The Amarnath pilgrimage through the pine-forested mountains of Kashmir leads to the cave where Hindu texts say Lord Shiva, the god of destruction, once lived.
This year, the serenity of the annual march along gurgling streams is jarred by the sight of machine-gun bunkers, camouflage tents, minesweepers and thousands of uniformed men.
Muslim insurgents have threatened to disrupt the 10-day pilgrimage, which begins Tuesday, to press their demands for independence from India.
In the same Himalayan hills, one militant Kashmiri group is holding a Spokane man, two Britons, a German and a Norwegian hostage to exchange them for 21 imprisoned guerrilla leaders. India has rejected the demand.
The rebels’ threat puts the government of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in a dilemma. With 10,000 troops in the hills to protect the pilgrims, the chances of a clash with the kidnappers are heightened.
But facing an election next year, the government cannot afford to cancel the pilgrimage and appear to bow to the dictates of the separatists.
The hostages were taken captive July 4 while hiking. A previously unknown militant organization called Al-Faran claimed responsibility.
Al-Faran says Indian forces have raided their hideouts five times since the kidnapping, and that two of the hostages were wounded in fighting. The Indian government denies any clashes or raids took place.
The Jammu-Kashmir state government expects 50,000 to 70,000 Hindus to make this year’s pilgrimage, although monsoon floods have made roads impassable. Last year, 40,000 visited the holy cave in defiance of separatist threats.
On Saturday, the government brought 30 priests from the tourist town of Pahalgam to the Amarnath cave by helicopter so they could begin preparing the site for the worshippers. It also sent army engineers to repair bridges.
“We are doing everything possible to make the pilgrimage a success,” said Lt. Gen. D.D. Saklani, the state’s top federal security official.
The Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage is mentioned in ancient Hindu scriptures as one of the important pilgrimages devout Hindus must make.
They say Shiva, one of the three most important deities in the Hindu pantheon, lived in the cave with his consort Parvati. Faithful pilgrims say they can see an ice image of Shiva on the night of the full moon of August.
Situated in a narrow gorge at the end of the Lidder valley, Amarnath is at an altitude of 12,730 feet. It takes five days to make the 289-mile roundtrip from Pahalgam. The ancient route winds up the Mahagunas Pass to 15,092 feet and then descends to the meadows below the holy cave.
Rebels in Jammu-Kashmir, the only mostly Muslim state in predominantly Hindu India, have been fighting for independence for five years. They claim the disputed territory has been treated unfairly by India.
Although foreigners have seldom been involved, 14 have been kidnapped since 1989, including four last year in the New Delhi area, according to the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center.
All were released unharmed except an Israeli tourist who resisted capture and was killed in the struggle in June 1991.
The five now being held are Donald Hutchings, 42, of Spokane; Paul Wells, 23, of London; Keith Mangan, 33, of Middlesbrough, England; Dirk Hasert, 26, of Erfurt, Germany; and Hans Christian Ostro, 27, of Oslo, Norway.