Pilgrimage is an important part of the Indian tradition. It is a soul-stirring experience. It is a journey undertaken to meet ?gods?, have face-to-face communion with them and experience a higher state of spirituality. In the ancient period, the yatris invariably encountered a charming environment. The air was exhilarating, the forests thick and green, and the streams full of crystal clear water. The spell that nature cast on yatri'smind brought in peace and created within him a new rhythm, a new spirit.
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'smind, and he feels a soft and serene impact of the Great Spirit.
Recalling Swami Vivekananda'sexperience 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 travelling 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'seye, 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 God?Lord Shiva. He is the God of gods, Mahadeva, about whom Bhishma says in the Mahabharata: ?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 phenomenon as well as the absolute spirit whom the rishis who practise discipline and have arrived at truth contemplate; who is indestructible, supreme, the Brahma 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. The axe, Thy bull, 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 the Himalayas.
It is also believed that while Lord Shiva was speaking to Parvati, a pair of pigeons appeared and overheard the talk. And this pair still comes to the cave at the time of the Yatra as incarnation of Shiva and Parvati. During the Governor'srule, in August-September, 1986, I travelled on foot to the holy cave, with the officers concerned, with a view to formulating proposals for effecting improvement on the route and provide facilities on the same lines as I did in the case of the Vaishno Devi Shrine. We all saw a pair of pigeons but no other bird.
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 sceptic 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. In the course of time, these spots acquired special sanctity and made Kashmir a great nursery of Hindu religion and culture. It cannot go unnoticed that the Valley has been, and in some ways still is, the land of gods, tirthas and rishis. Vincent A. Smith has rightly observed: ?The ancient India has nothing more worthy of its early civilisation than the grand ruins of Kashmir.?
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 resolves 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 metres), reminding the yatris that the path to salvation involves super human struggle and stamina. A feeling of having been lifted to a heavenly spot dawns upon the yatris when they reach Seshnag (3,570 metres)?so striking is the beauty, the setting and the colour 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 metres). Thereafter, a short descent begins to Poshpathan littered with wild flowers. From there, the yatris move to Panchatarni, a confluence of five mythical streams, and then to the cave.
A strange sense of fulfilment seizes the yatris, and all fatigue is forgotten. Even in the temperature touching zero degree Celsius, the yatris are driven by their faith to take bath in the almost freezing rivulet of Amravati.
Recently, a statutory board, on the lines of Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, has been set up under the chairmanship of the Governor of the State. The Board has been making tremendous effort to improve the traditional route as well as the seasonal route via Bal Tal. A helicopter service has been put in position. The differences that had arisen between the Board and the State Government have largely been resolved. The High Court has also upheld the stand of the board. This year, the yatra will commence on June 11 and continue up to August 9. About 5 lakh yatris are expected to visit the Holy Cave through both the routes.
The unique yatra satisfies the individual'surge to take his soul to soaring heights, to experience spiritual passions of the highest order and see Mahadeva in His greatest image and in His finest abode. But the significance of the yatra does not end at the personal level. It extends to the much larger issue of cultural unity and vision of India from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Kathiawar to Kamrup. Its great and history importance as an underlying integrating force needs to be recognised.
When some people talk of Kashmir'srelationship with the rest of India only in terms of Article I and Article 370 of the Constitution, I am surprised at their ignorance. They do not know that this relationship goes much deeper. It is a relationship that has existed for thousands of years in the mind and soul of the people, a relationship that India'sintellect and emotions, its life and literature, its philosophy and poetry, its common urges and aspirations have given birth to. It is this relationship which inspired Subramania Bharati to perceive Kashmir as a crown of Mother India, and Kanyakumari as a lotus at her feet, and also made him sing that ?She has thirty crore faces, but her heart is one.?
(The writer is a former Governor of J&K and former Union Minister of Culture & Tourism.)