At least eight people were killed when sudden rains triggered flash floods during an annual Hindu pilgrimage to an icy Himalayan cave in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Friday, police said.
Officials said in addition to the deaths, an unspecified number of injured devotees were airlifted to hospitals for treatment.
The cloudburst near the mountain cave revered by Hindus sent a wall of water down a gorge and swept away about two dozen camps and two makeshift kitchens, officials said. An estimated 10,000 people were in the mountains when the rains struck.
The region’s disaster management department said emergency workers were searching for several missing people.
T he Amarnath pilgrimage began on June 30 and tens of thousands of pilgrims have already visited the cave shrine where Hindus worship Lingam, a naturally formed ice stalagmite, as an incarnation of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration.
Hundreds of thousands of Hindus from across India take part in the pilgrimage, which lasts up to 45 days. This year, officials expect nearly a million visitors after a two-year gap in the annual endeavor due to the pandemic.
Worshippers trek to the cave along two routes through forested mountain passes with a view of snowy peaks: a traditional one via the southern hill resort of Pahalgam that takes three days, or a one-day trip through northeastern Baltal. Some also use helicopter services to pay quick visits.
The cave, at 13,500 feet (4,115 meters) above sea level, is covered with snow most of the year except for the short period in summer when it is open to pilgrims.
Hundreds of pilgrims have died in the past due to exhaustion and exposure to harsh weather during the journey through the icy mountains. In 1996, thousands of people were caught in a freak snowstorm during their trek, leading to more than 250 fatalities.
The pilgrimage concludes on Aug. 11, a full-moon night that Hindus say commemorates Shiva revealing the secret of the creation of the universe.