Amarnath – An unforgettable journey

  It was an usual evening at the holy abode of Shiva and Parvati. They were in a deep post-dinner discussion, snacking on betel leaves sweet paans when Parvati chose to ask the question that has been nagging her for some time. 

As the Shakthi, the supreme Maya, She makes everything move, change and transform in this world between the two extremities of birth and death. She herself has incarnated as Sati, Uma, Meenakshi and in many other uniting with the immortal Shiva every single time. In fact, Shiva had told her that he adds a skull to his garland every time She incarnates and he already had a long one.

How does He do it? What is immortality? How can something remain unchangeable through eons unperturbed by the sway of Her power? And so she asked.

Thus starts the legend of Amarnath. 

Such a serious topic was not to be discussed among the million Ganas and other paraphernalia in Kailash. So Shiva decided to take Parvati to a secluded place where He would reveal the mystery of immortality. 

The famed Amarnath yatra pretty much traces the path Shiva and Parvati took to reach a place so desolate it doesn’t look fit for any life. There, deep inside a cave, a natural stalagmite forms in the shape of a Shiv Ling and it is this ice Ling that is the ultimate objective of the lakhs of pilgrims who make the treacherous trip across the icy mountains.

 

Lidder River with medical tents for Yatra in the foregriound
 The yatra starts at the picturesque Pahalgam where the legend has it that Shiva left his bull. The bull wouldn’t have complained given that Pahalgam is lush green valley with bubbling emerald green Lidde river flowing through it. Pahalgam is one official starting point to start the Amarnath trek. The journey to the Amarnath cave from here is 45 km long and takes three days by foot. The other starting point is Baltal which is 14 km to the cave, but Pahalgam route is the easier and more picturesque one and hence more popular with the pilgrims. We made the trip in Aug first week by when the number of pilgrims visiting Amarnath had already decreased to less than 4000, but the place was buzzing with activity with people arriving by buses and all kinds of transport form all over India. Military presence was conspicuous and there were additional CRPF personnel stationed to assist the pilgrims.

We were not making the journey by foot but were going to take the helicopter. After security checks and a last minute running around at 8 AM to get printouts of our helicopter tickets, we reached the helipad 30 min late. As our luck would have it, the weather had turned foggy and helicopter service had been stopped until weather would clear up. As the clock ticked and fog didn’t show any signs of clearing up, all that the man at the registration counter could say pointing his fingers at the sky was, “Bab kisko bulayega sirf Baba hi jaanta hai”. (Only God knows whom He will call to visit Him)

Tales of people stuck camping near the cave for two nights in a row as the helicopter couldn’t take off due to bad weather started pouring in. There were occasional remarks that the Shiv Ling had already melted completely and there was nothing left to see. 

The drama came to an end at noon when the helicopter service resumed, first ferrying back those who had been stuck near the cave for two nights. The folks who returned also confirmed our worst fears – the ice Ling had indeed completely melted. Well, we had little choice at that point but to carry on. After all pilgrimages are more about the journey than the destination.

As far as pilgrimages go, Amarnath is a luxurious one. There are warm comfortable tents available at every camp site and Bhandaras serving free food and drinks along the way. 

I would probably love to do the entire journey on foot but that ten minute ride in the helicopter was totally worth it due to the views it offered; views worth dying for.

I am not sure if Shiva and Parvati made the journey by foot or if they flew in one of the legendary vimanas of folk lore, but today’s pilgrims usually drive to the first camp site at Chandanwari. The word “Chandan” means moon and this indicates the point where Shiva left His moon behind. From there on every stop along the way has a lore associated with it.

The next stop Shiva made was at Sheshnag where He left the snake he wears around his neck. 

Sheshnag was breathtaking. The picture below does not do justice to what I saw, but the seven mountain peaks above the lake literally looked like a snake’s hood.  

View of Sheshnag

We then passed the Mahagunas Top, where Shiva apparently left his son, the elephant headed God Ganesha.

We finally landed at Panchtarni, the clearing where five rivers flow, symbolizing the five elements Shiva left behind at that point.

 
Amarnath trek is not for the faint hearted. Even if one managed it the easy way until this point by taking the helicopter, the 6 km trek from Panchtarni to the cave is a steep one. The journey gets more difficult because one, your body has had no chance to acclimatize to the cold weather and less oxygen, so you are huffing and puffing compared to those who reached there by foot; two with all the melting snow and horses going non-stop up and down the path the narrow trail is slushy and slippery. 

 
Seeing the crowd on a lean day, I could not imagine what the place would have looked like when it had a footfall of 20000 pilgrims a day.

Here again, we couldn’t make the journey on foot as part of our group were going on dolis (chairs tied to bamboo sticks carried by four men) and we had to keep pace with them. So we opted for horses which ended  up being a blessing in disguise because we were able to finish the darshan by 4 pm and hitch a ride back in the last helicopter the same day.

The horses have a mind of their own and your safety is not exactly their top priority. So it was an adventure in itself going up that terrain on a horseback. (Why are saddles not equipped with seat belts?!) 

While the 6km took one hour, the last leg which was hardly a km and had to be covered by foot (only dolis are allowed till the cave) took us a whole hour as our lungs struggled to breathe in the oxygen needed. The walk starts from below the tents in the picture, zig zagging up and across the final 300 steps. The Army men along the way cheer you up and resuscitate from time to time with warm water and somehow we finally made it.

  
Finally, the cave

But I should say, it was one desolate place. It is quite believable that Shiva should choose a location like this. Surrounded by barren rock faces, with no signs of life except the few pigeons that keep flying overhead, path covered by layers and layers of snow, it does look far away from civilization. However the serenity of the place is being destroyed rapidly by the increasing footfall and junk being strewn everywhere! not to mention devotees throwing rice and coins into the cave.

The pigeons also have a story to them. While Shiva took all precautions to leave everything behind, he failed to notice the two pigeons nesting above the cave. The pigeons became immortal after they accidentally overheard the secrets Shiva shared. 

When we reached the cave, the glorious stalagmit had indeed melted. There was a blob of ice to the right of the location which was supposed to symbolize Parvati. And there were pigeons, not one but seven. 

Having done the darshan, we walked back, found our horses and after another hour of holding on to our lives on the horseback, we reached in time to make it to the last but one helicopter trip. 

Will I do it again? Will I recommend this to others? I don’t know. But if you are interested, here are some Do’s and Dont’s.

Do:

  • Start an exercise regimen at least two months before the trip. You should able to do a brisk walk for at least 5 km
  • Register before hand. If you are going by foot, you have to register through the shrine wenpbsite. If you are taking the helicopter, the helicopter ticket includes registration
  • Get your medical clearance certificate without fail
  • If you have booked helicopter tickets, then carry a print out of the ticket
  • Carry proper raincoats and warm clothing. The weather is extremely unpredictable and you will see rain, snow and sun shine within a few hours
  • Pack enough for an overnight stay at Panchtarni. This is a possibility if the weather takes a bad turn
  • If you would like to see the Ice Ling, plan your trip in the first three weeks of July. But beware that this also tends to be the most crowded period
  • Abide by all the rules posted on the website and during the yatra. Make it easy for the army personnel

Points to note

  • Horses will not take you all the way to the steps, but will drop you far away. If you want to be dropped near the steps, talk to your horse-wala. You need army permission to get dropped near the steps. This can be easily obtained by talking to one of the army folks.
  • Pay only the fixed rate for horses and Pallakis. Do not bargain for less or agree to pay more.
  • Pallakis are supposed to take yatris all the way to the cave for Darshana. But they try to drop the passenger off at the bottom of the steps and charge extra money for going up the steps. Be careful and ensure that old people are carried all the way to the cave.
  • You cannot carry your cell phone or camera into the cave. But there are no proper places to drop them off.  You are at the mercy of your guide or one of the shops.

Don’t

  • Carry flashlights with cells. Battery cells will be confiscated at the Security check
  • Throw plastic bottles or wrappings. Carry your trash back
  • Take anything more than what you absolutely need. The lesser to carry the better it is
  • Cheat your way through medical clearance. Your health condition needs to be suitable for the High altitude. The homepage of the shrine website displays a link to the list of deceased yatris in addition to other information. 
  • Attempt to do the yatra in a saree. 

Resources

  1. Shrine official website – Comprehnesive and up to date information on the yatra. Also contains links to book Helicopter tickets, list of doctors to get medical clearance certificate from and the format of the medical certificate 
  2. Sandeepa and Chetan’s Travel blog – One of the best written blogs on doing this pilgrimage by foot. Great pictures. Don’t miss the comments section where they share a lot of details about the trip

P.S. Not all photographs in this blog are mine. I was too scared that my phone will slip and get treated on while on the horseback to take any pictures; and we were prohibited from taking pictures while on the helicopter.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Annu says:

    Awesome writing Maggie. I had the pleasure of experiencing the journey as if I did personally. Great recommendation of dos and donts and resources for the future pilgrims.

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