With thousands of Kashmir-bound Amarnath pilgrims making night halt at different places in Ramban, the 66-km most challenging stretch of the National Highway–44 passing through the hilly district has for the first time set the stage for the confluence of different cultures of India.
All this started Wednesday evening, when vehicles carrying Amarnath pilgrims and tourists who were not part of the convoy flagged off by Lt Governor Manoj Sinha at Jammu’s Bhagwati Nagar in the morning were passing through Navayuga Tunnel on way to Kashmir, suddenly they were made to move back to Banihal side by the police and security forces following an encounter between security forces and militants in Kulgam district ahead.
Apprehensive of getting stranded on the highway, nearly 6,000 – 7,000 people, mostly pilgrims, converged at the vast ground illuminated with LED lights at Lamber, near Toll Plaza, in Banihal. Within an hour, they were in for a pleasant surprise with eateries lined up ready to serve them a free vegetarian dinner with a host of flavourful dishes from all parts of the country.
Enjoying the delicacies of the South, North, East and western parts of India during dinner there, these people had a gala time before resuming their journey early next morning, officers in the Ramban district administration said.
Two categorised militants of Lashkar-e-Toiba were killed in the Kulgam encounter. As the encounter site was “very close” to the pilgrimage route, the authorities decided not to allow Amarnath pilgrims and tourists towards the Valley after 1.30 pm and 3 pm, the cut-off timings fixed for crossing Chanderkote in Ramban and Lamber in Banihal, respectively.
On earlier occasions a large number of pilgrims used to proceed to Kashmir during the day after the crossing of the official yatra convoy through Ramban district. However, officers said that in view of the heightened militants’ threat this time, they have decided not to allow anyone drive towards Kashmir beyond Chanderkote and Lamber after the cut-off time. Apart from other security measures, Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board has decided to issue RFID tags to pilgrims so as to monitor their location.
“We stop all those who reach Chanderkote from Jammu side after 1.30 pm and ask them to stay at Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board Yatri Niwas built there or return and have a night halt at the resort of Patnitop or Batote,” a senior officer said. Those reaching Banihal after 3 pm are diverted to Lamber and are not allowed to cross the Navayuga Tunnel, he said.
“The first day when pilgrims and tourists who had missed the cut-off time fixed for the official pilgrimage convoy to cross Chanderkote were diverted towards the Yatri Niwas following reports of encounter, they were mesmerized by the spiritual ambience and beauty of the area, and also the arrangements made for them,” a senior officer said.
Over a dozen langars already set up by social and religious organisations from different parts of the country were ready to serve them anything right from South Indian to Punjabi food and also the delicacies from East and West India. There were 15-20 types of sweets alone, the officer said.
Ramban Deputy Commissioner Mussarat Islam said that Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board Yatri Niwas is a state-of-the-art facility built on an over 23 kanals of land on the banks of the river Chenab at the cost of Rs 47 crore. It has a capacity to accommodate 3,630 pilgrims at a time. Conceived by Nitishwar Kumar, principal secretary to UT’s Lt Governor and Chief Executive Officer of the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board, it is one of the fastest project completed within 14 months in the history of Jammu and Kashmir, he said, and added that the Yatri Niwas has a cluster of 17 dormitories in G+2 dimensions each of them having all modern facilities and features, including a barrier-free environment, modern toilets, fire extinguisher equipment, LED downlights etc.
The official yatra convoy from Jammu has its first halt at Chanderkote around 7-7.30 am where people are served breakfast. They have lunch at Lamber between 1.30 pm and 2 pm. To ensure that those already having night halt in Ramban district don’t get mixed up with the official convoy coming from Jammu in the morning, these people after a light breakfast are made to resume their journey to Kashmir by 6 am – 6.30 am from Chanderkote and 6.30 am – 7 am from Lamber in Banihal, sources said.
Apart from over a dozen langars at Chanderkote Yatri Niwas and 21 at Lamber, there are many others from Nashri to Banihal. They are doing a Herculean task, starting their day early in the morning to prepare breakfast, followed by lunch and dinner for thousands of pilgrims, including those coming in the yatra convoy from Jammu.
These langars are massive facilities created by social and religious organisations under makeshift tents to serve the pilgrims. A langar at Rajpura and Sirsa are feeding 6,000 to 7,000 people daily. Their task is going to be doubled as they will now be receiving pilgrims returning to Jammu after darshan at Shri Amarnath Shrine in South Kashmir Himalayas, officers said.
With people from all across the country halting at different spots in Ramban district and the langar staff serving them ethnic cuisines of different states, the 66-km stretch of NH-44 is nothing but a mini India, said Mussarat Islam, who said that he intends to use these facilities to promote tourism.