Amarnath cave is located in a narrow gorge on the farther end of Lidder valley at 3,888 m above sea level. The cave is 45 km from Pahalgam and 141 km from Srinagar. The trek begins in July-August. Despite being an extremely difficult trek, millions of devotees come to pay homage to Shiva in one of his Himalayan abodes.
The yatra, in its present religious form, commences with the ceremony of “Chari Mubarak,” at the Dashnami temple, Akhara, Srinagar. After the prayers, the yatri acquires a sort of walking stick. It has both physical and religious significance: physically, it helps the yatri in steadying himself on a snow covered slippery path; spiritually it reminds him of his resolve at the temple at times when his faith begins to waver in the face of a long and arduous journey. Nowadays people travel to Pahalgam first and then undertake the onward journey of 45 km on foot, in batches. Overnight halts are in encampments that are set up at fixed distances and give the appearance of a military site. The return trek has to be covered in five days with night halts at Chandanwari, Wawjan and Panchtarni. The distance of 12.8 km from Pahalgam to Chandanwari is completed in five to six hours with the first night halt at Chandanwari. The trail is along thick and green woodlands of breathtaking beauty. The playful stream of Lidder meanders and dances alongside, showing its sparkling white foam with the pride and purity of a maiden descending directly from the lap of the perennial Himalayas. One main attraction of this trail is the bridge on the river Lidder, which is covered with snow even when the surroundings are bereft of snow.
From Chandanwari, there begins a steep ascent to Pishu Ghati (3,171 meters), reminding the yatris that the path to salvation involves superhuman struggle and stamina. A feeling of having reached an ethereal destination overwhelms yatris when they reach Seshnag (3,570 meters) so striking is the beauty, the ambience and the very colour of this great lake. Seshnag symbolizes the cosmic ocean in which Lord Vishnu, the preserver of this universe, moves, reclining on a seven-headed mythical snake. The second night halt is at Wawjan overlooking the deep waters of Sheshnag Lake and the glaciers beyond it.
The third and the last camp en route to the cave is at Panchtarni. This 13 km trek gains height at 4,600 m and then descends to the green meadows of Panchtarni. The cave is 6 km from here. There are long queues waiting to enter the cave for a darshan before returning to Panchtarni. The return journey takes two more days.
There are few precautions which have to be taken on this yatra. Children below 12 years and infirms are not allowed. It is imperative that one is adequately equipped against the cold in the high altitude. It is important to be aware of high altitude sickness and take basic precautions to prevent it. There are ponies available to carry provisions and personal belongings.
Managing this yatra is a mammoth task and requires planning and coordination. The committee managing the shrine keeps maintains the route, ensuring that it is free of boulders and snow, in co-operation with military and civil authorities. More recently, there have been incidents of terrorists having tried to disrupt the yatra, and there is heavy armed protection provided to the yatris. A yatra-officer is appointed to conduct the pilgrimage.
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