The annual 56-day Amarnath yatra will commence on June 28 with all COVID-19 protocols in place, and culminate, as per the tradition, on the day of Raksha Bandhan festival on August 22, officials said on Saturday.
They said the registration process for the pilgrimage to the 3,880-metre high Himalayan cave shrine in south Kashmir would begin on April 1 through 446 designated branches of Punjab National Bank, Jammu and Kashmir Bank and YES bank in 37 states and Union Territories.
A decision to this effect was taken at the 40th board meeting of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) chaired by Lt Governor Manoj Sinha at Raj Bhavan in Jammu, the officials said.
Last year, the yatra was restricted to a group of Sadhus due to coronavirus pandemic, while in 2019 it was called off mid-way due to a 'terror threat' on August 2, three days before the Centre revoked provisions of Article 370 and divided the state in to two union territories.
In 2019, over 3.42 lakh pilgrims visited the Hindu cave shrine, housing the naturally formed ice-shivlinga, while the highest number of over 3.52 lakh pilgrims paid their obeisance at the shrine in 2015.
As many as 3.20 lakh offered their prayers at the shrine in 2016, 2.60 lakh in 2017 and 2.85 lakh in 2018, the officials said.
Keeping in view the safety and security of the pilgrims, the board has decided that the yatra this year would commence simultaneously from both the routes -- the traditional 46-km Pahalgam track in Anantnag district and 12-km Baltal in Ganderbal district on June 28, the auspicious Hindu day of 'Ashaad Chaturthi', an official spokesperson said.
"This year's Yatra will be held as per COVID-19 SOPs developed by the government. No person below the age of 13 years and above the age of 75 years will be permitted to undertake the pilgrimage," he said.
The spokesperson said the board also decided to enhance the daily route-wise pilgrims ceiling from 7,500 per day per route to 10,000, excluding yatris who would travel by helicopters.
One of the highlights of this year's yatra would be the introduction of free of cost battery car service up and down of the 2.75-km-long Baltal to Domel stretch, the spokesperson said.
During the meeting, the SASB also approved the enhancement of remunerations for Pujaris (priests) from existing Rs 1,000 per day to Rs 1,500 per day for the next three years, he said.
Further, as directed by the Lt Governor during the January 5 preparatory meeting, the spokesperson said the group accidental insurance cover for yatris and service providers was also enhanced from Rs 3 lakh to Rs 5 lakh, and for ponies from Rs 30,000 to Rs 50,000.
The Lt Governor during the Saturday meeting also directed for sending special invites to 'Akhada Parishads, Acharya Parishads', and exploring the possibility of establishing counters at prominent religious places across the country for facilitation of Sadhu and Sant Samaj, he said.
Laying special emphasis on providing best-in-class healthcare facilities to all the visiting devotees and service providers, the Lt Governor directed the officers concerned to upgrade the present healthcare facilities on both the routes with latest equipment and augmenting the strength of the medical staff to handle emergencies.
On strengthening the communication infrastructure, the Lt Governor directed for making telecom services operational at the holy cave and across the yatra routes two weeks prior to the commencement of pilgrimage.
It was further directed to upgrade the sanitation capacity commensurate with the enhanced yatra volume for the base camp and along the routes, the spokesperson said.
He said a discussion was also held on introducing RFID tracking and prepaid hiring of services.
The board directed for wide publicity to inform the intending pilgrims to timely secure the prescribed compulsory health certificates before seeking their advance registration from the nearest designated bank which would issue the pilgrim a 'Yatra Permit' valid for a specified date and route, the spokesperson said.
The spokesman said the board will also enable live telecast of morning and evening 'Aarti' (prayers) for devotees across the globe.
"The live telecast is a tool for virtual 'Darshan' for those who are unable to undertake the arduous Yatra," he said, adding the pilgrims can download the 'Shri Amarnathji Yatra' App available on the Google play store to get real time information about the Yatra and for availing several services online.
Further, the spokesman said the board is issuing silver coins of 5 gm and 10 gm denomination through the Metal and Mineral Trading Corporation (MMTC) which would be sold to the pilgrims at the cave shrine and at the offices of the board during the Yatra.