Srinagar, June 27: The annual Amarnath Yatra to the cave shrine in the Kashmir Himalayas begins on Friday, amid heightened security and in inclement weather.
A three-tier security set-up comprising the army, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the state police has been mounted on the Yatra route, at the three transit camps, the two base camps of Baltal in north Kashmir and Nunwan (Pahalgam) in the south, and also at the Amarnath cave at 13,000 feet above sea level.
On Thursday, the eve of the official start of the yatra, dozens of pilgrim-laden vehicles arrived at the Manigam transit camp in north Kashmir's Ganderbal district and Mir Bazar, and at the walnut factory transit camps in south Kashmir's Anantnag district.
Many pilgrims have already arrived at Baltal and Nunwan base camps, where authorities are busy trying to regulate the pilgrims, making sure that none of them leaves before the official commencement of the Yatra.
Scores of makeshift tea and food stalls and kiosks have come up along the Yatra route in Ganderbal and Anantnag districts.
Dozens of 'langars' (free kitchens) have already been set up at Manigam, Mir Bazar, Baltal and Nunwan camps. These free kitchens are operated every year by volunteers who collect donations at various places in the country for serving the pilgrims during the yatra days.
State Governor N.N. Vohra, who is also the chairman of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), which manages the affairs of the yatra, has visited the base camps and the yatra routes in both north and south Kashmir to personally supervise the arrangements.
Last year, over six lakh pilgrims undertook the yatra. Around 100 of them died of health-related problems in the yatra period, triggering a controversy over the healthcare facilities available to pilgrims.
Old age, forging of the mandatory fitness certificates needed to be able to embark on the arduous uphill climb, and high-altitude-induced ailments are the main causes of the deaths.
The cave is located about 140 km from Srinagar.
The state government has, this year, made elaborate arrangements for medical care along both the yatra routes and at the two base camps.
Round-the-clock access to medical staff and ambulances, and oxygen cylinders, mobile dispensaries have been made available to pilgrims this year.
Since early Thursday, the Kashmir Valley has received rain.
Sonam Lotus, director of the local meteorological office, told IANS: "There is likelihood of rather heavy rain in Banihal-Jammu sector of the highway. Isolated heavy downpour is expected at some places along the Baltal and Pahalgam Yatra routes also."
"The present wet weather conditions would continue for the next three days, although there would be breaks in between," Lotus said.
Amarnath is among the holiest shrines in Hinduism. Inside the 40-metre high cave, a large stalagmite is worshipped as the Shiva linga.