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The Amarnath Yatra

Text and Photos:  Frank Ossen


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' Immersed, with eyes closed,

in the taste of the bliss springing from inner love,

would that I worshipped even blades of grass,

with this Mantra – I bow to Shiva, which is myself '

mahadev.jpg (14045 bytes)Man’s search for God began with the dawn of creation. This search has assumed many forms. Some seekers have concentrated on the teachings of the great religious prophets; others have made pilgrimages to the saints’ birthplaces, and several – seeking inspiration for their quest – have visited locales in which various gospels were preached.

One of the most popular pilgrim destinations is India.  And one of the country’s most famous – and toughest – routes is to the cave of Amarnath. Thousands of devout pilgrims journey there every year during the month of Sawan (July – August). They come from all over India and offer prayers under full moon to the great Hindu God, Lord Shiva.

Situated in the Western Himalayas, at a height of 3,880 meters (12,735 feet), the cave is believed to be discovered by shepherds of the Malik clan, who were probably searching for some missing flock. The Maliks, as the guides to the cave are now called, have an equal share in the offerings to the deity, together with the Brahmins of Mattan and the Dharmarth trust, the state Hindu organization. The cave enshrines a huge, naturally formed ice lingam (immortal emblem) which waxes and wanes with the moon and reaches its maximum dimensions (more than eight feet!) on the full moon night of Sawan, the very day the pilgrims hope to arrive at the cave. This lingam is a manifestation of Lord Shiva. There are also three slightly lesser ice-lingams in the cave, those of Shiva’s sons Ganesh and Kumar (Murugan) and that of his spouse Parvati.

Tradition has it that Lord Shiva, after his marriage, stayed for some time at the site of the cave. It is where, on a moonlit night, he explained the secret of salvation to his divine consort Parvati. And according to common belief, two of his servants, who overheard him, were turned into white pigeons that today can be seen flying away when devotees congregate. When seeing these birds, the pilgrims clap their hands and shout: ‘Ishwara Darshan Pa’ya Re’ (we have seen the manifestation of the Lord). It is generally believed by the devotees of Lord Shiva, that having been in a happy mood at this particular spot, he is agreeable to grant all kind of boons asked for.

The whole Amarnath pilgrimage procession is conducted under the auspices of the Chhari Sahib. De chhari – a rod or scepter – is the symbol of royal and religious authority and no pilgrim is allowed to go ahead of the chhari, which is guarded by the Dharmarth trust.

The traditional route to this mysterious cave starts from Pahalgam, a scenic tourist resort in the picturesque Lidder Valley in Kashmir. Although the origin of this holy trek is lost in antiquity, there is written evidence to suggest that it was undertaken as far back as 1,000 BC.

The 46km-long route passes through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world, particularly in the stark, desolate mountain regions where the passage becomes steeper and more arduous. Man’s soul gets elevated at the sight of the sublime beauty and thus he is brought closer to the object of his quest. It is said that in the caves of the Himalayas live sages who have been in meditation for hundreds of years!

The first pilgrims undertook this and the extra 50km hike from Srinagar (present-day summer capital of Kashmir) to Pahalgam on foot. They were entirely at the mercy of the local guides and unsure of a safe return. Today, however, governmental organization ensures that all essential amenities are provided en route and safety precautions are taken. Basic accommodation in sheds and tents, free medical aid, police protection and other facilities, like ponies and labourers, are all arranged at the time of the pilgrimage. There is even an unique, moving postoffice; a horse dressed in red (the Indian postal colours), complete with mailbox, post stamps, etceteras.

Last year, when I arrived at Pahalgam on the overcrowded Srinagar-bus, the normally quiet town was bustling with energy. Men, women and children from all parts of the country were making last minute arrangements before starting the 1982 pilgrimage. Some milled around the streets, others pitched tents on the pastures surrounding the town and a few bathed in the river.

Amarnath Elephant.jpg (10223 bytes)Not all the people present were to be allowed on the pilgrimage though. A sadhu (Hindu holy man) rode in on an elephant, but was refused permission by the authorities to join the procession to the cave of Amarnath. The elephant may have looked grandly imposing in the town, but officials pointed out the disastrous consequences of an elephant sliding down a glacier or running amok among 30,000 pilgrims on a small mountain trail. By the way, health permits for participating pilgrims are required by the authorities, but rarely checked, so basically everybody can make the journey. Who would dare to stop the devotees from seeing their Lord?

In Pahalgam, there was a definite feeling of religious passion – of an intensity unique to India. And on the first day of the pilgrimage (yatra), the pilgrims (yatris) set off early. Although some old ladies were carried in a palanquin (dandi), and a few rich people rode ponies, both means of transport available for hire from the government and private (mostly Muslim) traders, most of the people walked one after another in a long procession. The pony-track was good and pine trees shaded the path along which the pilgrims trod. Their delicious fragrance lessened the travelers’ fatigue.

At one point, I stopped off at a small tea-stall (little more than a fire, a teapot with cups and a wooden bench) and engaged in lively conversation with the owner. Even before he knew where I came from (the Netherlands is my home country), he let me know that he would like to visit me. But he had second thoughts when I told him that the Dutch didn’t eat much of the local staple diet, rice and dhal (boiled lentils). Anyway, he refused to take money for the tea and wished me a good trip.

Lal Kumar.jpg (9506 bytes)On rejoining the procession, I met Lal Kumar, an 80-year-old pilgrim from Agra. Gasping for breath whenever the trail climbed steeply, he nevertheless continued with strong determination. And when the going really got tough, he prayed to Lord Shiva for sustenance. (I was happy to meet the man again a few days later at the site of the cave and to see that he had made it all the way.)

Late in the afternoon we reached the village of Chandanwari, the last permanent inhabited settlement along the route and 13km beyond Pahalgam, just in time to eat some of the food donated by a number of wealthy Hindus and distributed freely to all the pilgrims. I was a late arrival, something I gathered after seeing the many crowded restaurants in the main street and the cluster of tents already put up in the distance. Still, I was in time to get some floor space in one of them. Later that night I walked on my own under the stars. Everyone else was asleep and as the moon shone serenely over the green canvas town, I could feel Lord Shiva peering over the snow-capped mountaintops, spying on his visitors.

Amarnath Yatra .jpg (9338 bytes)When I awoke the next morning, most of those ‘visitors’ had already left. I caught them up later. The trail had begun to narrow so much so that at one point, when a caravan had to negotiate an enormous snow-bridge, the procession almost ground to a halt.

Further on, I decided to take a short cut and watched the long row of pilgrims curving its way up the 3,358 meters (11,081 feet) high Pisu Hill. Here, according to legend, a great battle raged between the Devas and the Daityas. The Devas did not allow the Daityas to see Lord Shiva. War erupted and the Daityas were defeated and ground down to tiny bits. Hence Pisu Hill (from pisna, to grind). Tired faces brightened up as the trail leveled out and lunch was prepared. As I waited to eat, I gazed out over the sublime panorama to densely forested mountains and snowy peaks. Closer to the ground, a myriad of flowers formed a rainbow-coloured carpet, while a dipper dived in a swift torrent to get its food. I felt very contented. It was so good to be away from the dust and din of city life.

The path continued along the shore of Sheshiram Nag or Sheshnag, an emerald lake, which is situated 3,554 meters (11,730 feet) above sea level and surrounded on one side by mountains nearly 5000 meters (16,000 feet) high. It remains covered in ice until June. And even in July, as the pilgrims crossed nearby glaciers, they paused to examine the layer of snow that still covered the lake. They touched it as if they had never seen snow before – which, for many, was indeed the case.

It started to rain when we reached Sheshnag and people fearfully looked up to the forbidding sky. They knew that a heavy downfall would make the pilgrimage a lot more treacherous than it already was, turning the trail into a pool of mud or causing perilous landslides.

But we were lucky. The rain eased off. It remained chilly however, and by nightfall most pilgrims had crawled gratefully into their sleeping bags. The following morning, I arose early and watched the slow dismantling of the camp before we all set out for the 13km journey to Panchtarni.

Our first obstacle was Mahagunas Pass, at 4,420 meters (14,500 feet) the highest point on the route. The pilgrims began the ascent with slow, steady steps, but the air thinned out gradually and they had to rest more and more frequently. Police officers, positioned on rocky boulders along the trail, regulated the flow of pilgrims. As the trail rose steeper and steeper, signs of agony began to show on the faces of men, women and children. Poorly clad people from the plains, having no conception of the severe cold of the place, suffered a lot. And by the time I approached the summit, the scene resembled a battlefield. Exhausted pilgrims were scattered all over the trail. They gasped for breath, leant on their walking sticks or rested in the grass. A lot of people had actually collapsed and had to receive oxygen-treatment. Among them lie an old sadhu connected to an oxygentank, who had shared a few chillums with me an hour or so before. This must have been too much for the old man! But, in the end, everyone managed to make it to the top.

The descent – some six kilometers – was gradual and let to the Panchtarni stream. Once there, the pilgrims took off their clothes and bathed in the stream. The water, the result of a glacial melt, was ice-cold and crystal clear. According to the Amarnath Mahatmya a pilgrim is expected to bath or drink water at about 37 places before he enters the holy cave, but as some of the places are out of the way and inconvenient to reach, they are not now visited by the pilgrims.

Arriving at the campground the pilgrims quickly pitched their tents. Fires were lit for cooking, horsemen shouted for their animals, mothers looked for their children and coolies searched for wood. This hustle and bustle continued until nightfall.

The next day began bright and early. Long before the sun’s first rays touched the snowy peaks, the pilgrims had cleared the site of tents and were ready for the last seven-kilometer stretch to Amarnath cave. As we followed the track – a splendid passage over the mountainside and across a bluish-white glacier – I noticed an one-legged pilgrim moving through the snow on crutches. His face showing strong determination. A little later I encountered a famous scene from a mediaeval Breughel painting; a group of four blind sadhus, forming a chain by resting their right hand on the shoulder of their predecessor. How they could find their way, I wouldn’t know! Showing less will power, however, were two plumpish women in colourful local dress who drank tea from their thermos flasks, and an old grey-bearded sadhu who relaxed on a rock. They rested with the conviction that their destination was not much further.

And they were right. I looked up a glen and saw the cave of Amarnath, a large hole in the mountainside. We finally reached it by way of a narrow defile. The pilgrims could only marvel at the skilful hand of nature which had created this mysterious cave – the destination of their long journey and source of bliss to millions of Hindus.

Panchtarni Valley.jpg (10044 bytes)It is said that some sadhus, who undertook the yatra before 1930, took a different, unusual route from here, which lead them to the top of a peak opposite the cave, from where they jumped and perished! They completely surrendered to their Lord and offered him their bodies. This tragic process was stopped, however, by the then Maharaja of Kashmir, after it was brought to his notice. This year, only two elderly pilgrims lost their lives due to normal heart attacks.

Meanwhile, the pilgrims queued up excitedly to enter the cave and the local police had to work hard to control them. It was becoming increasingly clear that the grotto was not meant to harbour 30,000 pilgrims. And as the yatris neared the entrance, their hysteria intensified. In the rush, I was pushed through the iron gate which, ironically, had been erected by the government six years earlier to encourage an orderly entry to the cave.

But once inside, the outside world was forgotten. The cave was quiet and peaceful, an atmosphere of serenity emanating from the famed Shiva lingam which reAmarnath Ice-Lingam.jpg (5964 bytes)clined on a pedestal in the north-east corner. Of pure greenish-white ice, it is the accumulation of water dripping from the roof of the cave for over countless centuries.

Pilgrims, many in complete ecstasy by now, offered camphor, candles of clarified butter, coins, incense, candy sugar, raisins, coconuts, black pepper, clothes and gold and silver ornaments to the deity while recitations from the holy Hindu books echoed through the spacious cavern. Every grain of sand, every drop of water became a symbol of Lord Shiva – a sign of peace. And, for the pilgrims, a sign of journey’s end.

© Frank Ossen 2002

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