Excitement was palpable when we decided to undertake the Amarnath Yatra. For one, it is always considered challenging because of the terrain and rigours pilgrims have to experience on their journey to the hill shrine tucked away in a narrow gorge at the farther end of Lidder Valley in Jammu and Kashmir at 3,888 metres.
We realised that making it to the shrine, located some 46 km from Pahalgam and 14 km from Baltal, would be a daunting task. When we reached Baltal, we realised how true the safety and health warnings were. We had to stay put in the tented accommodation as the yatra was cancelled due to inclement weather. Though mentally and physically ready for the gruelling trek, we had to abandon the plan on seeing the slushy and muddy road. The next day, at around 5 pm, we set out for the 14-km one-way yatra on a palki (palanquin), and after a couple of hours of chill, the sun came out blazing.
As the palkiwalas carried us on their shoulders, breathtaking scenes unfolded in front of us with an occasional waterfall breaking the monotony of green patches on the rugged mountains and joining the Sind river. We literally had hearts in our mouth as the palkiwalas climbed up and down a few steep slopes with ease, wearing just ordinary shoes. On the less than four feet wide road, palkiwalas jostled for space with trekkers and horses moving up with the sole aim of catching a glimpse of the stalagmite formation of the linga inside the cave. On narrow roads, we had to dismount the palkis and walk a few metres. We were gasping for breath even as chants praising Bholenath rent the air.
Legend has it that centuries ago Goddess Parvati asked Lord Shiva when and why he started wearing the garland of heads (mund mala) around his neck and the God of Death and Destruction replied, “With each birth, I add more heads to my garland. And to know the reason behind my actions, you will have to listen to the Amar Katha (secret of immortality).”
Shiva agreed to narrate the detailed story at a lonely place and chose Amarnath Cave leaving behind Nandi (Bull) at Pahalgam, moon (Chandra) at Chandanwari, snake at Lake Sheshnag, son Ganesha at Mahagunas Parvat and five elements behind (earth, water, air, fire and sky) at Panjtarni. Shiva then created Kalagni and ordered him to spread fire to eliminate every living being in and around the cave. But, as a matter of chance, a pair of pigeons overheard the secret of immortality being narrated to Parvati and became immortal.
Even to this day, pilgrims strain their necks to spot the pigeons and are relieved on sighting them. We could see three of them, and it was surprising to find birds living in such cold conditions and at such high altitude.