Lieutenant General (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain has led the organisation of the arduous, long, but the sacred Amarnath yatra more than a few times. Here is his account of leading the devotees up to the hallowed cave.
In all my earlier years in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), I remained uneducated about the cultural terrain of the state except for some odd visits to local shrines of different faiths. Yet, fate ordained that I would ultimately atone for it all by visiting, at least eight times, the Holy Cave, seat of Lord Shiva and Goddess (Maa) Parvati placed far into the confluence of the Great Himalayas and the Kishtwar Range. I not only visited and bowed my head there, but actually organised the fascinating pilgrimage, the Amarnath Yatra, several times. Later, while heading the Army in Kashmir, one had the benign pleasure of receiving multiple blessings at the holy cave. It was a pleasure to witness the surge of pilgrims from 98,000 in 1999 to 6,40,000 in 2011, the last time I was involved with the organisation of the yatra. That has been the record figure; never have more pilgrims visited the shrine and that blessing remains with me.
Here’s a little on the yatra to draw the natural interest of the religious-minded, who may have never visited it, but have nursed the idea for long.
It is an arduous journey for those who have never walked in the mountains and that too up to a height of 13,000 feet. Two routes take you to the shrine. First is the old and most frequented route, via Lidder valley to Pahalgam and Chandanwari, which is the roadhead (the road ends there). The walk cum climb starts here and one can find people in festive mood as they head for Sheshnag, Mahagunas Pass, Panjtarni and Sangam. It is a 48-kilometre trek on foot, or if you have the means, and not the health, then a palanquin borne by four strong-shouldered Gujjar Muslims will see you through the journey. You can also hire a pony and undergo a rather torturous ride with precipitous falls on the sides, where a suicidal pony may well decide to take a plunge.
It is your two feet that spell the best option. Depending on how good or bad the last winter was and how early the yatra has begun, there will be remnants of snow and ice all along the route, especially as you climb the Mahagunas Pass (see map), so sports shoes are passé and it’s a pair of good trekking shoes that’s a must. There are usually two staging camps (although there are other locations too) where a night halt is taken; Sheshnnag and Panjtarni. In between the two is the exhausting climb to, and descent from, the Mahagunas Pass. The army, police and the civil administration under the aegis of the Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Board (SASB) provide tented camp facilities with beddings and toilets of a temporary nature, plus more importantly, medical assistance.
The bhandaras (from nonprofit organisations) from all over India take turns to set up stalls for food and other logistics every year. They provide some nutritious and extremely tasty fare in challenging logistics conditions. The difficulty can be imagined if one just remembers the need for rations, fuel, and cleaning facilities for the kind of numbers who dine there every day. No one is ever refused and many of the soldiers and policemen on duty themselves enjoy the wonderful fare dished out by the bhandaras.
It is the medical domain and that of hygiene and sanitation which spells an even greater challenge. Although many pilgrims are young, they are not used to mountain trekking and that too at heights of up to 13,000 feet. Besides sore feet, cuts and abrasions due to the hard rocky route, it is the problem of oxygen which causes most of the health related issues. Older people, in particular, find this extremely difficult. In 2011 alone there were as many as 108 deaths along the route.
Each year, the SASB attempts to learn lessons afresh, provide even better medical facilities and reduce fatalities and medical discomfort. Besides the camps, there are medical facilities with paramedics and doctors stationed at different points along the route. The Army’s doctors, more physically fit than others, function with medical patrols equipped with communication facilities so that they can respond to emergencies. Lifesaving evacuation is sometimes done by helicopters in cases where losing height restores the body’s balance.
Most reasonably fit pilgrims can reach the holy cave on the third day after they leave Chandanwari. There is a fairly long wait at the cave itself because of the narrow and winding path up to the shrine where the famous Lingam exists. While there are some temporary shops here, it is best advised to carry enough nourishment in backpacks for this wait. Most prefer to exit the pilgrimage via the Baltal route (see map), which is a 14-kilometre walk down via Sangam.
The Baltal-Sangam-Holy Cave route is an alternative, but shorter route for the ascent by the slightly bolder and fitter pilgrims. It commences from the Baltal camp, which is at the beginning of the Sind Valley and can be seen as a vast tented city from the Zojila road, which winds its way up to the pass into the Ladakh plateau. It is a narrow winding path only partially broadened from the mountain trail width, which meanders along a flat distance and then suddenly rises. The ascent is steep and hard on the knees although ponies are available here too. It is possible to drive to Baltal, spend the night by retiring early, commence journey well before dawn, perform darshan and be back by the early part of the night after dark. Some then prefer to proceed to Sonamarg and rest their limbs at the hotels there.
There is a third way of going up to the cave; by helicopter from Baltal or Pahalgam to Panjtarni where a heli-base has been established. From there it is 6-kilometre walk to the holy cave and then the wait for the darshan although some operators have a preferential queue for this. It is possible to also hire a full helicopter for five or six people from Srinagar to Panjtarni and do the 12-kilometre up and down trek from there by foot, pony or palanquin.
In 1996, unseasonal blizzards in late August of that year led to a tragedy that claimed the lives of 242 yatris; they died of exhaustion and exposure. The period is July-August but weather patterns at these heights are extremely unpredictable. Lessons are learnt every year and disaster relief measures are incorporated well in advance. I am aware that this year too, the Central Disaster Management Authority has done extensive recce and planning. Yet the yatris must always be prepared for the unexpected. Warm clothing and some survival rations must be on person at all times along with a bottle of water.
The thrill of the yatra can actually be felt only by absorbing the prevailing atmosphere, hearing shouts of ‘bum bum bhole’, chanting songs while walking, tasting the food of the bhandaras and feeling the exhaustion in your limbs when you wake up at the camps and realise you cannot take another step more. Many a pony wala or palanquin wala will be available close at hand for such a contingency knowing fully well that no pilgrim or devotee is going to return without a darshan.
What does it take to secure the yatra? Securing has many connotations. For me, the well-being of the pilgrims is a part of it. The administration and the Army spare no efforts to ensure the medical well-being of all to complete the darshan. The threat to the yatris and to the infrastructure, in the physical realm, arises from the fact that the yatra is such an iconic event in India’s religious calendar. An adversary upsetting the yatra by causing impediment and a few casualties will dent the confidence of the people and cause implications for the tenuous inter-faith relations all over India. A terror attack on a camp, sporadic firing on the route or targeting the yatri buses even before they reach Pahalgam or Baltal will, no doubt, be upsetting. That is why the government of India, the J&K state government and all other departments take no chances. There is enough deployment, and this year, there is an increase in surveillance by helicopters and drones.
For interest, it should be known that Pahalgam lies close to the Aru Meadow, where exists the setting of a true story from the famous book, The Meadow by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, on the kidnappings by the Al Firan of the five foreigners in 1995. It is good to do a little research of the landmarks of the Lidder Valley before traveling up to Pahalgam. Be assured that almost every mountain top you see in your journey by bus, car or foot, has either a military presence or has been patrolled and the routes to it dominated by invisible patrols of the Indian Army and the Border Security Force/Central Reserve Police Force. Portable communication facilities are almost entirely the responsibility of the Army’s Corps of Signals, and BSNL even moves deployable antennae for mobile communication.
Yet, it is not enough to know all this about the yatra. Unless you are well aware of the stories of how the pilgrimage started and the religious significance of the holy cave, your mission is going to be half complete. I have borrowed from the write-up of a website of a helicopter service provider, which I found was short and extremely factual. Otherwise there is unlimited literature available on the tradition of the yatra and the great story of Lord Shiva and Maa Parvati. Here is one of them.
Maa Parvati asked Lord Shiva to let her know why and when he started wearing the garland of heads (mund mala), to which Bhole Shankar replied, “Whenever you are born I add more heads to my garland”. Maa Parvati said, “I die again and again, but you are immortal. Please tell me the reason behind this”. Lord Shiva replied, “for this you will have to listen to the amar katha (the story of immortality)".
Lord Shiva agreed to narrate the detailed story to Maa Parvati. He searched for a lonely place, where no living being could listen to the immortal secret and ultimately chose the Amarnath cave. In the rush, he left Nandi (the bull he rode) at Pahalgam. At Chandanwari, he released the moon (chand) from his hair (jata). At the banks of Lake Sheshnag, he released the snakes from around his neck. He decided to leave his son Ganesha at Mahagunas. At Panjtarni, he left the five elements behind (earth, water, air, fire, and sky), which give birth to life and of which he is the lord. After leaving behind all these, the great Lord Shiva entered the holy Amarnath cave along with Maa Parvati and took his samadhi. To ensure that no living being is able to hear the immortal tale, he created Kalagni (the flame of time) and ordered him to spread fire to eliminate every living thing in and around the holy cave.
After this, he started narrating the secret of immortality to Maa Parvati. But as a matter of chance, a pair of pigeons overhead the story and became immortal. Many pilgrims report seeing the pair of pigeons at the holy shrine even today, and are amazed as to how these birds survive in such a cold and high altitude area. The legend has it that Maa Parvati went to sleep while listening to the story, which was also heard by the pigeons, and their cooing sounds made the Lord believe Maa Parvati was awake. When he discovered the pigeons, his anger knew no bounds but the pigeons convinced him that there would never exist a witness to the legend of the lord narrating the story of immortality. That is why the pigeons were spared, but they became immortal like Lord Shiva himself.
In the multi-faith tradition of India, it is important to know that the tradition of the yatra was lost during the a period in the Middle Ages and recommenced only with the rediscovery of the holy cave 150 years or so ago, by a shepherd from the Malik family of Batkut, a village in the Lidder Valley. The shepherd was a Muslim, the Maliks are Muslims. The planning and infrastructure is primarily by Muslims. The thrill of seeing a Muslim pony owner prostrate before Bholenath on the first sighting of the landmark on the journey from Chandanwari sends a rush of emotion through an observer. If you are sensitive enough, you then realise this is India, the land of diversity wedded by such great traditions as that of the Shri Amarnath Ji Yatra.