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Special Feature: Nearly a Million Climb to 13,000 Feet to Worship in Siva's Ice Cave
Category : April/May/June 2013

S P E C I A L   F E A T U R E

Nearly a Million Climb to 13,000 Feet to Worship in Siva’s Ice Cave

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Hindus in ever-increasing numbers make the strenuous yearly trek high into the mountains of Kashmir

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Destination: Pilgrims first glimpse the sacred cave (center, in the cliff) as they approach the tent city at its base; (inset) artist’s rendering of the ice Sivalingam
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EACH SPRING WHEN THE SNOW ABOVE AMARNATH CAVE begins to melt, some of it finds its way into the chamber beneath. There it refreezes in a huge ice stalagmite as tall as 14 feet. To Hindus, this is an auspicious Swayambhu Sivalingam, a naturally created murti, as worshipful as the most sacred Deity in any of India’s great temples. It is a cherished pilgrimage destination.

In 2012 some 700,000 pilgrims worshiped at the remote cave, almost 13,000 feet above sea level. The majority took the short route from Baltal, many by helicopter, but nearly half hiked 27 kilometers through the rugged mountains from Nunwan Base Camp outside Chandanwari.

Documenting this pilgrimage in a devotional and insightful manner has been a longtime goal of Hinduism Today. Last year we assigned our Delhi correspondent, Rajiv Malik, and photographer Sudharak Olwe of Mumbai to personally undertake the long, hard trek from Nunwan. They interviewed dozens of participants, from Hindu pilgrims and government officials to Muslim shopkeepers and pony wallahs without whom the pilgrimage would be impossible. It was a grueling ordeal for the city-based team, who suffered greatly from the altitude and exposure to the sun, wind and cold. Here is their report of this extraordinary adventure.

BY RAJIV MALIK, NEW DELHI

PLANS FOR OUR PILGRIMAGE TO AMARNATH Cave are in their infancy when a raging controversy erupts over the dates. Several prominent Hindu organizations want the start date moved to the beginning of June. They want to allow more days for the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to reach the holy cave and worship at the natural ice Sivalingam which manifests there each year. Citing pilgrims’ safety, the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board and the Jammu and Kashmir State Government prevail. The high-altitude trek is scheduled to start in late June after the weather has improved.

Photographer Sudharak Olwe and I have been instructed to opt for the full pilgrimage experience on foot, trekking 27 kilometers from Chandanwari. For the return, we will take the short route, 14 km to Baltal and back to Srinagar. Many pilgrims these days go to Baltal and take a helicopter to within a short distance of the cave, but we want to join the throng walking the long route. Then we would stay several days in Srinagar for interviews, especially with Chari Mubarak Mahant, whose lineage is long associated with the pilgrimage.

Preparations

Our first hurdle is obtaining official permission to cover the pilgrimage as journalists—and to photograph the ice Sivalingam, which is normally prohibited. There is no formal system for getting accreditation, but finally our friend Tarun Vijay helps connect us with Sri Navin Choudhary, private secretary of the governor of Jammu and Kashmir and CEO of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, who assures us of all needed assistance. This executive help, and some divine intervention, will enable us to fulfill our mission, even getting pictures at the holy cave.

The yatra’s official website, amarnathyatra.org, contains all the information needed, including how to register, how to prepare, what to wear and carry—even how to optimize the spiritual benefit of the pilgrimage: keep a pious mind and chant “Om Namah Shivaya” all the way.

As recommended, I improve my physical condition by walking a hour daily for more than a month in advance. After speaking with a dozen people who have made the journey before, I make a detailed list of the items we need—mostly basic trekking supplies such as shoes, woolens and hats. These can be obtained dearly at the adventure-tourist stores, or reasonably at the shops in Delhi’s military cantonment area.

By the first week of May, the yatra dates are finalized: the 39 days from June 25 to August 2. Now we can book tickets and proceed with registration through the Jammu and Kashmir Bank, which is authorized by the Shrine Board to issue permits for a nominal fee of 15 rupees. One can also register online or at designated post offices.

We engage a travel agency, Enjoy Unlimited in Jammu, to arrange ticketing and local transport from Srinagar to Pahalgam and then back from Batal to Srinagar. A guide will accompany us on the yatra. Lodging, meals, pony transport, etc., cannot be arranged in advance but must be handled on the spot. The guides’ help was invaluable, especially after both Sudharak and I began to suffer from altitude sickness.

Arrival in Kashmir

I land in Srinagar on June 28. The city is tense following the unsolved burning of a famous ancient Muslim dargah which enshrined a Sufi saint. Worried that violence could break out the next day, Friday, when the issue is bound to come up at the collective prayers, I leave early for Pahalgam and cover the 94 km in a few hours’ time.

Big posters, billboards and banners welcome pilgrims to the holy Amarnath pilgrimage. These are put up by the Indian Army and paramilitary forces and by the organizations running the huge bhandaras or langars, the free feeding establishments located all along the yatra route. I check into the Hotel Senator Pine and Peak, appreciating the lush natural surroundings of the area, then savor lunch at the vegetarian restaurant Dana Pani. Its manager, Narinder Singh, tells me his business actually suffers during the yatra: most pilgrims opt for the free bhandaras, and tourists stay away from this popular hill resort to avoid the deluge of pilgrims.

That afternoon I go to the huge Nunwan Base Camp run by the Shrine Board just outside town. It is the launch point for pilgrims taking the long foot route to the cave. Heavily fenced with barbed wire, the camp resembles a military compound. (Muslim insurgents have attacked the pilgrimage in the past.) Hundreds of public and private vehicles are parked outside the gates. Entering, I pass through metal detectors where my belongings are searched by security forces. The scene is like the major Kumbha Melas, just on a smaller scale.

The day is bright and sunny, and the entire camp bustles with activity. Pilgrims stream in from all corners of India—youth with bags hanging on their backs, and elderly folk balancing luggage on their heads. Some 7,000 pilgrims a day pass through here. Most spend the night in tents for a nominal fee; some opt for a hotel in town. Pilgrims who have not yet registered can do so here and get medical checkups as needed. The biggest rush is for mobile phone connection cards, but all who buy one are disappointed: the cards never worked during the pilgrimage, not even in Pahalgam. And the connection is valid for just seven days, making it a complete waste of money.

A huge market comprising hundreds of tent-shops offers everything a pilgrim might need for the tough journey ahead. Shoes, caps, sticks, raincoats, jackets—you name it and they have it. The quality is low and the prices high, but there is no dearth of buyers. My supplies are much better, but I had to run all over Delhi to find them.

Adjacent to the shops are the famous feeding stations. Manned mostly by volunteers, they offer a wide variety of delicious food choices, paid for with donations collected year-round in the big cities. Free feeding places can be found at many pilgrimage sites and at the Kumbha Melas, but nothing to compare with these spectacular meals. Most of the organizers are connected to the catering business in their regular life, and they run the operation expertly. There are bhandaras all along the route to the cave, even at the highest elevations, providing complimentary meals for the complete duration of three or four days. Many of my fellow pilgrims are traveling on a total budget of under Rs. 10,000 (us$182), including transport to and from their home town. This is possible mainly because of the free food.

Auspicious and delicious: Pilgrims line up for a lavish meal at a festive Nunwan Camp bhandara; (below) pilgrimage map

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Durga Das, 55, has come from Maharashtra in a group of 85, taking the pilgrimage for the eighth time. “I am illiterate and work in a steel mill. I am a very poor man, but my family and friends help me. Once you are passionate about this pilgrimage, nothing can stop you from coming.”

I return to Nunwar Camp in the evening with photographer Sudharak Olwe, who was delayed by inclement weather in Mumbai. At 8pm the place overflows with pilgrims who will spend the night in the tent facilities provided by the Shrine Board and start off in the morning to the cave. I stop at the medical tent and learn that my blood pressure is alarmingly high—the first sign that this yatra may not go easily. I am given medicine to reduce the pressure. If I take this pilgrimage again, I will definitely spend two or three days at Pahalgam to calm down from the hectic travel and adjust to the altitude.

Late in the evening we meet the camp director, Amit Sharma, an official of the Kashmir Administrative Services. He explains the daily priority is to get the pilgrims into the government-provided vehicles and on their way to Chandanwari starting from 5 am. From there they proceed on foot or ponyback. They should arrive at the first night’s camp, Sheshnag, by 6pm at the latest, as the weather can turn at any time. “Everywhere people are walking on snow. At many places the tented accommodation itself is on the snow.”

Beginning the Trek: a Steep and Muddy Challenge for Man and Pony Alike

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The trek starts off easily enough, following the valley floor, but pilgrims soon encounter this steep and muddy climb to Pissu Top; (below) pilgrims are let through in batches at the starting checkpoint—a total of six to seven thousand a day

Yatra Voices: Mahant Deependra Giri, Keeper of the Chari Mubarak

Mahant Deependra Giri, popularly known as Chari Mubarak Swami Amarnath Ji, is the current representative of the guru lineage responsible for the beginning and ending of the Amarnath Yatra. He was interviewed by Rajiv Malik at his Srinagar headquarters.

THE STORY OF AMARNATH IS THAT MOTHER PARVATI HAD REQUESTED Lord Siva to narrate to Her the Amar Katha, after listening to which a human being is liberated from the cycle of birth and death. Bhagwan Shankar wanted to locate a secluded place where no unauthorized person could overhear. He proceeded upwards into the mountains, leaving His bull Nandi at Pahalgam, and told the Amar Katha to Parvati at the cave. Later, at Pissu Top there was a demon who used to harass pilgrims, and legend has it that Rishi Bhringish, with the blessings of Lord Siva, used these charis (sticks) to destroy that evil force. These sticks since then are known as Chari Mubarak, the holy mace of Lord Siva. The cave and pilgrimage route are mentioned in the scripture Bhringish Samhita written by the rishi.

If we go by the story, the pilgrimage has a history of over five thousand years. If we go to Maharaja Hari Singh’s time, 150 years ago, there is official recorded history of it. It is commonly said that one Buta Malki discovered the cave in the 19th century. I would say he rediscovered this yatra which already existed.

This was always a snow-laden area, and it was never easy to undertake this pilgrimage. Long ago there would be 25 or 50 and then 100 or 200 pilgrims who would be undertaking this yatra. I remember in 1986 the figure of pilgrims was 26,000. For a long time it was marveled that such a large number of people had undertaken it. This time, the very second day the total number of pilgrims who had darshan at the holy cave exceeded twenty thousand. Then on June 26 alone over thirty thousand pilgrims had darshan at the cave.

Kashmir has always been a center of Saivism. This is a land of divinity and spirituality. Even the Muslim community here start their spiritual activities early in the morning. For sure, there were disturbances and the situation was not good for some time. However, things have improved now. Overall the atmosphere here is charged with spiritual energy. Anyone who wants to pursue meditation or devote time to study the scriptures will find the atmosphere here favorable for such activities.

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Mahant Deependra Giri, who is responsible for the ceremonial beginning and ending of the pilgrimage with the two Chari Mubarak—the sacred silver staffs to his left and right—as they were taken to the cave in 2012
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There is a whole chain of our predecessors from whom I received the Chari Mubarak. They are two sticks encased in silver cases to preserve them properly. We took the Chari Mubarak to Pahalgam on Ashadh Purnima, July 3, to mark the formal beginning of the yatra, then returned here. Late in July we will take the Chari Mubarak along the traditional route which you took, arriving at the holy cave on August 2, Shravan Purnima, to mark the end of the yatra. By that time, after 700,000 pilgrims have been to the cave, the Sivalingam will have melted away. So unfortunately, unlike in the past, not many people want to accompany the Chari Mubarak to the cave.

It is a matter of great concern for us that elderly people and small children are being allowed to undertake this arduous pilgrimage. In the ten days of pilgrimage so far (in 2012) thirty lives have been lost. Each yatri is supposed to obtain a medical certificate, but this is not being done properly, or not done at all. I think the people managing the show must monitor this more minutely and make people aware of the hazards they face in such high-altitude areas. They must clearly explain to them the do’s and don’ts for the yatra. We have to ensure that lives are not lost in such a big way.

If a person has been given a good religious upbringing by his family and his ancestors have been devotees of Lord Siva, whether he is in India or anywhere else in the world, when news comes about the Amarnath Yatra, he naturally wants to go. Not just the physically fit youth undertake this yatra. I have also seen aged people carrying their own luggage. When approached by others to carry their luggage, they refuse help and carry it by themselves. Because of their high level of dedication, they are able to do this and complete the yatra on their own. My own personal belief is that anyone filled with faith and devotion can undertake this yatra. But while they may be mentally ready, they must prepare on the physical level.

My message to the Hindus all over the world is that those who have undertaken this yatra already are lucky and blissful. But those who have not must pray to God to create the circumstances and means so they can at least once in their life undertake this pilgrimage to the holy cave and have the darshan of Lord Siva who manifests Himself in the form of a naturally formed ice Sivalingam.

In past years, Sharma says, retired officials were called into service to manage the camp, but this year it was decided to assign active, top-level, experienced officers.

He praises the bhandaras. “They are full of enthusiasm, even pulling people in asking them to have food. There is dancing and chants of Lord Siva. The level of excitement is worth experiencing. The tradition of bhandaras seems to be as old as the yatra itself. The food is not only free, it is of the highest quality.” This is a service not seen elsewhere in India.

Sharma shares, “My duty is to manage the people here at Nunwan Camp. Performing this duty in a dedicated manner is a part of my devotion to the Lord. I have personally gone on this pilgrimage twice. It was an amazing experience. Standing before the ice Sivalingam, I forgot I was a part of this world. You simply feel as if you are a part of the divinity which Lord Siva has spread across the world.”

We leave the camp near midnight, driven back to Pahalgam by our tired and very unhappy taxi wallah. We pay him handsomely for detaining him so late. It is our first encounter with a stark contrast in the Amarnath pilgrimage. For thousands of local Kashmiri Muslims, this is pure business. It is their livelihood, and they typically do not accept the rates published for their services by the Shrine Board. This leads to some heated misunderstandings with the yatris. In contrast, the bhandaras provide free food to hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.

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These pilgrims are risking their lives by taking this shortcut near Pissu Top
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The Pilgrimage Begins

We check out of our hotel in the morning and reach Chandanwari at 11 am. As we approach, we hear shouting among the drivers. There has been a stone-pelting skirmish between the security forces and the taxi drivers right at the village entrance. It is unnerving to so directly encounter the poor relations between the locals and the security forces. After things calm down, we proceed into town.

Pilgrims are shouting slogans and mantras, Aum Namah Sivaya, Bam Bam Bole (“Chant Siva Siva!”) and Jai Baba Barfani (“Hail the Ice Form of Lord Siva”), while loudspeakers blast out Siva bhajans. It is a high-energy festival atmosphere, and youth are dancing in the streets. Heading across town, we follow a narrow road lined with free bhandaras and shops selling food and last-minute travel essentials. Finally, we reach the gate marking the beginning of the pilgrimage. Soon the security people let us through in a large group and pilgrims shout “Jai Baba Barfani!”

The First Day’s Climb Is Strenuous, and Beautiful

Trail levels out toward Naga Koti (left); Poshpatri Bhandara with a selection of dishes (right);

Voices: Navin K. Choudhary, CEO, Sri Amarnath Shrine Board

In addition to heading the Shrine Board, Choudhary is the principal secretary to the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir State. We began the July 6 interview by asking for an overview of the Board’s work.

THE YATRA IN GENERAL IS GOING VERY WELL. TODAY WE EXPECT TO touch 250,000, and it could reach 700,000 by the end. The Board handles the yatra dates, registration, sanitation and the Baltal route. The government handles health and power, and the army handles security. The Pahalgam route maintenance is done by the Pahalgam Development Authority. We have been continuously working to improve the route. It is fifty kilometers long. You cannot go with bulldozers and cut the mountains. It is not legal. You cannot build a fully cemented path, but still we do improvements. If you noticed, at Pissu Top and Nagakoti we have made slab staircases. If you had traveled last year at these places you would have feared slipping and falling 500 feet below. It is a continuous process, and we spend tens of millions of rupees on improvement every year in patches. We just cannot go and demolish mountains and create a twenty-foot wide track.

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Navin K. Choudhary

Starting Date Controversy

The yatra duration is determined by two factors. One is the binding factor that the yatra will conclude on Raksha Bandhan, which falls on Shravana Purnima (the full moon in July/August—which was August 2 in 2012). Now there is a demand that we start it at Jyestha Purnima (the full moon in May/June—June 4 in 2012) and end it at Raksha Bandhan. We started the yatra this year on June 25. You yourself have seen the snow on the track and other places which you cannot just manually clear. You cannot arbitrarily move back the starting date just because Raksha Bandhan falls earlier in certain years. The yatra period has to be shorter. It is next to impossible to start before the end of June. This year, even as late as June 18 we were not confident that we would be able to start on June 25.

People have to understand that this ideologically hardened stance of starting on Jyestha Purnima and ending at Shravan Purnima is impractical. To remove this controversy we formed a subcommittee and involved prominent saints such as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Swami Avdheshananda and Swami Gyaanand, together with environmentalists, security experts, the government, the army and civilians. They met all the stakeholders over a two-month period and came up with a set of parameters, including the snow removal process and other weather-related factors. They concluded that the yatra duration may vary from time to time. Based on those parameters, the Shrine Board will decide the duration of the yatra each year.

The yatra has never started successfully before the end of June or first week of July. There is no scriptural reference that says it must start on Jyestha Purnima. The Shrine Board is responsible for the safety and security of the pilgrims. You have been through the yatra and have seen the amount of snow that is still there at many places. At Mahaguna’s top there is still four to five feet of snow. Thousands of laborers would be needed to remove it. At 14,000, feet their level of productivity is just one to two hours a day. If I start the yatra too early, what face will I show to my countrymen if hundreds or thousands of people die? This is something which some people do not want to understand. They are just talking about ideology and are not concerned about the safety and security of the pilgrims.

Pilgrims’ Health and Safety

Fifty percent of the pilgrims who have died so far this year were under forty years of age. One was a boy just 22. They come to the high altitude and start walking as if they are on the plains. We advise everyone to walk slowly and take oxygen in the case of breathlessness, but that is not happening. We introduced the compulsory health certificate, but many just casually procure it.

We extend all help in a case of an unfortunate death. At the expense of the Shrine Board, the body is brought down to the nearest base camp. We locate the family and help them fulfill all legal formalities. If someone needs financial help to carry the body to their original place, we help them. If somebody wants to cremate the body here, we offer the assistance of a pujari and a facility for the cremation. The family of those who have duly registered receive an insurance payment of Rs. 100,000 (us$1,800).

There is no dearth of doctors, paramedical staff, oxygen cylinders and medicines. You can see them all over, at all levels. At every stage the doctors are available. However, the pilgrims must also take care of themselves. If you are seventy years of age coming on this yatra, you are yourself trying to kill yourself. Small children, old people should not come. Now this is something I cannot enforce legally. The citizens also have to be responsible for their acts. If you have any ailment or have been sick in the past few days or months, you should not come. All those who come should follow our do’s and don’ts. We have given immense publicity to these things through the news channels, newspapers and our website. If you do not have the personal determination to follow it, we do not have the legal mechanism to enforce it either.

The langar wallahs are doing a great job. They are an essential part of the yatra and are important stakeholders. We are also telling them to improve certain things. For instance, some of the food they serve is not good to serve at the yatra, which is taking place at such a high altitude. We have given them a diet chart prepared by the doctors. We have been constantly telling the langar wallahs to not serve greasy or heavy food. We have been requesting them to provide food which is easily digestible at a high altitude. Some feel they have served what the yatris like and by doing so they have served them truly. But to my mind that is not a good idea. If I want to eat gajar ka halwa (the famous Punjabi sweet made with carrots), then I will jolly well eat it in Delhi or Jallandhar. I do not need gajar ka halwa at the holy cave. My body will feel better if I am given simple cooked khichadi (made of rice and lentils) which is good for my body. But this is nowhere available. I have been telling them to serve khichadi and also put up signs announcing that this is the best diet they can have at this high altitude. These are things which people have to understand themselves. These things are not a matter of regulation.

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A perilous trek: Ponies are not allowed on this narrow stretch between Zoji Bal and Naga Koti
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Now we hire ponies for the climb. The Shrine Board has posted rates, but the pony wallahs want double. They are unruffled when I show them my copy of the rate list. For the three-day trip to the cave, the published rate one way for a pony is $37; for a palanquin with six carriers, $138; and for a luggage carrier, pithoo, with a 20-kilogram load, $22. By comparison, a helicopter from Baltal to near the cave costs $53 round trip.

With nowhere to complain, we pay the exorbitant rates. Such disparity prevails everywhere during the pilgrimage. If the Shrine Board wishes to enforce its published rates, it should negotiate mutually satisfactory agreements with the locals and then staff booths to manage discrepancies. Arguing with the pony wallahs and luggage carriers detracts from the spirit of the pilgrimage.

Off we go on foot with our ponies following. The luggage carriers take off ahead at their own pace. We will not see them again until nightfall at Sheshnag. Sudharak and I last a mere half an hour on foot, our bodies ill-accustomed to the oxygen-starved air. So, for the first time in our lives, we mount a pony, leaving behind the wooden sticks we bought for the journey. Collecting such abandoned sticks and selling them to the next batch of pilgrims must be a lucrative business for the locals.

Riding a poney on a steep mountain path is no joke. I am thankful I’m not overweight. Around me, heavier pilgrims struggle with even climbing aboard. Still, I find myself an inept rider barely able to keep my balance. The pony wallah shouts “Lean forward when going up and lean back when going down,” to make the ride easier and safer. I find this difficult, and together the pony wallahs rebuke me for my lack of horsemanship. Sudharak faces the added challenge of taking photographs while riding, a feat he manages with aplomb, even while going up the natural steps, or traversing the treacherous areas evident in the photos. To my astonishment, igoring all hazards, he snaps thousands of pictures balanced on the pony with both hands on the camera.

Snow Packs & Mountain Lakes Appear

Too heavily dressed for the warm weather, I am soon sweating, but it is impossible to take off the clothes, which include thermal underwear. At least we don’t have rain or snow to contend with; the journey is challenging enough on a sunny day.

Traveling through the picturesque valley has been fairly easy, but then comes the steep and rugged climb to Pissu Top (photo page 22). Even for the seasoned pony, climbing the muddy rocks is a struggle. This stretch is terrifying. A pony ahead slips in the mud, mine rears up and and snorts wildly, and the pony behind does the same. Many of us are chanting “Aum Namah Sivaya” out of sheer fear.

Sharing the poneys’ path are people on foot and others being carried in a palaki (a palanquin, really just a chair strapped to two poles). The pony wallahs and palaki wallahs shout “Bhole, Bhole!” to make way through the crowd. The path becomes so dangerous, I hire a man to support me and keep me from falling off the pony. Immune to fear, Sudharak continually takes photos.

After three hours, we complete the 3.5-km trek to Pissu Top. The breathtaking panorama of snow-covered mountaintops overwhelms me. Like an oasis, a huge bhandara is serving vast quantities of delicious steaming food, all from goods hauled up the same path we so perilously climbed. Around us are shops set up by locals, selling water, juice and snacks. We attempt to interview pilgrims. Our pony wallahs protest, eager to reach Sheshnag before dark. But once they understand I’m a journalist, they gather around and openly talk to me about their troubles.

They can’t get good rates for their services—it is difficult to survive a year on the short yatra, which is their main source of income. Ghulam Qadri bemoans, “I’m a graduate, but still I do this because I cannot get a better job. Many of us have to borrow money to buy a pony, which costs Rs. 50,000 (us$920). If we don’t earn enough, we fall into a debt trap. The free bhandaras are only for pilgrims. They will only give us tea, even though we do hard work to help the pilgrims. We should also be entitled to food. I tell you, we will not let our children do this troublesome job, but make them study for something better.” Abdul Rashid, 40, who owns a pony, says many generations of his family have provided horses for the pilgrimage. He expects to earn about $552 this season. Miraz, 23, says he makes about $184 each season working as a helper.

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On the route from Sheshnag to Panchtarni
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The Final Approach to Amarnath Cave

From Pissu Top we start toward Jojpal (Zoji Bal), all the while chanting “Bam Bam Bhole” and “Jai Barfani Baba.” We must personally carry any items we will need during the day’s trek, since the luggage carriers go on ahead. Snow is more abundant. By the time we reach Jojpal, snow is everywhere. An old man tells me he underwent a foot operation some time ago after a major fracture but is successfully completing this pilgrimage, chanting the name of Lord Siva. Chavi, a smiling six-year-old, is having a great time walking and riding; she doesn’t quite understand why the grownups are finding the going so tough. Many pilgrims speak of some constant power that helps them to keep going and overcome each challenge, no matter how difficult. These inspiring stories are nourishment for fellow pilgrims.

Bone weary when we reach the bhandaras, we are astounded to find a crowd of younger pilgrims dancing joyfully to the popular bhajan “Jai Jai Bhole Bhandari” played over a powerful music system. To them the pilgrimage is clearly less arduous!

Having studied the guidelines set by the Shrine Board I can’t help but notice that some are simply ignored. Many elderly men and women look unfit for the journey, and others seem ill-equipped for the weather. Many women are wearing saris, even if riding ponies. Adventuresome yatris take dangerous shortcuts along the route.

Soon we leave Jojpal and begin the day’s final stretch: 3.5 km from Jojpal to Sheshnag. The sky is crystal clear, granting us a spectacular view of this stunning passage. We cross glaciers and ice-cold waterfalls. We pass big holes a pony could slip into. One part is treacherously steep, like the route up to Pissu Top. Here, ponies cannot make it with a rider, so all must walk. Soon exhausted, I hire a palaki for the last few hundred yards of this stretch. The rider-less ponies are taken up a different route.

Arrival at Sheshnag

It is sunset when we reach Sheshnag. After several hours on horseback, both of us are dead tired. That I have made it even this far is a miracle for a sedentary writer like me. High blood pressure, mild asthma and back problems assail my body. It could only be done with the blessings of Barfani Baba.

In what turns out to be their standard practice, the pony wallahs want to drop us a kilometer before our camp, as this is more convenient for them. Our luggage wallah has not met up with us, nor is our travel agent anywhere to be found. To top it off, there is a disturbance involving some stone pelting near the Shrine Board camp; a paramilitary person has hit a pony wallah.

Finally our guide and the luggage wallahs join us, but the pony wallahs still refuse to take us to the camp. This stalemate prevails for 90 minutes, with our own pony wallahs shouting slogans to the paramilitaries. Night is falling, and it starts to drizzle. All the pilgrims are in the same fix due to the disturbance. The shouting subsides; our pony wallahs capitulate. They have little choice: as part of renting the ponies, they had to hand over their identity cards to us—a powerful bargaining point.

We had hoped to visit Sheshnag Lake, but it is too late in the day. We seek out the camp director, Shri Surender Mohan Sharma. He and his team are fuming about the altercation. His makeshift office was attacked—he shows us the dents in the aluminum walls. Even so, his team provide us hot tea, snacks and a small room to sleep in. Ironically, while the bhandaras provide excellent food, other essentials are lacking. Most significantly, clean toilets are not found anywhere on the route.

Sudharak and I spend a sleepless night in the cold, rainy camp. Despite our advance efforts to improve our physical condition, the altitude is affecting us greatly, much more so than our younger travel agent guide. There are no phones here, and no electricity after the generators are shut off for the night. Completely cut off from the world, we are naturally apprehensive.

Departure for Panchtarni

In the morning, Sudharak is taken for a medical checkup and given oxygen. Though neither of us is well, we have no option but to push on. It rained heavily last night and the ground is slippery with mud. Again we must go through the hassle of hiring the pony and luggage wallahs for the next leg of our journey. Though exhausted, at least we have learned how to mount and sit easily on the pony.

Some pilgrims we so so frightened by yesterday’s riding that they are back on foot today. When people walk along a narrow trail with a cliff below, they hug the mountainside. The ponies, for unknown reasons, walk on the valley or cliff side of the trail, which is most unnerving for the hapless rider.

Now entirely in snow country, we take eight hours to cover the ten kilometers to Panchtarni. My face and neck are painfully sunburned. Toward the end of this stretch we have to climb to Mahaguna Top, which is as difficult as was Pissu Top. Sudharak is in increasingly bad shape, but there is little we can do for him—medical facilities are minimal. Our travel agent guide does the best he can for him. Still, Sudharak never stops taking photographs. The positive vibration of the throng of thousands of pilgrims in our group keeps our spirits up.

After Mahaguna Top, the journey is downhill for a while. I am eager to arrive at Poshpatri, where the bhandara is the largest and most famous of the entire yatra. Even in Delhi one sees posters and billboards advertising this place, which is managed by the Shri Shiv Sevak organization in Delhi.

Reaching Poshpatri, the sight is amazing. Hundreds of people are enjoying the food—though it is a gross understatement to call it mere food. It is a lavish party, larger and better organized than nearly any wedding party in Delhi. And this at a high-altitude place where every ingredient has to be packed in along the route we have just so arduously traveled. Unbelievably, this bhandara serves 25,000 people in a single day during the height of the pilgrimage.

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The trek crosses snow fields along this river outside Panchtarni
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Shri Rajiv Sethi Rajji, manager of Poshpatri Bhandara and head of the Shri Shiv Sevak organization, tours me through the vast facility. They employ 90 chefs, assisted by 135 volunteers. Each day, all the food is hauled in 21 km, along with 25 gas cylinders and 200 liters of kerosene. He said their bhandara, unlike others, does feed the pony wallahs and other laborers (at a separate window) because without them “we cannot transport a single bag of salt to this place.”

We take our time here, enjoying the rest and the food, which infuriates and worries our pony wallahs. They know we must reach Panchtarni before dark. The path is treacherous enough during daylight.

Arriving in Panchtarni, we have no idea where we will spend the night, as no bookings could be made in advance. One must simply use whatever space is available. Fortunately, Rajiv Rajji, back in Poshpatri, gave me some contacts here, and we are put up in a small tent holding 11 people. Once again we have an almost sleepless night as the temperature drops to freezing. Sudhakar is having a tough time coping with the lack of oxygen. I am better off, though my sunburn is painful and I have a bad case of constipation, possibly from too much rich food!

From Panchtarni to Amarnath Cave

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Pilgrims wait in line on the steps up to Amarnath Cave
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Still exhausted in the morning, we set out on this last leg of our pilgrimage. All are tired and the mood is sullen, but as we cover the six kilometers to the base of the mountain where Amarnath Cave is located, the pilgrims’ faces are lit with high expectations and enthusiasm.

Once past Sangam, the path becomes more crowded, as we pass returning pilgrims who are headed out through Baltal. Most who take the long route in, as we are doing, sensibly opt for the short way out. Those returning from darshan of the ice Lingam are in great spirits, greeting us warmly and sharing how blissful they feel.

Almost through this entire leg of the journey we can see the helicopters plying between Baltal and Panchtarni. The weather is sunny, and the choppers traveling through the valley every fifteen minutes seem to fascinate us all.

As we get closer and closer to the holy cave area, the chanting of mantras and slogans increases in fervor and frequency. Greetings between the arriving and departing pilgrims also become more emotionally and devotionally charged.

Five hours after leaving Panchtarni, we arrive at the huge tent city on the snow-covered valley floor just below Amarnath Cave. We take a break at one of the hundreds of shops and have a warm bath (for Rs. 50/bucket) at the river. Refreshed, we purchase prasadam for our worship and join the huge queue of pilgrims moving slowly toward the cave, chanting all the way. Waving the press cards hanging around our necks, we avoid the heavy rush by using the lane meant for those returning, which is much less crowded right now.

Then we reach the police checkpoint. They don’t object to our queue jumping, but they tell us we cannot take photographs of the ice Sivalingam—one of our prime objectives from the beginning. After a great deal of discussion, name-dropping on my part and checking with higher-ups, we are allowed to proceed with the camera, on condition we do not use the flash.

The path to the cave is made of huge stones cut out of rocks, many over a foot in height. We have to climb several hundred of these. Everywhere is the heard the name Lord Siva.

At Last, the Sacred Destination Is Reached!

Only a few hundred pilgrims at a time are allowed to have darshan of the Lingam. Too many at a time would warm the cave and cause the Lingam to melt sooner. Each group is allowed fifteen to thirty minutes. Priests accept the pilgrims’ offerings, placing them at the Sivalingam and giving back prasadam.

Inside the holy cave I feel as if we have been transported back in time, such is the grandeur and size of the cave. The very sight of the naturally formed Sivalingam, nearly six feet tall, mesmerizes us all, and my exhaustion disappears. I am feeling absolutely fresh, and my mind is spinning with all the stories and legends I have ever heard about the cave.

By chance, we have entered with a senior paramilitary officer and his family and are able to get quite close to the Lingam, which allows for good photography. I am fortunate enough to be part of the elaborate puja performed for the officer’s family. As I stand with folded hands and moist eyes, a wave of serenity and peace engulfs me and I am in a state of meditation for a few minutes, tuned to Lord Siva through the magnificent and all-pervading vibrations of the ice Lingam. Only because of this super power and blessings of Lord Siva have I, along with thousands of pilgrims, been able to make it to this holy cave at this altitude, a superhuman act that not everyone can perform in his or her lifetime.

When I open my eyes, I realize I am praying to the ice Sivalingam with hundreds of fellow pilgrims. All faces around me are blissful and calm. The whole cave is charged with serenity and devotion. Some pilgrims are performing puja to Lord Siva and Parvati at a small temple at the left side of the cave, while most worship at the naturally formed ice Sivalingam, which is on the extreme right side of the cave. A fleet of priests assist the pilgrims with their pujas.

Refreshed, rejuvenated and uplifted, I leave the holy cave thanking Lord Siva millions of times for blessing me to be able to have His darshan here at what seems the top of the world.

On the way down I speak to some of the other pilgrims. Yogita Chanderia, a student from Bhopal, tells me, “I am feeling great after the darshan. Certainly the journey was very tough. But what to say? Bhole Baba called and we came.”

We spot a bhandara and take some light refreshments. Once again I am moved by the commitment and dedication of the Hindu youth who serve the pilgrims so selflessly. I spoke with manager Pankaj Bhatia, 32, who recalls, “When we came here 14 years back, there were no bhandaras and one had to pay $0.74 to buy one single chapati. My whole family comes, including my two-month-old son. The time I spend here I consider my real life; the rest is just not important.”

The Journey Home

Though we had planned to spend the night at Panchtarni after the darshan, we have no satisfactory arrangements. Our spiritual batteries fully charged, we decide to leave for Baltal straightaway, though it means covering another 14 km by pony. Sudharak is exhausted and I am suffering badly from sunburn, but we manage to endure the six hours of dusty riding. The journey is scenic, but nothing compared to what we have already experienced.

Baltal has huge bhandaras. Most pilgrims go to Amarnath from here rather than from Chandanwari, and more still leave by this route. We stop briefly for food, then find our taxi. We reach Srinagar well past midnight.

We will spend several days here. Our main objective—besides resting—is to interview Chadi Mubarak Mahant Deependra Giri Ji Maharaj [see page 23] as well as Navin Choudhary, CEO of the Shrine Board [see page 25].

I seek medical attention for my sunburn. A specialist tells me the epidermis has completely burnt and a new layer will replace it within a few weeks. In the meantime, I am quite a sight with my skin peeling off everywhere.

On the outskirts of town, we visit the famous Kheer Bhavani Temple of the Kashmir Pandits. We also visit the ashram of the Kashmir Pandit saint Bhagwan Gopinath Maharaj. I meet Anil Raina, a journalist who has been going to Amarnath since he was ten. He tells me, “For me, if there is a God anywhere, it is in the holy cave of Amarnath. Anyone who has been there will tell you about the strong vibrations you feel. All your fatigue vanishes.”

To celebrate the success of our trip, I invite photographer Sudharak to have lunch at prestigious Taj Hotel. The hotel’s panoramic view of Srinagar and adjoining areas is breathtaking. In the evening we go boating on the famous Dal Lake.

On the plane back to Delhi I sleep soundly for the first time in days. Lord Siva appears to me in a dream and whispers, “Rajiv, do you realize I have completely changed all the fortune lines of your forehead. I have changed your destiny.” Opening my eyes, I touch my forehead and realize the skin peeling off will indeed change the lines of my forehead. It is a common belief in India that one’s destiny is marked on one’s forehead at birth by a Deity. Suddenly I have a new perspective on the painful and bothersome sunburn. In my heart I once again thank Baba Barfani for His blessings and especially for these revelations on the changes the yatra will bring.

Bliss, and a Dusty Return to Civilization