A Journey of Faith
Thousands of Hindu pilgrims from throughout India travel to the state of Jammu and Kashmir for their annual journey to the Amarnath cave. The Hindu shrine can be found nestled in the Himalayas at an altitude of 12,756 feet. Devotees trek through mountaneous terrain to get a glimpse of the 'Shivlingam' (or ice stalagmite) believed to symbolize the mythical powers of Lord Shiva in a cave covered with snowy mountains.
The two-month journey is undertaken by more than 200,000 Hindu pilgrims but is impossible without the support of Muslims who assist them on the route.
Hussain Ali awaits the pilgrims in Jammu, the entry point of the state, for their arrival.
"We set up food stalls to help them in their journey," said Ali.
Ali welcomes them with garland, snacks, and rice pudding. He has made friends with Hindu pilgrims from all over India and remains in touch with many of them long after their journeys end. Ali is convinced that, although people may believe in different religions, the basic elements of faith is what unites them.
And returning pilgrims say they never miss paying him a visit.
"It is a ritual for me each year." said Raman, a pilgrim from the North Indian state of Punjab. "I do not miss visiting his stall to enjoy the sweet pudding before setting out on my journey."
Ali is not alone. Serving pilgrims on their way to the Amarnath is a privilege for many locals. At the base camp in Baltal, 100 kilometres from the capital of Srinagar, a man named Umar sells famous Kashmiri handicrafts to those embarking on their journey. He is one of thousands of Muslim shopkeepers, workers, and pony operators who welcome the pilgrims from throughout India.
"The pilgrims are our guests, we exchange phone numbers and email addresses with them. Our association with our Hindu friends is everlasting." said Umar, claiming that the bond lasts for years. "They call us on Muslim festivals, like Eid, and we return the wishes on Hindu festivals, like Diwali."
Gul Mohammad sells walking sticks to the Hindu pilgrims. For him, it's about more than just money. Serving the pilgrims gives him great satisfaction.
"They encounter snow, mud and slippery tracks." said Muhammad. "The sticks are very useful for them, this is particularly helpful for children and the elderly."
Ram Lal is a pilgrim embarking on his 20th trip to the Amarnath. Heis a great fan of Mahammad's work and says his pilgrimage would not be complete without his materials.
"He sells the sticks for the pilgrims, which is very helpful." said Lal.
The cave itself was discovered 150 years ago by a Kashmiri Muslim family. Since then, local Muslims have been a key part of pilgrimage, running markets at the base camp and along the route. They have also played a pivotal role in relief and rescue operations. In 1996, a snow storm hit the pilgrimage route and claimed the lives of 200 pilgrims and left many others stranded. The muslim volunteers were there to help and assist the hundreds of pilgrims who survived.
"This pilgrimage is impossible without the help of locals. For those who can't go on the ponies, there are 'palkis', or palanquin, who carry them on their shoulders. The locals make all the arrangements," said Ashok Kumar, a Pilgrim from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
The pilgrims encounter gatherings along the route. Religion serves as a conversation piece to build bridges and a better understanding and mutual respect for one other. For many pilgrims, this journey of faith is also about embracing the unknown.
Mehraj ud din, a cab driver who brought a group of tourists to the base camp in Pahalgam, prays for a good weather so that he can take the tourists can make a safe Amarnath pilgrimage.
"I pray to Allah that the weather clears so that my guests complete their pilgrimage without any hassles," he said.
For many pilgrims, the journey through slippery mountaneous tracks in hostile weather provides an opportunity for them to experience the services rendered by Kashmiri Muslims. It's there where the beauty lies.
"There is no difference between a Hindu and Muslim here, everyone is contributing to make the pilgrimage a success," said Ashok Kumar, a pilgrim from West Bengal.
At a time when some sections are pitting communities against each other on the basis of religion in order to create strife and discord, the Amarnath pilgrimage in Kashmir serves as a symbol of brotherhood and harmony. A place where people unite.