This Amarnath temple is a sacred place in Hindu religion today. It provides a place of worship to Siva and the ice Lingam that is representative of him. Pilgrimages are important to Hindu tradition because they provide a source of spiritual fulfillment and the opportunity for liberation at a later stage in one’s life. The Amarnath pilgrimage allows pilgrims to become one with the absolute power Siva, who is an important deity in Hindu tradition (Banyat 2014).
Amarnath is a cave located in Kashmir, known as Pir-Vaer (abode of saints) and is regarded as a holy and sacred shrine which is highly regarded in Hinduism (Shah 58). It sits at 12,729 ft above sea level and the cave itself is 17 meters deep and 14 meters high with a wide entrance. The cave features a self-formed ice Lingam which is symbolic of an immortal Siva, it grows and diminishes with the moon. Smaller surrounding icicles are representative of Siva’s consort. In the ritual of worshiping this Siva-Lingam, pilgrims first must wash themselves. They then apply clay to their foreheads and wear all white clothing. They make offerings of candles, candy, etc. and shout chants in worship of Siva (Hassnain 18,20).
This pilgrimage occurs once a year during the Hindu month of Sawan which is at the end of July and beginning of August, a month with complete dedication to the lord Siva. It is not reserved for a single caste or ranking, and different caste can be seen travelling and gathering on the pilgrimage. During this month of Sawan pilgrims will camp at base camps and travel generally on foot during day (Shah 62). The route pilgrims take begins from Pahalgam and then travels through Chandanwari, Waojan, and Panjtarni before finally reaching Amarnatha. During the passing from Waojan to Panjtarni each pilgrim must throw two pebbles at the Nagarapal boulder in order to beat the demon. Then at Panjtarni stream they will participate in a purifying bath and pitch a tent for one night before being able to enter the temple. There is a shorter route which begins at Sonamarg and goes through Baltal and Sangam before ending at the Amarnatha cave. This route is more dangerous because you must cross an avalanche of glacier (Hassnain 18-19). Pilgrims going through Baltal will often take helicopters or travel on foot and employ labourers to help them make the travel. This forms a community of closer social interaction between locals and pilgrims. At the base camps there are positive connections between locals and the pilgrims where both show hospitality, kindness, and helpfulness to one another. Temporary small hotels (dhaba)and free food stalls (langgar) owners will even provide free food to the base camps to be granted the good will of Siva (Shah 66-70).
Siva is regarded as the Lord of Yogis and is known as a god in a peaceful state often depicted in a seated position (Shoemaker 31). The lord Siva is the reason why pilgrims make the trip to the Amarnath temple. Siva is a god who represents faith, brotherhood, and relations among visitors at the temple (Shah 61-62). Siva comes from an absolute which was divided into three parts, Brahma, Visnu, and Siva, which are known as the creator, preserver, and the destroyer; these three gods make up a Hindu holy trinity. Siva is the creator god but is also associated with death. Siva is worshipped through the Lingam which brings desirable objects and release from bondage of actions. The Linga is the source and dissolution of the three powers and neither the beginning nor end of the universe (Wayman 27). Siva is also a symbol of fertility and, as a Linga, is worshiped for fertility (Jacobsen 242). This worship of Siva as a Lingam is to be done at sacred places such as the Amarnath (Hassnain 11).
Amarnath is regarded in Hindu mythology as a cave that was approached by Siva and his wife Parvati. Parvati is a maiden who fell deeply in love with the beggar Siva and got married. The night of their marriage is called Shivrati, which is one of the biggest festivals marked by snowfall (Hassnain 17). Parvati is known as the supreme power and mother of the universe in Hinduism. Tradition tells that Siva told the secret of salvation to Parvati at Amarnath, and this talk is written in the Sanskrit manuscript: Amaresvara Mahatmya. Parvati asks questions and the lord Siva answers them. This talk was said to be overheard by two servants who were turned into two white pigeons, which can be seen flying by the temple (Hassnain 10-16). It is believed in Hindu mythology that Siva gave up everything but his soul before approaching the cave because it is the highest spiritual journey one can take. This is why pilgrims cannot experience true absolute reality unless they abandon vehicles and complete the journey on foot as Siva did. In 1895 the Maliks were the ones who managed the pilgrimage. They were to ensure everything went smoothly and were there to carry the sick and wounded. In return they would receive one third of the offerings made at the shrine (Shah 62). This no longer takes place and the shrine is now in control of the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB), who have been disrupting forest lands on the pilgrimage travel route (Navlakha 18).
Throughout the years there has been a variety of environmental, health, and security concerns regarding this pilgrimage. Environmental concerns are particularly a problem around Pahalgam. This is due to pilgrims defecating into the river and tossing non-degradable items such as plastic into the river as well which harms the overall water quality. Another problem within this particular area is the pollution that is caused by transport vehicles carrying pilgrims and transporting goods (Navlakha 2008). Batal base camp is also raising ecological concerns because of the health threats it is causing to the locals and pilgrims. Both groups pollute the air, water, and soil because of the lack of mobile latrines and bathrooms available to them. No level of hygiene is maintained, and the camp site is kept filthy and unsanitary for pilgrims and locals (Shah 71). The main concern is if certain environmental precautions cannot be followed these sites will continue to be polluted and bring a bad name to Kashmir itself. Another concern is due to the narrow roads pilgrims travel on and because of the large numbers of people wider paths are required for safe traveling. Security agencies are kept in place to prevent terrorist attacks which have occurred in the past and to protect pilgrims. They help to provide tents, food, and management at base camps and supervise the movement of pilgrims along the path (Shah 68). However, many locals raise concerns that these authorities and Horse pullers (ponny wallas)will beat pilgrims on the route to the cave (Shah 69). Large numbers of security forces are required to accommodate the large number of increasing pilgrims which causes a higher level of environmental damage (Navlakha 2008). A major health concern regarding this pilgrimage is the amount of altitude sickness and non-traumatic surgical disorders reported. Increased awareness of these health conditions, pre-travel evaluations, and infection controls are all things that can be done to prevents these sicknesses from taking place on pilgrimages (Banyat 2014).
There has been controversy between militants and the pilgrims at Amarnath. In 2006 there were two separate attacks that took place both involving militants harming the pilgrims. June 21, 2006 and July 15, 2006 militants threw grenades on routes that lead to Amarnath and in one case killed one civilian and injured six others (Andley 4-5). In 2017 a group of pilgrims were attacked by terrorist and 7 were killed (Nair 2017). This pilgrimage has been the target of several different terrorist attacks over the years raising concerns of civilians.
References and Further Recommended Reading
Andley, Priyashree (2006) “Major Terrorist Attacks in Jammu & Kashmir” Institute of Peace
and Conflict Studies. 1-5. Accessed on February 22, 2020.
Banyat, Buddha (2014) “High Altitude Pilgrimage Medicine.” High Altitude Medicine &
Biology. 15:4: 434-439. Accessed on February 22, 2020. Doi: 10.1089/ham.2014.1088
Hassnain, Miura Y., and Vijay Pandita (1987) Sri Amarnatha Cave, the Abode of Shiva. New
Delhi: Hardev Printers.
Jacobsen, Knut A. (2004) “The Child Manifestation of Śiva in Contemporary Hindu Popular
Prints.” Numen. 51:3: 237-264. Accessed on February 22, 2020.
Nair, Sandhya (2017) “Palghar bandh to protest terrorist attack on Amarnath pilgrims” The
Times of India. Accessed on February 22, 2020.
Navlakha, Gautam (2008) “State Cultivation of the Amarnath Yatra.” Economic and Political
Weekly 43:17-18. Accessed on February 22, 2020.
Shah, Rashid, Adfer (2013) “Case of Holy Amarnath Pilgrimage” The Tibet Journal 38.3: 57-85.
Accessed on February 22, 2020.
Shoemaker, Marla (1981) “Manifestations of Shiva” Art Education 34.3:30-32. Accessed on
February 22, 2020. doi:10.2307/3192492.
Wayman, Alex (1987) “O, That Linga!” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.
68:1/4: 15-54. Accessed on February 22, 2020.
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Article written by: Madison Irving (Spring 2020) who is solely responsible for this content.