Legend has it that when Lord Shiva decided to tell Parvati the secret of his immortality (Amar Katha), he chose the Amarnath cave deep in the Himalayas in south Kashmir. The cave, 3,888 m above sea level, can be reached only on foot or by pony, travelling 46 km from Pahalgam or 16 km from Baltal along a steep, winding mountain trail.
According to lore, the cave was discovered by a Muslim shepherd, Buta Malik, in 1850. Malik was high up in the mountains with his herd when a Sufi saint gave him a bagful of coal. Opening the bag after returning home, Malik found it to be full of gold. The ecstatic shepherd ran to thank the saint but couldn’t find him — instead, he found the cave and the ice lingam.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make the trek up to the shrine. There is no official record of when the Yatra began.
According to the Purohit Sabha Mattan, which organised the Yatra until 2000, the pilgrimage was initially for 15 days or a month. In 2005, the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board, which took over from the Sabha, decided to extend the pilgrimage over nearly two months.
The ice lingam is formed by a trickle of water from a cleft in the cave’s roof. The water freezes as it drips, forming, over time, a tall, smooth ice stalagmite. The Shiva lingam gets its full shape in May, after which it begins to melt — by August, it is just a few feet in height. On the left of the Shiva lingam are two smaller ice stalagmites, representing Parvati and Lord Ganesh.
The Shrine Board
The family of Buta Malik remained the traditional custodian of the shrine, along with Hindu priests from the Dashnami Akhara and Purohit Sabha Mattan. This unique ensemble of faiths turned Amarnath into a symbol of Kashmir’s centuries-old communal harmony and composite culture. In 2000, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah’s government intervened, saying facilities for the Yatra needed to be improved. The Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board was formed with the Governor at its head, and Malik’s family and the Hindu organisations were evicted. Streamlining of the Yatra came at the cost of destroying perhaps its most unique aspect.
Crises and calm
The first security threat to the pilgrimage came in 1993, when the Pakistan-based Harkat-ul-Ansar announced a ban on the Yatra — ostensibly to protest the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and to demand the removal of bunkers at the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar. There was widespread condemnation of the diktat, local militant groups did not buy into it, and the Yatra progressed unhindered through the years of peak militancy.
In 2000, 25 people, including 17 pilgrims, were killed in a massive militant attack on the Pahalgam base camp. This was the first direct militant attack on pilgrims; over the next two years, several yatris were killed in big and small attacks.
As the gun took the backseat in Kashmir and public protests came to define the separatist struggle, the Yatra became conflict-neutral. There were no major incidents after 2002; even during the massive protests against the transfer of government land to the Amarnath Shrine Board in 2008, the Yatra remained unaffected. Even as the Valley and Jammu’s Hindu majority areas were sharply divided along communal lines, mohalla committees organised langars for yatris in Srinagar and Ganderal districts. This situation remained unchanged during the 2010 and 2016 summer uprisings.
Tensions between Governor Lt Gen S K Sinha and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s coalition government escalated sharply after the Governor, as chairman of the Shrine Board, unilaterally extended the duration of the Yatra. The Chief Minister rejected the extension on grounds of the additional burden it would put on the security forces and the administration, as well as concerns over the weather. Sinha’s Principal Secretary, Arun Kumar, wrote to Forest Secretary Sonali Kumar — who was also his wife — and got around 4,000 kanals of forest land transferred to the Shrine Board. The government struck down the order and slapped a show-cause notice on Sonali Kumar for stepping out of line.
After Ghulam Nabi Azad took over as CM, Sinha wrote to Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Hussain Beig, seeking forest land in Nunwan, Pahalgam and Baltal, and the setting up of an independent development authority run by the Raj Bhawan. The government didn’t agree to the second proposal, but did divert 800 kanals of forest land to the Shrine Board.
A continuing goodwill
An attack on Hindu pilgrims has always faced mass public disapproval in Kashmir. This time too, no militant outfit has taken responsibility for the attack — rather, every militant organisation has issued statements condemning it. Last June, Hizbul commander Burhan Wani had issued a video statement saying the Amarnath Yatra would never be attacked. The separatist leadership has strongly condemned Monday’s attack. The militants are seen to have breached a red line, and it is clear that the larger Kashmiri society resents it.
The involvement of a Muslim family with a Hindu pilgrimage in Kashmir isn’t, in fact, restricted to Amarnath. Chhota Amarnath in Bandipore for generations had a chowkidar from a local Muslim family, who were also the neighbours of the Hindu priest’s family. Many shrines, both Hindu and Muslim, are revered by both communities. The Amarnath pilgrimage has existed in a larger narrative in which Shaivite and Sufi practices were fused together in a composite culture and tradition. Though this age-old syncretic ethos received a serious blow by the circumstances that led to the migration of Kashmiri pandits in 1990, the Amarnath Yatra remained a signifier of the Hindu-Muslim bond.