Chamba: The 16-day-long annual pilgrimage to the oval-shaped, glacial-fed Manimahesh Lake in Himachal Pradesh, dedicated to Lord Shiva, began Wednesday amid the chanting of religious hymns, an official said here.
The pilgrimage is considered as arduous as the one to the Amarnath cave shrine in Jammu and Kashmir. It will conclude Sep 13 on Radhashtami (the birthday of Lord Krishna's companion Radha).
"The first batch of around 10,000 devotees today (Wednesday) left the base camp on foot despite inclement weather," Sub-Divisional Magistrate and pilgrimage in-charge Jitender Kanwar told IANS.
The state government for the first time has made it mandatory for devotees to get themselves registered for the Manimahesh Yatra.
Kanwar said devotees would be allowed on the pilgrimage only after registration with the local civic authorities.
Registration forms for the pilgrimage can also be downloaded from the official website www.hpchamba.nic.in.
Every year, devotees undertake the arduous 14-km trek from the Hadsar base camp, 65 km from here, to the Manimahesh lake, located at an altitude of 13,500 feet, in Bharmour Valley from where they can see Mount Kailash, believed to be the abode of Lord Shiva, and offer prayers.
Kanwar said the traditional "Chhari Yatra" -- the procession with the mace of Lord Shiva -- would start Sep 6 from the 1,000-year-old Lakshmi Narayan temple of Chamba, 450 km from the state capital, on its onward journey to the lake.
The state government has allowed two private heli-taxi operators -- Trans Bharat and Summit Aviation -- to ferry people during the pilgrimage.
The choppers ferry devotees between Bharmour town, the base camp of the pilgrimage, and Gauri Kund, just one km short of the lake. The one-way fare per person is Rs.3,430.
For the safety of the devotees, the administration has deployed rescue teams comprising 50 people on the entire route, besides deploying over 450 police and home guard personnel.
Tents and medical camps have been set up at various points, he added.
Over 450,000 people performed the pilgrimage last year. Six devotees died due to medical reasons and accidents, officials said.