One of the most difficult and sacred pilgrimages undertaken by Hindus from all over the country is the famous Amarnath Yatra during the summer months of July – August. Amarnath Yatra is a journey of faith taken to receive the blessings of Lord Shiva every year by thousands of ardent devotees.
Amarnath Yatra end destination is the holy Amarnath cave located at an altitude of 3888 meters (12760 feet) in the Himalayan mountain range known as the Chandanwari Hills. The shrine receives more than 4 lakh pilgrims in a 45-day visiting period during the month of Shravan and the Shravani Mela.
The devotees have to trek a distance of 42 km on foot from the scenic town of Pahalgam. For a person in healthy condition, the trek will take 4 – 5 days to complete. There are two approaches to the holy cave – the longer but traditional route from Srinagar (42 km) or the shorter new steep route (16 km) from a town called Baltal.
For Amarnath Yatra, cave itself is surrounded by snowy peaks on all sides. The total height of the cave is 130 feet. A snowy stalagmite forms the shape of the Shiva Linga which is worshiped with great reverence. Besides the main Linga, three other formations representing smaller Lingas are worshiped as Lord Ganesha and Goddess Parvati and Bhairava.
Every year, Amarnath Yatra is organized by the J&K State Government in collusion with the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board. The Government is responsible for providing necessary facilities like food supplies, power, telecommunication, water, tents, and ponies. Apart from the Government, several non-profit organizations set up pandals along the journey to serve the visiting devotees at free of cost.
Amarnath Yatra History
- The cave is believed to have been in existence since the age of the Gods and Goddesses. The cave has been mentioned in the Bringesh Samhita and the Nilamata Purana. A 6th century Sanskrit work depicting the life of Kashmiris also mentions a holy cave where Lord Shiva is worshiped as an ice Linga. The Amarnath Mahatmaya provides extensive details of the pilgrimage to the Amarnath shrine. It also enlists all the holy sites en route and their significance. The Amarnath Mahatmaya is believed to explain the importance of Amarnath in details and takes its facts from the ancient Adi-Purana.
- The legend associated with the cave is fascinating and intriguing. According to scriptures, the cave is believed to have been chosen by Lord Shiva himself for enlighting Goddess Parvati about immortality and how to achieve it. There is a story behind this that has been passed on for generations.
- As per the story, Goddess Parvati wanted to know the reason Lord Shiva wore the Mund Mala. Mund Mala is the necklace of skulls that Lord wears around his neck. To this, the Lord replied that he added one skull to the necklace whenever she died and resurrected. Goddess Parvati became curious and asked him why is that he is immortal while she has to go through the cycles of birth and death. To satisfy her curiosity, Lord Shiva told her to listen to the Amar Katha, the story of immortality.
- However, to tell her the secret, he decided that the selected place should be isolated and that no living thing must be able to overhear it. After searching for such a suitable place, he arrived at the Amarnath Cave. On the way, he let go of all living things associated with him such as Nandi, the snakes, his son Ganesha, the Five elements and the moon God so that none could overhear the secret.
- Lord Shiva along with Goddess Parvati entered the cave. Lord Shiva sat on a deer skin and concentrated hard to make sure that no mortal was nearby to hear the tale. He created a Rudra named Kalagni and ordered him to eliminate all the living things around the cave. As soon as that was accomplished, he started narrating the tale. Unknowingly to both of them, a Pigeon egg was hidden and alive beneath the bedding Lord Shiva used to sit and tell the story. A pair of Pigeons eventually hatched out if it and became immortal since they had listened to that story. It is believed that this pair of Pigeons can still be seen around the cave by the visiting pilgrims.
- The discovery of the shrine is contested by two versions. As per ancient epics, the valley of Kashmir was under water for a long time. Sage Kashyapa drained the water from the valley by creating several rivers and their distributaries. Sage Bhrigu visited Kashmir on one of his spiritual journeys and stumbled upon the Holy Cave. It is believed that he was the first person apart from Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati themselves, to visit the holy cave. As the news of the Linga spread, pilgrims began to arrive at the shrine to pay their respect to their beloved God and Goddess.
- Another more recent story says that the cave was actually discovered 700 years ago by a shepherd named Buta Malik. As per his version, once, while roaming through the mountains, he met a Saint and was given a bag of coal to carry home. When he reached home and opened the bag, he found gold instead of coal. He was overjoyed and trekked back to thank the Saint. However, when he reached the spot, he could not find the Saint but in its place found the holy cave with the Linga. He ran back and announced his discovery to the villagers. Word of the cave spread fast and eventually, the spot became a pilgrimage undertaken by a large number of people every year.
- Another popular legend associated with the cave is that of Sage Bringesh. The disciples of Sage Bringesh decided to take a pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave. On the way, they were attacked by demons. They could not complete the journey and requested the assistance of Sage Bringesh. The Sage performed penance to Lord Shiva for his assistance. Appeased, Lord Shiva gifted him the Chhari Mubarak to be carried by him for safety.
Significance of Amarnath Yatra
- It is believed by ardent devotees that this cave is the spot where Lord Shiva grants the boon of immortality to the other Gods.
- As per the ancient Sage Bringesh, the importance of the holy cave is such that, anyone who visits the shrine attains moksha or enlightenment.
- According to religious beliefs, the Lingam made of snow grows with the rising phase of the moon and diminishes in size during the diminishing phase of the moon during the Summer or the Shravan month. However, this fact is not scientifically proven.
- The areas surrounding the Pahalgam base camp are extremely significant from the mythological point of view. It is a belief that Lord Shiva left Nandi at Pahalgam (Bail Gaon), let go of his snakes at Lake Sheshnag, released the moon from his hair at Chandanwari, left his son Lord Ganesh at Mahaguna Mountains (also known as Mahaganesh Mountain), and left the five elements of Earth at Panjtarni. It is believed that he performed the Tandav dance at the site as a symbol of renouncing the earthly world.
Temple Timings for Amarnath Yatra
- The cave remains open to public during the month of July-August (Vyas Purnima to Shravan Purnima) only.
- All Yatris have to register at the Jammu and Kashmir Tourist Offices located at major cities of India like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Jammu and Srinagar.
- It is highly recommended that one gets themselves a complete medical checkup before proceeding for the Yatra. The trek involves walking for 42 km at a high altitude.
Dress Code for Amarnath Yatra
The Holy cave is located at an elevation of 12,000 feet. The weather conditions are erratic as it may rain or snow anytime during the journey. The temperature may fall as low as -5 degree Celsius. Hence, it is recommended that one should be dressed in heavy woolen clothes. Additional jackets, monkey caps, mufflers, ear-covering gear, thermal wear, woolen socks, raincoat, umbrellas, blankets, torches with spare batteries, flasks, and portable small tents or beds are highly recommended for the journey.
Saree is a very uncomfortable wear for the women pilgrims. It is also advised to wear proper sports shoes for the trek.
Poojas and Rituals
- Pratham Pooja – The Pratham Pooja means the “First Pooja”. This Pooja is performed at the holy cave on the day the Yatra is declared open. The members of the J&K Government, as well as the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, attend the Pooja without fail. Several Vedic mantras, as well as Shlokas, are chanted in praise of Lord Shiva, following which the Prasad is distributed among the devotees. The Pooja ceremony involves Bhoomi Pooja, Navagraha Pooja, Chhari Pooja and lastly the Dhwajarohan indicating the beginning of the yatra. The Pooja is held on the day of Vyas-Purnima (July).
- Chhari Mubarak – The auspicious event marks the end of the Amarnath Yatra. The Chhari refers to the holy mace of Lord Shiva that he gifted to the Sage Bringesh. The Chhari Mubarak is taken to the shrine on the day of Shravan Purnima, also celebrated as the Raksha Bandhan. After the Pratham Pooja, he Chhari is then returned to the Dashnami Akhara where it is kept for darshan. Special Poojas are performed for Naga Panchami. Then the mace is carried to the holy Amarnath Shrine by the traditional route.
How to reach Amarnath
- By Air – The nearest airport is the Srinagar International Airport that is well connected to cities like New Delhi, Mumbai, Goa, Bangalore, Leh, Chennai, Chandigarh, Jammu, and Amritsar. The airport connects the city of Jeddah with a flight operated by Air India.
- By Train – Jammu Tawi is the nearest railway station to Pahalgam from where the trek begins. Jammu is well connected to almost all the major cities in India like New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Lucknow, Bhopal, Ludhiana, Hyderabad, and Allahabad.
- By Road – The Jammu and Kashmir State Road Transport Corporation (JKSRTC) operates regular buses to Pahalgam and Baital from Jammu and Srinagar.
- Helicopter services are operated from Srinagar by private operators till Panjtarni, 6 km from the cave.
Where to stay
During the arduous journey, tent accommodation is arranged by the Jammu and Kashmir Government as well as several Non-Profit Organizations. These services are provided at the base camps along the trek like Sheshnag, Panchtarni etc.
Where to eat
Government aided and NGO aided tents are set up at strategic points throughout the trek route. They offer simple vegetarian food to the devotees. It is strictly advised to carry snacks like chocolates, toffees, biscuits, dry fruits, and medicines for altitude sickness.
- Mamleshwar Temple – The ancient and mythologically important temple lies just 1 km from the main Pahalgam center. The Temple date back to the 5th century and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. According to the legend, this is the place where Goddess Parvati instructs Ganesha to stand guard at the Temple entrance and not allow anyone inside.
- Sri Shankaracharya Temple – The famous and ancient temple dedicated to Sri Shankaracharya is located on a hilltop in Srinagar, 88 km from Amarnath base Pahalgam. The Temple is also known as Jyesteshwara Temple. The presiding deity of the temple is Lord Shiva. The original shrine is believed to date back to 200 BC. The present structure has been constructed somewhere during the 9th century. The Temple is also a sacred site for the Persians, Buddhists and the Jews.
- Martand Sun Temple – The enchanting and ghostly ruins of the once great and beautiful temple dedicated to the Sun God Surya is not to be missed. The Temple is located just 40 km from Pahalgam. The foundation of the temple dates back to the 4th century but the temple is believed ti have been built in the 8th century by the Lalitaditya Muktapida of the Karkota dynasty. The antechamber of the temple contains ruined sculptures and images of Lord Vishnu, Goddess Ganga, Yamuna, and Surya.