Page last updated at 19:10 GMT, Wednesday, 9 April 2008 20:10 UK

Pakistani pilgrims visit Kashmir

By Binoo Joshi
BBC News, Jammu

Pakistani pilgrims in Jammu and Kashmir
The pilgrims had to brave the heights

A group of 52 Hindu pilgrims from Pakistan has for the first time visited and paid homage at a famous Indian shrine in Jammu and Kashmir state.

Officials say their visit has only been made possible because of warmer relations between India and Pakistan.

The pilgrims say that their visit was an opportunity of a lifetime.

For the last 20 years Indian-administered Kashmir has been the centre of a Muslim insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives.

'Heavenly bliss'

Until recently, the idea of Pakistani pilgrims travelling to the area would have been unthinkable.

Group leader, Nanak Ram, 61, told BBC that the pilgrims were all from Sindh province in Pakistan.

Pilgrims with Jammu and Kashmir Governor, Lt-Gen SK Sinha
The pilgrims were feted where ever they went

They reached Jammu, the winter capital of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, from Wagah border on Monday evening.

They were taken amid tight security to Katra, the base camp of Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine, about 45km (28 miles) north of Jammu.

To get to the shrine requires a 12km (7 miles) trek through the mountains. It nestles in the Trikuta hills about 1,646m (5,400ft) above sea level.

"As we started the climb it was as if Mata (Goddess) Vaishno Devi was holding our hands and helping us climb the arduous trek," said an emotionally charged Mahinder Kumar, who is a businessman in Pakistan.

"As we walked, we were chanting hymns and shouting Jai Mata Di (Hail Goddess)."

'Heavenly bliss'

In Pakistan the group applied for visas to visit key places of Hindu pilgrimage in India including Vaishno Devi in Jammu and Kashmir.

"We were thrilled to receive the news about our visa approval last month and our happiness had no bounds," said Sushil Kumar.

Another pilgrim said the experience was "heavenly bliss".

"It was as if the whole world and all heavenly powers had converged their blessing on us," he said.

The group of pilgrims offered prayers at the shrine on Tuesday evening, stayed there overnight and reached Jammu on Wednesday.

The Jammu and Kashmir Governor, Lt-Gen SK Sinha, hosted the pilgrims over breakfast.

The pilgrims are now heading to another sacred Hindu site in the northern state of Uttrakhand.

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