Soldiers have rescued some 15,000 devotees caught in flashfloods set off by torrential rains that killed 16 and injured dozens more. They were en route to the sacred Shri Amarnathji shrine in a Himalayan cave in Jammu and Kashmir, India. The shrine is devoted to Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and re-creation.
The annual pilgrimage to Amarnathji began June 30 and is scheduled to conclude August 11, the full-moon night that Hindus say commemorates Shiva revealing the secret of the creation of the universe.
“…the mud and sludge descending from the hilltop filled the lower areas and entered the tents where people were resting,” one devotee said. “We could see pilgrims being swept away by the gushing waters.”
Authorities suspended the pilgrimage for two days as the rains continued, while military and paramilitary troops, assisted by police and disaster management officials, searched for survivors along slippery trails overlooking breathtaking vistas of glaciers and snowy mountain peaks. Rescuers used thermal-imaging devices, sniffer dogs, and through-wall radar sensors to locate the missing.
Amarnath, a Sanskrit word that means “immortal god,” is the name of the cave and the mountain that is covered with snow year-round, except for a brief period in the summer, when the area is open to pilgrims. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus make the annual pilgrimage, typically taking one of two routes to reach their destination—either a day-long or a more leisurely three-day trip—along steep, rocky mountain passes flanked by sprawling meadows and forests. Some pilgrims rely on helicopter services to ferry them to the shrine.
Over the years, hundreds of pilgrims have perished from exhaustion and exposure to severe weather conditions. In 1996, more than 250 people died when a freak snowstorm caught thousands unprepared.
Pilgrims to Amarnath have also been increasingly threatened by attacks from Islamist militants who have been fighting for the independence of Kashmir from Indian rule since 1989. At least 50 pilgrims have died in some three dozen of these attacks.
This year, tens of thousands of troops are deployed along the pilgrimage routes, and for the first time, authorities have utilized a wireless tracking system to tag devotees.
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