Wahid Bhat | SRINAGAR
Amarnath cave is a Hindu shrine located in Jammu and Kashmir. The cave is situated at an altitude of 3,888 m (12,756 ft), about 141 km (88 mi) from Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir and reached through Pahalgam town.
The shrine forms an important part of Hinduism, and is considered to be one of the holiest shrines in Hinduism. The cave is surrounded by snowy mountains.
The cave itself is covered with snow most of the year except for a short period of time in summer when it is open for pilgrims. Hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees make an annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave across challenging mountainous terrain.
When and where is Yatra Held?
Amarnath Cave is located in the Jammu and Kashmir, approximately 140km from the capital Srinagar. The annual yatra (journey) takes place in the Shravan month according to the Hindu calendar, which falls somewhere in June-August.
Since the cave and its surrounding areas remain covered in snow most of the year, this is the only time when devotees can access the shrine – hence the massive crowds that flock here for the yatra. It is said that the ice Lingam that forms in the cave shrinks and grows as per the changes in the lunar cycle. Usually, the yatra spans a period of 45 days.
Amarnath Yatra: Legend and History
There are many legends about the Amarnath Cave and the yatra, and the most popular one being that Lord Shiva had to give in to his wife Parvati’s demands to tell her the secret of his immortality.
But to ensure that no one eavesdrops, they set off for the mountain cave where he narrated the Amar Katha to her. His bull Nandi was left behind at Pahalgam, from where the Lord and his wife started their ascent. Today, it is a major starting point for the yatra.
The book Rajatarangini (Book VII v.183) refers to Amareshwara or Amarnath. It is believed that Queen Suryamati in the 11th century AD gifted trishuls, banalingas and other sacred emblems to this temple.
Rajavalipataka, begun by Prjayabhatta has detailed references to the pilgrimage to Amarnath Cave. Other than this, there are further references to this pilgrimage in many other ancient texts.
According to legend, Bhrigu Muni was the first to have discovered Amarnath. Long time ago it is believed that The Valley of Kashmir was submerged under water and Kashyap Muni drained it through a series of rivers and rivulets.
Therefore, when the waters drained, Bhrigu Muni was the first to have Darshan of Lord Amarnath. Thereafter, when people heard of the Lingam, it became an abode of Lord Bholenath for all believers and a pilgrimage which is done by lakhs of people each year.
According to the researchers and as per the belief of locals gadaria community were the first to discover the Amaranth cave and saw the first glimpse of Baba Barfani.
François Bernier, a French physician accompanied Emperor Aurangzeb during his visit to Kashmir in 1663.
In his book “Travels in Mughal Empire” he writes while giving an account the places he visited in Kashmir that he was “pursuing journey to a grotto full of wonderful congelations, two days journey from Sangsafed” when he “received intelligence that my Nawab felt very impatient and uneasy on account of my long absence”.
The “grotto” he refers to is obviously the Amarnath cave as the editor of the second edition of the English translation of the book, Vincient A. Smith makes clear in his introduction.
_He writes: “The grotto full of wonderful congelations is the Amarnath cave, where blocks of ice, stalagmites formed by dripping water from the roof are worshipped by many Hindus who resort here as images of Shiva”._
The Amarnath Yatra route
Devotees travel on foot, either from Srinagar or from Pahalgam. “The latter journey takes approximately 5 days”.
The State Road Transport Corporation and Private Transport Operators provide the regular services from Jammu to Pahalgam and Baltal. Also privately hired taxis are available from Jammu & Kashmir.
Pahalgam Route: Pahalgam is the traditional route for the yatra, and it comprises a trek of 36-48 km. You can complete this on foot or choose to ride on a pony, and the journey usually takes 3-5 days one way. Although this is the wider route of the two, it can get crowded with ponies, palanquins (dolis), and devotees since it is still preferred by most people.
Baltal Route: This is the shorter route, more suited for those with less time for the journey. However, this 16-km long route is steeper and the climb will be more laborious. Ponies and palanquins are available, and experienced hikers can complete the journey from Baltal to the cave and back in a single day. Helicopter services are also available on both the routes.
Facilities for Pilgrims
En route the cave, various non-profit organizations have set up food supply and resting tents called pandals which are available for free to the pilgrims. Near the shrine, hundreds of tents which are erected by locals can be hired for a night’s stay. Helicopter services from base camp to Panjtarni (6 km from the cave) are also available from various private operators.
Every year, thousands of central armed forces and state police personnel are deployed to provide security to pilgrims from potential terror threats. The forces position at various halts and also in the perimeter of the shrine.
Officially, the Yatra is organised by the government in collaboration with the Shree Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB). Various agencies provide necessary facilities all along the route during the Yatra period, which includes provision of ponies, supply of power, telecommunication facilities, firewood and setting up of fair price shops.
1990’s bans and 1996 yatra tragedy
The pilgrimage was banned from 1991 to 1995 due to threats from militants. In 1993, Pakistan-based Harkat-ul-Ansar announced a ban on the annual Amarnath yatra.
In 1996 the militants had assured that they would not interfere allowing a resumed yatra with far greater numbers than in previous years. However, unseasonal blizzards in late August of that year led to a tragedy that claimed the lives of 242 yatris, killed by exhaustion and exposure.
Amarnath Yatra is a challenging journey, but the facilities available make it easier on pilgrims.