Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir - Perched at 3,600m above sea level in the snow-capped mountains of southern Kashmir, the Kounsar Nag glacial lake has long drawn tourists from around the world.
But for weeks, its azure waters have been a source of controversy, triggering strikes and protests throughout India-administered Kashmir.
Tensions escalated in the Muslim-majority region after a New Delhi-based pandits' organisation, the All Parties Migrants Coordination Committee (APMCC), announced it was starting a yatra - religious pilgrimage - to Kounsar Nag, attracting flocks of Hindu pilgrims.
Critics have claimed there is a political dimension to the move, accusing New Delhi of attempting to strengthen its control in the disputed Himalayan region.
"We started the pilgrimage with a sole aim of reviving our ancient religious destinations," APMCC chairperson Vinod Pandit told Al Jazeera, tracing the site's holiness to sacred Hindu texts and the Rajatarangini, the first written history of Kashmir.
"Some separatists … ran propaganda [campaign] against this yatra. They say it has some political agenda. It is an absolute false accusation."
We started the pilgrimage with a sole aim of reviving our ancient religious destinations. Some separatists… ran propaganda against this yatra. They say it has some political agenda. It is an absolute false accusation.
Two routes are available to reach the site: one through the state's southern Reasi district, and another through Aharbal, a popular tourist destination about 60km south of the summer capital Srinagar.
In the past, APMCC says, pilgrims traversed the Aharbal route alone or in small groups, but after 1989, when the armed rebellion against New Delhi's rule reduced security in the area, the state government stopped the yatra along the Aharbal route, but allowed it along the treacherous Reasi route.
The minority community of Kashmiri Hindus - the Kashmiri pandits - had lived in Kashmir for centuries - until the armed rebellion saw thousands of Muslim Kashmiris and pandits fleeing their homeland, with New Delhi pushing in almost half-a-million troops to quell the popular rebellion.
By choice, some travelled to Pakistan across the de facto border that divides Kashmir into Pakistan- and India-administered Kashmir as refugees, or to train as fighters; and others, like the Hindu Kashmiri pandits, fled their homes to southern Jammu region and the Indian plains. Just a few hundred pandits, though, chose to stay.
Earlier this year, the state government run by a coalition of Congress and regional National Conference, made arrangements to accommodate about 4,000 pilgrims at Kounsar Nag, providing security, lodging, food, and even helicopter services. But last week, after the protests intensified, the state government cancelled the controversial yatra through the Aharbal route.
The majority of Muslims in India-administered Kashmir object to the yatra, declaring Kounsar Nag a non-religious destination.
Critics have cited hidden political motivations, with pro-independence leaders and civil society groups urging strikes and protests to exert pressure on the state government to reverse its decision.
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Pro-independence leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, told Al Jazeera this was not a rejection of Hindu holy sites: "We have always welcomed them," he said.
But Geelani believes the underlying motivation of the newly organised pilgrimage is the Indian state's attempt to "strengthen its control over the disputed territory" through educational, cultural, and religious means.
"They want to impose Hindu culture on the Muslim majority state … for political reasons," Geelani said.
Another pro-Independence group, Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), also criticised what it termed the "institutionalisation of such yatras" in Kashmir.
"India wants to play politics in the name of religion in Kashmir," JKLF chairperson Mohammad Yasin Malik, who was arrested for protesting against the pilgrimage, told Al Jazeera.
"The Hindu mindset of the Indian government wants to claim Kashmir on the basis of religion. Such moves would bear serious political consequences on the future of the disputed status of Kashmir. Politics is negotiable, but faith is non-negotiable."
'Polarising the state'
India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has lambasted the coalition government at the state level and the pro-independence groups for scuttling the yatra.
"Nobody has the right to interfere in the religious activities of a group," the BJP leader, Bali Bhagat, told Al Jazeera. "The environment pretext is just a political stunt. We won’t listen to their dictation. Kashmir is an integral part of India and every Indian has the right to go anywhere.
"If the ecology around the Muslim holy places of Mecca is not harmed by the influx of millions of people, how would it affect Kaunsar Nag and Amarnath areas where only thousands visit?
"We want the Yatra to continue from Aharbal route. The government run by Congress and National Conference has miserably lost the state assembly elections. They want to polarise the state on communal lines by stopping the Kaunsar Nag Yatra. This yatra doesn't have a political agenda," he told Al Jazeera.
Amarnath yatra is the only recognised pilgrimage. Some pandits approached us for allocating security since they wanted to travel Kounsar Nag. It was provided and was later withdrawn. We didn't recognise this yatra.
"Kounsar Nag Yatra is not a new phenomenon, it is an ancient yatra. The holy lake is worshipped by the Hindus since times immemorial and it is connected with God Vishnu," he has told the media.
The APMCC says it recently revived several other historic yatra destinations in Kashmir, including Gangbal, an icy lake in the Harmukh mountain range. In the past 25 years of conflict, some seven new Hindu pilgrimage destinations have emerged in Kashmir - and this is not the first time it has sparked controversy.
In 2008, massive protests erupted against the state government's transfer of land to a Hindu shrine board that wanted to create facilities for Hindu pilgrims near the Amarnath cave, a Hindu holy site.
Protesters feared this was an attempt to change the Muslim demographics of the region, calling on the government to cancel the land deal and to limit the numbers of pilgrims, citing the region's fragile ecosystem.
The government ultimately rescinded the deal, but allowed the shrine board to take over the land during the pilgrimage period.
According to Malik, the Amarnath yatra was initially for a period of 15 days and led by a few Kashmiri pandits. "Now, it has turned into an Indian national project," he said.
"The number of pilgrims has been increased to more than four lakh [400,000], the duration has been increased, and no concern for ecology has been taken into account."
Ecologically fragile zone
Political commentator and law professor Sheikh Showket Hussein said there is not a lengthy history of holy pilgrimages in Kashmir.
"The Amarnath yatra itself is just a 140-year-old phenomenon," he told Al Jazeera, noting new holy pilgrimage destinations such as Kounsar Nag have been "manufactured" to enhance India's argument for claiming Kashmir on an ancient Hindu basis.
|Experts say the glaciers from the area provide water to all of south Kashmir [Altaf Qadri - EPA]
"They feel Israel justified the occupation of Jerusalem because of biblical importance. [In the] same way, they are building arguments for justifying their presence in Kashmir."
The state government, meanwhile, says it has not facilitated or supported new Hindu pilgrimages.
"Amarnath yatra is the only recognised pilgrimage," the restive state's Tourism Minister Ghulam Ahmad Mir told Al Jazeera.
"Some pandits approached us for allocating security since they wanted to travel to Kounsar Nag. It was provided and was later withdrawn. We didn't recognise this yatra."
Mir said the government has taken steps to preserve the Amarnath ecosystem. However, all of the new yatra destinations lie in ecologically fragile areas of India-administered Kashmir.
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"[This] is a sensitive issue," Shakil Ramshoo, the head of Kashmir University's earth science department, told Al Jazeera.
Ramshoo, who is the region's top glaciologist said: "They would start from 10 pilgrims in Kounsar Nag. In a few years it would be 10,000, and in coming years, more. The glaciers from the area provide water to [all] of south Kashmir."
The unrestricted flow of people to Amarnath, which has more than 53 glaciers, has had negative repercussions, Ramshoo added.
"Every day, 30,000 pilgrims visit the shrine… Such a huge number of people have played havoc there," he said. "It has led to speedy melting of ice, cutting of trees, and littering of waste… If such pilgrimages continue without any check, the day is not far when we see the region plunging into an era of uncertainty."
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