Holy Amarnath Cave – Tradition & Historicity

Jagmohan Sharma

In 1998 I had the good fortune of visiting the Holy Cave of Baba Amarnath along with my wife and daughter. That was probably the first year when general public was allowed to visit the holy cave after the outbreak of terrorism in the Kashmir Valley. The impulse for the visit came from a group of monks from Belur Muth of Swami Ramakrishana Mission, Kolkata, who had just returned from a visit to the holy place. The narration of their experiences during the visit to the holy cave propelled us to undertake the journey ourselves too.
We took statutory permissions from the concerned Departments of the Government of J&K & drove to Baltal on a day during which it was raining heavily. However, the impulse triggered by the monks didn’t deter us & we arrived at Baltal in the evening where we had a neat & clean tent to ourselves as the pilgrimage had just started. The rain stopped in the evening& the sight of breaking clouds in a cool environment amongst the lofty mountains & on the banks of River Sindh enthralled us. We felt as if we were at a very different level of existence which was not mundane – it had a purpose.All around there were groups of volunteers, mostly from Punjab, who had established “langars” & were providing free food & other facilities to the pilgrims. We also came across a few from Jammu & Maharashtra.
We rested for the night & early next morning left for the Holy Cave. The experience was exhilarating. There were hundreds of people from all across the country trekking the path on foot or on pony back to the Cave. Worshiping nature is one of the basic tenets of Hinduism & here nature was all pervasive & at its best giving meaning to the oft repeated “mantra” – Har Har Mahadev. You could feel the Grace &Beauty of Mahadev in every form of nature’s existence, be it water, river, rivulet, the soaring mountain peaks, the green foliaged trees or bare Rocky Mountains, the snow bridges over rivers & vast expanse of snow all around. The experience of sighting the cave from a distance is unexplainable. It reminds me a verse from Tulsi’s Ramayana where he describes the beauty of Rama by saying that how do I describe it as the eyes that see it have no tongue to explain it nor has the tongue eyes that it could see it.
Inside the majestic natural cave Snow Shivalingam was fully formed. It wasn’t exactly very easy to stand barefooted on the icy floor of the cave for a very long time, but then God strengthens your will power to sustain the hardship on such occasions and so that we humans can grasp and be witness to His presence and Glory as long as you can. We stayed there long enough & a feeling crept in that we didn’t exactly want to leave this place. We wanted to stay put, get assimilated into the natural environment in the cave & be one with Him! Was it “vairagya”? Can’t say!!
Such feelings don’t last long for we humans have our limitations & there are so many worldly things beckoning us all the time.
While leaving for the Holy Cave from Srinagar I had come across a writeup in some newspaper which dated the discovery of the Holy Cave to 1850 mentioning that how a family of Maliks from Pahalgam had discovered this cave.
It may be mentioned here that the other route to the Holy Cave is from Pahalgam (48 km) which takes 3 to 5 days to reach the cave while as from Baltal (14 km to the cave), the route we had taken,it is possible to complete the “to & fro” journey in one day.
It is also a fact that the scenic beauty along the route of the “Yatra” is much more mesmerizing from the Pahalgam side. Here you come across the beautiful freshwater lake called Sheshnag which is fed from melting snows & streams coming down from the surrounding mountains. While the Amarnath cave is located at an altitude of 12756 ft the Sheshnag lake is located at 11780 ft.
As is the wont every year with Indian media- prior to the Amarnath Yatra – this year too one of the National News papers carried a writeup by Upendra Kaul mentioning that the cave was “re-discovered by a shepherd named Buta Malik, a Muslim, in 1850”. If you look at the media stories – print & electronic – over the years, the narrative generally sticks to this “re-discovery” & the traditions & available historical perspective of the same is pushed into the background.
Rajatarangni of Kalhan Pandit is considered to be an earliest extant history of Kashmir. He wrote the book in Sanskrit in poetry form between 1148 & 1149 CE. The beauty of his book lies in the fact that the book is written by a Kashmiri who is fully conversant with the geography, culture, traditions & habits of the residents of the Kashmir Valley & as such has the unique capability & advantage of telling the story with his finger on the pulse of the inhabitants.
The Rajatarangni of Kalhan pandit was translated by R.S.Pandit (there are many other translations too) into English in poetry form – verse by verse -& foreword to the book is written by Jawahalal Nehru on June 28, 1934. The dating of the events mentioned in Rajatarangni has been done by the uncle of R S Pandit named SP Pandit (Shankar Pandurang Pandit). Nehru in the foreword writes that “nearly half a century ago, Mr SP Pandit wrote of the Rajatarangni that it was the only work hitherto discovered in India having any pretentions to be considered as a history”.
Given the accepted importance & position of Rajatarangni in the history of Kashmir it is worth noting that Kalhan Pandit mentions about Amarnath in verse number 267 of Tarnaga 1. Here Kalhan is narrating the story of King Nara of Kashmir who ruled the Valley for about forty years in 994 BCE. English translation of the verse is reproduced below:
“Gleaming like the ocean of milk a lake was constructed by him (Naga- considered to be the original inhabitants of Kashmir) on a distant mountain, which on their way to the pilgrimage of Amarnatha, is visited by the people to this very day”.
Thus, the antiquity of the Amarnath cave can be established by this verse and the history can be related to the times of King Nara who was also called Kinnara as per Kalhan. Nara’s father was Vibhishana -2 who ruled Kashmir for around 35 years. Nara was followed by his son named Siddha who ruled over Kashmir for about 60 years.
Thus it can be deduced from Kalhan’s bookthat even in 994 BCE pilgrimage to Amarnath cave was in vogue. How many years before that the pilgrimage was continuing could be the question!!
Another treatise on Kashmir is Nilmat Puran written by Chandradeva. The book is in Sanskrit &again in the form of a poetry. If Kalhans Rajatarangni is a book about the politics of Kashmir; Nilmatpuran is about the culture of Kashmir. Kalhan has also used information from Nilmatpuran for his book Rajatarangni.Nilmatpuran is believed to be written between 6th& 8th century CE. The book is a valuable source of information as it provides an insight into the cultural life of the people of Kashmir.
It tells us about the festivals celebrated by the people, places of religious importance – rivers, lakes & mountains associated with them & method of performing certain rituals associated with religious functions.
It is in this book (Sanskrit version) at verse 1535 that Amarnath cave is mentioned fleetingly though it does not give any detailed information as provided in Kalhan’s Rajatarangni.
In comparatively recent times Guru Nanak Dev ji also visited Amarnath Cave in 1516/17 while on his way back from Kailash Mansarovar to Punjab where he had discussions on spirituality and religion with the ‘pundits’ there. Guru Nanak Dev ji also visited Hemis Monastry & several places in & around Leh during this travel (Udasi). A Gurudwara named Patthar Sahib commemorates the visit of the saint at Nimu around 20 km from Leh on Leh-Kargil National Highway.
From above it can safely be concluded that pilgrimage to Amarnath cave in Kashmir is not as recent as 1850 CE as many try to portray. It is quite possible that the pilgrimage came to a halt for some political or cultural reasons prior to 1850 & the Maliks acted as guides for the newly arriving pilgrims at Pahalgam thereafter.