Jammu/Srinagar, June 29 (IANS) All arrangements for the upcoming Amarnath Yatra were completed on Saturday as the first batch of Valley-bound pilgrims arrived in winter capital Jammu.
This year's Yatra begins on July 1 and pilgrims or 'yatris' have already reached the Bhagwati Nagar Yatri Niwas in Jammu en route to the cave shrine in the Himalayas.
The first batch of pilgrims will leave for the Baltal base camp in north Kashmir at around 4 a.m. on Sunday in a convoy escorted by security forces.
The nearly 387-km route from Jammu city to the Baltal base camp is fully secured by hundreds of security personnel drawn from the central armed police forces (CAPFs), state police and the Army that have been deployed to dominate the higher reaches overlooking the Yatra route and the various transit and base camps.
Security officials said 450 additional companies of CAPFs have been deployed for the security of this year's Yatra.
"This is in addition to the already existing deployed security forces," officials said.
The Yatra transit camps including Mir Bazaar transit camp in the south and the Manigam transit camp in the north have already been taken over by the security forces.
"The transit camps and the two base camps of Baltal in Ganderbal and Nunwan near Pahalgam in Anantnag have been provided with all facilities including toilets, safe drinking water, round-the-clock electric supply, lodging facilities and arrangements for prayers," officials said.
Pilgrims have to trek uphill to the cave shrine from Baltal base camp covering a one-way distance of 14 kilometres.
Those taking the Baltal route can return to the base camp the same day after 'darshan' of the holy 'Lingam'.
Those taking the traditional Pahalgam route have to trek a one-way distance of 32 kms to reach the cave shrine that takes four days to complete.
The pilgrims go through Chandanwari, Sheshnag, Panjtarni and finally reach the holy cave after trekking uphill from the Nunwan base camp in Pahalgam tourist resort.
This is the traditional route through which the 'Chhari Mubarak' (Lord Shiva's holy mace) is taken to the shrine in a procession by 'sadhus' and the custodian of the holy mace.
The cave houses an natural ice stalagmite structure or 'Lingam' which devotees believe symbolises the mythical powers of Lord Shiva.
Helicopter services are available for pilgrims from both the Baltal and Pahalgam routes.
In order to protect the fragile ecology around the cave shrine, the helicopters land some 5 kms short of the cave from where the devotees have to trek the remaining distance.
Due to heavy snowfall last winter, the 'Lingam' is reported to have attained its maximum size this year.
Emergency services and medical facilities have also been put in place all along the two routes to the cave. Tent facilities are available for the pilgrims in Baltal and Pahalgam base camps with arrangements of food, sanitation and electricity.
To keep track of the vehicles carrying the pilgrims from the Jammu base camp, GPS-tracking chips are being fitted on 'Yatri' vehicles to keep a mile-by-mile vigil.
Officials said the security arrangements have been beefed up to maximum alert and preparedness this year to ensure a safe, violence-free pilgrimage.
Locals have set up roadside tea stalls and restaurants along both the routes for the comfort of pilgrims.
Local porters often carry the weak and infirm pilgrims on their back to ensure that they do not miss a glimpse of the holy 'Lingam' for which they travel thousands of kilometres.