14-20 June 2013 #660

High devotion

Pilgrims are generally unprepared to meet the challenges of high altitude and harsh weather
Dhanvantari by Buddha Basnyat, MD

A trip to Pashupati or a visit to the neighbourhood temple is how most Hindus in Nepal like to get in touch with their spiritual selves. But for devotees seeking adventure and wanting to put their faith to test, there is Shree Amarnathji yatra in Kashmir.

At about 4,000m this Shiva cave, which sees up to 600,000 pilgrims every year, is one of the most dangerous holy sites in the world. From Srinagar in Kashmir, pilgrims travel to Pahalgam by road and then embark on their five to six day trek to the cave. There is another shorter one-day route from Baltal, but this is potentially more dangerous. Over a hundred people have died each year on this trip in the past two years. 250 pilgrims lost their lives here in 1996. Add threats from militants around the region and you will understand why only the most devout undertake this journey.

This year’s yatra begins on 28 June and culminates three weeks later on the day of Janai Purnima (August 21) when about a hundred sadhus take the sacred mace called Charri Mubarak to Shiva’s shrine. The Gosainkunda Yatra in Nepal’s Langtang region (4,300m) also comes to an end on the same day with a holy dip in the surrounding lake.

While trekkers and mountaineers usually spend a long time training and getting ready for their expeditions, pilgrims are generally unprepared to meet the challenges of high altitude and harsh weather. Most don’t take time to acclimatise or wear weather-appropriate clothing. As a result, they are extremely vulnerable to altitude sickness and hypothermia. What’s more, some partially-hypothermic devotees then proceed to take ‘holy’ dips in the icy rivers. They are also more likely to have pre-existing illnesses (such as uncontrolled diabetes) which becomes worse if they fast along the way.

In an effort to make the pilgrimage safer and accident-free, in February this year the Indian Supreme Court ordered the health ministry to set up a committee to train healthcare professionals so that they are better prepared to look after visitors. The local government is also making an effort to ensure that all visitors wear adequate warm clothing, but getting Sadhus to give up their saffron garb will undoubtedly be tough.

If you are planning on taking the ultimate leap of faith this season, you are advised to spend some time learning about how to prevent altitude sickness and hypothermia. Consult your physician if you have prior illnesses so that they are well controlled during the trip. A little homework now means safety and spiritual fulfilment at 4,000m.

Read also:

The heights of war

Absolute loss

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