Amarnath Yatra: A journey to Shiva’s abode

Shiv Chander Sharma
After a gap of more than two years, finally the world famous Amarnath Yatra has begun. This year in 2022, the holy yatra is being held from June 30 to August 11 which means that first batch of the pilgrims will pay obeisance to Lord Shiva at the holy cave shrine situated at a height of 3880 meters or 12750 feet from the mean sea level in the South Kashmir Himalayas while the last batch will do the same on August 11, 2022, on the full Moon’s day which falls on Raksha Bandhan Day and return the same day along with the holy mace towards Chandanwari base camp.
During last more than two years in 2020 and 2021 the Yatra could not be held due to Covid-19 while in the year 2019 the Yatra had to be stopped mid way due to abrogation of Article 370 and declaration of Jammu and Kashmir as Union Territory on August 5 keeping in view the security problems.
However, this year all preparations have been completed including the security of the pilgrims keeping in view the situation in Kashmir and the annual Yatra is likely to be held smoothly, said an official of the officer of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB). Earlier, before 2008 it was the duty of the J&K Government and the Dashnami Akhara headed by Mahant Deependra Giri to conduct the Yatra but after establishing the Board the Yatra affairs are now being looked after by Shri Amarnath Shrine Board which provides ample space for stay to the pilgrims both on the traditional Pahalgam-Chandanwari- Nunwan- Shesh Nag and Baltal routes.
However, since the Yatra is being conducted by the Shrine Board now, prior registration has been made compulsory from the designated banks after submission of Yatris details, nominal fee, and medical fitness certificate. But from this year Aadhaar details and carrying the Aadhaar card has also been made mandatory without which, no one will be allowed to perform the yatra.
Langar committees have been given permission to establish Langars at various places on the routes of the Yatra. Medical camps have also been set up and oxygen cylinders have been kept in sufficient numbers as at many places enroute to the shrine these are necessary for the pilgrims because the altitude is high with less oxygen at various spots on both the traditional route of Chandanwari as well as shortest route of Baltal.
The traditional route of Chandanwari is about 48 kms long trek up to the cave shrine while shortest Baltal route is hardly 14 kms long very steep on the banks of mighty river Sindh which only young and fit pilgrims are able to cover and they can return after performing the Yatra in a single day. However, ponies and Pithus (Carrying the pilgrims on his back) are also available on both the tracks at rates of which have been fixed by the Board. All the pilgrims either coming from Chandanwari side or Baltal join at Domail/Panjtarni river, a rivulet comprising of five small water channels coming down from the Glacier .
There is an interesting belief that before going to the holy cave along with his consort goddess Parvati to tell Bher the Amarkatha (Story of immotality), Lord Shiva left Nandi, the bull, at Pahalgam at Chandanwari, he released the Moon from his hair (Jata). On the banks of Lake Sheshnag, he released his snake. At Mahagunas Parvat (Mahaganesh Mountain), he left his son Ganesha. At Panjtarni, Shiva left behind the five elements – Earth, Water, Air, Fire and Sky. As a symbol of sacrificing the earthly world, Shiva performed the Tandava Dance. Then, finally, Shiva entered the Amarnath Cave along with Parvati and both of them manifested into a Lingam made of ice. Shiva became the lingam of ice and Parvati became the yoni of rock.
While Baltal route ,which is shortest , is taken by mostly young pilgrims, the other pilgrims prefer traditional route on which once Lord Shiva along with her consort Goddess Parvati is believed to have preferred to reach the 40 feet high and spacious cave to tell her the details of Immortality (Amar Katha) where no one can listen it. It is believed that before starting the Amar Katha he assured that no one except both of them is present in the cave. Lord Shiva started the Amar Katha but in the midway goddess Parvati took a brief nap . Unaware of this fact, Lord Shiva continued the tale as some sound of human responding to it which he thought might be of Parvati.
However, when Shiva killed all living beings inside and in surrounding area a pair of infertile eggs of pigeons was left. During the Katha they grew up with the divinity of the Katha and in place of goddess Parvati started responding to the shlokas of the tale of immortality and became immortal. When Parvati came out of brief sleep and also started responding to the Katha. On finding the double sound Lord Shiva became suspicious and came to know the presence of pigeons.
And, as pigeons had got immortality they are still seen by most of the pilgrims during Yatra days but many believe that they are living in the cave since then and it is beyond imagination that how they survive during harsh winter season when there is not even water present not to talk of grains or other food stuff. It is considered important to have a glimpse of these pigeons.
Meanwhile, people who trek the Yatra route via Chandanwari reach Nunwan base camp either from Srinagar or from Jammu and have first stay in this camp. In the morning they further proceed towards Sheshnag, a lake which resembles like a hood of seven headed snake. Then comes Mahagunas Top where oxygen is very less in the atmosphere due to high altitude. However, special arrangements of Oxygen and other medical facilities are available. Then comes Pissu Top and the Panchtarni river where people take holy bath before paying their obeisance to Lord Shiva in the cave where Shiva is present in the shape of natural formed Ice lingam.
In recent times the Baltal route via Sonamarg has also become very popular because of its short distance track (although very steep) to the Holy Cave of Shri Amarnath.
The base points for the pilgrim’s trek are picturesque Pahalgam and Sonamarg, a large tented township springs up to accommodate the pilgrims at both these locations. The conduct of the yatra is a gigantic task in which the the Shrine Board takes the assistance of the security departments for providing security and helping to keep the route open. All intermediate halting places have the same kind of facilities as are provided at Pahalgam and Baltal.
Meanwhile on the entire routes of Chandanwari to the cave shrine and also the Baltal, Langars offering free food, tea, milk, dry fruits, water and all eatables have been established where the pilgrims can avail of several facilities at no cost.
An interesting feature of the Yatra is the fact that this holy cave shrine was rediscovered by the Malik family of Muslim nomadic Gujjar-Bakkerwal (Shepherd) family who after discovering it told to their Hindu families and after that the annual Yatra began. A share of the offering is given to that family till date.
Helicopter service is also available from base camp to Panjtarni and after making the pilgrimage using this service the pilgrims can go and return to the base camp in a single day.
Useful Tips on the Yatra
Dress: Pilgrims are advised to carry sufficient woollens such as sweaters, drawers, woollens trousers, monkey cap etc. Other items could include wind cheaters, rain coat, sleeping bag or blankets, umbrella, waterproof boots/shoes, walking stick, torch etc. Ladies are advised not to go on the trek in saris, instead Salwar suits should be used.
Medical Assistance: Medical posts manned by qualified doctors and nursing staff are established enroute to cater to the needs of the pilgrims, free of cost. However, pilgrims are advised to carry along any medicines specifically prescribed for them.
Provisions: Essential rations are available at fair price rates from the specially established Govt. Depots at Chandanwari, Sheshnag and Panchtarni. Numerous wayside tea-shops and small restaurants are set up by private parties. However, pilgrims are advised to carry with them biscuits, tinned food etc. to cater to their immediate needs. Firewood or gas can be obtained at Chandanwari, Sheshnag, Panchtarni and near the Cave.
Insurance: In view of the hazardous nature, pilgrims are advised to insure themselves before proceeding on the Yatra. In recent years SASB has been providing accident insurance cover to the registered yatris .
Accommodation: Good tented accommodation with allied facilities are set-up during the Yatra period. These are provided on the basis of payment of rates fixed by the authorities manning the Yatra.
Do’s And Don’ts for the Yatris
It is important to observe discipline on the trek and keep moving slowly and steadily. Adhere to the instructions issued by the Yatra Officer from time to time. Officials of the State Government from various concerned Departments are deployed on duty to help the pilgrims.
One must also ensure that he/she is physically fit for the journey, and has been medically examined. Remember that you have to cross Mahagunus pass which is at an altitude of 14,000 feet above sea level. It is now essential for the applicant Yatri to submit Compulsory Health Certificate while seeking registration for the Yatra.
The pilgrim may ensure that ponies carrying their luggage and eatables remain with them at all times. Also ensure that the ponywalla, labourer or dandiwalla is properly registered and carries a token. You can get these allotted at fixed rates at the base camps.