Srinagar, India, Jul 9 (EFE).- Sixteen people have died at a sacred cave in Indian Kashmir, the site of the largest Hindu pilgrimage, authorities said Saturday.
Rescue operations were going on to locate around 40 pilgrims who are missing after flash floods on Friday night swept away scores of tents set up near the Amarnath temple, nestled in a Himalayan cave.
The flash floods after a cloudburst – a sudden, extreme amount of rain in a short period – on Friday, when thousands of pilgrims were waiting to glimpse an ice stalagmite which Hindus believe is a manifestation of the god Shiva.
“16 bodies have been found so far,” an official from the National Disaster Response Force told Efe, adding that “we are being told that at least 40 are still missing.”
More than two dozen tents set up nearby were washed away, according to sources at the Shree AmarnathJi Shrine Board, the body in charge of managing the pilgrimage to the grotto.
Authorities have deployed army helicopters and called in extra teams of experts as well as security forces to assist with the rescue operation.
An official who is part of the operation told Efe that “intermittent rain was continuing in the area” but it was not hampering rescue efforts, adding that most of the pilgrims who were around the shrine have been rescued and moved to safer places.
Expressing his “anguish” over the incident at Amarnath, prime minister Narendra Modi tweeted his “condolences to the bereaved families.”
“Rescue and relief operations are underway. All possible assistance is being provided to the affected.”
Bad weather on the mountainous route leading to Amarnath shrine also caused deaths and destruction in 1996, when around 250 people died.
Amarnath Yatra, the biggest annual Hindu pilgrimage, began on June 30 after two years of cancellations due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
More than 100,000 worshippers have since completed their pilgrimage, amid heavy security measures to prevent possible terrorist attacks, according to authorities.
The cave, situated at an altitude of 12,756 ft (3,880 meters), is surrounded by glaciers and snow-capped mountains most of the year, except for a brief period in summer when it is open to pilgrims.
The pilgrimage is “temporarily postponed” for now, officials said. EFE