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Tuesday, 6 August, 2002, 13:23 GMT 14:23 UK
The pilgrimage to Amarnath
Amarnath
The journey to the cave from Pahalgam takes five days
Every year, thousands of Hindus flock to Amarnath cave, considered one of the holiest shrines of the Hindu faith.

Hindus believe the cave is the home of Lord Shiva, the god of destruction. His image is said to appear in ice during the months of July and August, when the pilgrimage takes place.

But as well as a place of pilgrimage, the location of the Amarnath caves - in the disputed region of Kashmir - makes it a prime target for attacks by Islamic separatists.

Tuesday's attack by suspected Islamic militants, which killed nine pilgrims and injured over 30 others, is far from an isolated occurrence.

Ancient legend

The Amarnath Yatra (pilgrimage) begins from either Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, or the tourist resort of Pahalgam - the scene of Tuesday's attack.

Pilgrims make their way to the Amarnath cave shrine
Many thousands of Hindu pilgrims flock to the cave every year
The journey from Pahalgam to the shrine - at an altitude of 4,000 metres in the heart of the Himalayas - usually takes about five days.

According to Hindu legend, it was in the Amarnath cave that Shiva recounted to Parvati the secret of creation.

Unknown to them, a pair of mating doves eavesdropped on this conversation and having learned the secret, the doves are reborn again and again and have made the cave their eternal home.

Inside the large opening of the cave, an underground stream emerges and the water freezes to form a tall cone of ice.

Devotees come to view the ice and make offerings of food, money and flowers before it.

Previous attacks

But the Amarnath cave can also be fraught with danger.

Last month, two people were killed in a grenade attack on pilgrims returning from the shrine, despite heavy security along the route.

Another 13 people were killed last year in a suspected militant attack, and two years ago 30 pilgrims were killed.

But despite the danger, pilgrims seem resolutely determined to visit the cave.

More than 90,000 people from different parts of India have registered themselves for the pilgrimage this year.

And just hours after Tuesday's attack, Pervez Dewan, a top state administrator, confirmed this year's pilgrimage would continue.

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See also:

30 Jul 02 | South Asia
18 Jul 02 | South Asia
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