DOMAIL, July 19: When 55-year old Nazir Ahmed Thakri and his son Mushtaq Ahmed, 21, ready their horses to carry pilgrims to the cave shrine of Amarnath, they are not sure if they will return alive to this makeshift streamside camp.
The 14-kilometer (8.5 miles) path from the camp in Domail to the Amarnath cave shrine passes not only through a narrow, slippery track alongside steep Himalayan ridges, but is also a high altitude snowy rugged path.
At least 86 pilgrims including two Pony waalas (horsemen) have died in the past 22 days. Last year, only 107 people including six pony waalas were killed in 45 days.
“My fear is that the toll can easily go past 100,” warned Thakri pointing towards the cave.
“I pray to Allah for the safety of people and the horses,” says Rehman, who has been plying ponies on the annual pilgrimage route for the last 35 years.
Every year, more than 500,000 pilgrims travel to the shrine during a month-long period starting July to pay homage to an ice stalagmite – a symbol of Hindu deity Lord Shiva.
Every day, the bushy-bearded Rehman starts at the crack of dawn and makes sure he returns before sunset to reduce the risks.
“The track is too dangerous to be covered in the dark,” says Reyaz Ahmed, another Pony waala pointing towards the road, below which is a sheer drop into a fast flowing stream.
“If you slip during the night, you end up there.”
Reyaz and his son Manzoor always walk the distance together, chanting the hymn “Bam Bam Bolay” with Pilgrims in praise of Shiva, while leading the horses carrying the pilgrims one after another.
“I want to be with him (son) in case, Allah forbid, there is a tragedy on the route,” Reyaz says.
The pair earns 1,000 rupees to 1,500 rupees a day during the month-long pilgrimage and the earnings sustain them and their families through the year.
“The government has authorised us to charge 1,370 rupees for a trip both ways. But most pilgrims drive a hard bargain and pay us between 500 to 750 rupees,” Reyaz added.
Reyaz has three sons, three daughters, a granddaughter and a grandson, and since the pilgrimage started on June 25, he managed to take a day off to bring some of the earnings home.