It was the month of July and I was standing on the threshold, gazing at the deity of Shri Amarnathji inside the cave at 14,000 ft, cold, wet and not a little bewildered. And then the chants of <g data-gr-id="115">Har Har</g> Mahadev! rang out! I looked back and saw the band of Shiva worshippers calling out to their Lord, saffron bands around their heads and dressed in the barest minimum, a loin cloth and another orange bit draped around their shoulders – men, women and young adolescents all calling out with the same fervor! The ambient temperature would have been between five and six degrees
centigrade and yet these people were not cold! So is this what the burning fire of faith was all about?
While I watched, I also noticed that the people were generally in the age group of 50 and 60. There were younger ones and definitely even older ones too – they were the ones who were clad in loads of woolens, shawls, sweaters, caps and woolen socks (probably a couple of pairs!), in the <g data-gr-id="105">vanyaprastha</g> or <g data-gr-id="106">sanyas</g> stages of life.
When winter sets in the Jammu and Kashmir valley, it brings with it a sense of peace and calm. All the pathways are covered in snow and people stay indoors, awaiting the thaw so that life can begin again. By the <g data-gr-id="142">time</g> March comes around and the first <g data-gr-id="147">nargis</g> (daffodil) starts flowering through the snow blankets, then you can start stepping out again. Slowly, the poppies and irises start to flower and entire hillsides become covered in red, yellow and blue. This is also the time when the snows <g data-gr-id="138">begins</g> to melt in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. The melting waters feed the innumerable rivers and streams emanating from the peaks. A lot of this melting water seeps back into the mountains and flows out in places through the mountainside. Some of this water flows into Amarnath cave and over a period of two to three weeks, forms an ice mound in the cave, due to the freezing of water drops that fall from the roof of the cave <g data-gr-id="148">on to</g> the cold floor and then grows up vertically from the cave floor. This is the <g data-gr-id="149">icy</g> Lingam, the holiest of holies, that thousands come from all over India and the world to worship. To a disbeliever, it is like any other stalagmite but to the believer, it is a manifestation of Shiva, the lovable God, the most easily pleased of the holy trinity of gods. Two other icy pillars represent Parvati and Shiva’s son, Ganesha and it is where Shiva explained the secret of life and eternity to his divine consort, Parvati.
This miraculous yearly phenomenon at Amarnath cave has made it a place of worship since time immemorial. There are references to the legendary king Aryaraja (300 BCE), who used to worship a lingam formed of ice in Kashmir. The book Rajatarangini refers to Amareshwara or Amarnath. It is believed that Queen Suryamathi 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. One legend says Kashmir was submerged under water until the middle ages and people forgot about Amarnath until Kashyapa Muni drained it through a series of rivers and rivulets, after which, Bhrigu Muni was the first to have Darshan of Lord Amarnath and soon people began worshipping it again as Bholenath.
By end June / early July the lingam is ready and the massive administrative machinery begins its operations to ensure that the yatra goes off without any hitch for the millions of devotees on their arduous trip to the holy Amarnath cave. That the trip is challenging, is an accepted fact. The ongoing terrorist activities in the valley for almost two decades have added an element of fear to the backbreaking trip. One never knows when a sniper will take a <g data-gr-id="118">potshot,</g> whether the next bend in the road will be the last. Not that it worries any of the pilgrims, they are quite blithe about it.
Faith that moves mountains
Meena Ganguly, in her late fifties, says, “I shall attain moksha if I die at the feet of Lord Shiva. I am not afraid at all.” She was not the only one. <g data-gr-id="126">Seventy something</g> Bhanwari Devi from Baghpat was quite at peace with herself. She admitted that she had lived her life and if she were to die, she would be very relieved, as she had nothing more to look forward to. ‘Phir <g data-gr-id="128">idhar</g> <g data-gr-id="129">maut</g> hui <g data-gr-id="130">toh</g> <g data-gr-id="131">swarag</g> <g data-gr-id="132">toh</g> <g data-gr-id="134">mil</g> hi <g data-gr-id="133">jayega</g>’ (If I die here, I shall certainly go to heaven).
Like all pilgrims in India, there are many who have promised to make the trip because of a prayer fulfilled – a son/grandson born into the fold, the acquisition of certain wealth or prosperity, a son or daughter married and settled well, etc. Kalpana ben who had come all the way from Jamnagar in <g data-gr-id="163">Gujarat,</g> was one such who had changed at least three trains to get to the place and this last lap on the pony was hurting her knees. Yet she trundled up the last steps in the cold drizzle and waited for the darshan. She kept repeating har har mahadev with every breath. In a rasping undertone, she told me she had come to fulfill a mannat.
Then there are those who hope their wish will be granted by Lord Shiva once they have come to his
temple. Shoma, a young woman in her <g data-gr-id="157">30s’</g> had lost two infants within the first year of their birth. She had come walking the entire 14 km length of the Baltal route, hoping that Lord Shiva would grant her wish for a healthy child. This is the kind of faith that moves mountains. It is the essence of Hinduism – that God, whatever his form, will take care of all our problems. With the same faith, I had stayed on at the Air Force Station, Srinagar, while the Kargil war was on in full swing, not too far away.
My husband was responsible for the air operations and I spent my time watching the stars under a clear blue night sky while the blackout was enforced, waiting for my husband’s return. On the top of my wish list, before leaving the beleaguered valley, was the fervent desire to visit the Amarnath shrine. Not because I am a devout Hindu, but I did want to see for myself what it was that brought people out from as far away as Chennai and Mudumalai in the south to villages of Assam and Meghalaya from the far east, from Jamnagar on the Gujarat coast to the villages of Eastern UP not to mention Indians and foreigners from across the world. What was it about the shrine that brought on this vast outpouring of people? What generated this faith? How come people did not mind the discomfort, the pain and hardship, the cold and the rain besides the imminent possibility of attack by militants?
The chopper service
I went in a helicopter with a wannabe MLA and his wife and the wife of a senior police officer posted in the valley. The chopper gave us a fantastic view of the mountains and then I saw the meandering trail of the pilgrims, crawling along the Baltal route. The chopper landed at the base of the cave, at a height of 12,756 ft, and we got out of our Perspex flying machine, surrounded by snowy peaks on all sides. I saw this huge embankment of yellow and blue tents – there must have been at least 200 of them, close together. People were going through their morning ablutions and getting ready to return to Srinagar while fresh batches were coming up the hillsides. No noise, no clamoring, just a peaceful morning at India’s holiest shrine. Darshan <g data-gr-id="399">done</g>, aarti enjoyed, prasad collected, time to return to the <g data-gr-id="400">everyday</g> and the mundane – enough <g data-gr-id="306">punya</g> to live out the rest of one’s life!
We walked up to the platform where the number of people going up and coming down was being monitored very strictly. The puja was performed and we were given the prasad. I knew that it was the last time that I was ever going to be there – for me this pilgrimage was very meaningful and I did want to linger for a while.
Then I found one of the pundits pointing to a white dove which was sitting in a niche, high up on the roof of the cave. <g data-gr-id="397">He said</g> that the other one, its partner, should also be there – white doves at 14,000 ft? My skeptical mind gave up questioning what faith was showing me. According to the pundit, the two white doves were a manifestation of Shiva and Parvati and they had been there for millennia. If your faith was strong enough, you could see both of them. Many disbelievers did not see any at all while some saw only one. I knew my faith was strong because I saw both of them.
I bowed my head in veneration and then touched my head on the icy platform – rejuvenated and strong, ready to take on the long haul back to the Airbase.
Quietly and to myself I said, Har Har Mahadev. Two days later, we were saying our final good-byes to the beautiful Kashmir valley. Fundamentalists would like us to believe that the Amarnath yatra is a very Hindu happening. They may be right, but at the same time, they may not be aware that it would not happen without the help of Muslims – not so much in terms of money but in terms of physical presence and moral support to the weary yatris. Many may not be aware that the family that is entrusted with the opening of the caves is a Muslim family. They have been doing this for generations. It is said that when the Shanakaracharya found the cave, the guide who led him to it was a Muslim shepherd. The man and his family were then given this onerous job of opening the cave, year after year.
Many may not be aware that the boys who take your ponies up the Baltal route are Muslim boys. The boys selling flowers and coconuts near the entrance are also Muslim. At this height and in the midst of so much of surging faith and adoration, the oneness of the Almighty comes centrestage and all the petty religious differences are forgotten. Or is it that we all walk together in our everyday lives and it only takes an outsider to inflame passions and cause carnage and division among various religious believers?
Having <g data-gr-id="447">travelled</g> the length and breadth of the country, I cannot deny that whenever I think of the mountains in Jammu and Kashmir, I think of Amarnathji. Would I ever go back? Maybe. When the time is right.
The 2015 yatra began on 2 July, on Purshotam Purnima, and ends on 29 August, Shravan
Purnima, (Raksha Bandhan)