“The trek through the narrow paths and icy winds takes over 12 hours,” warned Akram, the guide to the Amarnath cave, which is located at a height of 12,756 feet in the mountains. The cold wind smashed into our faces like a sheet of ice. We sat in a tea shop in a village nestling at the foot of the Himalayas. “That’s fine. We are determined to visit the cave,” I told him.
I was on an official visit to Srinagar in 1984. My friends advised me to visit the Amarnath cave shrine. However, winter had commenced and all trips were suspended due to the perilous travelling conditions. Moreover, the trip normally took five days and I could just spare two days. Enquiries revealed that there was another route via Sonamarg village, by which we could complete the trip in a day. We would commence our journey from Baltal and pass through Domial, Barari, and Sangam to Amarnath. Though shorter, this route was nevertheless 16 km long and the gradient was steep. It was indeed a gruelling mission.
We began our journey from Srinagar to Sonamarg by car. There we met Akram and Salim, our guides who provided us with ponies. The next day we commenced our climb at 4am. However, within a few kilometres, soldiers stopped us. Sardar Milan Singh counselled us, “This is a dangerous trek. There is no habitation on the route.” However, seeing our determination to complete the pilgrimage, he let us proceed.
We rode the two horses, while Akram and Salim walked behind. The path frequently narrowed. We would often see the Amaravathy river, a tributary of the Chenab. The all-pervading silence was an eerie experience. Mountains, glistening rivers, trees, meadows, fluffy white clouds, surrounded us.
We took a short break. As we neared the cave, Akram told us, “Jenab (sir), from here onwards you will have to walk to the cave. We will wait here.”
We started walking and saw a pigeon fly out of the cave towards the hills. The sighting of the bird gladdened us. Throughout the journey we had not seen any human being, bird or animal. We climbed the last slope and entered the cave. There was no priest in the cave. Traditionally, no one stays in the cave after the conclusion of the pilgrimage season in August.
We walked around in the cave, which was 150 foot long and 100 foot wide. The cave was part of a large rock, and hence the roof was uneven. Exquisite necklaces of icicles hung from the roof. Normally the “Shivlingam” forms in the centre of the cave. There was no “Shivlingam” ice formation, on the day. Nevertheless, we felt fulfilled.
Then we returned to the horses. On the way down, we were perpetually balancing ourselves, as they nimbly walked down the slippery path. It started to snow. As the sky turned dark, we rode back into the army camp. Sardar Milan Singh greeted us with open arms. He was ecstatic that we had accomplished our mission.
Over the years whenever I reminisce my pilgrimage, I marvel that I was able to complete it in a day at 63. But when I see relations impacted by religion and caste, I am pained. For, I recall that a Sikh soldier Milan Singh counselled me and Muslim guides Akram and Salim helped me reach a Hindu shrine at 12,756 feet in the Himalayas.