Amarnath temple, is a legendary place of worship of the Hindus and is one of the major pilgrimages of India. It is dedicated to worshipping Lord Shiva, in the form of a Lingam. It is a short cylindrical figure made of stone or metal which signifies grand spiritual energy. The Amarnath cave with the Lingam is located in the Pahalgam Tehsil of District Anantnag.
Its mention is there in ancient scripts including the Rajatarangini (“The River of Kings”), a book by Kalhana, a Kashmiri Brahmin. It was written in Sanskrit between 1148 and 1149. The book with an English translation by M A Stein has the legendary and historic account of the history of Kashmir.
The book Rajatarangini (Book VII v. 183) refers to it as Amareshwara. It is also believed that that queen Suryamati in the 11th century AD gifted trishuls (Trident a divine symbol of Hinduism), banalingas (a translucent stone, which glistens at night), and other sacred emblems to this temple.
Besides this there are several other references to this pilgrimage in many other ancient texts. One of them by a well-known Persian scholar and astronomer Al-Biruni and the other from Francois Bernier, a French physician who accompanied Emperor Aurangzeb during his first visit to Kashmir in 1663.
However, after these historical descriptions the Cave and the Lingam were not in the limelight for the public at large, possibly because of the hostile terrain, indifferent rulers and poor communication facilities for centuries.
As per the legendary history, the Amarnath cave and the holy Lingam was re-discovered by a shepherd named Buta Malik, a Muslim, in 1850, a resident of village Batkote, near Pahalgam.
He had been grazing his cattle in the mountain when a Sufi saint gave him a bag of coal, which however turned out to be gold later. He went back to thank the saint but found the cave and the Shiva Lingam.
His progeny had become the guides and maintainers of the holy cave for more than a century. Ghulam Mohammad Malik his grandson still lives in Batakote village, near the foot hills of the mountains of Pahalgam.
He still has fond memories of his trips to Amarnath cave. He recites the hymns and the pooja associated with the worship carried out in the cave. In 1947 he had accompanied Rani Tara Devi, Maharaja Hari Singhs wife for the darshan. On return she gave him Majma (a copper plate filled with dates).
He recalls his family’s association with the cave and how it strengthened the bond between Hindus and Muslims. The Malik family used to receive a portion of the offerings made by the pilgrims as a token for their services rendered at the cave till 2005.
Following this Amarnath shrine board was formed and the age-old practice was stopped. The shrine board is headed by the governor of Jammu and Kashmir and includes members of the shrine board and other administrators. At present its head is the Lt governor Sh. Manoj Sinha.
The Yatra provides a living for the local Muslims by providing guidance and help to the pilgrims, for which they are paid. This they do this with dedication. Unfortunately, a few militant groups harassed and attacked the yatra in 2017 and killing pilgrims, local Muslims and security personnel. This was deplored by every Kashmiri, including the separatist groups vehemently. Amarnath Yatra has been a symbol of Kashmir, also called the land of Rishis, Sufis, and Saints: Laleshwari (Lal Ded) and Nund Rishi (Shekh Noor-ud-Din) being the best known. Last few years however has seen some articles questioning the veracity of the Malik family and their involvement, which is unfortunate.
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). The Lingam is formed from drops of ice-cold water (icicles), dripping from the ceiling of the cave and accumulating at that spot forming a stalagmite in the shape of a “Lingam”. As per the Hindu faith, Lord Shiva entered the Holy Amarnath Cave along with Mata Parvati his divine consort, and explained her the secret of life and eternity.
The Cave is situated at an altitude of 3,888 m (12,756 ft), about 141 km from Srinagar and can be reached by the traditional route through Pahalgam town by way of a 4 day trek. From Pahalgam it is at a distance of around 46 Kms, a path of mystifying natural beauty.
This trek goes via Chandanwari which is the first halt. It has a rough but motorable road which can take small vehicles. The trek then goes through Pissu top to Sheshnag the 2nd halt and finally to the Panchtarni the 3rd and the final halt. From there pilgrims visit the Amarnath Cave and come back. All these places have legendary tales about them depicting the powers of Lord Shiva.
The shorter single day trek which is the preferred route these days is from Baltal near Sonamarg on the Srinagar Leh Road. The total distance from the base to cave is around 14 Kms. The route has some steep cliffs but has been improved considerably recently. Ponies and a helicopter service are also available. This is the route which is protected, assisted and maintained these days by the administration of the UT of Jammu and Kashmir. It is a one day back and forth trek.
After 2 years of COVID the Yatra started again with full preparations enroute since 2022. This year it started on 1st of July and would continue up to the 31th of August. Every day 75,000 pilgrims have been registered (combining both the routes). Let peace prevail and our honoured guests get a great darshan of the holy Lingam in the very historic and pious mystic cave.
Author is a cardiologist, recipient of Dr B C Roy Award and Padmashri
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.