Kashmir Diary:Religious Trekking of an Atheist – Amarnath Yatra
“Amarnath Yatra” or a usual trekking, whatever it may be, how it happened to my life is altogether a story. Unfortunately, I have no such ability to pen down my experience in a very theatrical manner. It is also true that it’s a difficult task for me to take you to those places through my writing. It’s a fact Amarnath was in my fate and it happened. I am not a so called pro traveler, although I traveled to many places. But the experience I gathered, this time, it will remain with me till my last breath.
It was a complete mess before the journey. My application for a health certificate (Which is mandatory for Amarnath Yatra) was initially rejected by the medical board to the sudden disappearance of Yatra permit from my writing desk and at the end, suffering from high fever just 2days before the trip. Everything was stored there to make the trip unforgettable.
As usual, like every day, I went to the nearby playground for daily exercise. Suddenly, Madhusudan called me and told me about the Amarnath Yatra. He told me his partner (Bhaskar is his Permanent partner for Amarnath) for the Amarnath would not accompany him this year. So, he needs a partner for the trip and told me that he would help me in every possible way during the journey. I hardly know him that time. I said straightaway to him, not because I am not at all a very religious person. How much I had the knowledge that time, this Yatra was only meant for the religiously inclined people. I may be wrong about that time. Apart from any other reasons, It was also in my knowledge that this was a trek route only for three days. That time I was not interested in any short duration trekking. I had a plan to do a long duration trekking. Finally, he convinced me and we began the process in the mid of February this year. After I confirmed the trip, those who know me very well, they have started telling me that going for Amarnath Yatra simply reflects the hidden religious nature of mine. How come they spoke like that? They know me very well that I am not at all a religious person. But it does not mean that I hate or disrespect my religion by any means. All I can say, I do respect every religion has existence on this earth. Now, I want to tell them that I do not become a religiously inclined person after the Yatra. Yes, it’s a fact, my perspective on life has changed. Because I experienced a different kind of faith during the journey and rediscovered the definition of faith and truth.
Duration – 5 Days (From Jammu to Jammu)
Altitude Max– 14000 ft
Altitude Min– 9000 ft – 9500 ft
Gradient – 40 – 45 degree Average, 55 – 60 degree Maximum
Temperature – -2/-5 C to 10C in July and August
Schedule of Yatra – Yatra commences on an announced date (July and August). It starts on the first week of July and ends in mid-August. Dates are not fixed. It keeps on changing every Year.
Difficulty Level – Depends on individual
Fitness – Mandatory
Stay – Tents/Langars/Bhandara (You do not have to carry Tent. You can rent a place in a Tent at a cost of Rs/- 100 to Rs/- 300) per person.
Last Ration – No need to carry. Free foods are offered by Langars/Bhandara, throughout the Route.
Kerosene – No need to carry. Free foods are offered by Langars/Bhandara, throughout the Route.
Mobile Network – Please keep in mind Prepaid phone connection does not function in Jammu & Kashmir. So, postpaid phone connection is mandatory. You can buy a new postpaid connection by depositing your one counterpart of your Yatra Permit and it may cost you maximum Rs/- 200. Only BSNL network is available till Sheshnag but other telecom networks are available till Chandanwari. If you choose your route from Baltal, in that case, other telecom networks are available till Baltal but BSNL is available till Domail.
Trekking Route Summary
There are two routes available to reach to Amarnath Temple/Holy Cave. The traditional route to the cave is taken from Chandanwari. But these days many people are climbing up from the Baltal route.
Option 1 – Chandanwari Route
A. Jammu to Pahalgam via Khanabal by Car/Bus/Shared Car
B. Pahalgam to Chandanwari by Car/Shared Car (Last motorable road is Chandanwari)
Trekking Duration – 3 Days (2 Days to Reach Amarnath Temple and 1 Day for coming back to Baltal)
Distance – 34 Km. (Chandanwari to Amarnath Base Camp)
Total Distance – 55 Km. (if you climb down via Baltal to Baltal Bus/Car Stand) / else, 72 Km. (If you climb down again to Chandanwari)
Note – Amarnath base camp to Temple/Holy Cave distance is 2 Km. (Approx).
Option 2 – Baltal Route
A. Jammu to Srinagar by Car/Bus/Shared Car (Last motorable road is Baltal)
B. Srinagar to Baltal Via Sonamarg by Car/Shared Car
C. Jammu to Baltal by Car/Bus/Shared Car
Trekking Duration – 2 Days (1 Day to Reach Amarnath Temple and 1 Day for coming back to Baltal)
Distance – 14 Km. (Baltal to Amarnath Base Camp)
Total Distance – 38 Km. (If you climb down again to Baltal)/ else, 55 Km. (If you climb down to Chandanwari)
Note – Amarnath base camp to Temple/Holy Cave distance is 2 Km. (Approx). The distance between the Baltal Bus/Car stand to the starting point of the actual Trekking route is 2/3 Km. (Approx). So, remember 14Km. is the trekking route and you have to walk additional 2/3 Km. (Approx).
Other Options to Reach the Holy Cave
If someone feels like, it will be very difficult for him/her to reach the Holy cave on foot. There are other options are available to reach the Holy cave. The other options are as follows.
Helicopter – You can opt for Helicopter but booking in advance, is required. Because tickets of helicopter exhaust very quickly. So, book it in advance by the first week of April. Helicopter service is available from Baltal (Neelgrath) and as well as from Chandanwari to Panchtarni. The cost of the ticket for one way per passenger is Rs/- 2000 if you travel from Baltal to Panchtarni. If you travel from Chandanwari to Panchtarni that will cost you Rs/- 4300. Rates are fixed as Amarnathji Shrine Board Fixes the rates.
Pony/Mule/Horse/Palki/Pithoo – At any time on the route, you can hire Pony/ Mule/ Horse/ Pithoo. It is cheaper than Helicopter. Rates are fixed as Amarnathji Shrine Board Fixes the rates. Still, rates can go up at any time. If you hire Pony/Mule/Horse/Palki/Pithoo from Baltal or Chandanwari or Panchtarni, in that case, rates are fixed.
Let’s go back to the main topic, my experience of the Amarnath journey. Before I talk about my experiences, I want to share little about the history of Amarnath Temple. Seriously, without narrating the History of the place, I feel incomplete. I understand this kind of feeling of incompleteness causes of boredom for many. I promise, will not write more, just a little bit.
Amarnath Cave – Amarnath Cave is a Hindu shrine and the shrine naturally, forms an Ice Lingam (considered as Shiva Linga) in each and every year. This is an extremely important part of Hinduism. During the months of May to August, water seeps into the rocks and when it freezes, take a shape like Shiva Linga. This cave has another significance, which is Lord Shiva discloses the secret of Life and immortality to his divine consort Dakshayani, Sati (later known as Parvati or Maa Durga). Amarnath is a very sacred place for Hindu and also this is one among the 51 Shakti Pithas (Seat of Shakti).
Mythological Aspect – To explain the secret of Life and immortality Lord Shiva chose Amarnath Cave. He took Goddess Parvati as his companion and when he traveled to the cave. He went through the Pahalgam Chandanwari route. It is believed that during his journey he gave up everything one by one. At first, he left Nandi (The Bull. who was Shiva’s vehicle or Vahana) at Pahalgam. Lord Shiva wears moon crescent on the top of his head and he released the moon crescent at Chandanwari. When he reached Sheshnag he released his another companion Vasuki (Lord Shiva’s Snake) from around his neck. If someone notices the mountain situated just opposite side of the Holy cave, the summit looks just like a snake head. It is believed that Vasuki is still standing there. At Mahaguna Top (Mahaganesh Mountain), he left his son Ganesha. When he reached Panchtarni, he left Earth, Air, Fire, Sky, and Water, which symbolize great sacrifice.
Discovery of Amarnath – It is believed that in ancient time the valley of Kashmir was drowned under water and Kashyapa Muni drained the water through rivers. When the valley of Kashmir was cleared from water, Rishi Bhrigu was the first man to get Darshan of Lord Shiva in Amarnath Cave. This is the reason behind the discovery of Amarnath according to the Hindu Mythology.
Common people narrated a different story about the discovery of the cave. A shepherd (Gujjar Buta Malik) discovered the cave in the 15th Century.
My Amarnath Yatra 2016
Preamble – On 23rd June, I have canceled the trip because I was suffering from high fever. After so much of drama at home, my wife finally convinced me for the trip. A big “Thanks” to my wife, without her initiative and inspiration this trip could not be possible for me. A day before the trip, we had learned from the TV news that, a shootout has happened between Indian Military and Militants on 24th June. This made our family more anxious.
Despite these circumstances, we have started our journey on 25th of June 2016 from Kolkata. Necessarily, my companion for the trip was Madhu. It was agreed between us that after the Amarnath Yatra we would travel separately. He would go for Char Dham Yatra and I would follow my own plan. However, he is an utmost religious person and my nature is just opposite to him. So much of differences between us formed a unique chemistry. His activities are kept on entertained me throughout the journey. It is also a fact he helped me so much during the Yatra. If he was not there with me, it could be impossible for me to start the Yatra before the permissible date. However, the train was delayed for 3 hours and we reached Jammu on 27th June at late afternoon. We stayed there for that day in a dormitory of Vaishnodham, which was located in the vicinity of the station. At evening, he did some paper works for the Langar, the Langar which he is associated with. I helped him as much I can.
I could not sleep that night because of his (awkward) activities. Now, I understand it was not as that much awkward. All of a sudden at night he started chanting “Hanuman Chalisa” , Om Namo Shivao, Jai Bhole Ki, Bam Bam Bhole all these stuff. Even those who were present in the dormitory, they were also turned out to be the same type as Mr. Madhu. Arre Bhai log, Let me sleep. I became mad but I didn’t utter any word.
Day 1 – 28 June 2016
Early morning, after a hot tea, we started our journey. At first, we reached Jammu main bus stand by public bus. Which was 5/6 KM away from Jammu station. From the main bus stand, we hired a shared car for Pahalgam. Around 1 PM, the driver has stopped the car in an unknown place for the lunch. But Madhu refused to have lunch from there. The reason behind this was, all the food stalls owners were Muslim. He told me that before the journey he would not be doing anything which is against the religion and Bla Bla Bla. I was utterly shocked by his statement and could not be able to swallow his Gyan. We both were hungry. I know myself very well, I can travel under any situation but he cannot. I tried to convince him to have the lunch from there but he did not listen to me. His another logic was, I eat beef (Goru Khekho) like Muslim, so it would be impossible for me to understand his feelings (WTF). Necessarily, I requested the driver to halt the car near any proper HINDU hotel and he smiled. We reached safely at Pahalgam at late afternoon. Here, I would like to mention here that Pahalgam is the base camp for Amarnath Yatra and it is known as a shepherd’s village. Again, we hired a shared cab and reached Chandanwari at evening.
Few minutes of walking we finally reached the desired place, our Bhandara (Langar). They were gladly welcomed both of us. Even, they were so happy to see both us but everyone present there were unfamiliar to me. There I met for the first time with Kamalnath Ji, Ashoke Ji and Pradhan Ji. Some time later, we became acquainted with each other. Basically, the place was a store house for the Langar and the Langar of the organization has already been installed at Sheshnag. So, both of us had to move to Sheshnag to serve the pilgrimages and would do some other work for the Langar. They told us that there were some technical errors with our Langar Identity Cards. So, on the next day early morning they would go to the office of the Amarnathji Shrine Board in Srinagar along with us to rectify the technical issues. I slept very peacefully in the night that day. Obviously, after their chanting “Hanuman Chalisa” and “Jai Bhole Ki”.
Day 2 – 29 June 2016
I woke up early and find everybody was sleeping. I put on my shoe and went for a walk. Oh, what a beautiful place. I felt the serenity of nature. Seriously, Kashmir is indeed a paradise on earth. When I went back to the camp, I found everybody was waked up. I had a cup of hot tea and breakfast. A car was there especially dedicated for the work for Bhandra and I saw the car was waiting outside for us. We had a plan to go to the Shrine Board as I said earlier. Ashoke Ji and Pradhan Ji accompanied us and we went out for Srinagar. We reached Srinagar around 11 AM and finished our work by 3 PM. Pradhan Ji was aware of my travel plan to Awantipora. So, he decided to go to Chandanwari via Awantipora route. I was extremely happy after came to know about his sudden change of plan. I was happy and satisfied after visiting Awantipora.
Day 3 – 30 June 2016
As usual, I woke up very early that day. After the breakfast at Bhandara, we finally started our journey to the Holy cave around 7 AM from Chandanwari. This would be Madhu’s 5th-time journey to the Amarnath but it would be my first time. Initially, he acted like a seasoned trekker but I maintained my patience. Generally, I always try to do the trekking technically and avoid showing my charisma to others. I always keep it in mind there are no prizes for coming first on the trail nor I have to go to my office at the time. So, I do not rush. The road towards Pissu Top was little steep and it was the only ascent. It may be difficult for some but should not be difficult for a trekker. But it may be easy if someone maintains an average speed of walking and goes slow but steady. Suddenly, taking a shortcut for climbing up he got pain on the wrist of his right hand. After this, he came back to his normal form. On the way to Pissu Top Indian Army was vigilant. Not only to the Pissu Top, Indian Army was vigilant throughout the Amarnath route. Sometimes, it was difficult to walk on the trail due to the sudden appearing of a flock of horses carrying loads. Not only horses were the only problem but horse dung also was a major issue for the walk. After 2 hours of walk, we reached to Pissu Top. It was little strenuous and physically harsh trek route. But the heavenly landscape will keep you busy and you will not feel the strain, that’s for sure. I was completely mesmerized by watching the beauty of nature. The beauty of snow caped mountains, lush green hills and valleys will surely keep your eyes busy. Taking some rest at Pissu Top, again we started our walk to reach Sheshnag as early hours.
Around 2 PM we reached Sheshnag. I was mesmerized watching the blue lake in Sheshnag. We sat on the bank of the lake to enjoy the beauty of mother nature. It was little difficult for me to get up once again for a walk after taking a rest for few minutes in the middle of the journey. Our Langar has located nearly 1 Km away from the lake. There were no other alternatives available than to walk for another one kilometer. After walking for some time we finally reached to our Langar. They extended a warm welcome to us and offered us tea and snacks. Here I met with Gorkha ji for the first time. We started talking to each other but Gorkha Ji insisted us to have lunch first. After freshened up, we had our lunch. Some time later, I went for a stroll to view the surrounding place and also with the plan to do nature photographs. Before this trip, I heard many stories about the place from Madhu. Such like, the road would be quite dangerous, rain may come any point of time, most of the road normally covered with the heavy snow and may suffer from Acute Mountain Sickness. There was more on his list. When I asked him about the heavy snow, low oxygen level and dangerous road. He was little depressed because I did not notice anything such like that. He told me to wait and see. I said, let’s see. He swallowed a dozen of medicines for body aches and for other ailments. He also advised me to take medicines for extra precautions. I was completely fit and fine. So I said no to him. We stayed overnight for that day at Sheshnag.
Day 4 – 1st July 2016
We started our final journey to the Holy cave early in the morning around 7 AM. As I have mentioned earlier that we have started our journey before the officially announced date of Yatra. There were no pilgrimages on the way during our journey. I heard that during the peak season of Darshan, the entire route becomes overcrowded. In that case, it will be very difficult for someone to walk on the overcrowded hilly road. Sometimes, we found little snowy road but it was easily manageable. I had previous experience of snow trekking, so it was easy for me. The road towards the Mahaguna Top was steep. It was situated at the altitude around 14000 ft. and this was the highest altitude of the entire Amarnath Yatra route. We saw many unnamed waterfalls and sometimes we crossed rivulets. We reached Mahaguna Top at last around 12 PM. After taking a few minutes rest we left for Panchtarni. The majority of the road from the Chandanwari to Mahaguna Top was steep. It was the time for us to descend from 14000 ft to 12000 ft, as Panchtarni was on 12000 ft. Here I must mention one thing, there is a misconception in general that descending is much easier than ascending on the hill. But this is a completely wrong conception.
Military check post in Panchtarni does not allow pilgrimages to cross Panchtarni check post after 3 PM. So it was decided that we would reach to Panchtarni by 3 PM. Luckily, we reached to Panchtarni before 3PM. We spent some time there and took few snaps of the beautiful valley. The place was a valley and the scenic beauty was extraordinary. I was trying to locate the Machoi Glacier which was 7 KM and Kolahoi Glacier was 11 KM away from Panchtarni. But I could not trace those places.
The place was located at the confluence of five rivers. It is a belief that the place gets its name from the five rivers originating from Shiva’s hair. Pilgrimages halt overnight in Panchtarni before reaching the Holy cave. But we had a different plan. Accordingly, we started our journey from there to reach Amarnath on the same day. Finally, we managed to reach the Holy cave by 5:30 PM. We hired a tent at a cost of Rs/- 150 per person and halted there for overnight.
Day 5 – 2nd July 2016
I woke up very early and found Madhu was in deep sleep. Basically, we both were extremely tired. The owner of the tent arranged hot water for bathing at a cost of Rs/-60. Madhu was ready for the bath but it was not possible for me to bathe in freezing temperature. He tried to insist me to bathe before the Darshan (Offering Puja to Shiva). I told him that, last night, I had a talk with Shiva over the phone and he instructed me not to bathe before I reach the Hotel safely. I was simply joking but he became so serious. When he came to understand that it would be impossible for him to convince me. Immediately after the bath, he told me, I would not touch him before the Darshan and would have to maintain minimum physical proximity from him. It seemed to me like a Fatwa. Even he had issues with my dirty clothes but I tactfully managed him. We purchased Prasad from the shop attached to the tent. By the way, the shop owner was a Muslim and those who selling Prasad over there they were all Muslim. I thought how people could be so hypocrite (“Sala Bhando“). After sprinkling (sprinkled little on me) of Ganges water everywhere Madhu was finally ready to set off for the Holy cave.
When we reached below the cave, found that Darshan was temporarily closed because, on the same time Indian Union Home Minister, Shri Rajnath Singh was visiting there for Darshan. The entrance of the cave was barricaded by Military. After there waiting for another 2 hours they opened the gate for the general. The main entrance of the cave was around 1/2 Km away from our tent and again we climbed 50-60 stairs to reach the cave. All of a sudden I noticed a huge transformation in Madhu and it has seemed to me that I saw my Mother-In-Law in him. However, I entered the cave alone and saw the Ice Lingam for the time. The priest who was standing right in front of the Lingam suddenly held my hand firmly and told me to do Darshan properly. At least for 2/3 minutes he held my hand so firmly and even did not give me the scope to move ahead. I was seriously astonished by his act.
I spent an hour there and noticed the faith in the eyes of others. Also, I noticed many people were taking pictures of the Lingam with their DSLR and obviously some young people were busy taking selfies (Then I hummed the song “Chal beta Selfie le le re/Masti ki tanki mein tanik dubki le le re“) with the Lingam. How did they fool/managed fully equipped Indian Military, is still not in my knowledge (Power? hmmm Money? hmmm). I discovered Madhu in a corner and I saw he was busy performing rituals. After he performed all the rituals there and we unite again. He asked me about my experience and I answered him outstanding. He nodded his head like a priest and smiled. I was really upset as Military did not allow a small Digi-Cam with me and I saw many people with their DSLR in the cave. Enough, I don’t want to write more about this episode.
We returned back once again to the tent and took some rest. Then It was the turn for him to pass expert comments to me. He was grinning at me without any cause. However, I was concentrating on the climb down and I did some stretching exercise. At last, around 1 Pm we started to descend via Baltal route and we reached Baltal (2nd mile) at 6:30 Pm. I did not have the idea that we have to walk for another 2/3 Km. (Approx) to reach the Baltal Bus stand. Suddenly, it started to rain and took shelter in a Langer. We reached to Baltal bus stand around 8 Pm. We had the plan to move to Srinagar on the same day, but we found Bus service had already been closed down for that day. There was no other choice left for us other than to stay back and we halt at the tent for the night.
Do’s and Don’t
1. Do some physical exercise, especially cardiac exercise at least one month prior the Yatra.
2. Carry proper warm clothes.
3. Carry Raincoat (Upper and Lower).
4. Wear proper shoe (Specially designed for Trekking).
5. Carry Walking Pole/Stick.
6. Carry at least one Photo Identity proof.
7. Carry adequate Trail Mix, Chocolate, Candy and water bottle.
8. Carry necessary Medicines.
9. Carry cold cream and Lip bum.
10. Drink adequate water during the walk. Drink at least two and four liters of water per day. It will help you to prevent altitude sickness.
11. The trail is often busy, especially at steep. So, it is a common courtesy is to give way to people.
Please follow the instructions issued by Yatra Administration.
You can refer the complete list Here
1. Do not wear jeans pant during trekking.
2. Do not smoke before and during trekking.
3. Do not use slippers.
4. Do not throw items made of plastic such as wrappers, plastic bottles etc, here and there on the way.
5. Do not take drugs (Especially, “Marijuana” or “Marihuana”).
6. Keep in mind there are no prizes for coming first on the trail. So, do not rush, that will over-stress your body and that may increase the chances of suffering from altitude sickness.
View the Full Album of My Amarnath Yatra 2016
Special Thanks to Madhusudan, Ashoke Ji, and Pradhan Ji.
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