Hundreds perish; 9,000 airlifted by helicopters

With Vinod Singh Rawat in Delhi

This was to be the biggest year ever for the annual pilgrimage to Amarnath cave in Jammu. More than 125,000 ardent pilgrims were expected to trek to the 12,729-foot cave renowned for its self-forming ice Lingam of Lord Siva. For the first time in years, there was no threat to the pilgrims from Muslim militants. Wayfarers expected an arduous journey. Some, usually among the elderly, die each year; it is widely regarded as an exalted death.

When the initial batch of 25,000 departed Pahalgam base camp on August 16, the mood was festive. Five days later, torrential freezing rains and snow began and continued for 62 hours—an unprecedented weather pattern for August, with 70,000 pilgrims stranded along the path. It was two days before reports reached authorities of the calamity’s enormity. The majority of casualties were among 17,000 trapped in sub-zero temperatures at the cave itself or at Panch-tarni, the highest station, 6.5km away. Most still pushed on until they had darshan of the ice Siva Lingam before trying to get down. Another 25,000 were huddled at the lower stations of Sheshnag and Chandanwari. Many died of cold or exhaustion, others fell off the muddy, washed-out path into the chasms below, and an unknown number perished when a glacier broke up along the upper reaches.

By official count, 239 died, but returning witnesses put the toll at more than a thousand. Bodies, they said, lay strew along the entire route. Many old and infirm pilgrims unable to walk anymore pleaded with passers-by for help. The latter, struggling to save their own lives, paid little heed, passing by stoically.

Prime Minister Deve Gow-da ordered the Indian army and air force to mount a massive rescue effort. Over 9,000 pilgrims were airlifted from higher altitudes in 18-seat MI-17 helicop-ters. Soldiers on foot carried others down. On the 26th, 20,000 pilgrims were still trapped, and 70,000 more were packed into Pahalgam (population 10,000), where local Muslim opened their homes to them. With the trail still hazardous, the priests and Chhari Mu-barik, the “sacred mace,” were choppered to the cave for the annual ceremonies.

Weather forecasting in the area had been hampered by the insurgency as meteorologists could not set up monitoring stations on militant-controlled moun-taintops. The event was not only a natural disaster, but also an example of collective karma, wherein the individual destinies of a large group coincide in one great happening impacting them all. Yet nothing will deter next year’s pilgrims from returning in even greater numbers. Ω

With Vinod Singh Rawat in Delhi