The Amarnath Yatra: uncovering india’s militarized pilgrimage in indian-occupied Kashmir

Stand with Kashmir
6 min readAug 25, 2022


August 25, 2022.

indian-occupied Kashmir.

Pictures of ‘Amarnath Yatris’ urinating on the banks of Dal Lake go viral, drawing concern from local Kashmiris, read the full article here. Photo from Free Press Kashmir.

The Amarnath Yatra is a holy Hindu annual pilgrimage taken in the second half of summer in Kashmir. The Yatra is one of the largest pilgrimages in the world with almost half a million Hindu devotees (yatris) traveling to the Amarnath cave to pay respects to an ice stalagmite, which is widely believed to be the embodiment of the Hindu god Shiva. The Amarnath Cave is situated in the region north of Pahalgam and south of the Zojila Pass in Kashmir, with two main pathways for yatris to travel. While the pilgrimage may be considered a solely religious enterprise, it is not. Any examination of the Amarnath pilgrimage must take into account the current socio-economic, political and environmental context currently impacting Kashmir. These issues include skyrocketing military presence, land row protests, Hindu nationalist claims, melting glaciers, and ensuring landslides.

The beginning of the Amarnath pilgrimage is unclear, with conflicting theories and timelines being debated about how the pilgrimage started. What can be agreed upon is that up until the 1980s, the annual pilgrimage consisted primarily of sadhus who would march in a procession to the Amarnath cave. Originally, the Yatra along with the “darshan” by the sadhus would get completed within a week. Today it has been extended to a tenure of 60 days. Since the 1980s, there has been an exponential upswing in the number of visitors, growing from 12,000 in 1989 to 634,000 in 2011. The increased length of the yatra and the exponential increase in visitors regularly overloads the administration and the environment beyond its capacity. The complete focus of the government machinery is directed towards the Yatra during this period. Unfortunately, this growth has less to do with the spirituality of the shrine and is instead fueled primarily by socio-political and commercial reasons. It is impossible to separate the exponential increase in yatris visiting the cave from the increased militarization of Kashmir since the late 1980s in order to curb widespread dissent and defiance over India’s colonial rule in Kashmir. Increased state support and advertising around Amarnath coincides with efforts by the Indian government to commercialize Kashmir for its own benefit and India’s ongoing efforts to re-write Kashmir’s complex history as a more Hindu-centric one. This, then, allows India to justify its colonial rule in Kashmir.

The most militarized pilgrimage, Amarnath Yatra. Photo: AP

The Amarnath Yatra plays a significant role in India’s narrative that Kashmir is an “integral” part of India and therefore justifies its heavy military occupation to establish control within the region. Hence, the Indian state has often used the yatra to promote an explicit Indian, and concurrently Hindu, nationalism. This is exemplified during the Press Information Bureau during the Kargill War in 1999, where they specifically said “(the) yearning for moksha (salvation) can move the devotees to the challenging heights of Kashmir and will be a fitting gesture of solidarity with our valiant soldiers who have been fighting the enemy to defend our borders’’. (Navlakha, EPW)

Additionally, the yatra takes place simultaneously to intense police and paramilitary crackdowns to muzzle the Kashmiri population, particularly those agitating against Indian colonial rule. The government regularly surveills the Kashmiri population and imprison political dissidents, activists, and academics. Ordinary Kashmiris also face the repressive state apparatus, and live under the constant threat of violence, incarceration and humiliation. Hundreds of Kashmiri youth, many in their early teens, who are seen as potential street organizers, are constantly on police radar. They are often apprehended, incarcerated and charged with draconian laws, like the Public Safety Act, which allows authorities to keep them in jail without trial for months for little to no cause. Those who are not jailed are either restricted from moving from their localities or kept under round-the-clock house arrest. Strict restrictions are imposed and public spaces cordoned off to preempt public meetings and rallies. While the yatris and the visitors are able to travel freely within Kashmir, the local Kashmiri Muslim population is often prevented from accessing mosques and other religious sites.

The pilgrimage to the cave is difficult and inaccessible because travel to the cave can take multiple days by either horse or by foot. The route to the cave, more than 13,000 feet above sea-level, passes first through forests and pastures, then ice-fields and rock. Fatalities occur, and sometimes disasters as seen in 1996, where heavy rain and avalanches led to stampedes that killed 243 people. Given that thousands of yatris visit the cave every year and the fact that the journey to the cave itself is inaccessible and difficult, the pilgrimage threatens Kashmir’s already fragile and over-exploited ecosystem. There has been significant research on the detrimental environmental impacts of the Yatra through studies on status and health of glaciers and rivers in Kashmir and in newspaper reports. Experts have warned of rapid environmental degradation, ecological imbalance & adverse impact on the Nehna Glacier, if the same influx of yatries is continued in future years. Almost all the Indus line glaciers, Pakistan’s water houses, are melting and receding at an alarming rate, more rapidly than other Himalayan glaciers. In addition, there is very little infrastructure to account for the littering and pollution from the hundreds of thousands of yatris coming each year. If anything, the huge influx of people from India puts the ecologically fragile pilgrim route in great peril, with drastic potential environmental consequences.

Amarnath Yatra, a militarized pilgrimage (photo from JKCCS)

The ramped up tourism and pilgrimage in Kashmir, particularly after 2019, are about shoring up nationalist fervor. Coming to Kashmir is like a nationalist pilgrimage, where the Indian tourist connects supposedly spiritually with the so-called “idea of India” in “India’s crown.” Tourists’ idealistic, Instagram worthy trips to Kashmir’s valleys and stunning scenery ensure that the more Indians make the trip, the harder the Kashmir can integrate with India and silence any form of dissent by the Kashmiri population. The growing number of tourists that have been visiting Kashmir, as tourists or as pilgrims, reinforces Kashmir in the popular imagination as “the integral part” of the Indian state’s “sacred” territoriality. Tourists are hastily driven off to lakeside hotels or houseboats in Srinagar or to mountain valleys and meadows, where they are protected by the Indian government’s state sanctioned violence on the Kashmiri people. For those who do become aware of the raw militarization, given decades of propaganda against Kashmiri Muslims in the Indian media, this treatment is seen as justified. Kashmiri Muslims have been popularly portrayed by the news and entertainment machine as dangerous, seditious, and anti-national (a term indians give to those who speak up against their country). Kashmiris need to be kept under control if Kashmir is to be retained as part of India, while the Indian soldier and the military camps at every corner reassures the tourists of their protection.

The yatra furthers the Indian narrative that focuses “natural” parts of the valley or the so-called Hindu-centric history of Kashmir that intentionally erases indigenous narratives, lives, and livelihoods. To see Kashmiris as the “Other” makes the violations of their human and political rights, and the daily humiliation of living under occupation, invisible and inaudible.

For more information about Kashmir and its resistance against Indian occupation, follow StandWKashmir across social media.

Stay in touch with Stand with Kashmir.

Stand With Kashmir (SWK) is a Kashmiri-driven independent, transnational, grassroots movement committed to standing in solidarity with the people of indian-occupied Kashmir in ending the indian occupation of their homeland and supporting the right to self-determination of the pre-partition state of Jammu and Kashmir. We want to hear from you.If you have general inquiries, suggestions, or concerns, please email us at



Stand with Kashmir

SWK is a Kashmiri diaspora-led international solidarity movement that seeks to end the Indian occupation and support the right to self-determination.