Amarnath Cave and the Lingam it contains is an ancient place mentioned in Rajatarangni, the historic chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir. As per Kalhana’s narration, its existence has been documented in the 11th century AD and it was a place for pilgrimage. There are more references to it in several other ancient texts.
According to the legend, Sage Bhirgu was the first to have discovered Amarnath. Bhrigu is one of the seven great sages (Saptrishi) of the Vedic times. It was after the times when Kashyapa Rishi, drained the submerged underwater valley through a series of rivers and rivulets. Bhrigu was the first to get the opportunity to view this holy place (Darshana). The Shiva Lingam is a stalagmite formation located at the Amarnath mountain at a height of 5,186 metres (17,014 ft) and inside a 40 m (130ft) high cave at an elevation of 3,888 metres (12,756 ft). Typically, a stalagmite is formed due to freezing of drops of water that drip from the roof of the cave on to the floor resulting in an upward vertical growth of ice. As per the version of persons who have visited the place several times these stalagmites are of different types. In the cave these are considered as the lingam, a physical appearance of the Shiva with a solid-dome shape. Parvati (Shiva’s wife) and Ganesha (their son) are also depicted here as two smaller stalagmites. As per the mythology this is the place where Shiva explained the secret of life and eternity to Parvati his divine consort. The ancient Hindu texts of Puranas and Mahabharata mentions that Lingam represents Shiva. As per the beliefs the Lingam grows and shrinks with the phases of the moon. Being tallest on a full moon day during the summers.
The mention of Amarnath also comes in the book of Dr Francois Bernier, a French physician attached to the Mughal Empire during the seventeenth century (1656 to 1668). He describes it as a wonderful place formed by stalagmites formed by dripping water from its roof and worshipped by many Hindus as the images of Shiva in 1663, when he visited the place.
The pilgrimages mentioned in the ancient literature would have been taken by only small number of devotees because of the tough route, poor navigation and inadequate support by the administration of the successive rulers of Kashmir. The cave seems to have been brought back to lime light in the year 1850 during the Dogra regimen by a shepherd Boota Malik a resident of Batkot in the Pahalgam area of district Anantnag. He reached the holy cave while herding his sheep crossing glaciers. There he met a Sage who gave him a Kangri (earthenware pot) to keep him warm. Mr Malik came back and when he reached home, he found that the pot instead of burnt coal was full of gold. Realising the mystic value of this, he went back to the cave. However, he did not find the sage but instead saw a white Lingam of snow. Seeing this amazing transformation, Boota Malik announced this to the whole village. Following this he and then his descendants became the custodians of the cave for a long time. In year 2000, Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) was formed by the Jammu and Kashmir legislature with governor being the chief executive along with a list of other functionaries.
In 2008 SASB ended the Malik family’s association with the holy shrine and in the words of Malik family with Lord Shiva. There were two more parties the Mattan temple trust and the Mahant who were also the custodians. All the three parties were offered a one-time settlement of Rs 1.5 crores each. While the two accepted it the Malik family did not accept it. Their representative told the Governor that they were not associated with the shrine for the sake of sharing the offerings, and that the temples and mosques of historic importance cannot be purchased. It was their helping hand to the pilgrims which spiritually was satisfying to their conscience. The family still stays in their modest house in Batkot near Pahalgam and has several members who are doctors and engineers. All of them have fond memories and regards for the Cave and the Lingam and continue to help the pilgrims who frequently contact them. Many Sadhus still after resting at Nunwan base camp visit Malik family before proceeding for the pilgrimage. It is a living example of Hindu-Muslim cooperation and brotherhood which is centuries old. The pilgrimage is also a source of earning a livelihood for the tribal communities and also for getting revenue for the administration of that region. These occasions should be capitalised as opportunities to foster the age-old Kashmiri culture of friendship, hospitality and tolerance, and should serve as a lesson for the whole country during these challenging days.
The pilgrimage typically and traditionally is performed in the month of July and August. It is a 43 kms mountainous trek from Nunwan and Chandanwari base camps at Pahalgam, district Anantnag. There are two halts on the way to the cave-shrine. Sheshnag Lake and Panchtarni Camp. Another shorter way of going to Amarnath is via Baltal valley, in District Gandarbal. Baltal base camp is around 60 Kms from Srinagar. Amarnath can be reached from there in around 6 to 7 hours by trekking a distance of 10 kms of steep hilly mountains with cliffs and gorges in contrast to the longer Chandanwari route. However, pilgrims can return back to Baltal in a single day. There are people who go for Yatra taking the Pahalgam route and return via the Baltal route thus saving time and also seeing Sonamarg, another well-known touristic spot with several glaciers and many good hotels and restaurants.
Being at high altitude and subject to the vagaries of weather, mishaps do happen from time to time. In addition, it has also been on the target of militant groups. This all means lot of security for protection as well as looking after the life of pilgrims during any natural calamities. The number of pilgrims is increasing every year. This year’s Yatra has happened after two years of COVID. It started on 30th June and will last till the 11th July. There was an unfortunate glitch of a cloudburst in which more than 16 pilgrims succumbed and many are still missing. After a brief period of suspension, it has again resumed. This Yatra symbolises the traditional Hindu Muslim amity, cooperation and mutual respect which has been a symbol of the Kashmir valley.
Prof Upendra Kaul Founder Director Gauri Kaul Foundation. Recipient of Padma Shri and Dr B C Roy Award.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.