Source AP ©

Icy stalagmite attracting thousands of Hindu pilgrims in Indian Kashmir melts away

A naturally formed icy stalagmite in a mountain cave in Indian Kashmir, which attracts hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims every year, has completely melted away, an official said on Monday.

"Yes, there will be some disappointment for the pilgrims as the main Lingam (icy stalagmite) has completely melted," said Arun Kumar, a top official of the Amarnath Shrine Board, which manages the pilgrimage.

Hindus worship the stalagmite as an incarnation of the Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration. The pilgrimage lasts for two months.

Officials say at least 400,000 devotees are expected to make the 16-kilometer (10-mile) trek to the Amarnath shrine, in a mountain cave 4,115 meters (13,500 feet) above sea level.

Experts say the size of the stalagmite has varied in previous years.

"One of the main reasons for its melting is the conduction of body heat of the huge crowds at the formation," said Shakeel Ahmed, who heads Geology and Geophysics Department at the University of Kashmir.

Helicopters depositing pilgrims close to the shrine and generators powering light bulbs around the shrine are other reasons for the melting, he said.

The pilgrimage was officially scheduled to begin Saturday but heavy rains forced authorities to delay it for a day.

Chanting hymns and ringing bells, the first group of nearly 12,000 pilgrims on Sunday began the journey amid tight security against Islamic militants. However on Monday, government has again suspended the pilgrimage because of heavy rains en route the cave shrine.

Muslim rebels who have been fighting for decades with India over Kashmir accuse Hindu-majority India of using the pilgrimage as a political statement to bolster its claim over the Himalayan region.

On Saturday, officials found and defused a roadside bomb along the pilgrims' route at Khanabal, a town 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Srinagar, disrupting traffic for at least one hour.

In the past, the pilgrimage has been targeted by the rebels, who started fighting in 1989 for the independence of the Indian-controlled portion of Muslim-majority Kashmir, or its merger with predominantly Muslim Pakistan.

Authorities have deployed thousands of army and paramilitary soldiers along the pilgrims' route.

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