KASHMIR - Forging communal harmony in the volatile area, Muslims shepherds from South Kashmir's Anantnag area have been helping Hindu pilgrims over the past two centuries on their journey to Himalaya's Amarnath cave, a revered shrine for devout Hindus.
"I am thankful to Ali," Prem Nath, 82, a hermit from a remote village of Rajasthan in north India, told Khabar South Asia on Saturday, August 4, after traversing the route for six hours.
"Last year also, I paid obeisance. I feel so good when our Muslim brothers welcome us at every footstep.
If not for the services of our Muslim brothers, this pilgrimage would not be a successful one."
Like thousands of Hindu pilgrims, the journey to the holy Amarnath cave would not have been possible without the help of their Muslim brothers in Kashmir's Anantnag area.
The role of Muslims in the area dates back to 1850 when Bota Malik, a Muslim shepherd from South Kashmir's Anantnag area, discovered Amarnath cave.
Nestled deep in the Himalayas, the Amarnath cave is a sacred shrine, highly revered by devout Hindus.
For over a century now, his discovery has helped forge a respectful partnership between Hindu pilgrims on a spiritual quest and the Muslim men who safely shepherd them to their holy destination and back.
"Around 6,000 pilgrims have paid obeisance, which concluded August 2nd," said Naveen K Chaudhary, Chief Executive Officer of the Shri Amarnath Shrine board, which oversees this pilgrimage.
Kashmir is divided into two parts and ruled by India and Pakistan, which have fought two of their three wars since the 1947 independence over the region.
Pakistan and the UN back the right of the Kashmir people for self-determination, an option opposed by New Delhi.
Overcoming unrest in the 1990s and 2010, Hindu pilgrimage was protected by local Kashmiri Muslims.
The world knows that in the past and even now, people in Kashmir have supported and protected the Amaranth devotees, despite all kinds of situations, Ali Mohammed, 54, a local Sonamarg shopkeeper based some 10km from the Baltal base camp, told Khabar.
Ali's views were echoed by devotee Manav Sharma, 21, from Delhi who remained thankful for the assistance of Muslim Kashmiris during the pilgrimage.
He recalled an incident during the 2010 unrest when his uncle was protected by local Kashmiris from a stone pelting mob.
"My uncle was on the way to the Amarnath shrine, and somewhere along the route stone pelting was going on," Sharma said.
"Realizing that he is an Amarnath pilgrim (Yatri), some local Kashmiris came forward to protect him and he was given passage to proceed forward."
This Hindu pilgrimage was becoming a source of livelihood for locals.
"For these two months, I work round the clock, to help the pilgrims so that they can reach the holy cave without any difficulty," Porter Suhail Ahmed, 24, told Khabar.
"I along with my two brothers, work very hard every year because our families are dependent on this," Suhail said.
Farooq Ahmed, 36, a "pony walla" (horse guide) from Pahalgam in South Kashmir, says he rarely bargains with devotees, believing he will get reward from Allah for doing such pious work.
"Hence, I would prefer divine rewards over monetary ones," Ahmed said.
"It does not matter for me that they are Hindus. I believe that Allah is one, though our mode of worship is different."
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net