It felt like a dream. I had journeyed half way across the Valley and I was finally in Amarnath, standing inside the main cave. Between awe at the sight of the ice Shiv lingam, and trying to recall school texts for a scientific explanation for what I saw, and lending a steadying hand to an elderly gentleman giddy from the three-hour walk, I was not quite myself.
There was a curious knot in my chest, when I tried to pray my son's face floated before me, and my eyes grew moist without any apparent reason. A week later back in Delhi I cannot stop thinking about the Amarnath yatra. And the more I think, the more it seems like a dream - not just the moment in the cave, not just the arrival, but all of it, the entire journey.
How were you talked into this thing? Are you religious or spiritual? Is it even safe? When I shared my decision to embark on the Amarnath yatra these were some of the questions thrown at me. And even before I could articulate an answer, my questioner would have drawn his/her conclusion. I could almost feel the saffron light flashing on my head. It was as we were loading the polythene-wrapped luggage atop the hired tempo that I found the word I was looking for. Adventure.
My co-pilgrims were a mixed bunch - a Congress party worker, lawyer, photographer, businessmen - 10 in all across age groups, and an industrious bunch at that.
And in all their wisdom they had made a Titanic out of a 16-seater tempo traveller loading it with cooking oil, gas cylinder, rice and dal and nuts and what-not for the 10-day sojourn.
All but four seats of the vehicle were removed, and replaced with gaddas (mattresses). When the arrangements were done the local MLA (who was a friend of the politician pilgrim), with folded hands and marigold garlands saw us off. I could not help but feel like an Aryan warrior journeying into the unknown.
Unknown it was for me, but for 6 of my 10 fellow passengers this was a path much travelled. One of them had been doing this every year for the last 22 years, yet another for 12 odd years and Rajesh, upon whose invitation I joined the group was a regular for the last 5 years.
There are two routes to Amarnath. One is the traditional route along the Srinagar Highway via Pehalgaon, and the other via Baltal. The former, at 34 km, is longer and is covered in 3 days, while the latter is only 14 km long but a steep climb and can be covered in a day. Partly because it was shorter, and partly because the Valley was simmering with rage we decided to opt for the latter.
As we shot through the night the veterans relived their previous journeys. Excited, and not quite sure about what to expect, and quite full from the dinner at one of the road-side dhabas, I fell asleep early that night.
Looking back that was the most peaceful, and comfortable night of the nine that were to follow.
The next morning was crisp, and I greedily drank in the changing landscape. Manali was green, Rohtang cold and hilly, Sarchu dry and a sandy yellow like a scene out of 'Mummy Returns', and Ladhak had roads that were a cyclist's fantasy.
Few kilometers before Rohtang pass we had our first big adventure. Locals rumoured that it was the prakop (wrath) of Ghatothkach son of the Pandav warrior Bhima and the demoness Hidimba, but it turned out to be a landslide. Vehicles were stuck on either side, and among the stranded was a marriage party. The groom, an unperturbed chap, got down from his vehicle and started walking. At first I though he was in shock, later I learnt he was to cover a certain part of the distance on foot, after which he would be received by the girl's relatives.
We spent that whole day and a good part of the next on the road.
Some vendors were selling bhutta (corn), bhelpuri, and tea at atrocious prices. A single cob of corn was selling for Rs 40. My fellow pilgrims would have none of it. With practised ease they brought out the gas cylinder, and the provisions and there by the wayside, surrounded by rubble and trucks and vans we cooked a merry meal of onion pakodas, puri and pulao.
That night we slept on the road. The air was thin and breathing was difficult. We had packed the gas cylinder and forgotten the oxygen one.
We punctuated our journey with stops at hotels or tents depending on what was available. Where we could, we cooked, or else we settled for tea and maggi. Where we could, we used public toilets for our morning ablutions etc otherwise there was mother nature's own sulabh sauchalay. And that is how we arrived at Baltal, the base camp, the point of origin of the holy climb.
Name something, anything the Amarnath pilgrim needed, Baltal had it. Canvas shoes, selling at Rs 150 a pair, walking sticks at Rs 20, horses on hire anything between Rs 600 to Rs 1400, palkis (palanquins), raincoats, carrybags. For the pilgrims there was all kinds of food from makai roti and sarson ka saag to rajma chawal, curry chawal, gulab jamun and saffron milk. The locals, mostly muslims provided horses and sold prasad. They seemed unhappy with the protests in the Valley, afraid that the unrest would scare away the pilgrims and hurt their business.
Be it the promise of the darshan or the culmination of a spiritual trek Baltal had a curious energy about it. Elderly pilgrims with iron rods in their legs, 10-year-old boys, elderly women swathed in colourful saris, young men on horseback, each of them chanting, drawing inspiration from one another, surging ahead like a mountain stream.
And the ambience made the climb itself seem both difficult and easy like a Tibet Bakaal (the famous Kashmiri sufi singer) song.
The last step that landed me into the main cave was a Usain Bolt moment. As I took that last step which landed me into the cave I felt I was in a dream. I could hear Bakal's ancient trembling voice singing: Bel tai madal ven gulab pamposh dastai /Poozai laagas parma Shivas Shivnathas thai (With this varied bouquet I am going for a meeting with my maker). In a cave in the Valley that has become synonymous with unrest I met Peace, or was it God.