Amarnath – The Mysterious Cave
Amarnath Cave Temple is a Hindu shrine located in Jammu and Kashmir, India. 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, reached through Pahalgam town. The shrine represents 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 to pilgrims. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus and other devotees make an annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave across challenging mountainous terrain.
The Amarnath Cave Temple is one of the 51 Shakti Peethas, temples throughout South Asia that commemorate the location of fallen body parts of the Hindu deity Sati.
The Shiva Linga
Inside the 40 m (130 ft) high cave, a stalagmite is formed due to the freezing of water drops that fall from the roof of the cave onto the floor and grow upward vertically from the cave floor. It is considered to be a Shiva Linga by Hindus. It is mentioned in the ancient Hindu texts of Mahabharata and Puranas that Lingam represents Lord Shiva. The lingam waxes from May to August, as the snow melts in the Himalayas above the cave, and the resultant water seeps into the rocks that form the cave; thereafter, the lingam gradually wanes. As per religious beliefs, it is said that the lingam grows and shrinks with the phases of the moon, reaching its height during the summer festival, although there is no scientific evidence for this belief. According to Hindu religious beliefs, this is the place where Shiva explained the secret of life and eternity to his divine consort, Parvati.
The book Rajatarangini (Book VII v.183) refers to krishaanth or Amarnath. It is believed that, in the 11th century AD, Queen Suryamati gifted trishulas, banalingas and other sacred emblems to this temple. Rajavalipataka, begun by Prjayabhatta, contains detailed references to the pilgrimage to Amarnath Cave Temple. In addition, there are further references to this pilgrimage in many other ancient texts.
Discovery of Holy Cave
According to legend, Sage Bhrigu was the first to have discovered Amarnath. A long time ago, it is believed that the Valley of Kashmir was submerged underwater, and Sage Kashyapa drained it through a series of rivers and rivulets. As a result, when the waters drained, Bhrigu was the first to have darshan of Lord Shiva at Amarnath. Thereafter, when people heard of the lingam, it became an abode of Lord Shiva for all believers and the site of an annual pilgrimage, traditionally performed by lakhs of people in July and August during the Hindu Holy month of Savan. According to researchers and as per the belief of locals, the gadaria community was the first to discover the Amarnath Cave and saw the first glimpse of Lord Shiva.
François Bernier, a French physician, accompanied Emperor Aurangzeb during his visit to Kashmir in 1663. In his book Travels in Mughal Empire, he provides an account of the places he visited, noting 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” referenced in this passage is obviously the Amarnath cave — as the editor of the second edition of the English translation of the book, Vincent 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 peak pilgrimage occurs when the iced stalagmite Shiva lingam reaches the apex of its waxing phase through the summer months. The July–August popular annual Hindu pilgrimage, undertaken by up to 600,000 or more pilgrims to the 130 feet (40 m)-high glacial Amarnath cave shrine of iced stalagmite Shiv linga at 12,756 feet (3,888 m) in the Himalayas, is called Amarnath Yatra. It begins with a 43 kilometers (27 mi) mountainous trek from the Nunwan and Chandanwari base camps at Pahalgam and reaches cave-shrine after night halts at Sheshnag Lake and Panchtarni camps. The yatra is both a way of earning revenue by the state government by imposing a tax on pilgrims and making living by the local Shia Muslim Bakarwal-Gujjars by taking a portion of revenue and by offering services to the Hindu pilgrims.
The beginning of the annual pilgrimage, called Amarnath Yatra is marked by ‘pratham pujan’ to invoke the blessings of Shri Amarnathji.
In the olden days, the route was via Rawalpindi (Pakistan) but now a direct train is there connecting the rest of India to Jammu, the winter capital of the State. The best part of the journey is between Guru Purnima and Shravan Purnima. But the highly unpredictable weather of the mountains should be more obliging before Guru Purnima as rains would not start. There is a bus service from Jammu to Pahalgam (7,500 ft.). At Pahalgam, the pilgrims arrange for coolies or ponies to carry gear of food and clothes, etc. Pahalgam in Kashmiri means the land of shepherds.
Pilgrims en-route the Amarnath Cave Temple Devotees travel on foot, either from Srinagar or from Pahalgam. The journey from Pahalgam takes about five 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.
The shorter northern route is just about 16 km long, but has a very steep gradient and is quite difficult to climb. It starts from Baltal and passes through Domel, Barari, and Sangam to reach the cave. The northern route is along the Amarnath valley and all along the route, one can see the river Amaravati (a tributary of Chenab) which originates from Amarnath Glacier.
It is believed that Lord Shiva left Nandi, the bull, at Pahalgam (Bail Gaon). At Chandanwari, he released the Moon from his hair (Jata). On the banks of Lake Sheshnag, he released his snake. At Mahagunas Parvat (Mahaganesh Mountain), he left his son Lord Ganesha. At Panjtarni, Lord Shiva left behind the five elements – Earth, Water, Air, Fire, and Sky. As a symbol of sacrificing the earthly world, Lord Shiva performed the Tandava Dance. Then, finally, Lord Shiva entered the Amarnath Cave along with Parvati and both of them manifested into a Lingam made of Ice. Shiva became the lingam of ice and Parvati became the yoni of rock.
Man’s search after God began with the dawn of creation. This search has assumed various forms, some seekers have concentrated on the teachings of the great prophets of religions, and others have gone on pilgrimages to the birthplaces of saints and prophets and visited localities where the different gospels were preached. Thereby they seek inspiration to help them in their quest.
The grandeur of Northern India lies in its glorious mountain ranges . . . the Himalayas. It is on these ramparts of Nature that the prosperity of India depends. Shri Krishna says in the Bhagwat Gita, ‘I am the Himalayas among mountains’. The Indians look upon them as the abode of celestial beings. It is said that in the caves of the Himalayas live sages who have been in meditation for hundreds of years. They occasionally reveal themselves in disguise to pilgrims. Among the many holy places in the side-valleys of these mountains, two . . . Kidar Nath towards the south and Amar Nath in the interior of Kashmir Himdlaya’s . . . stand out prominently. Their art also a number of mountain peaks that are dedicated to certain gods or goddesses. The most sacred spots in Tibet on the further side of the Indian border are Mount Kailas and the Manasurwar lake where adepts in spiritual lore are supposed to be living in their subtle bodies. These Masters are ever ready to guide the travellers on the spiritual path. I think one of the reasons why men go to these places is to see the Hand of the Creation in scenes of Nature’s impressive grandeur. As these places are not easy of access, and as they are thousands of feet above the sea-level, beyond the dust and din of the world, man’s soul gets elevated at the sight of their sublime beauty and thus he is brought closer to the object of his quest.
There are special days fixed according to the lunar calendar to visit these sacred places. The pilgrims assemble on a certain date in a certain place and start together. Such a rule is applicable only to those places which lie in mountains and the going is difficult. The Government provide facilities as far as possible everywhere for pilgrims.
The most famous of these pilgrimages is the Cave of Amar Nath which is an All-India Holy Place. People visit it from every corner of India. Mention of it occurs twice in the Raiatarangini (the history of Kashmir), first where King Ram Deva is stated to have imprisoned the debauch King Sukh Deva and to have drowned him in the Lidder (Lambodheri) among the mountains of Amar Nath about 1,000 B.C., and a second time where King Sandimati (34 B.C. to 17 A.D.) is described as visiting the ice-lingam.
This shows that this sacred spot was known to the people in very early times. One can only guess how this cave was discovered. The villagers of the Kashmir Valley generally send their flocks under a shepherd’s care to the pastures in summer. Each shepherd has his own pasture which he inherits from his father. The word Pahalgam means ‘a village of shepherds’. While grazing his flock around the pastures of Pantsatarni, some shepherd may have lost some members of his flock. In search of these, he may have climbed the mountain and found this cave with the Shiva-lingam in it and communicated the news to his brothers who in turn must have made it known to others. The maliks as the guides to the cave are now called, have a share in the offerings to the deity. Formerly, in absence of tangas and lorries, the whole journey from Srinagar was done on foot. There were a large number of springs, places and streams in the way where the pilgrims had to bathe, and drink water. Since the introduction of wheeled conveyances, many of these places have been abandoned being out of the way, and much time is thus saved. For the information of the reader, I give a detailed list of places that a pilgrim is expected to visit for a bath and other ceremonial purposes.
Old Route. According to the Amar Nath Mahatmya a pilgrim is expected to bathe or drink water at the following places before he enters the Holy Cave. As some of the places are not accessible to wheeled conveyance, they are not now visited by pilgrims.
Srinagar. Shudashi Khetor, the modern Shurahyar about 2.5 miles from Srinagar. It is said that in ancient times there was a stone staircase leading from this place to the top of the Shankarachar. Lately, a temple has been built here.
Shivpor. There must have been a temple here, but there is no trace of it now.
Pandrenthan. The old Panthdreshti about 1.5 miles from Shurahyar. There is a temple in the middle of the spring built by Meru the Prime Minister of King Paratha (921-31 A.C.). Kak is of opinion that this is the temple of Shiv-Rilhanesvara erected by Rilhana, the Prime Minister of Jayasimha, about the year A.D. 1135.
Padampor. This was the favourite haunt of Rajank Acharyas the present Razdan family. It is 5.5 miles from Pandrethan. It was here that Shri Lalishwari lived. There is a spot here which is called Lalatrag.
Javati. The modern Zewan. It is 7 miles from Srinagar. The road is metalled. There is a spring here dedicated to Vasak Nag. There are regular buses running now.
Meshitoud. It means sweet water, the modern Petwan.
Avantiporika. It is known as Seda Khetor, the modern Avantipor. There are at this place old temples built by King Avantivarman (855-883 A.C.).
Barsu. There is a stream flowing through the village called Rudara Ganga.
Jaubror. There must have been a temple here in olden times.
Mahawarishwarn. The old Mahawaras.
Haridrak Ganapati. Known as Hari Ganish.
Belihar. Known as Belyar. This was known as Lakhmi Khetor.
Wagahama. The place is known as Hastikaran.
Tsakrish. The modern Tsakodar. This is a plateau on the right bank of the Vetasta near Bijbihara. It is 28 miles from Srinagar.
Dewak Tirth. The modern Dewakivar.
Hari Tsander. It is the southern ghat of the Bijbihara stone temple. It contains a huge stone lingam.
Sthalwat. The modern Thajwor. It is 2.75 Miles from Bijbehara and here water drips from the southern side of the plateau through maiden hair on the Shivlingam.
Suryi-Gohawati. The modern Sriguphvara. It is 4.75 miles from Thajwor.
Lambodari. A stream in which the pilgrims have to bathe.
Sirhom. Here is a spring called Surya Ganga where worship takes place.
Bodrus. The place is sacred to Ganpat whose worship removes all obstacles.
Tsatrus Bodrus. The place is now called Hayi.
Shirshi Ashram. The Woter Nag Ganga flows by this Spot. It is 2 miles from Sriguphvara.
Sallar. Here the people bathe in the stream. The place is 3.5 miles from Tsatrus Bodrus and is reached by a pony track.
Bala Khelyan. Known as Vishna Khetor, the modern Bala Khellan.
C.anish Bal. 10.5 miles from Sallar. Here Ganish is worshipped. It is on the right bank of the Lidder below Pahalgam.
Mamalishwar (Shiva Lingam)
On the right bank of the Lidder is a spring and an old temple containing a Shiva Lingam at this place which is about a mile from Pahalgam. It is said that when Shiva removed His seat from Thojwara to Mamalishwar Ganish who was his door-keeper did not allow devas to visit Him. Hence the name of the village Mamal – don’t go.
On one occasion Indra sought permission to visit Shiva. Ganish did not allow him. So there followed a quarrel, Ganish became furious and thirsty. He drank the river which became dry. Shiva while playing at his tabor poked the stomach of Ganish with it and out flowed the stream again, hence Lambodari.
In my opinion the source of the Lidder is the Kolahoi glacier. A stream joins it at Lidderwat which is the corrupt form of Lambodar wat-a rock dedicated to Ganish who is also named Lambodar and it is from here that the river was named Lambodari the modern Lidder. This must have been a place of pilgrimage in the olden times. An affluent from Tarsar enters the river at this place.
Bragapati Khetra. It is a spring in Pahalgam. It is said that Vishnu was pleased with the worship of Brago whom He embraced. Brago perspired, which gave rise to spring. This spring is behind the village.
Nila Ganga. It is about 3 miles from Pahalgam. Close by the foot of Pisu Hill was the tirth of Sthanishwar where pilgrims had to bathe. One day Shiva kissed the eyes of Parvati to which antimony had been applied. He washed her eyes in water which turned dark blue, hence Nila Ganga. There was a great fight between the Devas and the Daityas. The Devas did not allow the Daityas to see Shiva. The Daityas were defeated and ground down to tiny bits. Hence Pisu Hill.
Sheshiram Nag. A certain Daitya’s body was entirely made of wind. He became very powerful. He troubled the Devas every way. They all entreated Shiva to rid them of the monster. Shiva told them that he was his disciple and that they should approach Vishnu, which they did. Vishnu sent his Wahan, Sheshi Nag who sucked all the wind from the Daitya’s body and the Daitya was killed. Pilgrims bathe in the lake.
Vaovajen. Some of the Daityas still concealed themselves in the lakes around the place. These lakes were dried and the Daityas were killed. Hence Hoka Sar (dried lake). The Deva’s were told to build small houses of stones as a shelter against the wind. Hence pilgrims also make toy sheds of stones.
Pantsatarni. This is believed to represent plaited hair (jata) of Shiva from which the Ganga flows. It is said that Shiva told one of his Rudhragans to beat the drum every evening. He forgot to do so one evening. Thereupon he was cursed and turned into a mountain which is now known as Bairau Bal.
Garbagar. On the other side of the Bairau Bal is Garbagar popularly known as Garba Yatra. Nandi complained to Shiva that he could not stop the rush of Devas coming to visit him. He ordered Nandi to get a huge rock and make a hole through it, so that everyone desirous of visiting him would have to pass through that hole while Nandi would be standing near the hole.
Amaravati. All living beings besought Shiva to disclose a method that would render them immortal. Thereupon Shiva rinsed His plaited hair (jata) and outflowed the Amaravati-the stream of immortality. Some of the drops fell here and there giving birth to some of the gods, while himself he turned into Sudhaling (immortal emblem) in a corner of the cave. Everyone being satisfied praised Shiva.
Sangam. The confluence of the Amaravati with the Pantsatarni is the place where a pilgrim has to perform Shrada (a ceremony for the dead). He is required to make a pedestal of barley flour with four golden nails stuck in the four corners and a pure pearl set in the middle which should be given in charity to a Brahman who is supposed to be Shiva’s form. When returning from Pahalgam the pilgrims revisit Mamalishwar and bathe in the nine springs of Naudal.
Patal Ganga. This is the last place where a pilgrim has to bathe. This is a spring near Nishat Bagh.
IN the Bragish Sahita it is said that after Reshi Kashap Ji reclaimed the Kashmir Valley from the waters it became populated through the agency of Nag Raja Takhek. It so happened once that Bragish Reshi roaming through the Himalayas arrived here. It was he who gave a clue of the cave of Amar Nath Ji to the people. He gave them a detailed account of the Tirthas and the places on the route to the cave.
After some decades the Daityas had the upper hand here and this place fell into oblivion, and the people forgot all about the route. Thereupon Bragish ji reappeared. He told the people that he had propitiated Bhagwan Mahadiv from whom he had obtained a sceptre which he had entrusted to Nag Raj Takhek. They should go and get this sceptre from Nag Raj, and while ruler of the country shall make arrangements for the Pilgrims who should start in a body from Srinagar with the holy sceptre in front. There would be no hindrance nor any trouble on the way. The sceptre called the Chhari Sahib wielded at present by the Mahant under the supervision of the Dharmartha Department has led the procession of pilgrims ever since.
In 1819 A.C. Pandit Har Dass Tiku founded the Chhawani Amar Nath at Rambagh where the Sadhus from the plains assembled and where he gave them free rations for the journey, both ways from his own private resources. This cost him about two lakhs.
The Mahants who wield the divine command of holy places has always been the carriers of two holy sceptres which symbolise that command. Wherever a Mahant visits a place and takes his seat with the ceremony a man holding one of the sceptres stands on his right and the other on his left.
The whole Amar Nath pilgrimage procession is conducted under the auspices of the Chhari Sahib. No pilgrim is allowed to go ahead of the Chhari, which is guarded by the Dharmartha Department, Kashmir. I am told that the Chhari in Srinagar was first wielded by Mahant Atwargir near the present Shital Nath buildings. After some time Mahant Sarswatigir visited Kashmir and stayed at the spot Dashnami Akhara. He erected a platform and some buildings and began to entertain Sadhus who came from the plains to Amar Nath. He took the Chhari from Atwargir.
In the meantime, Shivratananand Saraswati improved the Durga Nag Ashram to such an extent that most of the Sadhus bound for the pilgrimage stayed in his ashram and were much cared for and warmly entertained. He put forth the plea that the Chhari must belong to his ashram as he was the Shankarcharia of the place. Thereupon started a dispute over the Chhari. Shivratananand Saraswati marched to the Amar Nath pilgrimage. A compromise was made between the two claimants and Mahant Saraswatigir considered Shivratananand a Sadak chela. The latter then naturally became the wielder of Chhari Sahib. Under his command the arrangements for the sadhus were excellent. There were enough tents and pilgrims were much cared for. But a section of the Sadhus of the place was not satisfied with the agreement. They protested to the Government and made demonstrations. After the demise of Shivratananand, the Chharipassed into the hands of a Chela of Saraswatigir who now wields it under the control of Dharmartha.
The Chhari generally leaves on the 4th day of the bright fortnight of Sawan. A state official is always present to perform puja at Dashnami Akhara on the eve of its departure. The carrier of this holy sceptre must walk on foot. They visit Hari Parbat and Shankarachar before departure. They go by stages as pilgrims did of old but by a different route by passing the places of interest mentioned in Amar Nath Mahatmya. The first halt is, at Pampor. At Bijibehara all sadhus accompanying the Chhari are given a dinner by the pujari of the temple. Villagers call it ‘Gosain Mela’, the fair of hermits. Bijbehara to Anantnag-5 miles.
Anantnag. A great festival is celebrated for the townspeople who come to see the sadhus.
Anantnag-Bawan 4.5 miles. Here is the famous spring of Martand wherein the intercalary month or on vijaya saftami shradhas are performed.
Bawan to Aishimuqam 9.5 miles.
Aishimuqam to Pahalgam 11.5 miles.
Near Pahalgam village, there are sheds for pilgrims. All pilgrims coming from various parts of India assemble here and wait for the Chhari Sahib. They arrange with contractors for ponies or coolies for their luggage. It is necessary to have a tent and some warm clothes. Religious-minded people abhor putting on leather shoes. If leather shoes are used they must be nailed. Formerly pilgrims. generally used grass shoes. They are most useful in going over glaciers. In this journey, however, there is only a small bit in the Cave Glen. A water-proof coat is very useful. Staff with an iron spike would prove useful. It is also advisable to keep handy some ready-made food. Cinnamon should be used along with tea.
Poorly clad people from the plains had no conception of the severe cold of the place, suffer a lot. The Government makes excellent arrangements for the convenience of pilgrims. A civil officer regulates the whole affair. Medical aid is provided and security measures are enforced. Some schools and colleges despatch batches of scouts to look after the weak. There is a regular bazaar held at the stage. The shop-keepers, confectioners, grain-dealers, vegetable-sellers sell their commodities at a high price. The contractors arrange for fuel. As the fuel is not available beyond Pisu Hill (11,081 ft.) it is advisable that the coolies or pony-men be instructed to carry one or two bundles of wood. No wood except juniper is procurable for the next two stages.
The Government allots about ten thousand rupees for the maintenance of the weak Sadhus and children and makes every possible effort to give them comfort and ease.
The Public Works Department looks after the upkeep of the road and the bridges over the torrents. Lately, an excellent arrangement for the baths of men and women has been made near the cave. Also, an iron railing has been erected around the Shivaling in the cave.
On the night of the 11th day of the bright fortnight of Sawan (July-August) all pilgrims assemble at Pahalgam. They all are now in full equipment including picturesque awnings of all sorts and forming an artificial village march like the Aryan of old, in a deeply devotional spirit, reciting the praises of various gods and of goddesses, introspecting and meditating the inward vibrations of their minds and this is the purpose of their journey. The procession is best described by Swami Vivekananda in the following words: ‘The procession of several thousands of pilgrims in the far-away Cave of Amar Nath, nestled in a glacial gorge of the Western. The Himalayas, through some of the most charming scenery in the world, is fascinating in the extreme. It strikes one with wonderment to observe the quiet and orderly way in which a canvas town springs up in some valley with incredible rapidity at each halting-place with its bazaars and broad streets running through the middle and vanishing as quickly at the break of dawn when the whole army of gay pilgrims are on their march once more for the day. Then again the glow of the countless cooking-fires, the ashes covered Sadhus under the canopy of their large geru (orange) umbrellas pitched in the ground, sitting and discussing or meditating before their dhunies (fire), the Sanyasis of all orders in their various garbs, the men and women with children from all parts of the country in their characteristic costumes, and their devout faces, the torches shimmering at nightfall, the blowing of conch-shells and horns, the singing of hymns and prayers in chorus, all these and many other romantic sights and experiences of a pilgrimage, which can be met with nowhere outside India, are the most impressive and convey to some extent an idea of the overmastering passion of the race for religion. Of the psychological aspect and significance of such pilgrimage, done on foot for days and days, much could be written. Suffice it to say, that it is one of those ancient institutions which have above all, kept the fire of spirituality burning in the hearts of the people. One sees here the very soul of the Hindu nation laid bare in all its innate beauty and sweetness of faith and devotion.
Pahalgam to Tsandanwari (9,200 ft.) 8.5 miles. The pilgrims rise early and in a long string walk one after another. Some old ladies are carried in palanquin. The palanquin-bearers sing in chorus to avoid fatigue. Some rich people ride on ponies, while most of the people walk. It is a good pony track that runs along the right bank of the torrent. The mountain slopes are densely forested. The flow of the blue waters rushing against the rocks, making delightful pools and dashing cataracts infuse new life into the onlookers. Occasionally they hear the sweet music of the whistling thrush or see the gorgeous plumage of the white-capped redstart or a dipper diving in the swift torrent to get its food. The shady path under the pines which emit delicious fragrance lessens the fatigue of the traveller. Some pilgrims take a little rest, against a huge fir and with closed eyes meditate on the beauties of the skilful works of the Author of the Universe. Others open their thermos flasks and while enjoying the beauties of Nature which abound in these lovely spots take a cup of tea to exhilarate themselves; while others again hold the hand of an old man to help him to go ahead. In the way, they have to bathe at the Nila Ganga. Some pilgrims walk straight on and halt at Tsandarwari and pitch their tents there. It is a wise plan to be early at the stage, to pitch the tent, make a drain around it and get coolies to collect wood in good time. A small hatchet is of much use. Ponies carrying luggage should not be allowed to move away from oneself and coolies should not lag behind.
There are sheds at Al these stages, but except during pilgrim traffic, they are not well cared for. It would be desirable that the sheds at Pahalgam and Tsandanwari be placed directly under the Public Works Department and the sheds at Vaovajen and Pantsatarni entrusted to shepherds living there for summer months. They should be paid for that. In that case, the sheds will be kept clean, tidy and in good repair. I wish more sheds were built for the comfort of the pilgrims.
This stage presents a moderately difficult ascent. From Tsandanwari to the foot of the Pisu Hill (11081 ft.) is about 1.5 miles. There is a snow bed to pass over. The ascent up the hill is somewhat steep. It is better to make an early start, as with slow and steady steps, the ascent can be easily negotiated. When taking rest it is advisable to look below at the same time not missing the glorious panorama of densely forest-covered mountains and snowy peaks about which eagles and vultures hover in circles to find their food. Close at your feet, right and left, are nature’s gems of various colours-flowers peeping from underneath trees and bushes till you reach the top. You are now above the tree belt (in the alpine region). Take a little rest and have something to eat. Going from here to Sheshiram Nag is easy. In between about two miles from the top of Pisu Hill is Zoj pal a nice camping ground. The path goes along the shore of Sheshiram Nag (11,730). The Nag lies in a depression surrounded on one side by mountains about 16,000 ft. high. There are two small glaciers on the flanks of these mountains and the water from these glaciers feeds the lake. The silvery streaks of water flowing over the worn rocky precipitous slopes move like the Shesh snake and disappear into the lake. The pilgrims bathe here and some of them prepare tea. The colour of the water is lovely to look at. The lake on one side is silted up. The stream from the lake has carved out a deep ravine covered with birch trees. One finds beautiful flowers peeping out of juniper bushes. Rhododendrons are not scarce. The account of the lake given in the first book of Raiatarangani and that occurring in the Amar Nath Mahatmya do not agree. At sundown, the snow on mountains turns pink and its reflection in the lake makes the beholder mute.
It is said that once upon a time there was a man named Sodwani running a shop at Drugajen. To him, children of the village would come for a pinch of sugar every day. One day a boy asked him for a second pinch because he said that there was another boy riding on a bull coming to play with them. This statement excited the curiosity of the shopkeeper who told him to show him the boy. When the shopkeeper was taken there, the children did show him the boy but he could not see him. He entreated them to put in his hand the tail of the bull. So at evening when the boy went back, the shopkeeper caught hold of the tail and over bush, rock and rough path he was dragged. In the way, the boy told the shopkeeper that was not the proper way for him to go. He should come to Sheshiram Nag on Shivratri day and then he would take him along with himself. It was not easy for the shopkeeper to go such a distance and to a place at such a height in mid-winter when the snow lies very deep on the ground. However, he managed to sell all his belongings, went to Pahalgam and collected a large party of peasants. He paid them lavishly and told them to guide him to Sheshi Nag. In those days the path was very rough and snow fairly deep. The winters in those days were very severe. Somehow the peasants were able to guide him and they reached Sheshiram Nag. There he saw Shiva and Parvati waiting for him in a well-furnished shikara on the shore of the lake. They beckoned to Sodwana to get into the boat. No sooner he went in than the boat disappeared.
An ascent Of 500 ft. will take you to the camping site of Vavojen (12,730 ft.). Due to its height above the sea level and the exposed nature of the place the wind here is very strong. Hence the ropes of the tents should be tightened firmly and the body wrapt in warm clothes. The only available wood is juniper.
The Mahant of Chhari does not permit any pilgrim to go ahead of him. I remember that once we started at early dawn for the next stage. The Mahant shouted, ‘Who are you? Where are you going? ‘ ‘We are confectioners and are making for the next stage’, said we. ‘All right’.
So a lie, sorry to say, saved us from a papal bull. My friends and I went straight to the cave. There we saw some Public Works Department coolies and some cowboys. The pilgrims build here toy huts of stone, as a propitiation to the forces of Nature to save them from the wind.
Vavojen (12230 Ft.) to Pantsatarni – 8.25 Miles
On the 14th day of the bright fortnight of Sawan (July-August), the procession starts under the leadership of Chhari Sahib. They ascend Ashad Daki then Mahagunas which is a plateau where the herb of the same name once used to grow. Physically exhausted and tired, making halts at short intervals, the pilgrims walk slowly when the gradual descent of the path takes place from Hokasar and Kalinar where the route from Pahalgam via Astanmarg is four miles shorter meets the main route. From here two miles onward is Nagara Pal, a huge boulder, up which the pilgrims scramble with two pebbles in hand beating the rock as if beating a drum to proclaim their arrival. Walking one mile and a half they stand on the bank of the Pantsatarni stream. They take off their clothes and bathe in all its six or seven tributaries, the last being the main and the largest one. The water of some streamlets is pure because they rise from springs, while others come from glacial sources and hence contain minute sandy particles. When all these streams unite they form a mighty river which it is impossible to ford. If one had the time, it would be worthwhile to explore the mainstream. I remember once camping here and suggesting to my friends to explore the source of the main Pantsatarni stream, but they were very anxious to see their friends at Pahalgam and so did not agree.
The whole region is rich in herbs. It is a pity that the sheep and cattle graze everywhere in it, hence the flowers cannot be much observed. The herbs can only be recognized by their leaves. Here and there one might find a flower that has escaped being nipped by an animal. Even then some people conversant with eastern medicines, get a lot.
On their arrival, the pilgrims hasten to pitch their tents. Cooking fires are lighted; the smoke from the green juniper bushes rises higher and higher in streaks. There is hustle and bustle everywhere. The ponymen are shouting for their ponies, the masters are yelling at their coolies, the mothers are looking for their children, the clients are enquiring about their priests. Some people after having tea, have a look at the landscape around the valley. The sunset on the snowy peaks is marvellous.
Pantsatarni to Cave (12,729 Ft.) 4 Miles
On Purnamasi Sawan (July-August) the visit to the cave takes place. The old route has been condemned by the Government. The pilgrims used to climb the Bairau Bal and going round the summit reached the cave after descending the precipitous slope through Garba Yatra. The cave is at a distance of two miles from Pantsatarni.
The Present Route being easier, known as Sant Singh’s route has been adopted for years past by the pilgrims. It is plain going for 2 miles and then there are 2 miles of very gradual ascent, part of it over a small glacier. Turning around the corner and looking up the glen one discerns a large hole in the mountains. That is the cave.
A narrow defile leads up to this cave which is nestled among mountains between 16,000 ft. and 17,000 ft. above sea level. This small valley must have been scooped by glaciers which now have receded. A small torrent drains the valley, while a streamlet shimmers down from the top of the cave and joins the torrent below. This spot where Nature’s basic material, rock and water are abundant, gives bliss to millions of Hindus. Their eyes marvel at the skilful hand of Nature, and this handiwork of hers the mysterious cave, the destination of their long, long journey. Their souls find peace. Every particle of sand, every drop of water, everything hereabouts to them the emblem of Shiva a sign of peace. They direct their thoughts to things spiritual in this frame of mind they undress. First, they wash in this torrent; then they bathe in the Amaravati and besmearing themselves with the chalky sediment of the stream, become all white. They put on new loincloths and thus, so to say draped in white from head to foot enter the cave, in a way become for a moment one with the Supreme and having no consciousness of the physical world.
Immersed with eyes closed in the bliss springing from inner love ‘ would that I attained to Shiva-consciousness so that while I bowed to my own self as Shiva, I would also worship a blade of grass as a manifestation of the same Supreme Reality.
Returning to physical consciousness they look around the interior of the cave. Towards the north-eastern corner, they see Sudha* Lingam (immortal emblem) of pure greenish-white ice in a recumbent position on a natural pedestal (peth). The water drops from the top of the cave fall on the pilgrims and in some places, the images of Ganesh fi, Kumar Ji, and Parvati are formed by these drops. The Mahant of the Chhari Sahib sits close to the Pedestal with two silver staves placed on either side of the Amar Nath Lingam (immortal emblem). The pilgrims offer to the deity, camphor, candles of clarified butter, raisins, candy sugar, black pepper, clothes, silver and gold ornaments. The recitations from the Vedas and Tantras echo through the spacious cave and snow pigeons that nest in the mountains make their appearance at this juncture and fly froth their perches. Seeing these birds the pilgrims clap their hands and shout: ‘Ishwara Darshan Pa’ya re (we have seen the manifestation of the Lord’). A part of the offering of raisins crystallized sugar and black pepper they bring along with themselves in order to distribute the same among their relatives and friends. They also take silt from the Amaravati or limy pebbles from the cave as Babuti for their relatives and friends.
From this highly spiritual atmosphere steps are now retraced towards the material world. The descent to the lower altitudes now begins. The pilgrims do not go to Sangam where in olden times Shradhas was performed in memory of dead ancestors. The pilgrims return to their camps for breakfast (they eat only one meal on this day) and precipitately begin the downward march. It is a pity that people do not stay here for some time. There is a sea of glaciers on the north and a cast of the Amar Nath Range. Some of the peaks are much higher than Kolahoi. Hence this area is worth exploring. It is true that weather conditions are uncertain in these altitudes. A cloud passing from one mountain peak to another may bring a shower of rain, may discharge a hail storm or envelop the valley in a snowy shroud. But such conditions do not last long and when we are well-equipped, a short stay at the place is well worth the hardship of weather.
The return journey via Astamnarg is prohibited by the Government. The Sasokot is not safe in bad weather: it is all sand and shale. So the pilgrims hasten their downward journey to Tsandanwari and the next day make for Pahalgam. It is said that the pilgrimage to Amar Nath Ji is not complete until the pilgrim washes in the nine springs of Naudal (nine leaves), which is 22 miles from Pahalgam via Bugmor pass.