On Icy Trail of the Lord of Immortality (with Amanath Yatra video)


On Icy Trail
The Lord of Immortality

*-Gopinath Raina 

he recent unfortunate episode of hasty withdrawal of the allotment of forestland to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board is wholly unfortunate and unwarranted, to say the least. If anything, it speaks volumes for the political milieu in the country. The land was initially allotted to provide facilities for the pilgrims visiting the holy shrine every year with a specific mandate that the Shrine Board could use the land only for erecting temporary sheds to accommodate pilgrims. No permanent structures were envisaged, nor could the land be sold or mortgaged by the Shrine Board.

This decision is in sharp contrast to the manner in which the State and the Central Indian Governments treat religious minorities, especially Muslims whose shrines across India are being taken such good care, their Haj pilgrimages even subsidized, and Haj terminals built in airports and hospitals in Jeddah,

Significance of the Pilgrimage

Even as the country-wide protests against the revocation of the order of land allotment to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board are continuing, the religious and cultural importance of the most sacred of all the Hindu pilgrimages in the country is not lost on the devout and the millennia-old journey of faith to the holy cave of Amarnath is on.

The significance of the Amarnath Yatra, in the words of former governor of J&K, Mr. Jagmohan, lies in the fact “that it is an integrating force and goes far beyond the personal as it extends to the much larger issue of cultural unity and vision of India from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, and from Kathiawar to Kamrup.”

Concept of Siva in Hinduism

In Hinduism, particularly in the post-Vedic period of Indian history, Ishwara, the Supreme God, is portrayed as a combination of its three aspects-Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh-popularly known as the holy Trinity.

Brahma, the creator, is the fountain of knowledge and wisdom, Saraswati, the goddess of learning, being his consort. Abstract in nature, Brahma is hardly worshipped in any shrine or temple.

Vishnu, the preserver, lying on the coiled serpet, Shesha, in the cosmic ocean, is the embodiment of goodness and moral order. Vishnu or Narayana is the only deity of the Triad who, along with his consort, Lakshmi, is born on earth again and again to restore balance between the good and the evil.

The third deity of the Holy Trinity is Siva or Rudra, the destroyer. He lives a life of great austerity, wears tiger skin, and carries a trident and a dumroo, symbolizing Time. Legend has it that he swallowed the poison of life to save mankind and the gods. The half moon over his head and the river Ganga rising from his matted hair are supposed to reduce the effect of poison.

Always absorbed in meditation, He is also the NATARAJA, the cosmic dancer and is represented as the Sivalinga, the phallic symbol. His consort is Parvati, the beautiful daughter of the Himalayas.

In Kashmir Saivism, Siva represents the eternal process of creation and destruction. He is the subject and the object, experiencer as well as the experienced. His nature has primarily a two-fold aspect—immanent that pervades the universe and the transcendental, which is beyond the universal manifestation of time, space and form.

Sacred Pilgrimage spots

Siva is known to have made his home in the snowy expanse of the Himalayas, compelling his devout followers to make arduous pilgrimages to the sacred alpine spots like Mt. Kailash and Amarnath.

Down through the centuries, millions of people have journeyed to Amarnath cave, probably the most ancient and sacred place of worship in the northern Indian State of Jammu & Kashmir. It is at this cave site that Siva is said to have revealed the secret of life to his spouse, Parvati, on a full moon night.

It is on the full moon day in the bright half of the lunar month of Shravan that thousands gather at the cave in Lidder valley in Kashmir to offer prayers. The cave can be reached from Srinagar via Pahalgam as also from Baltal through a picturesque road across the mountains at a height of nearly four thousand meters in the Himalayas. The cave enshrines a naturally formed Ice-lingam, symbol of Lord Siva that waxes and wanes with the changing phases of Moon.

Historical Evidence

The origin of the pilgrimage has been described in a Sanskrit text of olden days, Bhringish Samhita. The cave site and the Ice Lingam were actually discovered by Bhringish Rishi himself.

Nilamata Purana mentions Amarnath cave along with the other places of pilgrimage in Kashmir. Poet-historian Kalhana points out in his Rajatarangini that the Hindu rulers of Kashmir Valley knew about the cave even earlier than 1000 BC. Jonaraja, in his chronicle, speaks of King Zain-ul-Abidin making a pilgrimage to the cave. A Persian Chronicler, Haider Malik, in his history of Kashmir from 1586 to 1627 has given graphic description of the Amarnath cave along with other places of importance in the Valley.

Village grocer sees the Lord

According to yet another legend, a village grocer, Sudha Wani by name, was once informed by the children in his locality about a person who used to come riding on a bull to play with them. Obviously curious, the grocer wanted to see such a person. He aspired to hold, if possible with the help of children, at least the bull’s tail as and when the person would appear next time. And, lo, the bull with the rider did come and the grocer did succeed in getting hold of the tail. The bull dragged the
grocer and then stopped a little distance away. Here, a Voice was heard asking the grocer for his wish.

Sudha Wani, a spiritual seeker that he was, expressed the desire to have darshan of the invisible person. The Voice asked him to come to Sheshanag on the eve of Shivaratri when he finally received the darshan of none other than Lord Siva Himself.

The story of Sudha Wani’s personal encounter spread far and wide in the Valley. Ever since every Kashmiri Hindu aspires to visit the holy cave to have darshan of Ice Lingam at least once before his/her death.

Re-discovery of the Cave

The route of the cave shrine that lay over mountains and glaciers had been forgotten due to the unsettled conditions in the Valley after the advent of Islam in 1339. The despotic Muslim rulers of Kashmir pushed Amarnath into the oblivion till the onset of Dogra rule when a shepherd named Malik re-discovered the cave. It is said that Malik was looking for his lost sheep when he sighted the cave and reported about it to the Pandits at Mattan.

There is another version of re-discovery of the cave by Malik. A wandering monk is believed to have given a sack of coal to Malik. On reaching home, he found, to his utter surprise, gold in place of coal in the sack. Overjoyed Malik rushed back to the spot where he had met the monk. Instead of finding the Sadhu, Malik made a chance discovery of the Amarnath cave.

No matter which version is correct, the fact remains that till date the descendants of Malik are entitled to a quarter share of the offerings received at the holy shrine during the Yatra season.

While re-discovery of the cave by Malik is by far the most popular and accepted version acknowledged by one and all, Swami Pranavananda, a well-known Himalayan Geographer, claims that the Amarnath cave was re-discovered 284 years back by a Kashmiri Pandit, Haridas Tiku.

Yatra Begins

The stage for Amarnath Yatra is set with the approach of the full moon night in the bright half of the lunar month of Shravan, which generally falls in the month of July-August every year,

A symbol of faith, cultural pride and national integration, the Yatra normally starts in a traditional manner from Srinagar in the form of a procession with the Head of Dashnami Akhada carrying the holy mace made of silver. Thousands of pilgrims, including holy men from all over India, join the procession, which takes five days to reach Pahalgam where the holy mace is placed on an altar at the local Gauri Shankar temple.

According to a legend woven around the significance of the holy mace a, Lord Siva gifted a scepter to Rishi Bhringish in response to his prayers for the safety of the pilgrims who used to be harassed by the demons. Ever since, the scepter, known as Chhari Mubarak, has been the symbol of protection of the pilgrims to the cave site.

In recent years, however, the safety of the Amarnath pilgrims has been threatened by the terrorists, aided and abetted by Pakistan from across the border. This year, too, the threat loomed large despite the security cover provided by the State government. Unfazed by the terrorist carnage, the devout have been making the pilgrimage every year in record numbers.
Journey of Faith

Pahalgam, the famous tourist resort of the Kashmir Valley, suddenly comes alive in July-August every year with a large tented township springing up to accommodate the thronging pilgrims and routine visitors. It is from here that the holy men, the devout and a variety of other people begin the 46-kilometer journey to the cave shrine.

One can see men and women, young and old, including even the infirm, gasping for breath and struggling to get a hold in the soft snow. A few even collapse during the strenuous journey that remains, by and large, a journey of faith, courage and conviction. For the Siva worshipping pilgrims, it is, of course, a spiritual experience par excellence.

The entire journey from Pahalgam is covered in four days with three night halts at Chandanwari, Sheshnag and Panchtarni. These three stretches involve trekking of roughly 13 kilometers each and finally a relatively short lap of 7 kilometers to the main shrine.

The first day’s trek to Chandanwari runs through the finest woodlands and along the Lidder stream, meandering against a rocky backdrop and breaking silence with its multi-syllable noise, that sounds so melodious to the ear.

After a night’s halt at Chandanwari, the pilgrims leave the tree line behind, while climbing the idyllic Pissu Ghati, rather a difficult climb and indeed a test of one’s nerves. Each mountain rock is awe-inspiring, carved as it is by nature’s deft hands without any tools. Nature at its best, one could say.

Pissu pass leads to Zojibal and another five kilometers away to the bare 3171-meter high plateau of Wavjan (Genie of the Wind), which is notorious for its strong winds and torrents.
Blue Glacial Lake of Sheshnag

En-route down below Wavjan lies the glacial lake-Sheshnag (3570 meters) with its sprawling deep Prussian blue waters, at once clean and icy-cold. The placid lake is ravishingly beautiful.

When the sun looks in the mirror of Sheshnag with the towering snowy peaks silhouetting the border of the Lake, the effect is gorgeous with divine chiaroscuro. Since Sheshnag is associated with the seven-headed mythical snake on which Vishnu, one of the holy Trinity, reclines, the devotees take a dip before marching onwards to brave the steep 5-kilometer climb up the dizzying heights of 4350 meter high peak known as Mahagunas (the great serpent).

To the students of history, Sheshnag is the symbol of Kashmir’s pre-historic past when the whole Valley was a huge lake, known as Satisar whose waters were drained off by one Kashyap Rishii by making a cut in the mountains.
Trek to Panchtarni

From Mahagunas peak, the track goes down and wades through wild flower meadows, called Poshpathar, with such intense and intoxicating scents that the pilgrims are warned not to linger too long, lest they swoon amidst the variety of fascinating myriad-colored flowers.

The route continues to dip till the pilgrims reach Panchtarni, so called because of the confluence of five streams. It is a glacial Valley, turned into a lush green meadow with an abundance of camping sites. Whatever physical strain one may have experienced in the ascent to Mahagunas peak gives way to a sense of joy at the downhill trek to Panchtarni.
The Cave Shrine

The final lap of about 7 kilometers from Panchtarni to the cave shrine is performed in the early house of the full moon day (Poornima) of the bright half of the liunar month of Shravana.

The huge natural cave (15 meters long, 17 meters wide and 14 meters high at the center) is in the midst of a mountain amphitheatre and seems to have been carved out of limestone by elemental forces.

Before entering the mystic environs of the cave (3880 meters), the pilgrims take a holy dip in the Amravati, a tributary of Panchtarni Nala, which in turn flows into the Sindh river, a major tributary of the river Jehlum. The snow-fed Amravati cascades from the west of the cave. The pilgrims rub Amarboot, a chalky compound consisting of chloride or sulphate of calcium, all over their bodies in preparation of one of the finest sights of supernatural glory, the magnificent Ice-Lingam formed by water dripping through the lime-stone roof of the cave.
Unparalleled Phenomenon

The manifestation of a complete Lingam on a full moon day is mind-boggling, a phenomenon without a parallel. It is believed to wane and wax with the phases of the Moon. The Ice-Lingam is a sight of unmatched serenity when calm and tranquility descends of the mind and time stands still.

Interestingly, very near the main Lingam, there are three more Ice-Lingams (albeit smaller), representing Siva Parivar-Siva, Parvati and Ganesha. Of these stalagmite formulations, only the main one is regarded as one of the 12 Jyotirlingas, resplendent cosmic pillars, spread all over India.

The devotees bow in wonder, blow conch-shells, sing melodious prayers and the words Har Har Mahadev (Victory to Lord Siva) rent the air. The devout feel doubly blessed if they get a glimpse of a pair of snow pigeons who, legend has it, had eavesdropped when Lord Siva was explaining the secrets of life to his consort, Parvati, at the cave site. For the faithful, the pigeons are the incarnations of Siva and Parvati.

Continuing Spiritual Presence

Thus ends the trail to Lord Siva’s icy abode, Amarnath that has kept the fire of spirituality burning in the hearts of the people. One finds in the cave shrine the very soul of India lay bare in its innate beauty.

Swami Vivekananda who visited the shrine in 1898 AD exclaimed in ecstatic mood: “I never had been to anywhere so beautiful, so inspiring”. Long after, Swami’s mystical experience was recalled by his disciple, Sister Nivedita when she said, “never had the Swami felt such a spiritual exultation. So saturated had he become with the presence of the great god that for days after the visit to the cave site Swami could speak of nothing else but Siva.”

Yet another great savant, Swami Ram Tirath who hailed from Punjab, said after his visit to the holy cave at Amarnath: “On entering the cave I was in full ecstasy, tasted the sweet nectar and was overwhelmed with eternal divine bliss.”
Amarnath Yatra Video

A journalist by profession, a scholar by temperament and a writer by choice, Gopinath Raina was inclined to the study of religion from his very young age. It was Swami Vivekananda’s dynamic exposition of Hindu thought that fired his imagination while he was still at school, and by the time he entered college, he had been drawn to the writings of Gandhi, Aurobindo, Narayana Guru, Radhakrishnan and Bertrand Russel.

After retiring from Indian Information Service (I.I.S.) in 1983 where he distinguished himself as an editor, correspondent, commentator and administrator in All India Radio, he edited, AICC Journal, Varnika, (Jan.'84-Dec.'90), Koshur Samachar (March'91-Oct '95, Sanatana Sandesh,(1997-2005) and KASHEER (2003-2004),

He has been writing profusely on various aspects of Hindu thought. He enjoys writing, particularly on saints and sages, not only of Kashmir, but of the other parts of India as well. Presently he lives in Miami, and spends his time writing personal memoirs.

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