By Khajuria S. Kant
Every year in the month of Shravan (July-Au-gust), thousands of people from all corners of the country converge into the beautiful Lidder Valley of Pahalgam, in Kashmir. The event is the annual pilgrimage to the holy cave of Amarnath but for the last few years, the pilgrimage has been under threat from militants operating in the Kashmir Valley.
One of the holy trinity, Shiva is a living God. The most sacred and most ancient book of India, the Rig Veda evokes his presence in its hymns. Vedic myths, rituals and even astronomy testify to his existence from the dawn of time. But Shiva, the destroyer, the mendicant, is undefinable: he is a great yogi, the guardian of the absolute. His actions constitute the themes of the myths in which his nature unfolds.
The sacred day for darshan falls on Shravan Purnima (the night of full moon). The day is also celebrated as Raksha Bandhan. One of the special features of the night is that the self-formed snow lingam of Lord Shiva waxes and wanes with the moon.
This year´s Amarnath yatra will commence from Jammu on July 29, 2004 and the first darshan at the holy cave will be on August 1. The first batch of yatris will arrive at Pahalgam on July 29 itself. Thereafter, they will be allowed to proceed towards the holy shrine on July 30 and after halt enroute, they will have the first darshan on August 1. The last darshan will be on August 31, 2004.
Due to the limited holding capacity at Pahalgam and Baltal, it was decided that only 3,500 yatris would be allowed to proceed for darshan daily as heretofore. Of this, 2,700 would travel from Pahalgam and 800 from the Baltal side.
An attempt is on to limit the number of yatris in the name of terrorists.
The meeting also took some important decisions to regulate the rush of yatris to avoid creating confusion and also avoid exposure of the yatris to the vagaries of the weather. The registration of yatris would be compulsory and done only through various branches of Jammu and Kashmir Bank. While 80 per cent registration would be made in the conventional manner, 20 per cent would be done through the internet on an experimental basis. The internet registration would be available by accessing the Website of the said bank.
The J&K Bank was asked to take nacessary steps in consultation with the SASB for developing software for registration through the internet, subject to the allotted quota for a particular state. Registration through internet would be regulated and once the 20 per cent quota gets exhausted, the system would entertain no further request.
Legend has it that Shiva recounted to Parvati the secret of creation in a cave in Amarnath. Unknown, a pair of mating doves eavesdropped on this conversation and having learned the secret, took rebirth 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-linga (the phallic symbol of Shiva).
Another legend has it that a Muslim shepherd, Buta Malik who was given a sackful of coal by a sadhu discovered upon reaching home that the sack, in fact, contained gold. He rushed back to look for the sadhu but on that spot he found a cave. Eventually this cave became a place of pilgrimage for all the believers.
The trek to Amarnath, in the month of Shravan (July-August) has the devout flock to this incrediable shrine, where the image of Shiva, in the form of linga, is formed naturally of an ice-stalagmite. By its side are two more ice-lingams, that of Parvati, and of their son Ganesh.
Situated in a narrow gorge at the farther end of Lidder Valley, Amarnath stands at 3,888 metres and and is 46 km from Pahalgam and 141 km from Srinagar. Though the original pilgrimages subscribe that the yatra should be undertaken from Srinagar, the more common practice is to begin the journey at Chandanwari, and cover the distance to Amarnath and back in five days. Pahalgam is 96 km from Srinagar.
The trek from Chandanwari to Amarnath cave is on an ancient peregrine route. The 30 km distance is covered in two days, with night halts at Sheshnag (Wawjan) and Panchtarni. The distance from Pahalgam to Chandanwari (16 km) can now be covered by vehicular transport, and the trail runs along the Lidder river. Pilgrims camp at Pahalgam or Chandanwari on the first night out.
The first day´s trek of 12 km from Chandanwari is through spectacular, primeval country-side, and the main centre of attraction is Sheshnag, a mountain which derives its name from its seven peaks, resembling the head of a mythical snake. The journey to Sheshnag follows steep inclines up the right bank of a cascading stream and wild scenery untouched by civilisa-tion. 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 around the camp-fires, to the stillness of a pine-scented, Himalayan night.
The second day´s 12 km trek steadily gains height, winds up across Mahagunas Pass at 4,600 metres and then descends to the meadowlands of Panchtarni, the last camp enroute to the holy cave.
From Panchtarni to Amarnath the distance is only 6 km. But an early morning´s start is recommended for there is a long queue awaiting entry to the cave. The same day, following the darshan, devotees can return to Panchtarni. They can also spend the night at Panchatarni itself before returning to Chandanwari or Pahalgam for the onward journey. Entrance to the cave is regulated, and darshan is a hasty affair for there are many others waiting outside to pay obeisance before the awesome Shiva-linga. The devotees sing bhajans, chant incantations, and priests perform aarti and pooja, invoking the blessings of Shiva the Divine, the pure, the absolute. For those who journey with faith, it is a rewarding experience to this cave-shrine, the home of the Himalayan mendicant who is both a destroyer and healer, the greatest of the Hindu gods.