Trekking to the Sacred Caves of Amarnath (1997)

Trekking to the Sacred Caves of Amarnath (1997)
A frequent traveller learns to expect the unexpected in practically every journey. Even so, the Amarnath yatra is not without surprises. If you think the sheer location of the sacred cave, its remoteness and itsrelative inaccessibility would make for a quiet, contemplative trek through panoramic terrain, perish the thought. The route is crowded with pilgrims, traders, porters, ponywallahs and the ubiquitous security men swarming like ants escaping from a disturbed anthill. But that is not all. The attendant garbage that carpets the path all the way up to the sacred cave is seen to be believed. The Lidder river, which must have been a gurgling and cheerful mountain stream not long ago, is now a filthy drain choked by tetrapaks, plastic potato wafer wraps and a myriad items of refuse left by the pilgrims. Here, piety comes with a stiff price tag paid by the ambient environment!
The drive from Pahalgam to Chandanwari is picturesque, with stately pines and winding pathways. The stream that accompanies you is full of pebbles and boulders where your fellow yatris stop and pose for photographs. You move in a convoy for the sake of security and from time to time, the otherwise restrained yatris petition the almighty in chorus. As if in communion, vehicle horns join the chorus and you have a cacophony that rents the serene silence of the hills. At Chandanwari, you’re greeted by a confusion of fluttering buntings, banners, festoons and prayer flags incongruously juxtaposed with metal detector frames. Religious organizations of assorted affiliations vie with each other to greet you and inform you of the arrangement s they have made en route to facilitate your pilgrimage. And they insist on feeding you with jalebis, laddus and pooris and an assortment of sick looking eatables which guarantee you an extra day along the way necessitated by your abused digestive system.
There is merchandise galore at Chandanwari mostly of the religious variety. Idols, photo frames, trinkets, rings, Amarnath memorabilia strewn all along the hillside. Hundreds of stalls have sprung up that do brisk business in plastic wrapped prasad, rudrakshas and incense burners. The Sadhus with their matted hair, flowing beard and skimpy clothes march briskly, unmindful of the biting cold and the incessant rain even as you shiver through three layers of woolens over your thermal wear. Portly old ladies in their crisp Kota sarees and decked with jewellery hobble along in palanquins while their menfolk cling clumsily to the saddle of ponies half their size.
As you trek towards Sheshnag, your first halt along the route to the holy cave, you have to cross Pissu Top which, at 11,000 feet, offers you a magnificient view of the valley. The trek from the Top is more or less on level ground and you walk single file along a narrow path cut along the hillside. Your bladder groans, after all the tetrapak drinks you consumed along the way from Pahalgam, but even nature seems to conspire to keep you in discomfort. The path is narrow, crowded and the shrubbery, sparse. You have no choice, but to move on.
Suddenly through the drizzle, you’re dazzled by a magnificient rainbow bridging a snow range. A little while later, a brilliant sun peeks out of a chubby cloud and the valley below is bathed in its golden light. What is remarkable about the Amarnath yatra is the fellowship one experiences all along the way. The pilgrims may come from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, from a retired army colonel from Nainital to a doctor from Meerut to a young boy who works as an usher in a remote rural cinema hall in Madhya Pradesh. There is a feeling of community as the yatris willingly share their packet of bujiya, a bottle of water or their crocin tablets. Bhola Ram has traveled all the way from Ujjain leaving his wife to look after his aged parents back home. If he completes the pilgrimage successfully, he is confident that his son would get a Sarkari job. Phoolwanti hopes her asthma would clear once she has had darshan of the holy lingam. Then there is the omnipresence of cops, jawans, BSF constables and other uniformed men sent by the administration to facilitate your journey. They are ever solicitous of your welfare, gently encouraging you to go on, regaling you with tales of Shiva, Vishnu, Lakshmi and the assortment of Hindu gods and goddesses. You may have set out alone on this yatra, but you’re never lonely.
Your first stop in the trek is Sheshnag, a dazzling jewel of a lake watched over by seven snow peaks at a height of 11,000 feet. The air is crisp, if a bit short of oxygen. The serene jade waters reflect the surrounding mountains so vividly that the scene looks surreal. Pilgrims believe that the lake shelters the mythological seven -headed serpent. A glimpse of this serpent would release the fortunate from the cycle of rebirth. Unmindful of the cold and the sleet, there are groups of pilgrims keeping a patient vigil alongside the lake. You’re told that several pilgrims even stay up all night so as not to miss the appearance of the serpent. You move on to the campsite where you’re greeted literally by a vast sea of tents and people. The site resembles a mela ground and there are langars galore offering you a variety of ethnic foodstuffs that would put Dilli Haat to shame! Your stay in the tent is comfortable, with a blazing bukhari and a warm razaai.
Next morning you resume your ascent towards the Mahagunas Pass, the highest on the route. At 13,800 feet, your lung groans and demands a little more oxygen. The ground is slippery. It must have been a glacier in its avatar prior to the start of the pilgrimage, but now is one vast muddy, slippery, slushy expanse. Progress is painfully slow. A glimpse over the hillside offers a scary spectacle of a deep plunge strewn with corpses of careless ponies. In this stretch, few people ride on their ponies, preferring to muddle through the churned up slush rather than risk life and climb on an unsteady pony.
The 12 kilometers from Sheshnag takes you virtually all day and all your will power. By evening you’re in Panchtarni, your next halt. This camp is much smaller than Sheshnag because the holy cave is just 6 kilometers away and people prefer to plod on. You decide to stay back and savour the incredibly beautiful mountain scenery to which the devout pilgrims seem oblivious, their sights set on the holy cave. Panchtarni derives its name from the five rivulets that are fabled to have originated from Shiva’s hair to mingle at the foot of the Bhairav Mountain.
Next morning, as you trek towards the holy cave which is visible miles away, you come across the confluence of the Amravati and Panchtarni rivers. The waters promise to be icy cold, but that doesn’t seem to deter the devout who plunge into it with screams of ‘Bum Bum Bole’ and ‘Om Namasivaya’. A pair of doves spotted at the entrance to the cave sends the pilgrims into a rapturous chorus of ‘Jai Bhole Nath’. For, according to mythology, when Siva and Parvati were headed towards Mount Kailash, they rested in this very cave and that Siva narrated the story of creation to Parvati. The doves are believed to have been privileged witnesses to this narration. At last, you’re at the entrance to the cave. There are more security men than pilgrims swarming all over the cave site and you’re pushed and shoved just as it happens in most other religious sites in this country.
The metal detectors are everywhere, striking a note of incongruity and the security men gently urge you to keep moving. And finally, the moment of reckoning, as you catch a glimpse of the deity. The ice lingam is a stalagmite structure, about two feet tall and is plump because it is the waxing cycle of the moon. The entrance to the cave is festooned with thousands of registration cards of the yatris. You leave yours also there, so that the Lord registers your arduous trek upto his remote dwelling.
(Published in Frontline dated ??)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *