The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 31, 2003

A yatra that is an affirmation of faith
Shashi Mehta

Even though the trek is arduous, pilgrims are spurred on by the zeal of their faith
Even though the trek is arduous, pilgrims are spurred on by the zeal of their faith

UNFORGETTABLE—that’s the word. One had heard so much of the Amarnath Yatra—the awe-inspiring ice-shivlinga in the holy cave at an altitude of 13,500 feet above sea-level, the dazzling beauty of snow-capped, green-and-blue mountains, the treacherous route to the cave, the threat by militants.

However, not until you undertake the yatra, can you experience the thrill of an adventure, the delight of a tourist or the feelings of a devotee.

Though I had visited Kashmir several times on work, this was the first trip to Amarnath and it was truly exhilarating.


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I guess this must be the experience of hundreds of people who were slowly but excitedly traversing the difficult route — on foot or on ponies, smiling at each other, exchanging greetings of Jai Bhola Nath Ki. The fatigue because of the arduous trek was evident but exchange of pleasantries and seeing others march confidently to the destination perhaps kept everyone in good humour. The monthlong yatra in the month of Shravan concluded recently but only after establishing a record of sorts.

Over 1,60,000 pilgrims visited the holy cave in the month-long period between July 14 to August 12 to watch the incredible image of Shiva in the form of a lingam formed naturally of an ice stalagmite. In the later part of the yatra, the ice lingam had melted but such is the excitement, fascination and devotion associated with this annual pilgrimage, that once the devotee’s or tourist’s mind is set on the visit, the efforts to reach there begins in right earnest.

One of the most important pilgrimage in a Hindu’s itinerary, the formidable path to the holy shrine situated does not deter them.

Notwithstanding the threat from militants or the inclement weather, notwithstanding the difficult terrain and arduous trek, difficulties and problems at different steps faced by the pilgrims, the reasons for the visit were clear.

The awe-inspiring icy shivalinga in the cave
The awe-inspiring icy shivalinga in the cave

For D.D. Bhosle of Maharashtra, who came for darshan of the ice-lingam, the darshan or viewing of the image of the deity was good enough for him. The earlier perception of danger is forgotten, so is the fear associated with the yatra. Security arrangements were very good. And unlike what they had heard, the conditions too looked good, he added.

A resident of Chandigarh, this was Shivnath’s third trip to Amarnath. He had a spinal cord operation in 2001. The same year, in July, he made it to Amarnath. Last year, he came again and this is the third consecutive year that he was on his way to pay obeisance to Lord Shiva.

For S. Baladinkar of Madurai, it is a beautiful and scenic place. He was happy with the security arrangements that facilitated the journey. "Very good place, very good place" — added his wife.

"No problem" is what Krupashankar from Andhra Pradesh had to say. "Amarnath super hai, very good adventure", he added.

In fact, you can go on talking to everyone walking the distance with you and it looks like a huge family marching towards the same destination. If you look at the people who made it from not just Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi — but from faraway places like West Bengal, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, it almost looks like a national integration yatra. Here were people from different states, speaking different languages, but the chant was of Lord Shiva. En route, all difficulties were shared. They ate at the same langars, drank water at frequent stops where potable water arrangements had been made, at times exchanged walking sticks, stayed at the same tents. Many must have exchanged addresses. The chatty ponywallas contribute a lot to make the journey interesting and less tiresome. They make the tourists halt at idyllic spots and admire the spectacular beauty. They regale them with all kinds of stories. Some talk of the earlier period of violence, some of the dangers of walking along narrow path, some of how they have been helping and saving the tourists from likely falls. My ponywalla showed me a commendation letter from the Deputy Commissioner’s office for saving the life of a lady who fell down the steep mountain.

Most such spots look like fantasy sets, straight out of films or dreams. In fact, from vantage positions the amazing view is dream -like. People associate the visit with their dreams because each one’s visit has been the culmination of a strong desire to undertake the yatra at least once in a lifetime. With this dream turning into a reality, one can sense their joy.

The yatris struggle over a mountainous stretch near Chandanwari
The yatris struggle over a mountainous stretch near Chandanwari

While a call from this heavenly abode is a major reason for a large number of tourists and pilgrims coming here, the improving situation in the Kashmir valley, which is witnessing the largest turnout of tourists in the last 12 years is another important reason.

It is their firm belief that it was the date with destiny, for without the God’s call their visit to the holy cave could not have materialised. But good security arrangements and improved tourist activity had definitely helped. Both the routes to the shrine — one via Pahalgam and one via Baltal was teeming with men, women, children — dressed in bright colours and chanting slogans and hymns in praise of Lord Shiva. There were small infants too carried on shoulders or in their arms, along with old parents supported by their children. Quite some courage! Also constant exchange of greetings keeps the spirits high as the entire route is difficult to traverse and talking to each other helps distract attention from the really tough climb along narrow and dangerous paths.

Till a couple of years, the route was extremely difficult. Over the last year, after the Amarnath Board has been constituted, a lot of improvement of infrastructure has taken place. Even toilet facilities have been set up along the route. Thus from last year’s 1, 10, 000 visitors to Amarnath, this year’s 1,60,000 is impressive. Of the two routes to the holy shrine, the journey via Pahalgam is longer but it is being developed as an enjoyable holiday. Pilgrim tourism is a big draw these days.

The trek from Pahalgam to Amarnath is about 45 km. Pahalgam, situated at the confluence of the streams of river Lidder and Sheshnag lake, is full of tourists — many of whom on their way to Amarnath. Sixteen km ahead is Chandanwari, it offers one of the most amazing sights in the valley. The real trek begins from here. It gets steeper and tougher as you proceed and pilgrims halt at Sheshnag and Panchtarni. This is a four-day journey.

Yatris jostle to offer prayers at the Amarnath Cave
Yatris jostle to offer prayers at the Amarnath Cave

The trek from Baltal to Amarnath is about 15 km and the return trip of 30 km can be undertaken in a day. Both the routes leading to the narrow gorge, at the farther end of Lidder Valley, where the holy shrine is situated, are a visual delight. Wherever you stand and look around — you get a vantage view of the lovely gorgeous mountains — icy peaks in between blue mountains.

Every stop is a good opportunity to discuss legends surrounding this eternal abode of Lord Shiva. Legend has it that a Muslim shepherd, Buta Malik was given a sack of coal by a sadhu. On reaching home, to his utter amazement and joy, he found the sack contained not coal but gold. The excited shepherd rushed back to the place where he met the sadhu but at the place of their meeting he discovered a cave. So Buta Malik became the discoverer of this pilgrim centre and hence even now a percentage of the donations at the cave are given to descendants of Buta Malik.

From the ponywallas to accompanying devotees, from the langarwallas to shopkeepers on the way, everyone loves exchanging information. The legends and discussion on them becomes an effective tool in reducing the fatigue from the tiring journey. The minute one legend has been recounted, the other one begins. It was at Amarnath that Lord Shiva narrated to Parvati, his consort, the secret of creation of existence, in a cave in Amarnath. A pair of white doves overheard this conversation. They are reborn again and again and almost every pilgrim seems to be asking people around if they have seen these doves. Every pilgrim makes an effort to see these doves.