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Jammu and Kashmir: Sri Amarnath Yatra
Chandanbari is 16 kilometers from Pahalgam, and 32 kilometers from Chandanwari is Amarnath, the holiest Hindu destination, that draws thousands of Hindu pilgrims every year.
There is a history of Amarnath that has been passed down from ages. Parvati, wife of Lord Shiva, wanted to know the secrets of immortality. So Lord Shiva carved out a cave with his Trident (trishul) and narrated the process to her. That cave is now known as the Amarnath cave. It is also said that two devas took the form of birds (pigeons) and listened to the story, hence Lord Shiva cursed them that they would forever live as birds. Two pigeons still live in that cave for ages now, and it is believed that it is those two same birds.
There are no permanent deities in the cave. Water trickles down at three points of the cave, turns into ice, and forms into three deities. One of them is the Shiva linga Amarnath, the other is Sri Ganesh, and the final one being Devi Parvati. The ice melts down in the summers, only to give rise to fresh deities next winter.
Amarnath is not restricted to Hindus only, and people of any faith can visit the caves and feel the divine spirituality.
It is said that Maharshi Vrigu first got to know about Amarnath in Vedic period. Much Later, Jagatguru Shakarachariya discovered it in the 8th century. In modern times, one Mr. Akrambat Mallick, of faith Islam, discovered the caves, and we all are thankful to the man for this wonderful discovery. Swami Vivekananda also visited the caves with Sister Nivedita. It is said that Swamiji was granted his wish here.
Amarnath is formally associated with a chari (dand) procession, meaning procession of stick. It is also called Chhari Mubarak and is carried from the Shankarachariya temple. The stick is actually a stick of silver. It starts from Nunwan, about 3 kms from Pahalgam. The Mohant of Dharmarth Sangh (trust) of Kashmir leads this procession, and it is followed by thousands of pilgrims. This happens in July – August.
The main pilgrimage however, starts much earlier from June July months, right from Guru purnima. The pilgrimage has been target of terrorists some years back, so extreme caution is taken by the military and now it is to their sheer credit that the journey is safe and happening every year with increased participation. Virtually, the whole route is cordoned and guarded by the Indian military.
In this one month long journey period, Amarnath has lakhs of visitors every year. One can get direct buses in this period from Jammu to Pahalgam, cordoned by military, via Khanabal and Banihal. The journey is covered in 12 to 15 hours, spanning across 307 kilometers.
Alternatively, you can take any Srinagar bus from Jammu, drop at Khanabal and change for a Srinagar bus that goes to Pahalgam.
To avoid the monotonous bus journey, reach Srinagar first, spend a day or two there, and then come to Pahalgam.
The journey from Pahalgam to Amaranth and back takes about 5 nights. You will go to Chandanwari, Seshnag, Panchtarni (3 nights) and return with night halts at Panchtarni and Sheshnag. Round the route, you will find basic accommodation. For those making it in buses, there is a rationing system for uncooked food, wood for cooking, and land for putting up your tents. The porters will take an active role to help you out. The government provides for ample medical facilities, makeshift power, guide, police everything. The efficiency with which the Lakhs of pilgrims are managed is amazing.
You can also opt for private facility providers, who will provide you with tents and food. The costs average to about Rs.300 per person every night. They are all government approved, and should be booked from Chandanwari in advance, at the start of the journey. Drop in at J&K Tourism, Indian camping agency, Amarnath travel, Dilwar camping, all at Pahalgam.
If you are unfit to walk the distance, you can hire ponies, Dandis and Kandis, all modes of transport if you do not want to walk. However, if you think you are capable of walking even half the distance, then go ahead and walk, you will find special strength and positive energy imbued in you, and you will soon find yourself at the cave.
The charri procession starts at 4am in the morning from Chandanbari base camp. A journey of 13 kms needs to be traversed, but the pathway is very steep, and frequently horses and ponies are also unable to carry on with the load. The Pisu stretch is particularly steep, and works up its way in the shape of Z. when you reach the top of Pisu at 3377 meters height, you can rest for sometime. Walk in plain land for 4 kilometers to reach Jojibal and again climb for 5 kilometers steep pathway to reach Seshnag
There is a lake at Seshnag, on the banks of which the tens are put up. You will rest here for the night.
On the second day travel for 4 kilometers to reach the highest point of this journey, Mahagunas, situated majestically at a height of 4718 meters. Another half kilometers is wabjan, meaning wind machine. The weather is windy and very very cold. The place also falls in the permafrost zone. Some pilgrims also face breathing trouble.
Once you pass the Mahagunas pass, the path goes down hill, relieving all travelers. Go down for 8 kilometers more to reach Panchatarani, where you will rest for the day. Here five mountain rivers have met, namely Bhima, Bhagawai, Saraswati, Dhaka and Bargashikha, hence the name Panchatarani.
Next morning, journey starts at 4am. Uphill starts after a kilometer at Bhairav ghat. Travel another 3 kilometers and reach Sant Singh top at a height of 4154 meters. Downhill starts right after. Trod for 3.4 kilometers more and you reach the revered Amarnath cave at 3880 meters height. You will need to climb about 500 steps of a staircase at the end. You can see the Amravati river flowing down below, which meets at Amar ganga. Some pilgrims bathe at ice cold Amaravati river. You can also choose to carry the water of the river without bathing. You will forget the pains of the journey, and you will only thank your stars that you have been able to make it here. Now that Shivji has been kind enough to let you come this far, go ahead and pay your homage and have your Darshan.
Now it is time to go back. You can follow the same schedule, or make it faster or slower while going back. You will also be able to appreciate the exquisite natural beauty more.
For those who want to make it on their own without any government help, they can make it from June to September. For them, after first night at Seshnag, they have to reach the Amarnath in the second day and then come back and rest for the night at Panchatarani. The 3rd day is for coming back to Chandanwari from Panchatarani. This journey is not advised, as the route is dangerous and risky. But people do it due to the call of nature. Always hire a guide if you are taking this journey.
There is an alternative route from Srinagar as well, via Sonamarg. One has to go to Baltal, which is the last village of Jojila valley, and lies 13 kilometers off sonamarg. From Sonamarg, Amamrnath is only 10 kilometers. It is possible to complete Amamrnath darshan and be back by the same day in this route from Srinagar, but it is advised that you spend one night at Sonamarg atleast. Bus service is available from Srinagar to Baltal from Guru Purnima to Sravani Purnima. Rest of the time, one has to depend on foot or on ponies and horses to reach Baltal from Sonamarg.
You can find more information on Yatra from http://www.shriamarnathjishrine.com/ . It has also become mandatory to register your self, before you take the journey. To register, and get all information thereof. For details contact the Amarnath Ji Board. All contact information can be found at http://www.shriamarnathjishrine.com/
The Lalalaji Amarnath Yatra provides an all paid expenses trip to amaranth from Sonmarg. The economically weak pilgrims, who have a desire to go to the Shrine, should get in touch with them.
The two different routes to Amarnath meet at Sangam. The Baltal route is more dangerous, and has lees scenic beauty, but the sheer saving of time is making this route more and more popular.