Brief historical background
The Amarnath Yatra is an annual pilgrimage taken to the Himalayas by the devotees of Lord Shiva. In the Amarnath cave every year the drops of water form a stalagmite in the shape of the Shiv Ling. That is the symbol of Shiva that all devotees worship. The natural occurrence of this shape of stalagmite is supposed to be considered highly auspicious and many devotees undertake the strenuous journey each year to see it. Some people trek for miles even before they can reach the mountains. Others come in vehicles till Pehelgam and make camp at the base of the mountain range that they must now climb.
The cave in question is myth logically supposed to be the place where Shiva told Parvati, his wife, the secret of immortality. Since he wanted to ensure that no mortal being heard the secret, he took her to this distant and inaccessible cave. After they reached here, he divulged the secret to her. Only trouble is that after the long climb she was so tired that she fell asleep half way through the narration. Yet as he continued to talk some one keep saying “hmmm” and he continued the narration. It later transpired that a white bird had heard it all. When Shiva realized this he told the bird that it would be immortal, but would never be able to leave the cave for too long. This was to ensure that the bird did not pass on the secret to any human being.
In the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, Amranath Cave is located 16 km north of the city of Pahalgam. Since these are both located in the Himalayan ranges, it is only possible to visit them in the months of April to September. The winter months are too cold for a visit.
How to get there?
The closest rail line ends at Jammu, while the closest airport is at Srinagar. In either case you will have to continue on road till the town of Chandanwari. From here the pilgrims will begin their religious trek. Tourists can go by road up to the town of Pahalgam and then trek the last 16 km in two days. If they trek at a fast pace. This is not always possible as people before you can slow you down. While the distance is not much, the climb is very difficult and no one can continue after dusk as it is very unsafe. Ponies are also available should you wish to ride them.
What to see?
The main attraction here is the Ice Lingam which is supposed to form on top of a natural stone one every year. The Lingam is a symbolic representation of the Lord Shiva. He is the destroyer in the Hindu Trinity. A lord who is much feared and revered. Pilgrims come each year in thousands to complete the difficult journey to the cave at Amarnath. This trek in the mountains takes three days to complete. It is termed as the Amarnath Yatra. Yatra literally translates into journey, so Amarnath Yatra is the journey to Amranath.
Naturally the Amarnath Cave must be visited to see the Ice Lingam which has formed over the previous winter. As the summer progresses the Lingam keeps melting and during the month of July it can be gone. Which is why most pilgrims choose to make the trek in the months of May and June. There is an official date when the Amarnath Yatra is declared open. So make sure you plan on the trek after that date. Each year it is announced with much fan fare by the trust which looks after the temple at the cave.
What to do there?
Besides the trekking and some sightseeing and shopping, there is not much more to do on the Yatra. On the way down if you choose to spend some time in Pahalgam you can enjoy playing golf at the club, a ride on the newly installed cable car and some scenic walks. The Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering is a government run institute which also organizes treks and mountain climbing for groups of people. Camping out in tents and covering a stretch of the mountain can be quite an experience.
No matter how fit you are, this is one demanding hike. The religious faith and zeal are what keep most of the people going. There are huge community kitchens set up at regular distances to feed the people. Some tents are also provided to offer shelter from the elements as you break for the night. The climb is difficult but it is not uncommon to see entire families making the journey together. You will have grand parents, parents and children all climbing up the slippery and treacherous slopes together. Falling, recovering, and supporting each another with physical help and encouraging words.
The journey is perhaps better than the actual destination. As the actual amount of time that you get to spend in the cave is severely limited. The security personnel are told to ensure that the line keeps moving, so you will barely get a feel of the cave before you have to move out again. The sight takes some getting used to, plus the stalagmite is cordoned off so you really wonder about just what you got to see as you get ushered out of the cave. Sure you will be given the “Prasad” and you will have a great sense of achievement at completing the trek up, but the actual site seeing can be over rather fast.
On the way down, one needs to be more careful than on the way up. Coming down moss laden paths is difficult at any time. So when it comes at the end of a couple of days of climbing up, you need to be alert and careful. At the end of the Amarnath Yatra the people who went along with you would have started out as strangers and wound up as best friends. It can be one of the best experiences of your life, as long as you prepare yourself for the trek well. Make sure that you carry adequate woolens and any medication that you will need. There is literally nothing available in the wilderness. There are no shops from where you can buy things. You will be dependent on what you carry or what others are willing to share with you.
There has been some amount of unrest in the Kashmir valley as the militants who claim to be freedom fighters for Kashmir cause trouble. While things have been under control in the past year or so, they do have a way of flaring up suddenly. So it is not a journey to be undertaken by the faint hearted.