From Amarnath to Murree

July 20, 2019

The annual holy Amarnath Yatra in the 3880-meter-high glacier cave in the Himalayan is in full swing. So far, in the first 20 days of the 46-day pilgrimage, around 2,50,000 devotees from across...

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The annual holy Amarnath Yatra in the 3880-meter-high glacier cave in the Himalayan is in full swing. So far, in the first 20 days of the 46-day pilgrimage, around 2,50,000 devotees from across India have paid their obeisance. The freezing temperature inside the 130 feet Amarnath cave forms a pillar-like structure thanks to the freezing of water drops that fall from the roof of the cave and grow vertically.

This year, there is an unprecedented level of security on the route to the holy cave. According to reports, there are more than 50,000 personnel guarding the route in addition to thousands more that are stationed in nearby security camps, check-posts, garrisons. The security arrangements have caused a great deal of tension among the locals. Because this year, under the new Modi government in India, the governor administration that now directly rules Jammu and Kashmir has introduced apartheid-style security measures that have curtailed the day-to-day movements of Kashmiri Muslims while the convoys of Hindu devotees pass.

The practice was introduced soon after the Pulwama suicide blast in mid-February this year that killed more than 40 security personnel and nearly caused a war between India and Pakistan. After weeks of intense public anger, the arrangement was later withdrawn only to be reintroduced at the advent of the yatra three weeks back.

A day before the commencement of the pilgrimage, I visited Pahalgam, a famous town where the pilgrims first gather, and travelled further to Chandanwari base camp, where the holy trek through the glaciers begins. The place was filled with security personnel of all hues and uniforms – from paramilitary CRPF forces to military soldiers – and thousands of locals and tourists intermingling in a dusty milieu that choked breath and smelt of petrol fumes. The milieu was littered with ghastly sights of plastic garbage formed out of deformed shopping bags and wasted food wrappers of misshapen countenance. Only a decade back, when I last visited the place, it was pristine and desolate with little human footprint.

During my visit to the holy cave via Chandanwari, I remember the rows of the Himalayan birch trees with their laminated white trunks reflecting the glamour of sunlight. The vast desolation of ice – the glaciers with gushing streams of the tumultuous water underneath – was therapeutic. In comparison, the latest visit was cumbersome and terrorising – both for the destruction of the environment and the outrageous security paraphernalia that felt more motivated to cause discrimination and marginalisation than to offer any sense of security.

The growing number of pilgrims and resultant harsh security presence has caused unprecedented levels of destruction to the environment. Approaching Chandanwari, I was confronted by tens of scores of shops, private buildings, religious places – both Hindu and Muslim – constructed or demarcated on the government land that has deteriorated the physico-chemical qualities of soil, and flora. The wild lavender that once adorned the foothills showed a wilted and withered presence. A decade back, it would have been extreme to even think of a traffic jam at the approach of glaciers; I was stuck for nearly an hour to first find a parking space, failing which I tried to leave the place with great bother. The extraordinary movement of people has caused terrible pollution to the glacier-fed Lidder River whose water was fabled for its healthy minerals. Sadly, since the yatra has been heavily securitised and linked to the nationalist Hindu project to subdue the irredentist Kashmiri nationalism, there is little incentive for official intervention for and on behalf of nature.

My trip to Amarnath base-camp was followed by a week-long trip to Murree. Last week, upon reaching Lahore, I took my family to the famous hill-station. It was no doubt a great relief from sweltering Lahore that, in the unwholesome summer, turns into a giant-sized lava-spewing oven in ever-expanding and overwhelming blocks of concrete residences. As we negotiated the cloud-enshrouded serpentine mountain roads, the cool pine-scented breezes restored our agitated souls.

As the initial excitement wore off, it was very disturbing to see the mounds of plastic litter and filth produced by untreated waste that are turning Murree into a collapsing magnificence. There is virtually no end to the hordes of tourists who carry little or no sense of social or communal behaviour as they throw litter, mainly of non-biodegradable quality, anywhere and everywhere. It is hard to escape the ghoulish trails of waste generated by roadside eateries and ramshackle shops that have breached the natural barriers making any future efforts to tidy the place quite cumbersome and expensive. Almost a decade back, when I first visited Murree, it was a pretty getaway from the vagaries of urban life. Aside from the Mall Road, where the ever-present throng of people almost carried the festive spirit of 'androon' Lahore, the rest of the place felt calm and therapeutic. Now, one is constantly trolled by the presence of uncontrolled and heavy vehicular traffic and unguarded public movement. Even at the mountain peaks that felt isolated only a few years back are choked by interminable traffic jams of people or foul-spirited and harshly honking locomotives. Worse, there is construction going on more or less everywhere; small and big building that look like hotels are propping up on every roadside curve, mountain peak or ravine. There is an uncanny rush to fill every inch of Murree with a concrete structure.

Twitter: murtaza_shibli

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