological Department of Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, blamed the melting on the increased numbers of people inside the cave, together with large-scale cooking on gas stoves in open community kitchens nearby.
The wide mouth of the Amarnath cave exposes the ice formation to the outside air, making it sensitive to changes in temperature.
Around 615,000 devotees had completed the pilgrimage by August 3, according to SASB officials, reaching Amarnath on foot and even via helicopter.
“It’s natural that if more than half a million people throng to the cave, the rate of melting of the ice formation will be faster due to human-induced heat,” Lotus said.
“During the first 25 days on average 15,000 to 20,000 people visited the holy cave (each day), and this does have an impact,” he added.
But Lotus did not rule out increasing temperatures around the globe as a factor in the melting of the stalagmite.
“Temperature around the globe has risen considerably, but the abrupt rush of people to the … environment does bring considerable changes,” Lotus explains.
RISING VISITOR NUMBERS
Visitor numbers at Amarnath this year were the highest ever recorded, at 635,000 by the end of the pilgrimage period. Previous years have seen about 400,000 people come to the cave. However, unofficial sources put the true number at around one million, since many poorer pilgrims such as sadhus (Hindu holy men) do not register with the pilgrimage board.
Activists have blamed the SASB for violating the recommendations of two government committees that have looked into the pilgrimage in the past. These called for no more than 3,500 pilgrims to be allowed into the cave each day, both to preserve the ice formation and for the safety of visitors. In 1996, at least 243 pilgrims died in bad weather en route to the shrine.
“The shrine board is responsible for playing with the faith of devotees. You have pilgrims coming from distant Indian states and then they are not able to witness the holy thing,” said Riyaz Khan, an activist in Pahalgam.
“Board officials know there is an increase in temperature around the globe, and despite that they allow crowds of pilgrims inside the cave, which contributes to the early melting of the ice formation,” added Khan.
Environmental groups have long accused the SASB of playing havoc with the fragile environment along the route to the cave by encouraging greater numbers of pilgrims.
The groups say that the influx of crowds causes pollution in the mountainous area and puts pressure on nearby glaciers. They want the duration of the pilgrimage to be limited to 15 days each year.
Back in Chandanwari camp, Shanta Goel, who was accompanying her husband on the pilgrimage for the first time, took the ice formation’s premature disappearance personally.
“It seems Bole (Lord Shiva) is annoyed with us," she said. “The lucky ones had the darshan and we sinners couldn’t.”
Looking ahead, she told her husband that they should be better prepared for the next pilgrimage.
“Make a promise here that next year you will bring me to witness the Shiv lingam in the holy cave at the beginning of the yatra (pilgrimage),” she said.
Peerzada Arshad Hamid is a writer based in Srinagar, Kashmir.