The legendary Amarnath Yatra and its Politicization!

As per the story goes, the Amarnath cave and the holy Lingam was re-discovered by a shepherd named Buta Malik, who was a Muslim, in 1850. He had been grazing his cattle in the mountain when a Sufi saint gave him a bag of coal, which turned out to be gold later. He went back to thank the saint but found the cave and the Shiva Lingam. The religious beliefs, say that the lingam grows and shrinks with the phases of the moon reaching its height during the summer festival with the peak on the full moon day in Shraavana (Fifth month of the Hindu calendar). This belief may not have a scientific basis. The Lingam is formed from drops of ice-cold water (icicles), dripping from the ceiling of the cave and accumulating at that spot in the shape of a Lingam. As per the Hindu faith, Lord Shiva left Nandi, the bull, at Pahalgam (Bail gaon). At Chandanwari, he released the Moon from his hair (Jata). On banks of Lake Sheshnag, he released the snakes. Then finally Lord Shiva entered the Holy Amarnath Cave along with Mata Parvati, his divine consort, where he explained her the secret of life and eternity

The book Rajatarangini (Book VII v. 183) refers to it as Amareshwara or Amarnath. It is also believed that the queen Suryamati in the 11th century AD gifted trishuls, banalingas and other sacred emblems to this temple. Besides this there are several other references to this pilgrimage in many other ancient texts.

Francois Bernier, a French physician accompanied Emperor Aurangzeb during his first visit to Kashmir in 1663. In his book “Travels in Mughal empire” he writes while giving an account of places he visited and mentions that he was “pursuing journey to a grotto (a natural cave) full of wonderful congelation, after two days journey from “Sangsafed, ” when he “received intelligence that my Nawab felt very impatient and uneasy on account of my long absence” . The grotto he refers to is obviously the Amarnath cave as the editor of the second edition of the English translation of the book, Vincent A. Smith makes clear in his introduction. He writes, “The grotto full of wonderful congelations is the Amarnath cave, where blocks of ice, stalagmites formed by dripping water from the roof are worshipped by many Hindus who resort here as images of Shiva…”.

The Cave is situated at an altitude of 3,888 m (12,756 ft), about 141 km from Srinagar and can be reached through Pahalgam town. The trek starts from Pahalgam and first halt is at Chandan Wari, the 2nd part is via Pissu Top to Sheshnag, a distance of 12 kms. The 3rd part is to Panchtarni, a distance of 12 kms. From there pilgrims or trekkers go to visit the Cave a distance of 6 Kms and after darshana return via the same route. Thus, reaching the Holy Cave on the 4th day from Pahalgam.

The shorter route, which is a single day trek, is from Baltal near Sonamarg on the Srinagar Leh road. The total distance from the base to cave is around 14 Kms and pilgrims can return the same day and be in Srinagar late evening.  The route has some steep cliffs but during the last decade has been widened for the comfort of travellers. Ponies are allowed on this route for the comfort of pilgrims, one can, however, take the help of ´dandies’ (carried on a seat atop shoulders of other people). There is a helicopter service also available which takes passengers up to Panchtarni and back. Pilgrims need to walk this 6 kms distance although Ponies can be hired for the first 4 kms. Last 2 kms, have to be walked on foot because of the steep terrain.

The Yatra has been both a way of earning revenue for the locals for offering services to the pilgrims and also making a living out of it. The local Muslims, Bakarwals and Gujjars do this work with full dedication and look forward happily to offer their services to pilgrims. Unfortunately, a few militant groups harassed and attacked the yatra around 2017, killing not only pilgrims but also local Muslim civilians, besides security personnel. This was deplored by Kashmiris, one and all, including the Hurriyat Conference, a conglomerate of 26 political, social and religious organizations.

The shrine forms an important part of Hinduism, and is considered to be one of the holiest shrines in Hinduism. The cave is surrounded by snowy mountains. The cave itself is covered with snow most of the year except for a short period of time in summer when it is open for pilgrims. Hundreds of thousands of Hindu and other devotees make an annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave across challenging mountainous terrain.

Amarnath Yatra has been a symbol of Kashmir, also called the land of Rishis, Sufi, Peers and learned people like  Laleshwari (Lal Ded) and Nund Rishi (Shekh Noor-ud-Din). Despite all the natural and unnatural disasters the  yatra has been going on as per the tradition all these years. It was only in 2019 that pilgrims were called back in the first week of August because of a perceivable threat of a terror attack. Whole world knows that it was to start draconian laws from 5th of August and caging the entire population of the valley and arresting anybody who mattered. There was no need to do that and announcement of breaking the state into two union territories could have been done a week later.

This year the country, especially the valley, is in a COVID pandemic and the city of Srinagar is in a Lock Down till the 1st of August. Where is the need of allowing the Yatra in the interest of the health of the people of the valley and also the persons helping the pilgrims for facilities? What about the social distancing of pilgrims going uphill for 12 kms? Isn’t it a blatant violation of the principles of containing the pandemic by any standard? I do hope that Lord Shiva shows them the right path.

Author is a cardiologist, recipient of Dr B C Roy Award and Padmashri