Amarnath – One of the holy trinity, Shiva is a living god. The most sacred and most ancient book of India, the Rig Veda evokes his presence in its hymns, Vedic Myths, rituals and even testify to his existance from the dawn of time. Legend has it that Shiva recounted to Parvati the secret of creation in a cave in Amarnath. Unknown to them, a pair of doves eavesdropped on this conversation and having learnt the secret, are reborn again and again, and have made the cave their eternal abode. The annual yatra to Holy Amarnath Cave, situated at 14000 ft. above sea level, is organised by the Jammu & Kashmir State Government during the month of July and August. The intending pilgrims are allowed to perform darshan from Ashard Purnimashi to Shravan Purnimashi which course spreads over a month or so.

The trek to Amarnath, in the month of Shravan (July-August) has the devout flock to this incredible shrine, where the image of Shiva, in the form of a lingam, is formed naturally of an ice-stalagmite, and which waxes and wanes with the moon. By its side are, fascinatingly, two more ice-lingams, that of Parvati, and of their son, Ganesha.

According to an ancient tale, there was once a Muslim shepherd named Buta Malik who was given a sack of coal by a sadhu. Upon reaching home he discovered that the sack, in fact, contained gold. Overjoyed and overcome, Buta Malik rushed back to look for the sadhu and thank him, but on the spot of their meeting discovered a cave, and eventually this became a place of pilgrimage for all believers. To date, a percentage of the donations made by pilgrims are given to the descendants of Malik. and the remaining to the trust which manages the shrine.

Yet another legend has it that when Kashyap Reshi drained the Kashmir valley of water (it was believed to have been a vast lake), the cave and the lingam were discovered by Bregish Reshi who was travelling the Himalayas. When people heard of the lingam, Amarnath for them became Shiva’s abode and a center of pilgrimage.

Whatever the legends and the history of Amarnath’s discovery, it is today an extremely crucial centre of pilgrimage, and though the route is as difficult to trespass as it is exciting, every annum, millions of devotees from the subcontinent come to pay homage before Shiva in one of his Himalayan abodes.

Situated in a narrow gorge at the farther end of Lidder valley, Amarnath stands at 3,888 m and is 44.8 km from Pahalgam and 141 km from Srinagar. Though the original pilgrimage subscribes that the yatra be undertaken from Srinagar, the more common practise is to begin journey at Pahalgam, and cover the distance to Amarnath and back in five days. Pahalgam is 96 km from Srinagar.

The trek from Pahalgam to Amarnath cave is on an ancient peregrine route. The 45-km distance is covered in four days, with night halts atChandanwariSheshnag (Wawjan) and Panchtarni. The distance from Pahalgam to Chandanwari (12.8 km) is covered in about five to six hours, and the trail runs alung the Lidder river. Pilgrims camp here on the first night out. A major attraction here is a bridge covered, year round, with ice even though the surroundings are free from it.

The next day’s trek, of 13 km, is through spectacular, primeval countryside, and the main centre of attraction is Sheshnag, a mountain which derives its name from its seven peaks, resembling the heads of a mythical snake. The journey to Sheshnag follows steep inclines up the right bank of a cascading stream and wild scenery untouched by civilization. The second night’s camp at Wawjan overlooks the deep blue waters of Sheshnag lake, and glaciers beyond it.

There are legends of love and revenge too associated with Sheshnag, and at the camp these are recounted by campfires, to the stillness of a pine-scented, Himalayan night.

The third day’s 13 km trek steadily gains height, winding up across Mahagunas Pass at 4,600 m and then descending to the meadow-lands of Panchtarni, the last camp enroute to the holy cave.

From Panchtarni to Amarnath is only 6 km, but an early morning’s start is recommended for there is a long queue awaiting entrance to the cave. The same day, following darshan, devotees can return to Panchtarni in time for lunch, and continue to Wawjan to spend the fourth night out; or continue further to Zojibal, returning to Pahalgam on the fifth day.

Entrance to the cave is regulated, and darshan a hasty affair for there are many others waiting outside to pay homage before the awesome Shivalinga. The devotees sing bhajans, chant incantations, and priests petform aarti and puja, invoking the blessings of Shiva, the divine, the pure, the absolute. For those who journey with faith, it is a rewarding experience, this simple visitation to a cave-shrine, the home of the

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