- JAMMU & KASHMIR
Situated in a narrow gorge at the farther end of Lidder valley,
Amarnath stands at 3,888 m and is 44.8 km from Pahalgam and
141 km from Srinagar. Though the original pilgrimage subscribes
that the yatra be undertaken from Srinagar, the more common
practise is to begin journey at Pahalgam, and cover the distance
to Amarnath and back in five days. Pahalgam is 96 km from
Srinagar. Legend has it that Shiva recounted to Parvati the
secret of creation in a cave in Amarnath. Unknown to them,
a pair of mating doves 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 dove-pair when they trek the arduous route to pay
obeisance before the ice-lingam (the phallic symbol of Shiva).
The trek to Amarnath, 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 Kashyap 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,
Amarnath for them became Shiva's abode and a center of pilgrimage.
Whatever the legends and the history of Amarnath's discovery,
it is today an extremely crucial centre of pilgrimage, and
though the route is as difficult to trespass as it is exciting,
every annum, millions of devotees from the subcontinent come
to pay homage before Shiva in one of his Himalayan abodes.
The trek from Pahalgam to Amarnath 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 (12.8 km) is covered
in about five to six hours, and the trail runs along the Lidder
river. Pilgrims camp here on the first night out. A major
attraction here is a bridge covered, year round, with ice
even though the surroundings are free from it.
The next day's trek, of 13 km, is through spectacular, primeval
countryside, and the main centre of attraction is Sheshnag,
a mountain 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 civilization. The second night's
camp at Wawjan overlooks the deep blue waters of Sheshnag
lake, and glaciers beyond it. There are legends of love and
revenge too associated with Sheshnag, and at the camp these
are recounted by campfires, to the stillness of a pine-scented,
The third day's 13 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 Amarnath 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 fifth day.
The devotees sing bhajans, chant incantations, and priests
petform aarti and puja, invoking the blessings of Shiva, the
divine, the pure, the absolute. 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 deities.
Of all the pilgrimages, the pilgrimage to the holy cave of
Amarnath, a shrine of Lord Shiva, high up in the ranges of
the Himalayas, is considered as one of the most sacred and
captivating practice. It is an event that tends to awaken
the divinity embedded in the deep recesses of man's mind,
and he feels a soft and serene impact of the Great Spirit.
Recalling Swami Vivekananda's experience at the holy cave,
sister Nivedita wrote: "Never had Swami felt such a spiritual
exaltation. So saturated had he become with the presence of
the Great God that for days after he could speak of nothing
else. Shiva was all in all; Shiva, the eternal one, the great
monk, rapt in meditation, aloof from the world." Later on,
Swami Vivekananda himself recounted: "I have never been to
anything so beautiful, so inspiring." Such is the impression
that the Amarnath Yatra leaves on the minds of most of the
yatris. After traveling on foot or horse on one of the most
enchanting and enthralling routes in the world, which itself
transmits a feeling of being "upward and divine," the yatri
sees the "ice-lingam" in all its shining glory and greatness,
and experiences the impact of an invisible, yet all-pervading,
an incomprehensible, yet all-conveying, force of "what was,
is and will be."
In a state of heightened sublimity and with his faith fully
surcharged and the awe and majesty of the sights around him,
the yatri perceives, with his mind's eye, Lord Shiva, sitting
calmly underneath an imperishable, canopy, provided by the
"mount of immortality" and conveying in hushed silence the
message of inseparability of the processes of creation and
destruction; of "every beginning having an end, and every
end having a beginning." "Amarnath" means Deathless GodLord
Shiva. He is the God of gods, Mahadeva, about whom Bhishma
says in the Mahabharat "I am incapable of enunciating the
attributes of the wise Mahadeva, who is ubiquitous but nowhere
visible; who is the creator of Brahma, Vishnu, and Indra and
their lord as well; whom all the deities from Brahma to the
Pisachas worship; who transcends all natural phenomena as
well as the absolute spirit whom the rishis who practice discipline
and have arrived at truth contemplate; who is indestructible,
supreme, the Brahman himself; who does not exist and yet exists."
The holy cave is located in one of the "purest and firmest'
peaks of the Himalayas which, in the Hindu tradition, is itself
a symbol of sublimity, serenity and strength. And there is
a very close relationship between these "silvery mountains"
and Lord Shiva. This relationship finds best expression in
the words of Sankara, when overwhelmed by the physical and
spiritual beauty of the white peaks, he reflected: "Oh Shiva.
Thy body is white, white is Thy smile, the human skull in
Thy hand is white. Thy axe, Thy bill, Thy earrings all are
white. The Ganga flowing out in foams from your matted locks,
is white. The crescent moon on Thy brow is white. Oh all-white
Shiva, give us the boon of complete sinlessness in our lives."
Kalidas described the Himalayas as "the laughter of Shiva."
Sri Krishna also said in the Bhagavad Gita: "Of the mountains,
I am the Himalayas." When asked why India had so many gods
and goddesses, Swami Vivekananda replied: "Because we have
the Himalayas." The cave is accessible only during a short
period of a year, usually in the months of July and August.
At that time, inside the cave, a pure white ice-lingam comes
into being. Water trickles, somewhat mysteriously, in slow
rhythm, from the top of the cave and freezes into ice. It
first forms a solid base and then on it a lingam begins to
rise, almost imperceptibly, and acquires full form on Purnima.
It is believed that on that day, Lord Shiva revealed the secrets
of life to his consort Parvati, the beautiful daughter of
It is a mystery how the ice-lingam is formed on the ice-base,
how it attains its full formation and maximum height on the
Purnima day and how a pair of pigeons appears on the scene.
Even the most skeptic mind is persuaded to believe that all
these occurrences could not be a mere coincidence. The present
Kashmir valley, according to Nilamata Purana, was once a huge
lake, known as Satidesa. It was surrounded by high mountains.
To kill a demon, called Jalodhbava, who was "indestructible
under water." Rishi Kashyap, with the blessings of Brahma,
Vishnu and Shiva, made a cut in the mountains and drained
off water. The land that emerged began to be inhabited and
came to be called Kashmir, after Rishi Kashyap. At a few spots
of rare beauty and seclusion, saints and gods carved out their
hermitages, for meditation.
The Yatra, in its present religious form, commences with the
ceremony of "Chari Mubarak," at the Dashnami temple, Akhara,
Srinagar. After the prayers, the yatri acquires a sort of
walking stick. It has both physical and religious significance;
physically, it helps the yatri in steadying himself on a snowy
and slippery path; and, spiritually, it reminds him of his
resolve at the temple if and when his faith begins to waver
in the face of a long and arduous journey. After the ceremony,
the yatris proceed in groups to Pahalgam, from where a small
road leads to Chandanwari, along thick and green woodlands
of breathtaking beauty, perched on pretty rocks and little
hills, with the playful stream of Lidder meandering and dancing
in-between, showing its white-foam sparkle with the pride
and purity of a maiden descending directly from the lap of
the perennial Himalayas. From Chandanwari, there begins a
steep ascent to Pishu Ghati (3,171 meters), reminding the
yatris that the path to salvation involves superhuman struggle
and stamina. A feeling of having been lifted to a heavenly
spot dawns upon the yatris when they reach Seshnag (3,570
meters)so striking is the beauty, the setting and the color
of this great lake.
Seshnag symbolizes the cosmic ocean in which Lord Vishnu,
the preserver of this universe, moves, reclining on a seven-headed
mythical snake. After getting refreshed with the bath of ice-cold
water of Seshnag, the yatri takes a steep climb to the most
difficult spot. Mahagunna (4,350 meters). Thereafter, a short
descent begins to Poshpathan festooned with wild flowers.
From there, the yatris move to Panchtarni, a confluence of
five mythical streams, and then to the cave. A strange sense
of fulfillment seizes the yatris, and all fatigue is forgotten.
Even in the temperature touching zero degrees Celsius, the
yatris are driven by their faith to take bath in the almost
freezing rivulet of Amravati.