“We are expecting to cross 85 lakh turnout of pilgrims by December 31 midnight. We have already crossed 84.50 lakh and an estimated 50,000 pilgrims are expected to visit the shrine during the next 48 hours,” Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board Chief Executive Officer Simrandeep Singh told PTI.
He said last year’s figure of 81.78 lakh pilgrims was crossed almost 20 days ago.
The pilgrim arrivals dropped from 93.24 lakh in 2013 to 78.03 lakh in 2014 and further to 77.76 lakh in 2015 and 77.23 lakh in 2016.
Singh attributed the increase in turnout to various factors including the efforts of the board to make the pilgrimage pleasant by adding new facilities for a hassle-free journey.
“The ropeway is functional while the seven-kilometre Tarakote track came up as an alternate route with better facilities,” he said.
On Dec 24, Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik inaugurated the Rs 85-crore Bhawan-Bhairon passenger ropeway, which reduced the travel time between Bhawan and Bhairon Temple (one-way journey) from one hour to just about three minutes.
The board has decided to keep the tickets affordable, with the to and fro journey costing Rs 100 per passenger.
The alternate Tarakote Marg, which was completed in seven years at a cost of Rs 80 crore, was opened for pilgrims in May.
The track, which is six metres wide and has a comfortable gradient and very attractive wayside amenities, provides pedestrian pilgrims a cleaner and scenic route which has two ‘bhojanalayas’ as well as seven toilet blocks equipped with facilities for the elderly and the disabled.
A medical unit with doctors, paramedics, medicines and equipment had been established to facilitate pilgrims round-the-clock. The entire track is based on a ramp type design, without any steps and has an average and smooth gradient of one in 12 which, with interlocking antiskid tiles, makes it easier for walking.
Singh said the old battery run cars were replaced with new ones and the board had also decided to start a three-day community kitchen along the new track to facilitate the pilgrims who are expected to come in huge numbers on New Year.
“The free of cost food will be served to the pilgrims on December 30 and 31 and January 1,” he said.
From 13.95 lakh in 1986, when the board took over the affairs of the shrine for better management, there has been a steady increase of pilgrim footfalls every year, touching the all-time high of 1.04 crore turnout in 2012 against 1.01 crore the previous year.
The pilgrim arrivals at the shrine touched 31.15 lakh in 1991 and reached 74.17 lakh in 2007.
However, the number dropped to 67.92 lakh in 2008, which was attributed to the two-month-long Amarnath land row agitation, but again went up to 82 lakh in 2009 and 87.2 lakh the next year.