“The Himalayan pilgrimages are the oldest organised travel system, evolved over time by Hindu sages and embodying the spirit of wander, adventure and spirituality”
Shiva, in the form of a lingam, is formed naturally of an ice – stalagmite One of the holy trinity, Shiva is a living god. The most ancient and sacred book of India, the Rig Veda evokes his presence in its hymns. Vedic myths, ritual and even astronomy testify to his existence from the dawn of time.
Shiva is known to have made his home in the Himalayas. He built no house nor shelter, not for himself or his bride. He was an ascetic, and yet married; he could be both for “he was the wild god sporting in the forest or taking his ease on a cloud.”
Legend has it that Shiva recounted to Parvati the secret of creation in the Amarnathji cave. Unknown to them, a pair of mating pigeons eavesdropped on this conversation and having learned the secret, are reborn again and again, and have made the cave their eternal abode. Many pilgrims report seeing the pigeons-pair when they trek the arduous route to pay obeisance before the ice-lingam (the phallic symbol of Shiva).
The trek to Amarnathji, in the month of Shravan (July – August) has the devout flock to this incredible shrine, where the image of Shiva, in the form of a lingam, is formed naturally of an ice – stalagmite, and which waxes and wanes with the moon. By its side are, fascinatingly, two more ice – lingams, that of Parvati and of their son, Ganesha.
According to an ancient tale, there was once a Muslim shepherd named Buta Malik who was given a sack of coal by a sadhu. Upon reaching home he discovered that the sack, in fact, contained gold. Overjoyed and overcome, Buta Malik rushed back to look for the sadhu and thank him, but on the spot of their meeting discovered a cave, and eventually this became a place of pilgrimage for all believers. To date, a percentage of the donations made by pilgrims are given to the descendants of Malik, and the remaining to the trust which manages the shrine.
Yet another legend has it that when Kashap Reshi drained the Kashmir valley of water (it was believed to have been a vast lake), the cave and the lingam were discovered by Bregish Reshi who was travelling the Himalayas. When people heard of the lingam, Amarnathji for them became Shiva’s abode and a centre of pilgrimage.
THE YATRA PROCESSION –
Whatever the legends and the history of Amarnathji’s discovery, it is today a very important centre of pilgrimage and though the route is as difficult to negotiate as it is exciting, every year, thousands of devotees come to pay homage before Shiva in one of his famous Himalayan abodes.
Situated in a narrow gorge at the farther end of Lidder valley, Amarnathji stands at 3,888 m and is 45 km from Pahalgam and 141 km from Srinagar. Though the original pilgrimage subscribes that the yatra be undertaken from Srinagar, the more common practice is to begin the journey from Pahalgam, and cover the distance to Amarnathji and back in four or five days. Pahalgam is 96 km from Srinagar.
Since the base point for the pilgrim’s trek is picturesque Pahalgam, a large tented township springs up to accommodate the pilgrims. The conduct of the yatra is a gigantic task in which the State Government takes the assistance of the security departments for providing security and helping to keep the route open. All intermediate halting places have the same kind of facilities as are provided at Pahalgam, and a Yatra Officer is appointed to conduct the pilgrimage.
Trek to Amarnathji Cave –
“For those who journey with faith, it is a rewarding experience, this simple visitation to a cave-shrine, the home of the Himalayan mendicant who is both destroyer and healer, the greatest of the Hindu God”
The trek from Pahalgam to Amarnathji cave is on an ancient peregrine route. The 45 – km distance is covered in four days, with night halts at Chandanwari, Sheshnag (Wawjan) and Panchtarni. The distance from Pahalgam to Chandanwari (16 km) is now covered by motor transport. The pilgrims camp here or at Pahalgam on the first night out.
The first day’s trek of 13 km from Chandanwari is through spectacular, primeval countryside. The main centre of attraction on this trek is Sheshnag, a mountain lake which derives its name from its seven peaks, resembling the heads of a mythical snake. The journey to Sheshnag follows steep inclines up the right bank of a cascading stream and wild scenery untouched by civilisation. The second night’s camp at Wawjan overlooks the deep blue water of Sheshnag lake, and glaciers beyond it. The lake is also associated with legends of love and revenge, and at the camp these are recounted by campfires, to the stillness of a pine-scented, Himalayan night.
The second day’s 12 km trek steadily gains height, winding up across Mahagunas Pass at 4,600 m and then descending to the meadow – lands of Panchtarni, the last camp enroute to the holy cave.
From Panchtarni to Amarnathji is only 6 km, but an early morning’s start is recommended for there is a long queue awaiting entrance to the cave. The same day, following darshan, devotees can return to Panchtarni in time for lunch, and continue to Wawjan to spend the fourth night out; or continue further to Zojibal, returning to Pahalgam on the 4th day.
Entrance to the cave is regulated, and darshan a hasty affair for there are many others waiting outside to pay homage before the awesome Shivalingam. The devotees sing bhajans, chant incantations, and priests perform aarti and puja, invoking the blessing of Shiva, the divine, the pure, the absolute.
Useful Tips on the Yatra –
The Yatra is organised by the Jammu & Kashmir Govt., in the month of Shravan, and commences mainly from Pahalgam on specified dates. In recent years the route from Baltal has also been thrown open for the pilgrims to approach the holy Cave.
Dress: Pilgrims are advised to carry sufficient wollens such as sweaters, drawers, wollen trousers, monkey cap etc. Other items could include wind cheaters, rain coat, sleeping bag or blankets, umbrella, waterproof boots/shoes, walking stick, torch etc. Ladies are advised not to go on the trek in saris, instead pants or Salwar suits with drawers should be used.
Medical Assistance: Medical posts manned by qualified doctors and nursing staff are established enroute to cater to the needs of the pilgrims, free of cost. However, pilgrims are advised to carry along any medicines specifically prescribed for them.
Provisions: Essential rations are available at fair price rates from the specially established Govt. Depots at Chandanwari, Sheshnag and Panchtami, Numerous wayside tea-shops and small restaurants are set up by private parties. However, pilgrims are advised to carry with them biscuits, toffees, tinned food etc. to cater to their immediate needs. Firewood or gas can be obtained at Chandanwari, Sheshnag (Wawajan), Panchtami and near the Cave.
Insurance: In view of the hazardous nature, pilgrims are advised to insure themselves before proceeding on the Yatra.
Accommodation: Good tented accommodation with allied facilities are set-up during the Yatra period by the J&K TDC as well as private parties. These are provided on the basis of payment of rates fixed by the State authorities. Facilities for booking of such accommodation will be available at the base camps.
Registration: Registration of pilgrims are undertaken about a month ahead of the date fixed for commencement of Yatra. The dates are generally notified through press advertisements. No Yatri will be allowed to proceed on the journey without a Registration Card.
SIGHT SEEING & EXCURSION :
Amarnath Cave : The cave is a large hemispherical hollow wedged into a cliff of white Mesozoic dolomite. At the rear of the cave are several frozen springs. It is these springs that melt ever so slowly to form the ice lingam. And it is for darshan of this lingam that pilgrims brave every hazard. The size of the lingam waxes and wanes according to the season, and its peak, reaches a height of almost 13 to 14 feet. The cave is about 60 feet in length, 30 feet in width and 15 feet in height.
Chandanwari : 16 Km from Pahalgam is Chandanwari, a small valley bout 6,500 feet above sea level, and the starting point of the Amarnath yatra. The climb to Pissu Top is steep. One is usually on the pony during this initial climb. Thereafter, the trek is on fairly level ground nd only very slightly steep. Good shoes are a prerequisite here. Army jawans are everywhere and very helpful.
Sheshnag : 13 Km from Chandanwari and about 11,330 feet above sea level. The sight of the Sheshnag Lake from the top is spectacular. Sheshnag is the name of the mountain where the cave lies and derives its name from its seven peaks that resemble the head of the mythical snake. Here, tents, bedding and food for the travellers are provided. Free kitchens provided hot fresh food. Free medical camps are also found at several places along the way.
Sonmarg – Baltal : Sonmarg at an altitude 3000 meters is situated on the Srinagar-Leh Highway, 85 km northeast of Srinagar. 15 Km ahead of here lies the base camp, Baltal from where the holy cave is just day’s journey away. There are free food facilities at Domail, 2 Km from Baltal. The trail from Domail to the Holy Cave navigates very steep hillsides. One has to be very careful while trekking here.
Air : Nearest Airport is at Srinagar.
Rail : The nearest railhead for the Amarnath Yatra is Jammu station.
Road : From Jammu, buses take you to Pahalgam (about 250 kms). Jammu is well connected to places in north India by National Highway 1A and other major all-weather roads and by rail to all the major states.
When to go : Days are warm and sunny in spring with frequent showers. Temperature in the valley range between 25C and 35C, but considerable cooler in the hills. September to November are dry months. Snowfall begins in December. The best time is between the months of April and October. The Yatra takes place in the month of Shravan (beginning in July and Lasting up to the end of August).