April 2002 News

Pilgrims bring progress

30 April 2002
The Week
Tariq Ahmad Bhat

SRINAGAR: Some call it Peer Veer (valley of saints) and others Resh Veer (valley of rishis). For centuries, Jammu and Kashmir has nursed different religions and the presence of several revered shrines bear testimony to this. These religious sites have come to the rescue of the battered economy. The pilgrim rush to shrines like the Mata Vaishno Devi, the Amarnath cave, the Shiv Khori, Shadra Sharief and several Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh has grown to such an extent that the government is looking on pilgrim tourism to salvage the industry. A boost came with the discovery of a cave similar to Amarnath at Anantnag. Shepherds Ghulam Qadir Bocken and Haji Rafiq Bocken stumbled on it last July. Former commissioner for tourism, Parvez Devan, visited the site and confirmed the discovery. "We found 13 shivlings and three idols and it made us wonder if it once served as a base camp for Amarnath. Devotees have been visiting the cave since April," says Devan, now divisional commissioner and chief executive officer of the new pilgrimage point. "Earlier, the yatra used to be a drain on our economy but now it is a money-spinner with a potential to generate Rs 900 crore. It takes off in July and ends in August, a period considered off-season for tourism in India-this is where we score,'' he says. Beyond Pahelgam, the 48-km-long track to Amarnath is a treacherous one. The pilgrims pass through four main points in three days-Seeshnag, Chandanwari, Panchtarni and Puru top-before reaching the Amarnath cave. The shorter but riskier route, which takes a day, is Baltal, leading from Sonamarg, 60 km northeast of Srinagar. The yatris usually take the Pahelgam route but return via Baltal. In Jammu, the Mata Vaishno Devi temple generates business on a wider scale because of the rush of pilgrims throughout the year. The shrine is at Katra, 50 km from Jammu city and thanks to a dedicated flow of devotees, the town is bustling with activity. The devotees spend over Rs 900 crore annually. A chain of guest houses, motels, hotels and commercial complexes has placed Katra on a sound economic footing. The temple management earns an impressive Rs 50 crore in cash; offerings of jewellery fetch several crores. The shrine atop the Trikuta hills also attracts devotees. It was discovered by Shri Dhar 400 million years ago in a dream. When he woke up, he found himself near the pindi swaroop (three natural formations) in the shrine. Since then, the site has been attracting millions of devotees. Rajesh Dhar, a regular, says: "I make several trips a year and I meet people from all parts of India, Bangladesh and Nepal." Now the authorities are promoting another shrine, Shiv Khori, for the darshan of the shivling. Last year, four lakh devotees visited the shrine in Rajouri. Another major attraction in Rajouri, especially for Muslims, is the Shadra Sharief, the mausoleum of Hazrat Syed Baba Ghulam Shah and his disciples. The shrine, which is a six-hour drive from Jammu, attracts over 12 lakh pilgrims, among them foreigners, particularly Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. After the runaway success at Shadra, Devan arranged a trip to Zool Asmuaqam shrine in Anantnag last year. "A similar festival in Leh turned out to be a big success. We also marketed Kargil and 6,000 tourists came to visit the war site last year." Though the number is unimpressive, the tourism industry is not complaining. It could prove yet another viable option in the future.


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