The Amarnath Yatra has been in the national news in recent years for the wrong reasons. In 2019, pilgrims were called back and this year, paradoxically, they were being allowed to undertake the pilgrimage despite the national emergency and a lockdown in the Valley because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thankfully, better sense has prevailed at the last moment. The millions of taxpayers’ rupees spent on making arrangements for the yatra could have been used for some much-needed development programmes.
According to its legend, the Amarnath cave and the holy Lingam was re-discovered by a shepherd named Buta Malik, a Muslim, in 1850. He had been grazing his cattle in the mountain when a Sufi saint gave him a bag of coal, which later turned out to be gold. He went back to thank the saint but found the cave and the Shivalingam. Believers say that the Lingam grows and shrinks with the phases of the moon, reaching its height during the summer festival and peaking on the day of the full moon during Shraavana (the fifth month of the Hindu calendar).
This belief may not have a scientific basis. The Lingam is formed from drops of ice-cold water, dripping from the ceiling of the cave and accumulating at that spot in the shape of a lingam. As per the Hindu faith, Lord Shiva entered the Holy Amarnath Cave along with Mata Parvati, his divine consort, and revealed to her the secret of life and eternity.
Rajatarangini (Book VII v. 183) refers to the sacred site as Amareshwara. It is also believed that in the 11th CE, queen Suryamati gifted trishuls, banalingas and other sacred emblems to this temple. There are several other references to this pilgrimage in many ancient texts as also in the account of Francois Bernier, a French physician who accompanied Emperor Aurangzeb during his first visit to Kashmir in 1663.
The cave is situated at an altitude of 3,888 metres (12,756 ft), about 141-km from Srinagar and can be reached through Pahalgam town by way of a four-day trek. The shorter single-day trek is from Baltal near Sonamarg on the Srinagar-Leh road. The route has some steep cliffs but has been improved considerably recently. Ponies and a helicopter service are also available. This is the route that was allowed this year.
The yatra provides a living to local Muslims, who guide and assist the pilgrims. This is a task they perform with dedication. Unfortunately, a few militant groups harassed and attacked the yatra in 2017, killing pilgrims, local Muslims and security personnel. This was condemned by every Kashmiri, including the Hurriyat Conference. The Amarnath Yatra has been a symbol of Kashmir, also called the land of rishis, Sufis, and saints — of which Laleshwari (Lal Ded) and Nund Rishi (Sheikh Noor-ud-Din) are the best known.
It was only in 2019 that the pilgrims were called back in the first week of August amidst panic about an impending terror attack. Later, it became apparent that the reason for the cancellation was the abrogation of Article 370 and the clampdown that followed. Apart from dividing the state into two Union Territories, a vast swathe of the population was put under lockdown. The announcement could have waited a few more days.
This year, the Valley is suffering from the pandemic like the rest of the country. Srinagar is in lockdown till August 1.
Why did it take so long to cancel the Yatra in the interest of the health of the people of the Valley and those who facilitate the pilgrimage? Was it to pander to a particular political base, even if it meant violating the precautions necessary to contain the pandemic? Thankfully, at long last, Lord Shiva revealed the right path.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 23, 2020 under the title ‘The Right Path’. The writer, a cardiologist, is a recipient of the Dr B C Roy Award and a Padmashree