IMAGE: Hindu devotees
Narinder Nanu  /  AFP/Getty Images file
Hindu devotees wait in line at the Amarnath Cave to offer prayers at the ice formation resembling the phallus of the god Lord Shiva, seen here in the background on June 27 before it melted away.
updated 7/2/2007 10:17:13 PM ET 2007-07-03T02:17:13

A naturally formed ice stalagmite in a Kashmiri mountain shrine has melted away, officials said Monday, blaming body heat from the hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims who visit each year.

For over 200 years, Hindus have worshipped the stalagmite, called a lingam, as an incarnation of the Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration. Its size has fluctuated in previous years — ranging from 5 to 12 feet tall — but it has never before disappeared entirely.

"One of the main reasons for its melting is the conduction of body heat of the huge crowds at the formation," said Shakeel Ahmed, who heads the Geology and Geophysics Department at the University of Kashmir.

He also blamed the helicopters that deposit pilgrims near the mountain cave and generators powering light bulbs.

"There will be some disappointment for the pilgrims as the main lingam has completely melted," said Arun Kumar, a top official of the Amarnath Shrine Board, which manages the pilgrimage.

Officials say at least 400,000 devotees are expected to make the 10-mile trek from the nearest village to the Amarnath shrine, in a mountain cave 13,500 feet above sea level that is topped with a glacier. Pilgrims leave offerings of flowers, coins and paper money inside the cave.

Chanting hymns and ringing bells, the first group of nearly 12,000 pilgrims on Sunday began the journey amid tight security against Islamic militants. However on Monday, the government again suspended the pilgrimage because of heavy rains en route to the cave shrine.

Muslim rebels who have been fighting for decades with India over Kashmir accuse Hindu-majority India of using the pilgrimage as a political statement to bolster its claim over the Himalayan region.

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