The long and short of
AMARNATH is the holy shrine of Lord Shiva, the most revered one amongst Hindu gods. A nearly 3-metre-high ice stalagmite made inside the holy cave by drops of ice cold water seeping through its limestone roof crust is worshipped here. Two more similar but smaller stalagmites simultaneously created on the right and left of the main stalagmite look like Lord Ganesha and Goddess Parvati and are revered as such. Two pigeons ever present in the cave, are supposed to be the pages of Lord Shiva transformed into immortal birds by a curse of the deity.
The Shivalingam in the cave is at its best on or around the full moon time in the month of Shravan (July-August) and its view then is considered as auspicious as meeting the Lord himself. Thus, thousands of Hindus and other people, especially students and scholars of anthropology, not only from the Asian subcontinent but also other parts of the world, wish to visit Amarnath during July/August. This mass movement of people between the railhead at Jammu, the state capital Srinagar and the holy cave is called the Amarnath Yatra.
This year the auspicious period for the yatra is from July 2 to August 4. The Jammu and Kashmir Government is making efforts to make the yatra memorable for the participants. At least one lakh people are expected to visit the state and the shrine on this occasion. Administrative arrangements for their registration, reservation, transportation, accommodation, medical assistance, telecommunication, etc, have been made. The hill section of the yatra passed through high-altitude terrain where the weather is unpredictable. Moreover, the state is affected by militancy. The visitor, therefore, has got to be mentally prepared for these factors.
The scriptures, Puranas and oral legend all have it that Goddess Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva, also called Bhole Nath, was keen to become immortal as the Lord himself. That could be possible only if the Lord narrated to her the mantra or the code of Amartav — the boon which transforms a mortal being into an immortal one. The Lord was reluctant to pass on the secret, but Goddess Parvati prevailed upon him to do so. Lord Shiva looked for a secluded place where the mantra could be narrated in complete privacy without anybody overhearing it. The Lord, therefore, moved to the remotest corner of the Himalayas, struck the hillside there with his trident and thus created the present day Amarnath gupha or the holy cave. The shrine is now considered to be one of the five most auspicious places of pilgrimage for the Hindus.
Origin of yatra
The story of the Amarnath Yatra is much older than recorded history. One belief is that Maharishi Bhrigu was the first person to have sighted the cave and the Shivalingam therein and he identified this as the place where Lord Shiva had recited the secret of Amartav to Goddess Parvati. He had detailed his disciple Takshat with a stick to guard the Shivalingam and propitiate the deity. This happened on the full moon day in the month of Sharavan, corresponding to the period of July-August. The occasion is also auspicious because Rakshabandhan falls on this day. Subsequently, other rishis continued paying obeisance to the Lord in this cave once a year on Shravan Purnima.
Legend further has it that from 1008 to 1048 BC, King Nar, who was a great devotee of Lord Shiva, visited the holy shrine on Rakshabandhan every year. That is how the tradition of the annual Amarnath Yatra originated.
It is believed that in the present times, the holy Amarnath cave was rediscovered by a shepherd named Akram Batt Mallick, a resident of a village near Aismaqam in Kashmir valley. He was grazing his herd near the holy cave when a sadhu gave him a sack of coals. When Mallick emptied the sack, pieces of pure gold tumbled out. He went back to the cave to thank the sadhu, but he was no longer there. This incident took place on a full moon day during Shravana. The rediscovery revived and strengthened the tradition of Amarnath Yatra. The Kashmiri Muslims, too, believe that a visit to the holy shrine brings prosperity. In view of the cave’s rediscovery by a Muslim, the Amarnath Yatra assumed a secular character and the offerings and earnings of the shrine are shared between the descendents of Mallick, pandits and other local villagers managing the shrine.
The holy shrine is nearly 141 km from Srinagar via Pahalgam, Chandanbari, Seshnag, Panchtarni, etc, which is the traditional route. Out of that, 96 km of the route up to Pahalgam is a metalled highway, 16 km further up to Chandanbari is a kutcha but a fairly smooth motorable road. Further on for 32 km there is a nearly 2 to 3-metre-wide mule track, quite steep with level patches in between.
The shrine is also approachable from the Srinagar via Kangan, Gund, Sonmarg, Baltal, etc. The total distance of this route is approximately 109 km. Of that, the first 94 km of the distance on the Srinagar-Zozila-Kargil-Leh highway, is a well-metalled, smooth road. About 5 km further on, from the jeep head on the above main road to Bararimarg is a moderately level to undulating motorable forest road, fit for jeeps, pick-ups and heavy vehicles, etc. The remaining 10 km distance is a nearly 2 to 3-metre-wide mule track with steep ascents and descents.
It is said that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had, during his honeymoon in 1916, tried to trek to the holy cave via the Baltal route. Luckily or unluckily, he slipped at one point and had a narrow escape. It was perhaps because of this incident that Indira Gandhi had later desired that this route be developed for the benefit of all yatris. In accordance with her wish and owing to the interest taken by the troops of the General Reserve Engineer Force and other military personnel posted in the nearby Army formations, the track was properly carved out during the seventies and eighties.
Tragedy of 1996
In 1996, militants had assured that they would not interfere with the yatra. Accordingly the number of yatris visiting Amarnath that year was an all-time high. Furthermore, that was the year when election to the State Assembly was also being held simultaneously after a long spell of Presidential rule. The attention of the state officers responsible for the yatra, the Deputy Commissioner, Anantnag, and his team was thus divided because of the election. Between, August 21 and 25, nearly one lakh yatris were simultaneously moving either up or down between the railhead at Jammu and the holy cave. The administration had not anticipated such a heavy rush of yatris. Nor had they staggered their movement to facilitate even utilisation of the limited accommodation, food storage facilities, etc. As ill-luck would have it, during this period, there was unusually heavy snowfall along with severe blizzards along the yatra route. Neither the yatris nor the state government were prepared to face the crisis. Nearly 242 yatris lost their lives due to exhaustion, exposure, freezing, etc.
One Nitin K. Sengupta had investigated the above tragedy. He had opined that the heavy casualties were due to excessive flow of the yatris, the state government’s attention being diverted by the general election being held at the same time and their consequent inability to face the crises. He recommended certain dos and don’ts for the yatris as well as the organisers. However, despite all precautions taken by the organisers, the state police and the security forces, there was a bomb blast and cross-firing in one of the langars in a yatri camp at Pahalgam on August 1, 2000. Twentyone persons reportedly lost their lives in the incident.
Tips for pilgrims
The future yatras can be made efficient and easy by constructing a circular road from Amarnath to Baltal via the holy cave. About a 50 km stretch of the suggested link road will not cost more than about Rs 50 crore. This one-time investment will promote tourism, ensure better utilisation of minerals, forest wealth and optimum exploitation of other allied local assets and resources like hydro-electric generation potential.
With the constitution of a Amarnath
Yatra board/trust by the state government on the lines of the Vaishno
Devi Trust, the management of the current as well as future yatras
will be simplified considerably.