Amarnath Yatra: Travel to the Ice Cave of Shiva

Pilgrims travel through impassable roads to get to the cave of Shiva lingam during the Amarnath Yatra. Situated at 4000 meters in the snowy mountains of Kashmir, Amarnath is among the most sacred sites in India. People climb right up to the Amarnath cave to worship an ice stalagmite that is formed around the month of July from the dripping of water that falls well within the 40 meters high cave. It is worshiped as a lingam of Shiva, the phallic symbol of devotion to this deity. The Amarnath cave is 145 km from Srinagar.

The earliest reference is in Rajatarangiri, an epic of the twelfth-century poem. It recounts the exploits of the Kashmiri rulers. The cave is called Amareshwara, or Amarnath and was the place where the legendary King Arya Raja worshiped an ice lingam. Queen Suryamathi decorated the cave with tridents and Banalinga in the eleventh century. It is believed then that this cave was forgotten until, in the fifteenth century, it was found by a shepherd who discovered the ice lingam.

The main features in the iconography of Shiva that is how you see it represented are the bull called Nandi, which is his mount, the snake around his neck, the third eye, the crescent moon, the Ganges river that descends from his hair, trident and a small double-sided drum. It is not uncommon in India, indeed, see Shiva worshiped through the representation of the lingam.

Today I will tell the story of the lingam in the Amarnath cave.

The pilgrimage or the Amarnath Yatra takes place over 59 days from July until August during the full moon of the month of August. In the cave, there is an ice stalagmite, more than 3 meters high, which as if by magic increases and decreases with the lunar phases. The devotees sprinkle with water, smear sandalwood paste and yogurt and decorate it with flower petals.

To get to the cave of Amarnath, devotees must reach via Pahalgam and then Chandanwari, where are set up tented camps and are provided food supplies. Then they start the climb to get to the Pissu Top. From Sheshnag, the climb is even steeper.

To get to Panchtarni, the last field, the oxygen comes down drastically and include waterfalls that descend from the mountains and snow-covered peaks in the shape of the mythical serpent's head. The recent alternative is from Baltal, which is only 14 km from the Amarnath caves to explore on foot. The route is shorter but steeper than the one from Pahalgam and can be completed in a day.

According to belief, the lingam size increases and decreases with the different phases of the moon. In some seasons the lingam melted early to the rising temperature and certainly also for anthropogenic causes due to the influx of pilgrims. The local people said that the cave was discovered by a shepherd. Close to the full moon of Shrawan, Sonamarg also gets crowded with pilgrims because this is one of the possible routes of the pilgrimage that goes up to the holy Amarnath cave.

It's all a mix of races, and not only united by a common belief is that the symbolic importance of the cave that here we also see Muslims. The pilgrimage to Amarnath becomes also a time to show their identity, beyond religious belief.

The trek is very hard as you have to face rocky terrain, snow-capped mountains, glaciers, unpredictable weather situations and overcome a trek of 5450 meters above sea level. The landscape is wild where rivers and waterfalls meet formed by melting glaciers and pine forests, whose green stands out in the blue sky. The walk is fairly easy with the crisp air and the blue sky. Our steps are combined with those of the pilgrims, who exchange a greeting and a smile and then resume walking.

The road becomes a path along the hillside, and what you see is proof of the immortal soul. The huge trees, the river that flows rushing between the rocks, the mountains get higher and covered by green forests so intense as to tire the pupil and there are even waterfalls, natural caves, huts of shepherds with some yaks and a few flowers on the way to Shiva.

The horses are used by most people for carrying luggage. The Gurjari horsemen incite the horses with verses that make them close to their animals. The horse goes between cliffs. But immediately after the pass, there is the descent for luck, and all around is a prairie of alpine stars. I was speechless, but also out of breath.

Meanwhile, the worst is over, so as we approached the cave, the devotees walk with even faster pace. In the distance, we see the cave, but you should still go down and cross a stream of cold water. In this stream, the sadhus undress and bathe in cool water to be purified before going to meet Shiva. Finally after a final stretch in the snow even we get to the cave.
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  • Jeevan
    Jeevan May 12, 2012 at 4:41 AM

    Looks like a pilgrimage for paradise! Awesome shots on the Yatra...

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