How the Army aids the Amarnath Yatra
One of the most difficult pilgrimage treks is the one that leads to the Amarnath Cave in J&K. This holy pilgrimage route is open to public merely three weeks in the year during the month of June/July when the snow lingam forms in the cave. You need to register for the Amarnath Yatra as only a restricted number of pilgrims are allowed up in the region each year. Since 2010 it has been made possible to do this registration online, before that one had to stand in line in an approved post office to get registered for the yatra. Devotees of Lord Shiva come from far and wide to pay their respects to the deity.
The myth behind the pilgrimage is an interesting one. It is said that Parvati once asked Shivji about the beads he wore around his neck. He replied to his devine consort that he added a bead to the necklace each time she was reborn. She then asked him how he was immortal while she had to take rebirth to be with him. He replied that she would have to hear the “Amar Katha” to become immortal. Shivji said that they would then have to travel to a place where they were all alone before he could share that secret, so that no other living being would hear it. Then he took her high into the Himalayan mountains.
At some distance Nandi the bull was told to stay back at a place called Bailgram. This place is now known as Pahalgam in Anantnag district. A bit further he took off the moon from his hair at a place now called Chandanwari. Next the serpant around Lord Shiva’s neck was discarded at a lake which is called Sheshnag today. Ganapati was told to stay behind at a place now called Manasguna pass. At Panchtarini, Shivji shed the five (panch) elements that are responsible for creation of life, viz. air, fire, water, land and ether.
As evening came upon them after travelling the full day, they reached the holy cave now known as the abode of Lord Amarnath, another name of Shivji. He took Parvati into the Amarnath Cave and danced the “tandav” so that the fire destroyed all living creatures in the vicinity of the cave. This caused the mud around the cave to be covered in ash. Finally convinced that they were all alone he began telling her the secret of immortality. As the night progressed he told her the Amar Katha and kept getting a response “hoon” at each step. The next as they were leaving Shiva was surprised to see a pair of white doves who were hidden in the darkness of the Amarnath Cave.
Since they had also hard the Amar Katha they had also become immortal. These doves are said to still live in the cave and a pilgrim is considered lucky if he is able to spot them. It is in fact astonishing that these doves actually survive in the cold region in the cave.
The myth also reveals the traditional route that the pilgrims follow to reach the Amarnath Cave. The trail begins at Pahalgam which is the first base camp for the trek. The second day they trek 16 kms to eventually reach their second camp at Chandanwari. The next pit stop is at Pissu Top, followed by Zoji Bal, Naga Koti, Sheshnag and finally Mahagunas Pass. The pass is perennially covered with snow and makes the trek slippery and tricky. After a final camp made at Panchatarni, it is a 6 km trek to the holy cave of Shri Amarnath.
Here the devout witness firsthand the white soil called bhasma outside the cave which is said to be the soil with which Lord Shiv adorns his body. They can buy the Prasad from several stalls outside the immediate vicinity of the cave before they enter. They also see the two lingams of snow depicting Shivji and Parvati within the cave which melt away each year and miraculously are rebuilt as the snow begins to melt. If they happen to see the pair of doves in the cave then they are considered especially lucky and truly blessed.
The daunting route is made passable thanks to the effort of the Indian Army, and in particular Victor Force. They are assisted by the J&K Police and starting in 2012 by the CRPF as well. All along the route the Indian Army stages camps. Some bhandaras in the lower regions are sponsored by wealthy devotes who take time off from their businesses to come and fed hot meals to pilgrims en-route to the holy cave. Others are run by the Shri Amrnath Shrine Management organization. While the effort of these civilians is worth lauding, it is easy to see that if it were not for the Army each year the pilgrimage would never be made possible for so many people annually.
Maj Gen (Retd) U M Maindarkar, who has organized the Amarnath Yatra first hand when he served as Deputy GOC Victor Force, said that "the Army and other security forces not only ensure security of the route, staging camps and the surrounding area but also provide all the assistance to the pilgrims to make their pilgrimage as safe and trouble free as possible and earn their own Punya through this dedicated service to the Lord Amarnath." He has seen people overcome all kinds of odds using the help of ponies and palkies to make the pilgrimage. He specially remembers a youth who had no legs but pulled himself along on a wooden board with wheels.
The Indian Army does a whole lot to ensure that the Amarnath Yatra proceeds peacefully each year. The route clearing for the trail that he pilgrims will trek begins long before any civilian reaches the area. It is the humble Army soldier who stamps on the fresh fallen snow to ensure that the snow gets packed and settles down for the thousands of footfalls it will receive. The security of the route is taken into consideration as pickets are set up at all high points along the route to provide protection from possible terrorist attacks.
The collection and disposal of waste is another service that the Army provides on the yatra route, helping to preserve the environment and keep it as pristine as possible. It is the armed soldiers who patrol the route and neighboring peaks to ensure that insurgents and militants do not cause a security threat to the lives of the many civilians who will pass through the region. Some even accompany each “jatha” of pilgrims incognito so as to be available on hand in case of a possible insurgent attack.
It was solely through the combined effort of the Indian Army and the Border Roads Organisation that the new alternative route from Baltal to the Amarnath Cave via Domail and Barari was laid out. This 14 km route cuts short the traditional 5 day trek to one day, but the climb on the new route is one so steep that only those in prime physical condition are able to undertake it. Those able to handle the arduous trek leave early morning and make it back after visiting the cave after nightfall.
There is also the option of booking a helicopter to take you to the helipad that the Army maintains just short of the Amarnath Cave at a point called Sangam. This point is called Sangam, meaning confluence, because both the traditional and new route merges here. Of course for most Hindu pilgrims taking a helicopter ride instead of making the trek would be seen as taking a short cut bordering on sacrilege, but it is a far more convenient alternative for those suffering from medical conditions.
There is no civil hospital on the trek route after the major villages have been crossed. The doctors from the Indian Army set up stations along both routes to provide emergency medical aid to pilgrims. There have been cases where casualties of snow avalanches have had to be excavated by the Army. Medical emergencies have been air lifted for evacuation from the region to hospitals in Srinagar. It has also been the sad duty of the Army to help evacuate the occasional dead body of a pilgrim who was unable to survive the tough trek. Their strong faith may draw the pilgrims to the Amarnath Yatra, but it is the support of the Indian Army and other paramilitary forces that makes it a reality.
The writer is Senior Correspondent, WordSword Features
You can access the article here in newspaper format.
An edited and shorter version of the article was also published in the Diplomatist Issue of July 2012