The base camp was teeming with pilgrims, instantly recognisable by their backpacks, muddy shoes, wooden walking sticks, and the religious songs they sing as they progress by foot, or on horseback, or on a porter’s improvised palanquin.
The sight and sounds at Baltal symbolises the pilgrimage to the high-altitude, low-oxygen Hindu cave shrine of Amarnath each summer in Jammu and Kashmir.
And for almost every pilgrim’s progress, there is a ponywalah or a palkiwalah or a pithoo — devout Kashmiri Muslims who roll out the prayer carpet to pray this holy month of Ramzan as well as spread the welcome mat for their Hindu countrymen in a unique display of communal harmony.
At the heart of this harmony is money. The pilgrimage is big business for poor Kashmiris such as Mohammad Wani and Mushtaq, in their early-30s. The two ponywalahs or horsemen discussed near an illuminated langar, community kitchen serving free food to pilgrims, how business would be this season.
For every pilgrim taken to the Amarnath cave and brought back to Baltal base camp, they earn Rs 3,500.
The arduous uphill trek to the shrine at an altitude of nearly 13,000 feet would not have been possible for many — especially the elderly, children and women — without the services of thousands of Muslim horsemen, palkiwalahs (palanquin-bearers) and pithoos or porters.
The physical challenge of the route would be insurmountable without the trained horses or the palanquins, which are nothing but plastic chairs tied to two sturdy wood poles.
Gulzar Ahmad Rather, a farmer from Anantnag who doubles up as a horseman during the pilgrimage, said a pony earns around Rs 50,000 a season.
The fare for a palki ride up to the cave depends on the weight of the pilgrim. “For someone around 60kg, we would charge Rs 10,000, which will be divided among the four carriers,” said Begh Hassan, a palkiwalah from Rajouri in Jammu.
Besides business, their help to Hindus paint a portrait of communal peace when security concerns of pilgrims have become a major talking point in the country.
“To the best of our ability, we serve the pilgrims who have come here from across India to fulfil their religious duties,” said Mohammad Zaman from Tangmarg, standing in a queue with his pony to cross a checkgate and begin the 15km trek to the cave with his client, an elderly man from Rajasthan.
First-time pilgrim Ravi Bains from Punjab said the bhaichada (brotherhood)” he has felt at Baltal between pilgrims and local Kashmiris was “amazing”.
The chief executive officer of Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board, PK Tripathi, said there were 7,523 registered ponywalahs, 2,667 palkiwalahs and 2,736 pithoos till June 29. Most of them are Muslims and the figures are likely to increase at the end of the 48-day yatra.
These “service providers” – as the official records describe them – gather from around the state at the two base camps, Baltal and Chandanwari. At Baltal, they have pitched rudimentary tents kitted out with minimum belongings – some clothes, blankets, utensils and a small solar panel for electricity in some.
Langars serve hearty meals but helpers are not welcome to share food with pilgrims at most of them. Hence, soup kitchens have come up for helpers. “They’re the most crucial guys in the yatra … so we are helping them,” said Sukh Thapa, a worker at the Om Shiv Shakti Sewa Mandal Delhi, Free Langar for Palkis, Labourers and Horseman. The stall serves a sumptuous fare of rice, dal and two vegetable dishes.