Take Care in Amarnath

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Kailash and Amarnath both in the same year may sound brave to many but when both happened in 2012 I was dazed, it seemed as if the Almighty was taking me by the hand. It may be that the mind finds an equivalent place to go to as per its inner state. Amarnath trip can be total chaos unless supervised by the Lord above and the agency below. Here, everything is undecided- weather, helicopter, Ice linga, health, return journey, timings, package and safety.

So why do people still throng dangerous pilgrimages? The reason is not always spiritual. Adventures, curiosity, joining the band wagon, challenge, earning merit (punya), tapasya, fulfilling wishes are some of the reasons.  Some people have a strange notion - to die on route and reach the Almighty. This spiritual suicide, they feel, cannot earn them wrath of society or God and can liberate them. At Mansarovar, Sadguru Jaggi Vasudeva emphatically explained that dying on any pilgrimage cannot take a soul to God’s abode for the simple reason that it is the last thought that matters and in such cases last thought is to be saved from danger zone. Efforts must be made to make a pilgrimage positively memorable and the memory should be of the Divine rather than of adversities.  

Opting for a three day tour to Amarnath, I went with my mother praying anxiously. Negative stories about Kashmir were hovering on my mind and I expected terrorists any moment. Turmoil in the mind can ruin a journey for the outside reflects the inside. Presence of army all over the place was reassuring and a reminder of hostilities.

Back home, I was met by intake of breaths, open jaws and unbelievable looks that refused to believe that I could take my mother up there and return safely. As I recounted the beauty of Sivalinga that bloomed before us at its full height, no one seemed interested. People were interested in how I survived the deadly pilgrimage. At Amarnath, no one bothered to ask me whether my mother had any health problem that could harm her. Although we had sincerely undergone health check up the counter person casually asked for health certificate in order to complete formalities. Thankfully this year government is checking each pilgrim at its own end and hopefully causalities will drop down but still there are several dos and don’ts.

Though Kailash is more difficult yet it is Amarnath where people lose their lives in great numbers. One reason could be a carefree attitude imagining free food and accommodation flowing everywhere.  But a great distance has to be covered before one reaches free food. There are two routes for Amarnath - from Baltal and from Pahalgam. It is better to choose the quickest and nearest route and focus on Sivalinga first and sightseeing later.  

Non conformity of hotels at Sonmarga despite pre-arrangement is a great problem. Queues in hotels expose utter mismanagement by agencies that take full money and leave pilgrims to their fate. Unexpected pilgrims offer a lot under the table and the hotelier accommodates maximum people in verandahs, stores, stairs and dining room. In the beautiful landscape of Sonmarga we spotted a mother-daughter duo like us and exchanged numbers which proved life saving to them later on. It is better to make friends, for fellow travelers prove to be saviors. Phones don’t work here unless postpaid. So buy or borrow a postpaid number to avoid being cut off.

Talk to those who have returned after darshan for they know the correct situation. There were families whose members were stranded above and could not be communicated. If travelling by helicopter, ensure to get an early time as a later trip will force one to bear an icy night in wet tents (only for highly adventurous). Underhand payment took place at helicopter counters for early flights so even if the agency had given an early time.

Second day of the tour begins at 3.00 am when hotels cannot provide a hot bath so take a cold one or avoid. Local drivers have to be pampered to wake up from their cozy sleep and a word of reprimand results in their taking revenge by non-cooperation. Travelers must be at their humble best for locals regard every pilgrim suspiciously and petty things inflate.  At early dawn with no light, no direction, no help pilgrims are at mercy of drivers. They drop everyone at parking irrespective of whether senior citizens can walk the extra mile.  We got our helicopter flight after much discussion showing them the seniority of my mother but the other mother daughter duo I befriended got an afternoon time which totally ruined their entire package. Forced to stay near the ice linga amidst icy winds without enough warm clothes and food their bodies turned red like burning charcoal.

Getting down from the helicopter is not end of journey; a tedious path is ahead which can be done by walking, pony or palki. Senior citizens have just one option - the palki carried by four men. Whether one takes pony or palki or walks, reaching and returning safely is a miracle due to a slippery and crowded icy path carved out of mountains. Ponies fall off at curves and it is sure death for both. No one can reach to their rescue. Take the card of the palki leader or else they will vanish to generous pilgrims or announce tea time suddenly. Instruct them that for you each minute is important and be prepared for a pay hike by them. Instead of complaining it’s better to be generous for this is their earning time. Chanting ‘Om Namah Shivaya’ calms the nerves and keeps one cheerful so occupy the mind in chanting or alarming bells in the mind will create a frightful picture.

Pilgrims die here for many reasons- lack of oxygen, fright, sudden slip, a high BP and an empty stomach. Stomach and heart both should be filled with energy and force. Energy of food can take one’s body to great heights and force of love alone can manifest the Lord from His Formlessness.  Deciding to forego food or drink till Amarnath, hoping that this sacrifice would please Siva I collapsed on return and had to be administered oxygen. The doctor asked me to be careful and in an undertone showed the pilgrim on the next bed who could not revive despite being given oxygen.

All members of a group should take the same kind of mode otherwise getting separated is terrifying and tracing them is formidable. The palkis and ponies stop at a given place from where the cave is still further and entails walking on the icy path. It is no joke to slip on the ice which happens repetitively but senior citizens cannot put up with even half a slip as the ice hits hard and military hospitals tents are overcrowded with elderly females. So, hold tight to your helper/pithu till the linga. The palki is supposed to carry the elderly right up to the linga for which pithus demand extra money and if you are agree they take good care.

Our spirits were lifted as we spotted the Amarnath cave and it looked like a large, cavernous mouth in which a serpentine queue was entering, as if being engulfed by an unseen power ready to open our karmic accounts and announcing the final verdict.  This gigantic opening yields into an enormous area that can fit in thousands of people looking like tiny ants. Lord Siva narrated the Immortal Secret to Parvati, allowing none, not even Ganesha, Nandi, His Moon, Snake, nor the five elements.  Siva ordered Fire to surround the Holy Cave but a pair of pigeons is said to have heard it and become immortal.  

Face to face with the Icy Siva in His heightened glory is a sight that made us cry openly. Tiny, minuscule man with a colossal ego standing in front of the marvels of Nature, trying to listen to the Silence of Illusionary Maya. Eyes can never have enough of this ice linga, so awesome, so breathtaking it is that the heart trembles with ecstasy. The pithu points to the ceiling where two pigeons comfortably chuckle at each other unconscious of ogling eyes. But thousands of devotees cheering deafeningly is enough to put off those who wish to gaze silently and meditate on the linga with open eyes. Their ear splitting chants, beating of drums are enough to disturb Siva, wake up Parvati from her peaceful slumber and jolt the immortal pigeons that fly every now and then eliciting a victorious cry from down below.  

Take care of yourself at Amarnath for facilities cannot be given here either to the rich or poor. None can foretell what surprise Nature will be handing to each one so just be vigilant. It is a rough journey where weather is the Master and Siva is the Controller. Vision of the linga depends totally on Siva’s Grace so pray to Him for a grand vision, a comfortable journey and a safe return to be able to treasure the memory in your hearts and peep in whenever the heart overflows with love for Siva.   

Editor – In July 2013 a friend mailed me and said ‘In Amarnath, with 38 days to go for the end of the yatra, it is reported that the Shivlingam has melted completely! This could happen if salt is spread on the roof of the cave, as was widely reported a few years ago. The traditional keepers of the cave are Muslims, who have access to the high ground above the cave. But it will not be reported, of course! Wonder if such a melting away had happened any time previously in history.”

Also see
1. Mount Kailash Yatra
2. 12 Jyotirlings
3. Shiv Temples
4.Top 11 Shiv Temples outside India
5. Reflections on Mahashivaratri