The Amarnath yatra, an annual Hindu pilgrimage to a Himalayan shrine in Indian-administered Kashmir, began on Thursday after a two-year gap because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The shrine dedicated to the deity Shiva, deep inside a cave 3,880 metres above sea level, attracts hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims annually during the two months that it is open to visitors.
The shrine houses a naturally formed ice stalagmite considered to be a "Shiva lingam" — a representation of Shiva.
Pilgrims can take one of two routes — the traditional 48-kilometre route from Nunwan in southern Kashmir or the shorter 14km route from Baltal in central Kashmir.
A batch of more than 2,700 pilgrims left the base camp in Nunwan on Thursday.
The journey, made mostly on foot and ponies, passes through treacherous stretches and takes about three days ― with stops at night.
Authorities are expecting about 600,000 pilgrims this year, twice the usual number, because of the long gap since the shrine was last open to visitors. The pilgrimage was cancelled midway in 2019 amid threats of attacks after the Indian government suddenly stripped the Kashmir region of its limited autonomy, before being cancelled in 2020 and last year because of the pandemic.
Authorities have posted four times the usual number of security personnel to protect pilgrims amid an increase in violence this year as tensions remain high.
Separatist militants had staged more than 60 attacks in Kashmir as of May, official figures show, while more than 70 militants were killed by government forces.
Security forces are using 130 sniffer dogs on the routes to the shrine to detect explosives and more than 200 drones are being used to conduct surveillance.
Pilgrims have come under attack from groups described by officials as terrorists several times in the past. At least 53 pilgrims died and 167 were injured in 36 terror attacks since 1990, the government told parliament in 2017 after seven pilgrims died in an attack on their bus.