The word pilgrimage in India has transcended from the once-in-a-lifetime spiritual journey undertaken usually at the fag end of one’s life with few chances of making it back, to being adventure trip that can occur any time your work calendar offers a long holiday weekend.
Most Hindu pilgrim towns were either situated on mountains or near rivers — far removed from the din and called for effort to reach them. Metaphorically, it was the effort required to attain one’s spiritual goal. But enhanced mobility has eased things drastically for the seeker. Don’t wish to trek the hills, there are options of both chopper and rope way rides to many of popular pilgrim destinations.
So much that most Indians with money to travel are seekers and our pilgrim towns — old and decrepit as they are — are now crumbling under the catastrophic number of visitors thronging them. It is in this context that Monday’s order of the National Green Tribunal comes as a welcome relief. In its order, the NGT has capped the number of pilgrims visiting the Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu at 50,000 and made it clear that if the number of pilgrims exceeds the cap, they will be stopped at Ardhkuwari or Katra town, considering that the Vaishno Devi Bhawan structure cannot accomodate more than 50,000 persons.
The panel has also banned the use of horses or mules on the new route to the shrine, saying that a new path to the shrine exclusively for pedestrians and battery-operated cars will be opened from November 24. These animals shall be removed slowly from the old path as well.
The order came on a plea filed by an activist seeking directions to stop the use of horses and ponies in the shrine. It also directed the authorities to impose a fine (environment compensation) of Rs 2,000 on anyone found littering the roads as well as the bus stop at the nearby Katra town.
One can only hope the order is implemented in both letter and spirit, given the “tourism industry” pressure that governments works under. It is this pressure that has transformed the whole process of ‘seeking’ — from a mystical journey to tourism — with state’s now developing circuits linking pilgrim spots complete with packaged tours and gimmicks like the Ganga aarti.