It rained so heavily last Tuesday on June 16 up at Amarnath, the Himalayan cave shrine at 13,500 feet in J&K that even state Governor NN Vohra, Chairman of the Sri Amar-nath Shrine Board (SASB) was unable to fly there to ritually perform ‘pratham puja’ or first prayers to mark the start of the two-month access to the shrine.
But as you read this, over a 1,000 pilgrims are defying the snow, rain and treacherously steep and slushy track, 14 km of a steep gradient from Baltal hamlet to the shrine cave across the mountains.
But despite the freezing conditions and lack of shelter on this grim trek, the pilgrims, mostly plainsfolk unused to Himalayan heights, are ecstatic in their commitment to reach the cave for a glimpse of the ice ‘shivling’ within. It is revered as a representation of Shiva as ‘Amarnath’, the Eternal Lord.
These pilgrims had already gathered at Pahalgam, the usual starting point, well before the Shrine Board announced the yatra’s opening date as June 7. When the bad weather did not lift, the board showed them photos of the impassable, snow-covered route. They did not want a repeat of the tragedy of August 1996 when 242 pilgrims rolled to their death down the mountains in a blizzard. But these pilgrims were determined to go and willing to undertake the shorter though steeper route from Baltal, a 1,000 feet lower than the Pahalgam route (see map).
PKS Rana, 42, a lawyer from Agra, was willing to trek even from Pahalgam through the heights of Mahagunus Pass at 14,500 feet. “Let them permit me, I will scale all hurdles,” he said.
“These (difficulties) are the blessings of Lord Shiva,” said Badri Nath, 36, a property dealer, also from Agra. Others echoed him.
What makes this year’s pilgrimage so significant? It comes after a long spell of agitation and counter agitations over the land row of summer 2008 in Jammu: the diversion of 100 acres of land to the SASB, its cancellation and, after a counter- agitation for 62 days by the Hindus of Jammu, partial restoration for the period of the pilgrimage.
This year, Hindu fundamentalist groups, particularly the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and even the BJP are unwilling to admit that the pilgrimage is affected merely by bad weather. “It is a simple conspiracy by the government to cite the meteorological reports to delay and shorten the yatra,” thunders J&K state unit president of the VHP, Rama Kant Dubey.
Amidst the furore, the J&K government organised a trip for journalists this week to verify the bad weather conditions for themselves. There is no doubt that the weather is highly risky. But if bullets from hostile elements did not stop yatris in the past, the weather gods, being impersonal, don’t deter them at all. Moreover, this year the shivling is pyramidal, not cylindrical, a shape called ‘Gangadhaara’ (Flow of the Ganga), considered most auspicious for the beholder.