AMARNATH YATRA Ameshwara: The Immortal Lord By Sameer C Mohindru
India’s syncretic and inclusive culture, its ethos of secularism and religious fervour and an ordinary Kashmiri’s struggle for survival are all encapsulated in the annual Amarnath Yatra. Pilgrims on the Amarnath Yatra stride through an exceptionally enchanting route, upward both physically and metaphorically, to meet the shining glory and greatness of god. It is believed that in a state of heightened devotion, the pilgrim perceives, with his mind’s eye, Lord Shiva in his eternal splendour. No wonder, Shiva as Amarnath is the Immortal or Deathless Lord, the absolute spirit of the universe.
The joys of this extraordinary pilgrimage are such that the arduous trek is not a deterrent, nor is the lack of basic sanitation facilities en route, or heights of over 14,000 ft that have to be traversed to reach the only ice linga in the world. In geographical parlance, the linga of Amareshvara could have been like any other stalagmite — ice formations that grow, usually upward from the floor of caves. Here, the formation is a huge, perfectly shaped swayambhu linga, an extraordinary sight that never fails to move, amaze and convince pilgrims of Amarnath’s unquestionable divinity. Around the deity is woven a common thread, which unites the stories of priests, pilgrims, security personnel, langars, pony-men, pitthuwallahs (porters), travel agents, shopkeepers and devotees.
Each yatri has a tale to narrate about how the yatra has defined his life. Many experience such overwhelming peace that they keep returning year after year, never satiated. I first went as a student in the year 2000 and, on my return, landed my first job. Since then, the pilgrimage to Amarnath has become an annual journey.
LEGENDS AND MYTHOLOGY
In Hinduism, there are strong links between the sublime and silvery Himalayan peaks, and Lord Shiva. Kalidasa described the Himalaya as the “laughter of Shiva”. Inside the Amarnath Cave, a pure white ice-mound is formed and water trickles down in a slow rhythm, drop by drop, from the top. The source is believed to be the holy Ramkund Lake, situated above the cave. The mound piles up to take the shape of a linga, which begins to rise indiscernibly to be at its full height on the nights of the full moon. Wise men say that the Shivaling waxes and wanes with the phases of the moon. Since it is believed that Shiva manifested himself first on the day of the full moon in the month of Shravan (August), it is considered auspicious to go on a pilgrimage to Amarnath during this month.
It was here that Shiva narrated the Amar Katha, the secret of immortality, to Parvati, his consort, the graceful daughter of the Himalaya. For a long while, it is said, Shiva procrastinated but Parvati remained resolute in her wish to hear the secret of the cosmos. Finally, Shiva decided to indulge her. He started for a lonely place where no living being could hear what he was to say. He chose the spot that is now the Amarnath Cave. In the course of his journey, he left Nandi, his bull, at Pahalgam (from Bailgaon). At Chandanwari, he released the moon from his locks. By the banks of the Lake Seshnag, he forsook the snakes around his neck. He decided to leave his son Ganesh at Mahagunas Parvat (Mahaganesh Hill). At Panchtarni, Shiva left behind the Panchabhoota (Earth, Water, Air, Fire and Sky), which together make a living being. Finally, he entered the holy Amarnath Cave along with Parvati. Here, he seated himself upon a deerskin. To ensure that no living being would overhear, he created Kalagni, the fire, which was to destroy every living thing in and around the holy cave. Shiva then started narrating the secret of immortality to Parvati. Fatefully, a pigeon’s egg was lying beneath the deer skin asan (seat), unharmed. The pair of pigeons, which were born out of this egg, became immortal, having heard the Amar Katha. Every year, pilgrims still spot pigeons residing on the roof of the cave, having made it their eternal abode.
Seshnag symbolises the cosmic ocean in which Lord Vishnu reclines in eternal repose. Once, terrorised by a mighty asura who had received a boon from Shiva that he would not be killed by the lord himself, the devas went to the bank of the Seshnag Lake to pray to Vishnu. Pleased, Vishnu rose from the lake, seated upon the back of the mighty serpent, the thousand-headed Seshnag, who destroyed the asura. It is considered very auspicious to bathe in the Seshnag Lake and several devout pilgrims do so despite its icy cold water.
It is in the plains of Panchtarni that Shiva danced the tandava as he left behind everything on his way to the Amarnath Cave. So immersed in ecstasy was he that his locks were undone and five streams of the Ganga (together making up the Panchtarni) fell to the ground.
A BRIEF HISTORY
The Amarnath Cave is referred to in the Bhrngish Samhita, Nilmat Purana, Kalhana’s Rajtarangini, and the Mahatmayas of Amarnatha and Amreshvara Kalpa. According to Kalhana’s Rajtarangini, Samdimat (34 BCE-17 CE), a great devotee of Shiva who rose from the position of minister to be the king of Kashmir, “used to worship a linga of snow above the forests, which is not found elsewhere in the world, during the delightful Kashmir summers”. Kalhana also narrates the legend of Naga Surava, who gave his daughter Chandralekha in marriage to a Brahmin youth and carved a place for him besides his own abode in Shushram Naga (Seshnag). Kalhana says, “It is seen to this day (ie, 1148-49) by pilgrims proceeding to Amareshvara (Amarnath).”
The fact that Zain-ul-abdin (1420-70), the pious Muslim ruler of Kashmir, also visited
Amarnath has been documented by his chronicler Jonaraja.
Francois Bernier, the French physician who accompanied Emperor Aurangzeb to Kashmir in 1663, recorded that after visiting Trisandiya, Verinag, Achabal and Wular Lake, he was in Sind Valley when Aurangzeb called him back. He writes in Travels in Moghul Empire, “I was pursuing the journey to a grotta full of wonderful congealations, two days journey from Sangsafed when I received intelligence that my Nawab (Aurangzeb) felt very impatient and uneasy on account of my long absence.” Bernier’s book was edited by Vincent A Smith, who observes, “The grotta full of wonderful congealations is the Amarnath Cave, where blocks of ice stalagmites formed by dripping water from the roof are worshipped by many Hindoos… as images of Shiva.”
Vigne, in Travels in Kashmir, Ladakh and Iskardu (1842) says, “The ceremony at the cave of Amarnath takes place on the 15th of the Hindu month of Sawan, 28th July… not only Hindoos of Kashmir but those from Hindoostan of every rank and caste can be seen, collecting together and travelling up the valley of Lidder towards the celebrated cave.” Vigne himself, after returning from Ladakh and Tibet by 1840-41, during the rule of Maharaja Sher Singh, son of Ranjit Singh, attempted to visit Amarnath along the traditional route via Seshnag in late season, but was forced to return from the Wawjan Pass due to bad weather.
Walter R Lawrence mentions in Valley of Kashmir (1895) that Brahmins of Mattan joined the pilgrims to Amarnath and further up at Batkot, the Maliks used to take charge of the pilgrimage. According to Lawrence, the Maliks were supposed to keep the track in order, guide and escort the pilgrims, carry the sick, and ensure nothing was stolen; they received one-third of the offerings made at the Amarnath shrine. The other two shares used to go to the Pandits of Mattan and the Giri Mahants of Amritsar, who used to and still lead the pilgrimage with Chhari Mubarak (Holy Mace), but now from Srinagar. During the Sikh rule in Kashmir, Amritsar was the starting point of the yatra but in the 1940s, pilgrims started embarking from Srinagar.
The tradition of dividing the offerings into three has now been done away with. In the year 2000, the shrine was taken over by the state government and currently its affairs are managed by the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board headed by the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, with compensation awarded to the earlier beneficiaries.
While proceeding to Amarnath, think of its rich history and legends. Was it not Shiva and Parvati themselves who first traversed the trek? Countless pilgrims, many of them great sages, have walked upon this path. Swami Vivekananda and Swami Ramtirath undertook the pilgrimage to Amarnath. A thousand years earlier, Adi Shankaracharya walked this way to see Shankara himself. Interestingly, VS Naipaul also went on the Yatra when he visited India, before writing his first book on the country. In his gripping account of the pilgrimage, he speaks of his joy and that of other pilgrims as they make their way to the cave. Now is your chance for a brush with sacred history.
The yatra also reflects the ethos of Indian multiculturalism. It is one of those rare events in the Hindu calendar in which the organisers are primarily Muslims. Many locals say it was a Muslim shepherd who discovered the cave while searching for his missing goat. Many members of the Sri Amarnathji Shrine Board are Muslim. The 200-odd makeshift shops that come up along the route and sell puja items are owned by Muslims. The pony-men, luggage carriers and tent owners, who render excellent service under tough conditions, are all Muslim too, and they claim proud privilege in providing support. No words can be fulsome in their praise.
Sadhus form a large, easily identifiable part of the yatra. As one of them pointed out, the yatra can be a botanist or geologist’s delight. He told us of the rare herbs and wild flowers that grow upon the uninhabited mountains in the region, which could cure ailments that still baffle modern physicians.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
The Amarnath trail is along thick and green woodlands of breathtaking beauty. The playful stream of the Lidder River meanders alongside, sparkling bright and pure. From Chandanwari, which is the confluence of the Asthan Marg and Seshnag rivers, there begins a terribly steep 3-km ascent to Pissu Ghati (10,403 ft) in what is perhaps the toughest part of the pilgrimage, reminding yatris that the path to salvation involves superhuman struggle.
A feeling of having reached an ethereal destination overwhelms yatris when they arrive at Seshnag Lake (11,712 ft, 1.5 km long, 1.2 km wide) — so striking is the beauty, the setting and the colour of this great water body, enhanced even more in the moonlight. Surrounded by mighty peaks, this primal scenery untouched by civilisation is the setting for the first night halt (after Pahalgam). In the stillness of the pine-scented Himalayan night, legends of love and revenge associated with Seshnag are recounted around campfires.
Second only to the trek up the Pissu Ghati is the formidable climb from Seshnag to the Mahagunas Top or Wawjan (15,091 ft). Pilgrims climb slowly and breathlessly for 6 km to reach it, the highest point in the entire course of the pilgrimage, where they cross over from the Lidder Valley to the Sind Valley. The third and the last camp en route to the cave is at the green meadows of Panchtarni, reached by a 7-km descent from Mahagunas Top.
On the way from Mahagunas Top to Panchtarni comes Paushpatri, where one of the best langars of the yatra – with a surprising variety of dishes – is organised, by Delhi-based Sri Shiv Sevak Society. Do note that Paushpatri is not the night halt, Panchtarni is. The Amarnath Cave is 6 km from Panchtarni but involves a narrow spiralling trek. One false step, and the pilgrim or pony can fall 2,000 ft to the Panchtarni plains below.
From Panchtarni, an early morning’s start is recommended for there is a long queue at the entrance to the cave. For about a kilometre, pilgrims have to travel over solid ice through a deep ravine, with the holy cave, a huge aperture in the mountain, clearly in sight. To the left of the cave, the Amaravati River flows down the mountain, where many devotees bathe before entering the cave. For those who do not wish to bathe in the icy water, water is heated up (Rs 10-20 per bucket); a handful of makeshift changing rooms are available.
The holy cave is of colossal dimensions and faces south. Its outer mouth measures about 40 yards across, and it is about 75 ft high and at least 80 ft deep, sloping down into the mountainside. Inside, a central ice formation, rising to about 7 ft and ending in a glistening cone, is the ice linga of Shiva. To its right is another block of ice (6 ft high, 3 ft in diameter), revered as Ganesh, and a smaller ice figure is Goddess Parvati. Inside the Amarnath Cave is another very small cave to the right of the Shivaling, from which a chalk-like substance is taken by pilgrims as vibhuti (sacred ash), and holy water is collected. Despite the large crowds and hasty darshan, for those who journey with faith, the visit to the home of the Himalayan mendicant who is both destroyer and healer, is an immensely rewarding experience.
Unfortunately, on Shravan Purnima, the ice linga is no longer to be seen in full bloom, having disappeared much earlier to the great disappointment of many pilgrims. In fact, there is a raging debate over the ways and means of preserving the ice linga for the entire period of the yatra. Over the years, as the number of pilgrims increased from a few thousands to a couple of lakhs, heat generated from humans and the flashes of camera lights led to the ice linga going into relaxation (melting) within a few days of the yatra. It is to prevent this that the Shrine Board had mooted temperature regulation of the cave complex but the idea is opposed by many pujaris and pilgrims on the grounds that nothing unnatural should be used to protect the natural. The matter is now subjudice. Another idea that is mooted is that darshan should be allowed from a safe distance of, say, 100-150m. The mouth of the cave is so big that devotees can see the linga from a distance, much before entering the cave itself, provided man-made paraphernalia such as huge bells, marble platforms, statues, stairs, iron railings and gates are removed and the ground levelled. Many pilgrims are also not happy with the extension of the yatra to two months from the previous one-month duration, saying it contributes to the early melting of the ice linga. The Shrine Board has taken the view that with more and more people trekking their way up to the cave, more time is needed to ensure darshan of the linga for all. As a logical corollary, for darshan to take place, the ice linga must be preserved and hence the need for scientific devices to ensure its longevity. There are economic implications too as a longer duration for the yatra ensures a boost for tourism in J&K, as many who come as pilgrims also visit Srinagar, Sonamarg and Gulmarg as tourists.
After darshan, devotees can return to Panchtarni in time for lunch and continue to Seshnag to spend the night, and return to Pahalgam the next day. They also have an option of returning via Baltal on the day of the darshan itself.