Amarnath Yatra down the ages

We learn from Shiv Mahapuran that it is here that Shanker Mahadev revealed to his consort goddess Parvati the secrets of immortality
The main cave is situated at a height of 12,756 ft from the sea level and remains covered with snow most of the year except for a short period of time in summer.
The main cave is situated at a height of 12,756 ft from the sea level and remains covered with snow most of the year except for a short period of time in summer. File/ ANI

Hindus around the world celebrate the holy month of Savan (Shraavan in Kashmiri) as a pious dedication to Lord Shiva. During the period of four weeks, each Monday is celebrated as a Shivratri and devotees observe fast and perform special ‘abhishek’.

In Hinduism, the meaning of ‘Shravan’ is described as ‘to hear’. Supporting this, several Puranas and Upanishads advise that a person should engage in listening over speaking. One should listen, and observe the knowledge from inspiring talks, spiritual discourses and sermons, during this period, which would give many boons.

Legend has it that once sage Mrikandu Rishi and his wife Marudmati went into strict meditation to appease Lord Shiva for begetting a child. Impressed with their noble intention and efforts, Shiva blessed them with a boon to either have a highly-intellectual son with short life or a child with low intelligence but a longer life.

Both Mrikandu and Marudmati, chose a child with gifted qualities and short life. That is how Markandeya was born. Right from his childhood, Markandeya had a strong devotion towards Lord Shiva. When he was informed about Shiva’s boon, which would see him dying at an early age, he too started deeply meditating as a penance to Lord Shiva in front of a Shivlinga.

It is said, Markandeya started the penance on the day, Yamdoots (Messangers of Death) were supposed to take his life. Unable to interfere with his penance, Yamdoots failed to take him along, and after 30-days, Yamraj, the Lord of Death appeared himself to take Markandeya along with him.

Just as Yama sprung the noose towards Markandeya’s neck, it landed on Shivlinga by accident. This angered Lord Shiva and he immediately appeared in front of him attacking him for this offence of harming Shiva’s devotee while in his devotional act.

Therefore, this period of Shravan is believed to be the time when Lord Shiva dearly listens and helps all those who surrender themselves to him. Therefore, Shravan is observed for 30-days of this particular month, during which a devotee performs strict austerities, giving up on all the luxuries. The culmination is a ‘darshana’ of the  Lord Shiva at the holy shrine of Amarnath on the full moon day of Shraavan (Poornimashi).

Amarnath is one of the most famous pilgrimage destinations of India and is organized every year by the government of Jammu and Kashmir. The shrine has an important part to play in Hindu culture and is considered to be one of the holiest shrines.

The main cave is situated at a height of 12,756 ft from the sea level and remains covered with snow most of the year except for a short period of time in summer.

It is during this short interregnum every year that 'Amarnath Yatra' is undertaken to mark 'Pratham Pujan' which is believed to summon the blessings of Baba Amarnath and attracts a large number of devotees from all over the world. 

The Pilgrimage is even older than the Puranas. We learn from Shiv Mahapuran that it is here that Shanker Mahadev revealed to his consort goddess Parvati the secrets of immortality. A pair of pigeons casually overhearing the discourse attained immortal life.

These pigeons are observed nesting in the gorgeous facade of the splendid cave even today. Every summer several hundred thousand devout Hindus from across India arrive in the mountainous territory of Kashmir, to take part in an arduous pilgrimage to the reverred mountain shrine: the Amarnath Cave.

Although the existence of the Holy Cave has been mentioned in the Puranas, the popular story narrated by people about the re-discovery of this Holy Cave is of a shepherd named Buta Malik. The story goes like a saint gave Buta Malik a bag full of coal.

On reaching his home when he opened the bag, to his utter surprise and astonishment, he found that the bag was full of gold coins. This overwhelmed him with joy. He ran to thank the Saint. But the Saint had disappeared. Instead, he found The Holy Cave and the Ice Shiv Lingam. He announced this discovery to the villagers. Then onwards this Cave again became a sacred place of Pilgrimage.

The ancient epics narrate another story. The valley of Kashmir was a huge lake completely submerged under water. Rishi Kashyapa reclaimed the land of his own lake known as “Kashyap Mir” or “Kashyap Mar” to settle some of the people belonging to this rich Sarswat culture.

He had a big hole bored into the hillocks at Vara….now known as Baramula to drain the waters out of this huge lake. In this reclaimed land flourished a culture that was unmatched and unparalleled in the history of India, nay, the history of the world.

This land of sages, after a series of tumultuous changes, eventually became the Kashmir of today. Bhrigu Rishi is said to have passed through the reclaimed land while on a visit to The Himalayas. He is said to have been the first person to have had the Darshan of this Holy Cave. When people heard of the Lingam, Amarnath for them became Shiva's abode and a Centre of pilgrimage.

Since then, lakhs of devotees perform the pilgrimage through tough terrain and achieve eternal happiness. The traditional trek to Amarnath, in the month of Sharavan (July-August) has the devout flock to this incredible shrine, where the image of Shiva, in the form of a Lingam is formed naturally of an Ice Stalagmite, which is believed to wax and wane with the Moon's cycle. By its side are fascinating, two more Ice Lingams, that of Maa Parvati and of their son, Ganesha.

The shrine is over 5,000 years old and forms an important part of ancient Hindu mythology. The reference to Amar Nath can also be seen in the Nilamata Purana (v.1324), a 6th century Sanskrit text which depicts the religious and cultural life of early Kashmiris.

The pilgrimage to the holy cave has been described with full topographical details in the Bhringish Samhita and the Amarnath Mahatmya, both ancient texts said to have been composed even earlier.

References to Amarnath, are known to have also been made in historical chronicles like Kalhan’s Rajatarangini. In his Chronicle of Kashmir, a sequel to Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, Jonaraja relates that that Sultan Zainu’l-Abidin (1420-1470) paid a visit to the sacred tirtha of Amarnath while constructing a canal known as Shah Kol, on the left bank of the river Lidder (vv.1232-1234) . Several Western travellers’ accounts also leave no doubt about the fact that the holy cave has been known to people for centuries.

Legend also has it that once Maa Parvati asked Shiva to let her know why and when he started wearing the beads of heads (Mund Mala). Shiva answered that whenever she was born, He added one more skull in his beads. Upon hearing this Maa Parvati asked Lord Shiva why he was immortal and she had to keep on dying and being born again and again.

Lord Shiva said that this is due to the Amar Katha. Maa Parvati insisted to hear that Amar Katha and after endless persuasion Lord Shiva decided to narrate that story.

Before narrating the story, however, Lord Shiva started looking for an absolutely lonely place so that no living being could hear that Amar Katha except Maa Parvati.

He finally found the Amar Nath Cave. To reach there, He left all his belongings on the way like His bull Nandi at Pahalgam, His Moon at Chandanwari, His snakes at the banks of Lake Sheshnag, His son Ganesha at Mahagunas Parvat and at Panjtarni, He left his Five Elements (Earth, Fire, Water, Air and Sky).

After this, Lord Shiva entered this holy Amarnath Cave with Maa Parvati. Lord Shiva sat on the Deer Skin and took a samadhi. To further make sure that not even a single living being could hear the secret Amar Katha, He created a rudra named Kalagni and ordered him to set fire around the cave so that everything living around that place could be destroyed.

He then started narrating the story of immortality to Maa Parvati. But in spite of all these efforts, one egg remained protected under the deer skin on which the Lord was sitting. But it was considered as non-living. A pair of pigeons was born out of that egg and supposedly became immortal. Pilgrims can still see the pigeon pair while going towards the Amarnath Cave.

Another version is that while narrating Amar Katha to Goddess Parvati, Lord Shiva, who wanted to keep it a secret, left all his companions behind. When He finished the narration, He realized that Goddess Parvati had actually fallen asleep and a parrot was listening all this in the mean while. This infuriated the Lord and he threw his Trishul to kill the parrot. To save himself, the parrot entered the womb of the saint’s wife. The baby that was born later became a famous sage.

As stated earlier, Amarnath Cave is situated in a narrow gorge at the farther end of the Lidder Valley at an altitude of 3,888 m (12,760 ft) above sea level. The terrain is rugged and the climate makes it more of a penance to reach the pinnacle or the cave.

As you near the Cave, the oxygen content in the atmosphere also reduces, and causes breathing problems. The weather is chilly and even goes as low as -5 degree C.

There are frequent snow storms, and it is chilling cold. The devotees still trek the arduous route and battle the weather to pay their obeisance to the Lord. The original name of the tirtha yatra, was Amareshwara. It was later coined as Amarnath Yatra. This name is derived from the terms “Amar” and “Nath”; Amar meaning the Immortal and Nath refers to Lord Shiva, hence the name Amarnath.

Traditionally, a mace (Chhaddi) is carried from Srinagar in a procession of saints and sadhus. Since they would travel on foot, they would perform the jouney in stages by halting at various places during the nights to resume the journey the next day.

The itinerary was so drawn that the holy Mace would enter the holy cave on Sharvan Purnima. For others to reach Amarnath Cave, they would travel to Pahalgam either from Jammu (315 Km) or from Srinagar (96 km).

Take a bus or taxi from Jammu to reach Pahalgam or reach Srinagar by air and from there take a car, bus or taxi. From Pahalgam, devotees have to reach Chandanwari (16 km) and this distance can also be covered by using road transport.

Pilgrims can either camp at Pahalgam or Chandanwari, from where they would climb the height to reach Pissu Top that is believed to be formed by the dead bodies of Rakshas who were killed by Lord Shiva.

To reach at Sheshnag, pilgrims follow a steep incline. The entire route has untouched wild scenery with cascading stream on one side. The place got its name from the Seven Peaks.

The shape of the peaks resembles that of the head of the mythical snake. From Sheshnag one has to cover the steep height of 4.6 km to reach Panchtarni from where the Amarnath Cave is located at a distance of just 6 kms.

As there is no place to stay, pilgrims have to start their journey early in the morning so that they can come back to the base camp in time. The entire route is very beautiful. A helicopter service is also available from Pahalgam to Panchtarni during the yatra season.

There is another alternative route to Amarnath Cave via Baltal, from where  the Amarnath Cave is located at a distance of 14 kms.

The distance of Baltal from Jammu is about 400 kms and can be covered by taxi or bus. From there, pilgrims can either take ponies or travel on foot to cover the route to Amarnath. Though this route is much narrower and steeper than the one from Pahalgam, it can be completed just in one day with Baltal as the base camp.

The Shrine is managed by Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB), that was constituted by an Act of the Jammu & Kashmir State Legislature in 2000 with His Excellency the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir as its ex-officio Chairman.

The Amarnathji Shrine Board is responsible for the better management of the Shri Amarnathji Yatra, upgradation of facilities for holy pilgrims and matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.

Assisted by a Chief Executive Officer, who is normally a senior IAS officer and eight distinguished Board Members, the board is constantly working towards making this journey the most cherished one.

All in all, Amarnath Yatra is an experience in itself and one must visit this holy place at least once during one’s lifetime. Even reaching here is a great virtue.

Bhushan Lal Razdan, formerly of the Indian Revenue Service, retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh.

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