At Panchtarni (Panjtarni) – Altitude 12729ft
It was close to four in the afternoon when we reached the Panchtarni camp site. There, camps were set up by the side of river and marked with distinctive numbers. Most of them were capable of accommodating ten persons, though smaller tents also available but less in number. Tariff of such tents was Rs.300/- per person and the Tent Association Panjtarni was collecting the charges against printed money receipt. Near the camps, toilets were made covering each side by iron sheets but the roof open to sky. However, none of them were gender-specific. Some persons were supplying hot water in a plastic water bottle at Rs.10/- for toiletry use and a bucket of hot water (not clean) at Rs.50/- for bathing.
We chose tent near a Bhandara to stay overnight. Exhausted completely from long horse riding we finished the dinner by six and went to sleep. It was a hard day and my friend Prabir slept like a log on desi mattress. But for Ranen and me, sleep was hard to come by, much because the tent association people were verifying the money receipt time and again, each time by a new set of people, to ensure that the charges were paid. The loud music from Bhandaras was also not helping us to sleep. Except these, however, nothing adverse happened in that night and thus it passed through.
We get up early in the morning and saw that Bhandaras were supplying hot water to the pilgrims, the only source of clean hot water, for performing the morning chores. We finished our morning chores and planned to set off after the tea.
While Swami Vivekananda was on this place during his yatra to Amarnath Cave, as written by Sister Nivedita, he took bath in all the five streams of river Panchtarni as it was the rituals. In her words:
Panchatarani – the place of the five streams – was not nearly such a long march. Moreover, it was lower than Sheshnag, and the cold was dry and exhilarating. In front of the camp was a dry river-bed, all gravel, and through this ran five streams, in all which it was the duty of the pilgrim to bathe, walking from one to the other in wet garments. Contriving to elude observation completely, Swamiji nevertheless fulfilled the law to the last letter in this respect. (Reference below)
(Reference of above: “THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SISTER NIVEDITA”, Chapter X, THE SHRINE OF AMARNATH, page 349-350, BIRTH CENTENARY PUBLICATION)
So the ritual was to bathe in all those five streams of river Panchtarni, but I saw none following the same, except some pilgrims sitting close by the river, they actually were responding to the nature’s call. O Swami Ji, then and now! the era had gone by and the ritual eclipsed, both for Sadhus and pilgrims.
Bathing in Panchtarni river was not possible also because of its icy cold water. Hot waters were though available for bathing near the tent side but they were not very clean, so the idea of bathing was abandoned. There, toilets were not also clean, difficult to find a one, but a kind of manageable so we had to pass through some tough situations.
Anyways, we wanted to move early, so I called the horseman to come soon. But his horse was missing from the last night and he was busy in the search operation. At last he found the horse, but not in the same condition, so he had to hire one for rest of the journey. All these took some time and it was only on 6.30 in the morning that we could start our journey to the holy cave.
Panchtarni to Sangam Top– Distance 3 Kms
“Sa-ba! Thik hai?” (Sir, if everything is all right?), the horseman enquired as I sat on the horseback. I nodded and he spoke again, “Mere Sa-ba Khus to main Khus!” (I am happy if my Sir is!). I could read his mind. He was trying to please me, surely for some tips, and the meaning of “Mere Sa-ba Khus to main Khus!” I discovered. It is the material world, there could be no other meaning except becoming happy with the tips, and I smiled and thought of giving him that extra bit at the end.
Our journey to Sangam Top started through plain lands by the side of river Panchtarni and then the glacier that led slightly inclined upwards. Soon we started climbing the steepest mountain through a narrow rocky path. It was the only route for pilgrims both on foot and horse. First time on the journey, I saw such crowds, full of pilgrims and horses, all were eating up space of each other. And in that matter horses were ahead of those on foot. The pilgrims on foot though struggling but were hardly giving it up too.
The only helipad for helicopter service is on Panchtarni for both Pahalgam and Baltal route. These days Amarnath Darshan through helicopter is a popular means to them who wish to see ice-lingam with less pain. Nothing wrong in that, it has opened up the opportunity to those who otherwise could not have thought of this yatra. But to see Lord Shiva is never easy and one has to go through the pain before making it to paradise. One needs to walk or go on horseback from Panchtarni climbing the toughest Sangam Top to reach the cave. So was the reason for crowds on the route.
Soon the track appeared like a goat-path, inclined upward so steep that climbing Sangam Top became scary. The steep slope opposite the mountain side was frightening for pilgrims on horseback at every step, if not the horses. It was much dangerous than the Pishu or Mahagunus Top, we left behind. Oh God! I could not stop thinking of falling down at each and every step. The riding was no more a pleasure but horrifying. Nothing could I did except sitting on the horseback and trusting the horse to take me safe. But more than that, it was the countless chanting of “Om Namah Shivaya” and the faith to reach his feet.
‘Sa-ba!’ my horseman continued, “Mujhe sabse jyada daar is-hi raste pe lagta hai!” (I get frightened most on this route). Was he scaring me, or was that his honest confession? I stared at him. He looked low in confidence. Perhaps it was the final test Lord Shiva wanted me to face. It was then my turn, to take over his mind. I said, “Nothing will happen, have faith on Lord Shiva and keep going”. “Bach! Chamriya, Bach!” I now gave this command to the horse on a steep narrow turn. The horse nodded his head, could not say if that was an acknowledgement or just natural, but it brought back the smile on my horseman’s face. It was now he commanded the horse with much confident voice, “Chamriya, Bach! Bach!” We both smiled and the journey continued.
And thus, the peak of Sangam Top was attained by riding an hour or so. We could see the confluence (sangam) of river Panchtarni and river Amaravati at far below. River Amarvati comes from near the holy cave and meets here with river Panchtarni. From this point it goes towards Baltal and meets with Sindhu(Indus) River.
Sangam Top to Holy Cave – Distance 3 Km
From Sangam Top it was a gradual descent of about a kilometer and then plain road through the slippery glacier of another one kilometer before we ended the horse riding. The holy cave was still one kilometer ahead and horses were not allowed to go further. From there, pilgrims go either on foot or palki. This valley on glacier was looking like a camp-town. There were full of colourful camps by the side of Amarganga (Amaravati) River selling prasad, photos and statues of idols, and many puja samagris (materials). Kashmiri Muslims own and run these camp-shops. They offer attractive packages to the pilgrims, purchase ‘Prasad’ from them and one can keep luggage or change dress inside the camp, free. They sell bucket of hot clean water too of river Amarganga for bathing and each bucket of hot water was at cost of Rs.50/-.
It was about 8 o’clock in the morning we arrived at this camp-town of Amarnath cave and placed ourselves inside a camp-shop with our luggage. My horseman came and sat by my side inside the camp, he looked tired and exhausted, the only word came out from him was, “Alha”. First time on the journey I heard him to call his “Allha”, otherwise all the time it was “Bhole, Bhole and Bhole”.
Looking Back again to the history: 2nd August,1898
Sister Nivedita wrote,
On Tuesday, August the 2nd, the great day of Amarnath,……..The Swami, exhausted, had by this time, fallen behind, but I, not remembering that he might be ill, waited, below the banks of gravel for his appearance. He came at last, and, with a word, sent me on, he was going to bathe. Half an hour later he entered the cave……” (Reference Below)
(Reference of above: “THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SISTER NIVEDITA”, Chapter X, THE SHRINE OF AMARNATH, page 350-351, BIRTH CENTENARY PUBLICATION)
10th July, 2014 – In the Holy Cave
We did not dare to bathe in icy cold water of river Amaravati. Instead, we were happy to pay Rs.50/- for a bucket of hot water. Bathing there, in the open, right in middle of everyone, was done covering least part of the body by a towel. Dressed up quickly, purchased Prasad and set off to the holy cave on foot at around 9.30am.
The test of faith on Lord Shiva continued all the way to Shrine. To reach there, it’s another kilometer through slippery snowy path by the side of river Amaravati, and when we reached below the cave, we saw long stairs to climb and a longer queue to follow. The cave is located at an elevation of 13,500 feet above the sea level and its opening is a large semi-circular hollow into a cliff.
It was about 60-70 stairs before the cave we saw the base hospital and a young man of 33-34 years. He could not make it to the cave and took his last breath there. I looked up inside the cave and the belief became firm again. To reach the Shiva’s feet, one must have his blessings; one must have got his calling.
I entered inside the cave with my two friends. The floor of the cave was extremely cold and wet. In deepest right corner of the cave, I saw Lord Shiva in his unique shape of ice-lingam, about 11-12 feet tall. I bent at his feet (the ice base) and offered Billa leaves. I stood quiet there for some time with folded hand but I forgot to seek anything from ‘Mahadeva’ and came out happily from the cave with a sense of fulfilment.
I can’t write much about the belief of immortality of a pigeon pair in the cave, because I saw there, four pigeons and a little bird. Later, on my visit to Ladakh I witness many pigeons even at a higher altitude of more than 15000 feet.
It was now time to descend; we chose walking down through a different route, the Baltal route, a shorter one of only 17 kms. We hired Pithu (porter) for carrying our luggage. It was 1 o’clock in the afternoon we set off on the trail to Baltal. We trekked down the steep mountain well within four hours and reached Baltal leaving behind the holy cave. The pilgrimage will last for few more days and thereafter the cave will remain a place with no human soul around.
The journey to the cave though arduous, the track though dangerous, the climate though unfriendly, and though there were terrorist attacks in the past, but still the millions of devotees come every year responding the calls of Lord Shiva to see him in his unique shape of ice-Lingam. AND for all of them, this is a journey of faith and it will continue to happen for all times to come.