Hindu pilgrims die from cold

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The Independent Online
Muslim villagers came to the aid of Hindu pilgrims stranded by heavy snow and driving rain on a rugged Himalayan route yesterday after 96 people died from exposure.

Thousands of devout Hindus began an annual trek to the Amarnath cave last week to worship a stalagmite believed to be the manifestation of the phallus of the Hindu god Shiva. But the procession was hit by heavy rain and snow. Among the dead were many naked "sadhus", or Hindu holy men who smear their bodies with ash.

"The main reason for these deaths is that the pilgrims were not equipped with warm clothing and most of the holy men who died were trekking naked," said Asrar Ahmad, a doctor at a pilgrim camp in Anantnag, 30 miles south of Srinagar.

Rescue attempts were hindered by bad weather on the approach to the cave, 12,725 ft up.

"Due to torrential rains and snowfall the helicopters with rescue teams could not land at any place in the region," said a spokesman for the Jammu and Kashmir state government.

"But we have received reports that local villagers are helping more and more pilgrims to trek down from high altitude areas."

A senior police official said: "Villagers are taking the pilgrims into their homes, giving them food and blankets and warm clothing."

Over 112,000 Hindus arrived in Jammu and Kashmir, India's only Muslim- majority state, for the trek.