Pandit Kalhan, the greate historian-poet completed in AD 1150 his immortal work of 7,844 verses, Rajatarangini (River of Kings), the history of ancient Kashmir in a detailed manner. According to Rajatarangini, the most famous pilgrimage in Kashmir is the cave of Amarnath and it mentions that King Ram Deva is stated to have imprisoned the debauch King Sukh Deva and to have drowned him in the Lambodheri (Lidder) among the mountains of Amarnath about 1000 BC. It also mentions in Tarang II, Samdimat (Arya Raja) 34BC-17AD, a great devotee of Shiva who rose from the position of a minister to be the king of Kashmir, ?used to worship a linga of snow above the forests, which is not to be found elsewhere in the world during the delightful Kashmir summers.? It further states in verse 267 that Shushram Naga (Sheshnag) is seen to this day (i.e. 1148-49 AD) by pilgrims proceeding to Amreshvara.?
As per ancient literature, devotees of Lord Shiva from time immemorial worshiped cave temple of Amarnath. It is recorded that Himalayan caves have been abode of celestial beings and great sages used to meditate for hundreds of years in these caves. It is also recorded that the Himalayan mountain range especially the northern range is indeed the first and the sublimest symbol of divinity. ?Of the mountains, I am the Himalaya?, says Lord Krishna in the Bhagwat Gita. Someone asked Swami Vivekananda, ?Why have we so many Gods and Goddesses?? He promptly replied, ?Because we have Himalaya.? The music of the Himalayan streams brought divine feelings to the seers. The rushing streams fall like thunder with the sound of vyom, vyom on the rocks and flow out in frightening speed with the sound hara, hara.
Probably Adi Shankara, inspired by snow clad Himalayan peaks and ice lingam of Shiva at cave temple of Amarnath wrote of Shiva; ?Oh, Shiva, Thy body is white, white is Thy smile, the human skull in Thy hand is white. Thy axe, Thy bull, Thy earrings, all is white. The Ganga flowing out in foams from your matted locks is white. The crescent moon on Thy brow is white. O, all-white Shiva, give us the boon of complete sinlessness in our lives.?
Swami Vivekananda wrote about Shiva of Amarnath:
For whom all gloom and darkness have dispersed,
That radiant light, white beautiful,
As bloom of lotus white is beautiful,
Whose laughter loud sheds knowledge luminous.
The worship of the linga according to Vivekananda was originated from the famous hymn in the Atharvaveda Samhita sung in praise of the Yupa-Stambha which represented the ?Eternal Brahman?. The fire, the smoke, the ashes, flames, the blackwood and the ox connected with this Vedic sacrifice gave place to the conceptions of brightness of Shiva'sbody. His tawny matted-hair, His blue throat and the riding on the bull of Shiva and so on?just so the Yupa-Stambha gave place to the Shiva linga and was deified as the high Devahood of Sri Shankara?. In the Linga-Purana the same hymn is expanded in the stories meant to establish the glory of the great Stambha and the superiority of Mahadeva.?
In ancient scriptures, it is recorded that Maharishi Bhrigu was the first person to sight and identify the cave temple of Sri Amarnath where Lord Shiva had narrated the secret of amartav to his consort Parvati and got himself transformed into ice lingam on Sharavan Purnamashi. This sacred day falls every year on the night of the full moon in the month of Sawan (July-August) on Shrawan Purnamashi, when sun is in Leo (Singha rashi) and moon (Chandrama) in Aquarius (Kumb) rashi, this yoga makes the Shiva lingam darshan very auspicious. A pair of snow pigeons over heard Shiva'sdiscourse and became immortal. Thus Amarnath, the Lord of Immortality and Deathlessness became Amreshvara!?
On August 2, 1898 Swami Vivekananda had darshan of Amarnath. When he entered the shrine, a profound mystical experience came to him and latter he said, ?Shiva Himself had appeared before him?. He further said; ?The ice lingam was Shiva Himself. It was all worship there. I never enjoyed any religious place so much, so beautiful, so inspiring.?
Swami Ramatirtha, on having a glimpse of ?Amareshwara Linga? uttered in ecstasy an Urdu couplet, which means, ?Where ice is bedecked in formless movement, There stands supreme-consciousness as Amar Linga?
The cave temple is located in South Kashmir at an altitude 12,720 ft about 140 kms from Srinagar. The huge natural cave is about 25 meters high and enough to hold hundreds of devotees where a self-forming ?ice lingam? waxes and wanes with moon. The holy cave is 50 ft. long 25 ft. wide and 15ft. high approximately. The cave is nature'stemple where ice lingam is completely filling the right corner of the cave, the top of the lingam touches the base of the cave. The base of the cave is also covered with ice, like a carpet. Here Shiva is worshipped by nature in the purest way. Shiva is snow-white and pure. Lingam is formed by drops of water falling from the top of the cave and two other small ?ice lingams,? are also formed, believed to be the symbols of Goddess Parvati and Lord Ganesha. The dripping that followed from the feet of ice lingam or Shiva lingam took form of a stream known as Amuravati. According to Bhrngish Samhita a person who bathes in the waters of Amuravati and rubs himself with the ashes gets moksha. Recitation from the Vedas and hymns pertaining to the deities and mantra chanting are made individually and collectively by devotees inside the cave temple. Kashmiri Pandits usually recite:
Om namah Sambhavaya cha, mayo bhavaya cha, namah Sankaraya cha, mayas Karaya cha,
Namah Shivaya cha, Shivtaraya cha.
We offer our salutations to Thee??the Giver of Happiness.
We offer our Salutations to Thee??the Auspiciousness.
We offer our salutations to Thee the Bestower of Bliss and still greate Bliss.
Pandit Kalhan describes in verse 267 of Rajatarangini, ?The lake of dazzling whiteness (resembling) a sea of milk, which he created (for himself as residence) on a far off mountain, is to present day seen by the people on the pilgrimage to Amreshvara.?
Francios Bernier was the French physician who accompanied Emperor Aurangzeb to Kashmir in 1663. He has mentioned about cave temple, ?a magnificent cave full of wonderful congelations?.
Vigne in his book, Travels in Kashmir, Ladakh and Iskardu, (1842) says, ?The ceremony at the cave of Amarnath takes place on the 15th of the month of Sawan (28th July)?.not only Hindoos of Kashmir but those from Hindoostan of every rank and caste can be seen, collecting together and traveling up the valley of Lider towards the celebrated cave.? Lawrence mentions in Valley of Kashmir, ?Pilgrims to Amarnath were joined by Brahmins of Mattan and further up to Batkot the Maliks used to take charge of the pilgrimage. ?On the night of the 11th day of the bright fortnight of Sawan (July-August) all pilgrims assemble at Pahalgam. Swami Vivekananda describes the on going pilgrimage as, ?The procession of several thousands of pilgrims in far-away cave of Amarnath, nestled in a glacial gorge of the Western 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 Sannyasis of all order 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 night fall, 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 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 says 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.?
According to Amreshvara Mahatmaya some of the important places where pilgrims had to perform ablutions while on pilgrimage were Anantnag, Mach Bhawan (Mattan), Ganeshbal (Ganeshpora, 6800ft) Mamleshwara (name of Lord Shiva), (Mamal, 7300ft), Nilganga, Chandanwari, Shusshram Naga (Sheshnag), the pilgrims have to cross at Vayujana (Vowjan), from Lidar to Sind valley, then to Panjtarni, and finally to Amuravati. Now-a-days the journey starts from Pahalgam (7500ft). The next halt which is at Chandanwari (8500ft) is 10 kms away. The old name of the place is ?Sthanuashrama?. ?Sthanu? is an epithet of Shiva and literally it means ?a pollard?. Lord Shiva sat in samadhi like a pollard in the lap of Himalaya where Deodar grew. From Chandanwari to Pisu Ghati (12200ft) is steep hill of 2kms and then 7kms. away is Sheshnag (13148ft), the next halting point. The Sheshnag Lake is 25sq.kmrs. In area, is fed by the Kohenhar glacier (5178 mtrs.), which looks like hood of a cobra. The milky-water of the lake is seen just 200mts down in a trough-shaped basin. The mountain around Sheshnag is covered with snow and it has seven peaks which resemble the seven heads of mythical Sheshnag. From Sheshnag to Panchatarni (12230 ft) is about 7 kms. In between is 5kms climb to Maha-gunas, the highest peak in the whole track. This is the last halting place for pilgrims. From Panchatarni the holy cave (12729ft) is 6 kms. Panchatarni is a wide plain among the mountain ranges, where five streams flow side by side. Going across these streams there is the sixth stream in which pilgrims perform shraddha.
The whole Amarnath pilgrimage procession is conducted under the auspices of Chhari Maharaj. Bringesha Samhita records, that Rishi was once approached by the people praying to show them the path to salvation. The sage advised them to take pilgrimage to cave temple of Amarnath and pray to Shiva lingam. To ensure safe journey to cave temple, Bringesha Rishi prayed to Lord Shiva, and was graced with Holy mace pair. Ever since this became symbol of protection for the yatris and has now taken the form of Chhari- Maharaj??the holy mace, and leads the annual yatra. The Chhari generally used to leave after performing the puja at Dashnami Akhara (Srinagar) on the 4th day of the bright fortnight of Sawan. During Sikh rule in Kashmir ?Chhari Maharaj? used to start from Amritsar, during Dogra rule from Srinagar and now after the exile of Kashmiri Pandits from valley it is from Jammu. The Mahants who wield the divine command of holy place carry the two holy maces and when the Mahant after the prayers at the cave temple takes his seat a Sadhu holding one of the mace stands on his right and other on his left.
Despite the terrorist activities in Kashmir targeting yatra and inclement weather large number of pilgrims throng to holy cave temple of Sri Amarnath year after year.