Amarnath Yatra: A String of Religion Which runs along dangers and terror threats

More than fifty pilgrims to Amarnath, in the Jammu and Kashmir of India, have lost their lives to terror attacks in the 18 years.

The famed shrine of Lord Shiva -- a highly regarded Hindu deity -- located high up in the mountains in the southern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir is an important place of pilgrimage for Hindu devotees.  .The journey to the shrine is known as the Amarnath Yatra.

Annually hundreds of thousands of individuals battle unfavorable weather conditions and the brutal terrain to make it to the sacred shrine that houses a Shiva Linga (an abstract representation of the deity) made of ice, formed inside a small cave.

The state government and the Shree Amarnath Shrine Board organizes the pilgrimage.

The route

The Amarnath cave is situated at an altitude of 12,756ft. It's all about 141km from Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir state. Folks are traveling from Jammu or Srinagar city to a place from where the trek begins called Pahalgam. It takes approximately five days to make it to the Amarnath shrine.

Many devotees are traveling on foot or ponies, while you will find wooden carriages which can be hired to the elderly, small children or those unable to walk.

There's another shorter southern route which runs for about 16km but has a very steep gradient making it a tough climb. This route runs across the Amarnath valley.

The challenges

The Amarnath pilgrims struggle to pass throughout the rough and insecure trek to the sacred cave, but with increasing threats from terrorists, the challenges for the pilgrims have multiplied over the past decades.

Seven pilgrims were killed on Monday (10 July) when their bus was captured in gunfire between militants and security personnel as they were returning from a trip to the shrine. The authorities accused of carrying out the militant assault group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The US too strongly condemned the attack terming it "reprehensible."

"These were civilians, they had been killed as they had been exercising their right to worship, and that's in large part what makes this so reprehensible. That is a great concern for us," state Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

Government agencies reportedly said they had received wisdom, warning of a potential attack on the Amarnath Yatra this year.

Lashkar-e-Taiba was likewise held responsible for an assault on the Amarnath pilgrims in 2000 when 30 people, including devotees and locals, were murdered while going to the sacred shrine. It was viewed as the deadliest strike on the yearly pilgrimage.

The country authorities and other government agencies had tightened security agreements for the pilgrims because of the 2000 attack.

Hindu pilgrims trek through hills to reach the sacred cave of Lord Shiva at Amarnath in the northern state of Jammu and KashmirReuters

Pilgrim buses are currently escorted by police or army vehicles, and security personnel guards the entire routes keeping an eye out for insurgents.

The fatalities

The insecure pilgrimage has claimed hundreds of lives in the previous two decades, a few succumbing to the harsh weather and terrain, while many were victims of terrorist incidents.

Based on data in Indiaspend.org, a nonprofit data evaluation organization that keeps track of militant activities and casualties, there have been five terrorist attacks on Amarnath Yatra in the past 18 years. Some 52 pilgrims have so far lost their lives.

In events unrelated to terrorism, some 130 Amarnath pilgrims have died as of 2012. Approximately 88, deaths, were because of the tough climb, adverse weather conditions, and higher elevation, while the remaining were road accidents.

The pilgrimage was allegedly prohibited between 1991 and 1995 due to risks from terrorists but was declared in 1996 following some militant groups vowed not to disrupt the annual pilgrimage.

However, that year saw the departure of nearly 242 pilgrims who were captured within an unseasonal blizzard in late August.