KHIRBHAWANI, India (Reuters) - Two decades after they were forced to flee Kashmir, thousands of Hindu Pandits seek to return to their ancestral homeland, their hopes lifted by a fall in Islamist rebel attacks against New Delhi's rule.
Exiled Pandits gathered Saturday by the green chinar trees and sparkling streams at the Khirbhawani shrine for an annual festival, chanting hymns to the goddess of peace who is the deity in this holy spot 30 km east of Srinagar.
"My motherland is regaining its peace and beauty, I can feel it. I feel the time has come to return and live here with Muslim brethren," 52-year-old Ravinder Sadhu, a migrant who lives with his family in the western Indian city of Pune, told Reuters.
Optimism at prospects for peace in Kashmir has risen after New Delhi and Islamabad, which claim the region in full but rule in part, began taking steps to thaw relations frozen since India blamed Pakistan-based militants for the Mumbai attacks in November 2008.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in June repeated an offer to talk to separatists who shunned violence, a step seen as trying to bring peace to the state where tens of thousands have died since armed rebellion broke out in 1989.
Officials say attacks in Kashmir so far this year have been down on previous years. But the region remains on the edge, with stone-throwing and firing between protesters and government forces featuring as almost daily occurrences.
Government records show over 4,000 families have applied to return, but for many others, Kashmir's volatility puts them off.
"This place is unpredictable, violence can break any time," said Rajesh Koul, a 35-year-old Pandit whose uncle was killed in an attack in 2003.
"I don't want to get killed like my uncle."
Saturday, the Pandits walked barefoot in the white-marble shrine, bearing trays of flowers and earthenware lamps for the goddess, having bought the offerings from the dozens of Muslim boys and girls outside.
Police frisked visitors, searching for arms and explosives.
Islam became Kashmir's majority religion in the 13-century and had coexisted with Hinduism for centuries before rebel militants began attacking and killing Pandits.
Nearly 250,000 Pandits left for safer places in India, a migration which authorities say was the largest since partition of India in 1947 into Hindu-majority India and Muslim Pakistan.
"Two decades of exile is a big period in history. The time has come now to put an end it," Ashok Bhat, a Pandit leader, said.
"If this issue is not addressed, the chance of Kashmiri Pandits' extinction cannot be ruled out."
Editing by C.J. Kuncheria