The Invisible Palanquin Man

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Hundreds of thousands of devout Hindus visit the Kashmir Himalayas every year for pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave shrine. Many old, infirm or rich persons are carried on palanquins through the treacherous mountain trek, but those who bear the burden of their faith as labourers find no dignity in doing so. Shams Irfan reports.

Labourers carrying a Yatris -Photo: Bilal Bahadur

Labourers carrying a Yatris -Photo: Bilal Bahadur

Ghulam Hussain Mir and his men wore a relieved look on their faces as they slowly made their way through the endless lines of makeshift tents pitched along the narrow road leading to the famous glacier sight in Chandanwari, Pahalgam.

Carefully lowering the palanquin they were carried on their shoulders for three days, Mir and his men stood smiling, while a thirty something bespectacled man, whom they addressed as ‘Sahib’, finally set his foot on ground.

In no time a large crowd gathers around them. “Chalo ge kya? (will you come with us?)” almost everybody shouted simultaneously.

“No, we are not going anywhere,” Mir replied loudly, answering no one in particular. He then turned towards Sahib who was counting his belongings which Mir’s men had carried for him for no extra charge.

Sahib opened every single backpack and checked their contents carefully while Mir and his men waited for the bakshish (tip) eagerly. But Sahib was so busy in counting his clothes, toothbrush, soap and other sundry items that he completely forgot the palanquin bearers. Suddenly, he turned towards Mir with suspicious eyes and said, “I can’t find my leather gloves. Who was carrying this bag Mir?”

“Nazir carried this one. But you recheck your luggage, it must be there only,” said Mir discourteously. The earlier softness in Mir’s voice has now faded as he stood there feeling stripped by the Sahib’s suspicious glances.

Zaneeh che ais choor (as if we are thieves),” Mir whispered into his friend’s ear.

After going through all his belongings once again the Sahib finally found his cheap artificial leather gloves.  Finally the Sahib reached for his deep trouser pocket and took out three hundred rupee notes and slipped them quickly into Mir’s breast pocket. Before Mir or his friends could have reacted or said anything the Sahib was lost in the crowd – not even a thank you.

With anger clearly visible on Mir’s face, he took his men to a small makeshift shop and ordered tea and boiled eggs for everybody.

Holding a cup of tea in one hand Mir finally sat comfortably to cool his heels after bearing through dirt, snow and mud for three days while carrying the ‘Sahib’ to the cave shrine of Amarnath in the mountains.“We carried that fellow for three days on our backs and still he suspected us in the end,” Mir said sadly. “They are like that only. Otherwise they would not have hesitated in giving a handsome bakshish (tip),”added.

Palanquin bearers usually start early in the morning and trek to Sheeshnag from Chandanwari base camp covering a distance of 16 kilometres. “It takes around fourteen hours to reach Sheeshnag camp,” informs Nazir Ahmad Dar.

Nazir looks much older than his actual thirty-five years of age and rubs his neck continuously while talking. “We often sleep under open sky at Sheeshnag as we are not allowed inside free camps meant for Yatris.”

From Sheeshnag the palanquin bearers move forward towards Panchtarni which is again at a distance of 14 kilometres and the trek takes around 12 hours. Then, finally after covering the toughest part of the trek through lifeless and treacherous mountain passes one reaches the cave shrine six kilometres from Panchtarni base camp.

“It actually takes four days to reach the cave but Yatris are always in a hurry. We don’t get enough time to catch our breath or rest,” said Mohammad Yousuf Mir, the youngest member of Mir’s team from district Reasi.

“Despite helping them reach the cave, they won’t allow us inside Langars (the makeshift free community kitchens for the pilgrims) as if we are not humans. We have to arrange for our food,” complained Dar.

During the roughly two-month long Amarnath yatra men like Mir are in high demand as they readily risk their lives to carry elderly, handicapped or simply rich pilgrims up to the cave located at an altitude of 13,700 feet.

The 34 kilometres journey from Chandanwari base camp to the Amarnath cave in the heart of mountains of Pirpanchal range can otherwise be undertaken only on foot, a treacherous trek.

Every year Mir and his friends travel to Pahalgam to earn some extra cash to sustain their families during winters when there is not enough work available in Kashmir. Mir’s team comprises of five strong men, all in their late twenties or early thirties, who work for ten to fifteen days and then return.

Yatri Caravan-Photo: Bilal Bahadur

Yatri Caravan-Photo: Bilal Bahadur

“It is impossible to work for entire Yatra duration. It drains you both mentally and physically,” said Gulzar Ahmad Bokad, 35, from South Kashmir’s Qazigund town.

The palanquin bearers follow a strict code of teamwork while carrying a person on their shoulders. Even a small mistake can put their lives to extreme risk.

“It is a team work,” said Mir.  Two people carry the palanquin from front and three balance it from behind. It is really hard to trek the steep gradient during unpredictable Himalayan weather when it can rain or snow anytime.

“Just one wrong step and you are gone,” said Bokad. Last year at least two palanquin bearers lost their lives while carrying pilgrims to the cave shrine.

Within half an hour of Mir’s arrival, Fayaz Ahmad Lone and his group reached Chandanwari base camp carrying an elderly woman on a palanquin.

Lone who lives in Frislan, one of the last inhabited villages along the Pahalgam Chandanwari road, has worked as a porter for pilgrims for years before he took to palanquins this year. “Working as a porter or a palanquin bearer makes you an easy prey for everybody. Nobody appreciates our efforts,” said Lone. “We risk our lives for strangers but they never look upon us as fellow humans. By paying palanquin fare they consider us as slaves.”

Mir and other palanquin bearers’ have to work under a broker. They are not allowed to make direct deals with Yatris.

A broker negotiates prices on their behalf with the Yatris, Mir fixes the time and place with the person whom he has to carry to the cave. “The broker always gets the biggest cut,” said Mir.

While the brokers charge pilgrims somewhere between 20 to 25 thousand rupees per trip a person, the palanquin owners get only 15,000 rupees for their life threatening efforts. “We get around 3,000 rupees only per trip. Rest goes to the broker,” said Mir.

“We have to arrange for a palanquin on our own,” said Mir while pointing towards the makeshift palanquin which he had bought for 1600 rupees from a friend.

“It is really hard to earn money in life,” said Mohammad Ashraf Tragwal, 37,  who has come from Ramban to work here. “I never had any idea that earning two simple meals is so difficult in life.”

Tragwal, has never worked for the yatris before. “I have taken this inhumane job just because I want my daughters to have a good future,” he says softly.

“I don’t want my kids to take up this job. It is like travelling back in time and working for Maharaja who had no heart, no mercy for fellow humans,” added a visibly angry Bokad.

“It kills us slowly. One cannot imagine the pain and hardship that we endure unless he has carried somebody on his back for three days,” said Fareed Ahmad Dar, 37, who agreed to travel to Pahalgam from Ramban with Mir hoping to pay for his mortgaged house.

“I am working so that my daughter gets good education,” said Fareed hopefully.

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