As I read about the hype created by self styled seculars and unapologetic Islamic leaders about the massive security arrangements done for this year’s Amarnath Yatra I am reminded of my own undertaken twenty years back. I was able to undertake this trip thanks to my posting in an Indian Air Force base in Jammu and Kashmir.
There are two trekking routes to Amarnath. One is the less risky but lengthier Chandanwari Route and another is the short but riskier Baltal route. We took the Pahalgam – Chandanwari route that required two night halts for us enroute.
Our team consisted of we two colleagues, our wives, my six year old daughter and his five year old son. We travelled by bus to Pehalgam and then took a cab to Chandanwari from where our journey on foot started.
These days children below 13 and those above 75 are not allowed. Moreover, one has to obtain a permit and a medical certificate from authorities prescribed by Amarnath Shrine Board. There were no such restrictions then in spite of the fact that just three years back, in 1996, many had died as they were stranded in unexpected snowfall.
At Chandanwari starting point, these days there are long queues for security, medical, and permit clearance. Back then there was heavy security but no such checks. On arrival at Chandanwari the first thing we did was purchase a stick and look for a pithoo who would accompany us carrying our bag and daughter on his back. After bargaining, we settled for four hundred rupees. I learn that these days there are prescribed rates for services like mules, palanquins etc.
Our Pithoo, whose name was Aziz, guided us to a small nondescript temple after a short while ithile. We learned that the pujari there too was a Muslim. He had no hesitation in taking up temporarily the role of a Kashmiri Pundit who had been forcefully driven away form their homeland. Nor did the pilgrims have any hesitation in accepting prasad from him and paying him a nominal dakshina.
Aziz was a nice, simple, and humble person. In hindsight we realise that he had another use for us. Even with the load, it was a cake walk for him. We had to hasten our paces at times to keep up with him so that we did not lose sight of our luggage and daughter. That made us reach our first night halt spot well before sunset.
Legs surrender to the inertia of the road -
narrow, winding, up, and down,
horse hoofs scattering dust and snow.
The young and the old
and the gun totting army men
surrender to the chorus -
Har Har Mahadev.
Apart from breath taking views, one beautiful thing about Amarnath Yatra is the food in the free langars which are spread out evenly throughout the route. At many places the volunteers treat you like an old relative and force you to taste their varieties of food. But we had been cautioned not to fill our stomachs on this long arduous journey and reluctantly guarded our unruly palates.
Aromas from langar kitchens rise
above the hills and beyond the clouds
screaming their menu of moksha.
But the dilemma of life
refuses to go away –
to eat or not to eat;
sweet, sour, chilly,
pungent or astringent.
Har Har Mahadev
We must have started our trekking from Chandanwari at about eleven. On the first day, with intermittent breaks for rest and refreshments we covered about twelve kilometers to reach Lake Sheshnag.
Sheshnag is usually the first night halt for the trekkers who start from Chandanwari in the first half of the day. It is believed that this lake is the abode of Serpent Lord Sheshnag that adorns Lord Shiva. Some claim that at midnight a thin ray of light emerges from one corner of the lake. Slowly it gets more and more illuminated to brighten the whole area as if it is summer noon. The spectacle of light lasts for a few micro seconds and the source of the light is said to be the gem on Sheshnag’s head. Some, including my colleagues who visited Amarnath in earlier years, claimed to have witnessed the miracle. However, during our stay we did not have any such luck.
This year, we fell
a little short of
with his crown of thousand suns
was too sleepy to oblige us.
But it happened
year after year.
Those, who had heard it, agreed.
According to one legend Lord Shiva journeyed to the cave along with his consort Parvati for deep meditation through this Chandanwari Route. Leaving his official vehicle Nandi at Pahalgam (bail -gam?) Lord Shiva decided to take the journey on foot. At Chandanwari he left his crescent moon, at Sheshnag lake he got rid of his eponymous Serpent companion, at Ganesh Choti he asked Ganesha to stay back, and finally at Panjtarni he shed his material body of five elements and entered the cave in his ethereal body with his consort Parvati. The Amarnath cave is also the place where Lord Shiva is believed to have transmitted deep spiritual knowledge to Parvati. Later this knowledge was compiled as Vigyan Bhairava Tantra where in 112 ways of meditation are described. It is said that there is no meditation technique of past, present, and future that is not mentioned in this book.
P.S. 1: Coincidentally I could trace out the old photos which were taken with one of the analog cameras of those days. The quality of photos may be an issue. Hopefully, the photos may give you the feeling of going through an old book.
P.S.2: The fragments of stanzas quoted here are from my poem ‘A Trip to Amarnath’ which is part of my poetry book ‘Pebbles and Waves’.