Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Amarnath Yatra 2012, a memoir.

The evening before the Climb at Pahelgam
As I stood on the footbridge above the rumbling river Lidder at Pahelgam with the sun lost beyond the mountains and its orange remnant on the sky, I thought whether I will be able to finish it.
The monotony of the flowing river was intermittently broken by the Choppers- one on their last sorties of the day to Panjtarani with pilgrims on board. Collecting a few nitty -gritty from the nearby market we headed for the hotel. We knew this night’s sleep will be the last one in next few days where we will have room heaters, a cozy bed and clean blankets to invite sleep into our eyes. We were already tired by the day’s journey from Jammu to here, at Pahelgam. So, we called it a day.
Amarnath Yatra – the pilgrimage of ice- as it is often called. Years back, a Muslim Shepard chanced upon a cave deep in the mountains where he saw an ice stalagmite, naturally formed. Later this ‘Shivling’ came to be known as Amarnath. From time immemorial, pilgrims from all casts and creeds throng the ice cave to pay obeisance to the Almighty. Interestingly, the descendants of this Muslim shepherd are still the main priest of Amarnathji.
From Pahelgam we hired a car. The beautiful Betaab valley lay on our right while the stiff mountain wall stood erect on our left. The early morning nip in the air was refreshing. Lidder cut through the pine and deodar valley. The pristine visage was an early morning treat to eyes. The 16 km journey, thus, ended in a whisker.
 At Chandanwari (9500 ft) we entered the iron gates showing our Yatra permit issued by the Shrine Board. The permit can be acquired from any of the 121 J&K Branches, 49 Yes Bank branches and 100 Odd post office located at various states across the country. The form of the application can be downloaded from the Shrine Board website – www. Shriamarnathji.com. A fitness certificate from a registered medical practitioner is essential for this Yatra.
“Jay Bhole! Chaye pijie Bhole!” hailed a man after we took a few steps up. Just as we crossed the gate we saw a host of langars – free food camps-where the volunteers were in tough competitions to woo the pilgrims into their make-shift camps to serve hot vegetarian food, free. A holy attempt, you can say, to wash of their sins gathered at the material world below. The jazzed up version of holy songs jaunted up our spirit as we headed for the Pissu Top (11500 ft). the first drastic climb up the mountains. Though children are not encouraged to take this trip, I saw a small girl walking with her small ‘Chhari’ – a walking stick with a tapering end, mandatory for the route.
The Unrelenting Sardar
 Even a Sardarji was climbing up the tracks with a small baby lugged up on his chest. Devotion can be dogmatic at the times.
Pissu Top
Two hours later we were standing exhausted on the Pishu Top. Pilgrims were posing on the stone where “Welcome to Pisu Top” was written. Most had an aura of victory writ on their face, as if they have conquered K2. Again sprightly volunteers cajoled us for tea and snacks. This time we obliged them with all our hearts, nay our famished stomachs.
Seshnag and birth of river Lidder
An hour of rest then the journey restarted. Our destination is Sheshnag, a mountain lake at 11730 ft. We walked 4 km to Jojibal and then climbed 5km up to reach Sheshnag the origin of river Lidder. The sea green lake is fed by the ice cold water from the mountain which hovered upon the lake as if trying to look after its well being forever. A thin crust of ice formed near the banks. We soon hired a private tent and arranged our bed- a coir cot with a couple of blankets. The journey was tiring. We swathed ourselves with jackets and mufflers before coming out for an early dinner at the Langar. Here at Kashmir, the sun sets at 8 pm. So there was enough light. Suddenly we saw a covered dead body strapped to a stretcher, being brought down by the potters.
“Babu, a team of lawyers of Andhra Pradesh went up today. One succumbed to the unrelenting steepness of Mahagunas (14500 ft). His heart just stopped beating”, said one of them. The entire team cancelled the journey and went down today. I felt sad. “How can God be so merciless to his pilgrims?” I asked myself. “Or was it his own way to reliving his devotee of the Maya of this mundane world?” I searched for the answer in the evening sky.
 I couldn’t eat much after the shock and soon headed for my temporary shelter. Exhaustion got the better of us with minutes and we went deep into sleep.
Next morning our journey was delayed due to rains. A middle aged couple was accompanied with their kids. The husband enthused us to venture in the drizzle, which we did.  But later the deteriorating weather brought us to reason. We headed back to our tent.
On the way to Panjtarni, we crossed this river
We were supposed to reach Panjtarani (12729 ft) 11 km away, but had to settle at Poshpatri (1400 ft) 1.6 km away in an army camp. But climbing Mahagunas top and then negotiating a glacier at Rabbal took its toll on my health. Much above tree line, scare oxygen had increased my heart rate and I was having nausea. Instinctively, I headed for the medical camp leaving my luggage to my fried. The doctor instantly put me on oxygen and gave a shot in my arm to bring me back to normal. Strangely, he also was putting on the oxygen musk himself in between giving me and other patients. “Breathless is the order of the day, here”, he smiled.
Panjtarani is a valley lush green, fed by the river. Choppers that we saw from Pahelgam were landing here. The pilgrims were taking ponies from here to reach the Holy Cave (13500 ft), 10 Km away. We lost no time here, since rain had delayed our schedule. We headed for Sangam (11808 ft) and crossed the Amravati River below the cave and booked our next tent for the night. After a brief rest we headed for the Darshan. The steps of the cave were cold and they pinched our naked feet. We were relieved of our mobiles and cameras by the CRPF below, for security reasons. As we entered the cave, to our right we saw iron railings. We climbed further and again to right hand corner we saw the Shivling.

On the way to the holy cave 

“Jay Bholey!, Jay Amarnathji ki Jay!” were chanted everywhere. The end of arduous journey to the cave was no more arduous. The pains vanished. The inner self seemed connected to the holy ambience.  This is the place where Swami Vivekananda and Sister Nivedita visited. This is where Swamiji got the sight of Lord Amarnath while he was sitting outside of the cave after taking a bath in the Amravati and paying homage to Lord Shiva. Sister Nivedita was right in a book-Notes of some wanderings with the Swami Vivekananda- where she wrote that the beauty of the route was comparable to that of Switzerland and Norway.
“Kabutar Dekha” asked a Sadhu. I heard that when Lord Shiva was telling a story of immortality to Goddess Parvati, two pigeons listened from their chubby hole. Locals say these pigeons still visit the cave shrine.
Next day we came down from the Baltal route crossing a glacier at Barari. The route was stiff and utmost caution was needed for the decent. All along, we saw choppers giving sorties from Panjtarani to Baltal, from where one can take a car back to Srinagar or Jammu.
When we came down to Baltal the pristine valley welcomed us with the greens. Our car came down to the national highway leaving the mountains where Lord Amarnath will remain for the rest of the year without a soul around.

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