Politicising the “Abode of Lord Shiva”
The Holy Cave of Baba Amarnath, considered to be the “Abode of Lord Shiva” is being unnecessarily politicised by some overzealous Hindutva followers endangering the peace in the valley
Amarnath Yatra involves trekking into the High Himalaya to pay obeisance to a naturally formed ice lingam in a rock cave situated in high mountains. The cave is considered to be the “Abode of Lord Shiva”. The journey involves trekking to the cave through difficult mountainous terrain.Saivism has been the religion of Kashmiri Hindus (Pandits) from the ancient times. Historically the holiest of the Kashmirian Tirthas has been the Haramukuta, the “Siva’s Diadem”. It is the present day massif of Haramukh peaks and the lakes of Gangabal and Nund-Kol at the foot of these mountains. The main peak in the massif resembles mount Kailash above Lake Mansarovar in Tibet which is the source of River Indus (Sindhu). Kashmiris considered the Gangabal Lake as the true source of Kashmir’s Ganga or Sindh River and it was known in ancient times as “Uttaraganga”. Nilmata Purana describes the Lake as “Uttaramanasa”. It was the final goal of the great “Haramukuta Pilgrimage” which used to take place once in four years in the month of Bhadrapada and was attended by thousands of pilgrims.
Kashmir has been home to the Trika School of Saivite Philosophy. Trika is the ultimate reality. “One, the highest Good and Bliss, the Supreme Lord, formless and yet informed with all forms, and free from all limitations in space and time.” According to Kalhana Saivism has been prevalent in Kashmir from the ancient times. The Saivites in South India hold the followers of the Kashmir Saivism with the highest regard. It is said that the Saivite Brahmin priests in South India bow towards Kashmir in the morning claiming Kashmir to be the abode of the highest form of Saivism! The Trika Philosophy is based on Monism. Even though there may be some differences between the Southern and Kashmir Saivism, yet the main similarity is about the both being monistic in the spiritual thought. Siva is the ultimate divinity, the Supreme Being.Siva is all- pervading and all transcending. Siva as Brahma is the creator, as Vishnu is the protector andas Mahesh is the destroyer.Then there is the Pralaya, the ultimate end of the universe.The Monistic Saivite Philosophy of Kashmiri Hindus must have also played a part in their mass conversion to Islamic faith during the time of Mir Sayed Ali Hamadani.
North India follows the Vedanta School. Kashmir Saivism has fundamental differences with the Vedanta. In contrast to the Trika philosophy stating that everything is real emanating from the ultimate Real, the Vedanta holds that appearances are unreal and illusory. These unreal things appear due to Maya and continue till Moksha (salvation) is attained. The Kashmiri School of Saivite Philosophy even influenced the Buddhist thought. The emergence of the Mahayana School of Buddhism as a result of the fourth Buddhist Council held in Kashmir had also some influence of the Saivism. In view of the importance of Saivism in the religious history of ancient Kashmir one would have expected the Amarnath Cave to be an important religious site or Tirtha. However, the Amarnath Pilgrimage undertaken in honour of Lord Shiva became popular only in the beginning of the last century when the cave was accidently discovered by a Muslim shepherd from Pahalgam. It was called the Tirtha of “Amaresvara or Amarnatha”. It does not seem to have ancient historical background. Sir Aurel Stein, the translator of Kalhana’s Rajatarangni, mentions, “Judging from the scanty references made to this Tirtha (Amarnath) in the Rajtarangni and Nilmata, it appears doubtful whether it could have enjoyed in old times quite such great celebrity as now”.This being a shrine of Lord Shiva, one would have expected Kashmiri Pandits to be the majority of the pilgrims. On the contrary their number in this pilgrimage is quite low. For them at the present moment the most important religious spot is the temple of Kheer Bhavani in Tulla Mulla near Ganderbal. There is an annual festival called the Mela Kheer Bhavani which is now attended by Kashmiri Pandits coming from all over the world.
For last 150 years or so since when the Amarnath Pilgrimage started, it used to be only for a week or so and the largest number of pilgrims never exceeded 15 or 20 thousand. This used to be the pattern till early nineties. In fact, in 1990 there was hardly any pilgrimage due to disturbed conditions in the valley. However, in 1993, a militant organisation consisting of foreign militants called the “Harkat-ul-Ansar” imposed a ban on the pilgrimage. This was the beginning of the politicization of the yatra. The ban gave a strong affront to the Hindutva parties all over India and it was taken as a challenge. After this incidence the yatra became more an assertion of Hindu India’s control over Muslim Kashmir than a journey of faith. Most of the pilgrims were young members of Shiv Sena, RSS, and similar other parties and would be shouting slogans all along the route. Subsequently there were also some incidents which drew more attention towards this pilgrimage. The first one occurred in 1996 when hundreds of yatris perished in an untimely blizzard on the route. More than 70,000 pilgrims were all along the route when the weather turned bad and there was a severe blizzard in Sheshnag area. Officially 200 yatris perished while as the unofficial estimates were much higher. Thousands were saved by local villagers who gave them clothing, shelter and food. Dr. Nitish Sen Gupta was appointed as an inquiry officer to ascertain the causes of the tragedy. The main finding was that the yatra had been totally uncontrolled and unregulated. He recommended only 5,000 yatris per day from both the routes and limited the duration of yatra only for one month. The second incident was a militant attack in Pahalgam during the yatra. In this incident about 30 persons mostly locals died due to indiscriminate firing by the security personnel. Again an inquiry was instituted. General Mukharjee, the 15 corps commander held the inquiry and held the security personnel responsible for indiscriminate firing. He also recommended adhering to the recommendations of Dr. Nitish Sen Gupta for controlling and regulating the yatra. Another factor in making the Pilgrimage uncontrollable has been the regular opening of Baltal route. Traditionally, the yatra used to follow the Pahalgam route with stops en route at Mattan and Pahalgam. However, the Army detachments stationed in Sonamarg area went to the cave through Baltal. It was a very quick route to the cave. In the beginning, this route remained restricted to Army officers and their families. In fact, the yatra management through the earlier Dharmarth Trust used to completely close this route during the actual yatra period. However, subsequently it was converted into a regular route against the wishes of the Mahant and other members of the Trust.
The things ran smoothly as long as the Government directly controlled the Yatra. It was Dr. Farooq Abdullah, who set up a Shrine Board to better control and manage the Pilgrimage through Hindus themselves. However, he probably did not know what an unmanageable mammoth he was creating. The Shrine Board functioned smoothly during the time of General Rao as the Governor and he did not take upon himself the task of setting up a virtual Amarnath Nagar. In fact, during his tenure the total involvement of the Board was limited to the Shrine area from Sangam to Cave, hardly a distance of about 2 kilometres. It was with the coming of General Sinha as the Governor that the Board became rather unwieldy and started grabbing the entire Pilgrimage along with the land en route right from Pahalgam on one side and Baltal on the other side. He seemed to have come with a total Hindutva agenda to Kashmir. His aim was to somehow get Kashmir connected to India. Instead of accepting the Muslim majority connection to a “Secular” state, he chose to get Kashmir connected through its Hindu past. In fact, he also started an Institute of Kashmir Studies with a Sanskritised slant to achieve the objective. The Hindutva parties mobilised youth all over India and also persuaded people to set up free langars en route. The aim was to convert Kashmir into a Hindu Pilgrimage centre. Religion being the most emotive factor in Indian politics, this became a readymade handle for Hindu votes. This politicisation of a pilgrimage had two serious fall outs for Kashmir.
Pilgrims on Amarnath trail
The first fall out which is most damaging for Kashmir in the long run has been the environmental and ecological damage. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims trekking in fragile mountain areas has a tremendous impact. First is the scattering of garbage including non-biodegradable items like plastic bottles, tins and so on. The accumulation after every yatra is in tons! Then comes the human excreta and all the muck seeping/going into the flowing water. This water is used for drinking by people living downstream throughout the valley. Apart from the water getting polluted, the massive human intrusion has resulted in the accelerated melting of glaciers, the main source of this water. Common Kashmiri is not very much aware of this environmental damage nor seems very much concerned about it. In fact, people all over the valley seem least bothered about their own environment and ecology. This is evident from the dying water bodies like Dal and Wullar Lake. Common Kashmiris seem unmoved by the large amount of filth and dirt going into the River Jhelum, once considered to be Kashmir’s lifeline. It is nowturning into a large sewer!The forests all over the valley have been mercilessly vandalised by timber smugglers. The concern about the environmental damage including the one caused by the yatra has been voiced from time to time by some scientists and intellectuals. The shrine board too has been announcing off and on measures for garbage removaland disposalfrom the yatra trail. However, this aspect needs to be given the same importance as has been given to it in other parts of the Himalaya where similar pilgrimages take place.
Non-biodegradable garbage on Amarnath trail
Trishul wielding young pilgrim
The most damaging fall out has been on the political side. The uncontrolled growth of the yatra and the off and on proposals for permanent structures as well as a road to the holy cave have alarmed the common Kashmiris. They are becoming apprehensive that thousands of Trishul wielding Hindus may swamp them! People probably fear that if the number of yatris and the period of yatra go on increasing necessitating permanent structures, it may change the majority Muslim character of the valley. Already there have been rumours on the same subject mentioning even Israeli settlements in the Palestinian area! Just a strong rumour that the land was being transferred to outsiders created a massive upheaval in 2008. The present plan of a road to the cave and permanent settlements may provoke much stronger reactions. In view of these apprehensions and the damaging environmental impact, the concerned will have to reconsider the entire project. In fact, one has to seriously and strictly enforce regulations as is done in other environmentally fragile parts of the Himalaya. Kashmiris have to be assured that they are welcome as a Muslim majority part of the country rather than as a colonised part conquered by Hindu India. The most visible characteristic of the composite culture of Kashmir is the fact, that the formation of an ice lingam considered to be a form of Lord Shiva in the Holy Cave of Amarnath was discovered by a Kashmiri Muslim belonging to Malik family of Pahalgam. This family was involved with the yatra till the formation of the Shrine Board. Even now a large number of Muslims such as horsemen, porters, camping agents, hoteliers and officials on duty are totally involved in the organisation of the pilgrimage. It has been a journey of faith and should be allowed to remain the same. Any attempt at making it a politicised pilgrimage is bound to boomerang and further damage the composite culture of Kashmir!
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Lastupdate on : Sat, 1 Sep 2012 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sat, 1 Sep 2012 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sun, 2 Sep 2012 00:00:00 IST
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