by Nancy Kaul on 24 Jul 2008 0 Comment

Vivekananda described the pilgrimage as “the very soul of the Hindu nation laid bare in all its innate beauty and sweetness of faith and devotion.” “ 


The pilgrimage of Shri Amarnath is embroiled in controversy over land allotment at the base camps. The allegations by political parties and protests by Muslims in Kashmir have no meaning as both the pilgrimage and the pilgrims have included Hindus from all over the country, besides the Kashmiri Pandits.


Mahadev Shiva has been worshipped in this cave temple for ages and the same route followed. Kashmir was ever the abode of learning for the Hindu faith; the civilisational links are hoary. Kashmir has been an important centre of monistic Shaivism; the Nilmat Purana mentions the holy cave of Amarnath as “Amreshwara.” The current secular mythology that it was discovered by a Muslim named Butta Malik is incorrect.


The Amreshwara Mahatmya of Rishi Bringesha lists some important places where pilgrims had to perform ablutions while on pilgrimage to Amreshwara: ‘Koti Tirtha’ (Baramulla), an old and extant. Tradition reveals that in Koti Tirtha lives the presiding deity of all shrines of Kashmir, as all the water from sacred springs and streams of the valley flows in confluence here. From here, the pilgrims move to Sharika Shaila at Hari Parbat (Srinagar) and pay obeisance to Lord Ganapati; from there to Shurah Yar on the right bank of Vitasta (Jhelum), at the foot of Shankaracharya Hill. Adjacent to this Shivpora, where also there used to be a temple. Moving further to Pandrenthan (previously Panthdreshti) there is a temple in the middle of a spring believed to have been built by Meru, Prime Minster of king Paratha (921-931AD); this stone temple still exists.


Other important centers en route included Padampur (Pampore), Varisha (Borus), a stream in the vicinity is Rudra Ganga where pilgrims take a sacred dip. Further lies Avantipur, rich with old   temples built by King Avantivarman (855-888 AD).  It was also known as Sedan Hector.  Harridan, Bolivar (Alchemy Khetor), Hastikaran, Chakresha, Harichandra Tirth (Bijbehara),  Anantnaga, Mach Bhawan (Mattan), Ganeshbal (Ganeshpora, 6800 ft), Mamal (or Mamleshwara, 7300 ft) on the right bank of Liddar and famous for its spring and an old temple of Shiva. Bragapati Khetra is a spring in Pahalgam, reputedly associated with Brago Rishi.


Nilganga close by was the tirtha of Sthanishwar, where pilgrims had to bathe, followed by Chandanwari, Shushram Naga (Sheshnag). Then pilgrims crossed at Vayujana (Vowjan), from Liddar to Sind valley, then to Panjtarni, and finally to Amuravati---the stream of immortality. The confluence of Amuravati with Pantsatarni is known as Sangam, where a pilgrim has to perform shraad of pitrs (ancestors). Returning from the holy cave, pilgrims were required to revisit Mamleshwara and bathe in the nine springs (Naudal). Later, to Patal Ganga near Nishat Garden, the last place where a pilgrim must bathe to complete the pilgrimage.


The Bhrngish Samhita avers that a person who bathes in the waters of Amuravati and rubs himself with ashes attains Moksha. Recitation from the Vedas and hymns pertaining to the deities and ‘Mantra’ chanting are made individually and collectively by devotees inside the cave temple:                     

Om Namah Sambhavaya Cha, Mayo Bhavaya Cha,                           

Namah Sankaraya Cha, Mayas Karaya Cha, 

Namah Shivaya Cha, Shivtaraya Cha.


The cave temple is located in South Kashmir (34.12’:75.07’) at an altitude 12,720 ft., about 140 kms. from Srinagar. The huge natural cave is about 25 meters high and capacious enough to hold hundreds of devotees; a self-forming ‘Ice Lingam’ waxes and wanes with moon, completely filling the right corner of the cave-temple. The top of the Lingam touches the base of the cave, which is also covered with ice, like a carpet. Here Shiva is worshipped by nature in the purest way, snow-white and pure. The Lingam is formed by drops of water falling from the top of the cave; two other small ‘Ice Lingams’ also form, believed to be symbols of Devi Parvati and Sri Ganesh. The dripping that flowed from the feet of ‘Ice Lingam’ took form of a stream known as ‘Amuravati’.


Many historians and writers have written about this revered Tirtha. Pandit Kalhan, one of the greatest historian-poets, in his immortal 7844 verse Rajatarangini, River of Kings”, chronicles the history of ancient Kashmir. According to Rajatarangini, the most famous pilgrimage in Kashmir is the cave of Amarnath. From 1008-1048 BC, King Nara, a great devotee of Shiva, would visit the shrine on Shravan Purnimashi every year. In Tarang II, it is mentioned that Samdimat (Arya Raja) 34 BC-17 AD, a great devotee of Shiva who rose from the position of a minister to be King of Kashmir, “used to worship a Linga of snow above the forests, which is not to be found elsewhere in the world during the delightful Kashmir summers.” Verse 267 reveals that Shushram Naga (Sheshnag), the dazzling lake resembling a sea of milk, which He created (for his residence) on a far off mountain, is seen to this day (i.e. 1148-49 AD) by pilgrims proceeding to Amreshwara.         


The holy cave nestles on one of the ‘purest and firmest’ peaks of the Himalayas, themselves the symbol of sublimity, serenity, strength. Adi Shankara, inspired by the snow clad Himalayan peaks and the Ice Lingam at Amarnath intoned: “Oh, Shiva, Thy body is white, white is Thy smile, the human skull in Thy hand is white. Thy axe, Thy bull, Thy earrings, all are white. The Ganga flowing out in foams from your matted locks is white. The crescent moon on Thy brow is white. O, all-white Shiva, give us the boon of complete sinlessness in our lives.”


Vivekananda said the worship of the Linga originated from the famous hymn in the Atharva Veda Samhita sung in praise of the “Yupa - Stambha” representing ‘Eternal Brahman’. On 2 August 1898, Vivekananda had Darshan of Amarnath. As he entered the shrine, a profound mystical experience overcame to him; latter he said: ‘Shiva Himself had appeared before him.’  He added: “the Ice Lingam was Shiva Himself. It was all worship there. I never enjoyed any religious place so much, so beautiful, so inspiring.” 


Vivekananda describes the on going pilgrimage: “The procession of several thousands of pilgrims in far-away cave of Amarnath, nestled in a glacial gorge of the Western Himalayas, through some of the most charming scenery in the world, is fascinating in the extreme. It strikes one with wonderment to observe the quiet and orderly way in which a canvas town springs up in some valley with incredible rapidity at each halting place with its bazaars and broad streets running through the middle and vanishing as quickly at the break of dawn, when the whole army of gay pilgrims are on their march once more for the day.


Then again the glow of the countless cooking fires, the ash covered Sadhus under the canopy of their large geru (orange) umbrellas pitched in the ground, sitting and discussing or meditating before their dhunies (fire), the Sanyasis of all order in their various garbs, the men and women with children from all parts of the country in their characteristic costumes,  and their devout faces, the torches shimmering at night fall, the blowing of conch-shells and horns, the singing of hymns and prayers in chorus, all these and many other romantic sights and experiences of a pilgrimage, which can be met with nowhere outside India, are most impressive and convey to some extent an idea of the overmastering passion of the race for religion.


Of the psychological aspect and significance of such pilgrimage, done on foot for days and days, much could be written. Suffice it to say, that it is one of those ancient institutions which have above all, kept the fire of spirituality burning in the hearts of the people. One sees here the very soul of the Hindu nation laid bare in all its innate beauty and sweetness of faith and devotion.”


Abul Fazal records in the Ain-i- Akbari (Vol. II., p. 360):  “Amarnath is considered a shrine of great sanctity. When the new moon rises from her throne of rays, a bubble as it were of ice is formed in the cave which daily increases little by little for fifteen days till it is some what higher than two yards, of the measure of yard determined by His Majesty. With the waning of moon the image likewise begins to decrease, till no trace of it remains when the moon disappears.”     


François Bernier, the French physician who accompanied Emperor Aurangzeb to Kashmir in 1663, mentioned the cave temple: “a magnificent cave full of wonderful congelations”. Vigne in ‘Travels in Kashmir, Ladakh and Iskardu’ (1842) recalls: “The ceremony at the cave of Amarnath takes place on the 15th of the month of Sawan (28th July). Not only Hindoos of Kashmir but those from Hindoostan of every rank and caste can be seen, collecting together and traveling up the valley of Liddar towards the celebrated cave.”


The whole Amarnath procession is conducted under the auspices of Chhari Maharaj.  Bringesha Samhita records that the Rishi was approached by the people praying to show them the path to salvation. He advised them to take pilgrimage to cave temple of Amarnath and pray to the Shiva Lingam there. To ensure their safe journey, Bringesha Rishi prayed to Shiva and was graced with the holy mace pair. Ever since, this mace pair has become the symbol of protection for the yatris and has taken the form of Chhari Maharaj and leads the annual yatra.


The Chhari generally used to leave after performing Puja at Dashnami Akhara (Srinagar) on the 4th day of the bright fortnight of Sawan. During Sikh rule in Kashmir, ‘Chhari Maharaj’ used to start from Amritsar; during Dogra rule from Srinagar. The Mahants who wield the divine command of holy place carry the two holy maces.


The contemporary agitation by fundamentalist Islamists is illegitimate. To stop the yatra or disrupt pilgrim arrangements is an attack at very ethos of Indian civilization, of which Shiva and Shakti form the foundation. Innumerable temples have been destroyed by Islamic rulers in Kashmir, yet Kashmir and its Hindu ethos comprise the fountainhead of its being, and history has been witness to it.


The traditional narrative states that Shiva chose this cave as the venue to discuss the secrets of ‘life and death’ with Devi Parvati. Anyone who heard this conversation would attain become immortal (Amaratvam). So Shiva left Nandi at Bailgam (Pahalgam), Sesha (snake) at Sheshnag, Ganapati at Mahaganesha (Mahaagunusa) and Ganga at Panchatarni on his way to the holy cave. To check that none was present in the cave, Shiva vibrated his Damaru. This is the origin of the sound ‘Aum’.


Two pigeons, who were in egg form in a nest in the cave, emerged at the sound of the Damaru and were fortunate to overhear the conversion of Shiva and Parvati. When Shiva realized this, the kind hearted Lord exchanged His body with those of the little birds. This is why the Linga grows in the bright fortnight like the moon and reaches its maximum growth on full moon day, and wanes gradually in the dark fortnight and fades out of view on new moon day - an eternal phenomenon.                  


Another legend recorded in Mahatmya states that when Maha Kala (Time, Death) appeared, Indra and other Devas were afraid and approached Shiva to avert death in their case. Pleased with the devotional hymns sung in His praise, Shiva granted immortality to the Devas by taking the crescent from His head and squeezing nectar for them. Devas drank the nectar and became immortal. The same nectar solidified into a Linga and is worshipped as Amreshwara, Lord of Immortality, at Amarnath. The dripping from the feet of Shiva Linga took became the sanctifying stream, Amaravati.    


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