Srinagar: The annual pilgrimage to a Himalayan cave shrine kicked off Thursday under heavy security cover amid the continuing turmoil in Kashmir. There were fewer street protests but the authorities extended the curfew in this summer capital and other towns in the Valley in an attempt to stall a threatened march here by the separatists.
Over 16,000 pilgrims started the climb to the south Kashmir shrine dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, a police officer said here.
"All the pilgrims are safe. Adequate arrangements of security have been made along the yatra route," said the officer.
A multi-layer security grid has been put in place for the smooth conduct of the pilgrimage particularly because of the heightened tensions in the Kashmir valley following days of violent protests triggered by the killing of eight youth, mostly teenagers, in firing by the security forces in the last five days.
Around 3,000 Border Security Force (BSF) troopers reached south Kashmir Anantnag district Wednesday to be part of the security ring.
Hari Prasad, 49, a pilgrim from Haryana, said he would pray for peace in Kashmir and the rest of the country at the holy cave that houses a natural ice stalagmite that is worshipped as an icon of Shiva.
"This is the land of saints and `rishis` (sages) besides being the abode of lord Shiva. The people here are nice and hospitable. This is my third yatra and I know the locals have always helped the yatris in times of emergency," he added.
Jammu and Kashmir Governor N.N. Vohra offered prayers at the cave shrine amidst chanting of vedic hymns on the first day of the two-month-long annual Amarnath pilgrimage that ends Aug 25.
As an indefinite curfew remained in force Thursday in parts of summer capital Srinagar, in north Kashmir`s Sopore and Baramulla towns and in Anantnag, Pulwama and Kulgam of south Kashmir, the situation was largely "under control but tense", said an administrative officer.
"The situation was relatively calm. There was no major incident of violence anywhere across the Valley. The situation is definitely showing signs of improvement," he said.
Authorities said the restrictions would continue to thwart any possible protests following the Friday afternoon prayers.
But the curfew didn`t deter women`s separatist group Dukhtaran-e-Milat from carrying out a protest march in the city even as police tried to stop them using tear gas canisters and water cannon to disperse the protesters.
Men were seen forming a ring around the women protesters as a measure to protect them from police causing any harm.
Protestors also defied the curfew at least at three places in south Kashmir`s Anantnag town prompting security forces to act and disperse them to restore order.
Meanwhile, separatist guerrillas lobbed two grenades in curfew-bound Sopore town injuring a paramilitary trooper.
The authorities late Thursday night extended the curfew imposed in Srinagar and other towns of the Valley in a bid to foil a planned separatists` march in the summer capital Friday to protest the recent violence, officials said.
Loud-speaker-fitted vehicles were on the streets of Srinagar making announcements of the extension of the curfew. Similar announcements were being made in other major and minor towns of the Valley.
Separatists had announced a protest march Friday to the Eidgah grounds in Srinagar.