BALTAL, INDIA: Thousands of Hindu pilgrims on Thursday began trekking along icy trails to reach a cave shrine high in the mountains of India's restive Kashmir amid tight security.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of devout Hindus from India and abroad make the gruelling trek to the Amarnath shrine - 3,800 meters (12,800 ft) up in the Himalayas - to see the natural ice formation that is worshipped as a symbol of Shiva, the god of destruction.
Two routes that lead to the cave shrine were heavily protected by soldiers, police and disaster forces as militants, fighting a separatist war in Indian-administered Kashmir, have attacked pilgrims in the past.
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"The army provides environmental security... and helps the civil administration with medical, communication and recovery infrastructure," a military spokesman said in a statement before the start of the nearly two-month annual pilgrimage.
Indian Hindu devotees walk at the start of the annual journey from Baltal Base Camp to the holy Amarnath Cave shrine in Baltal near Srinagar on July 2, 2015. PHOTO: AFP
The government's management of the pilgrimage is a source of tension in the restive Muslim-majority territory, which is also claimed by Pakistan.
In 2008, the state government planned to handover a plot of land to a trust managing the pilgrimage, sparking separatist claims of a Hindu takeover and anti-India protests in the region. The transfer was later rescinded.
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In a major attack in 2,000, militants killed 32 pilgrims, and ten more were killed the following year.
Separatists accuse India of pushing the number of pilgrims in a display of Hindu pride and demand restricting their numbers citing environmental concerns.
More than 350,000 pilgrims hiked to the cave in 2014.