A hundred and sixty kilometers travel in the middle of the night was neither pleasant nor comfortable. It is imperative to scale that length to reach Chennai to catch the train which was destined to travel to Jammu-Tawi the next morning. A hasty shower in the railway upper class resting room was refreshing, a cup of steaming coffee added to the comfort. At 5.30 in the morning, the train gave a long whistle, informing rather threatening the passengers of its intended departure. The train compartment wore a new look. The date of manufacture shows it was just six months old only. A mad rush erupted in the compartment to recharge the mobile phones as if the instruments were unconscious for years and needed immediate attention or else would perish. Punjabis and Army officers occupied a good number of seats. A couple of children patiently took the teasing of the elders......The 'chai walla' gave the horrible news that there is no pantry car attached to this train. Really a shocking news for almost every one, especially for the children who were eager to order their ice creams. Three long days without facilities for proper food and water. The hermit had a wild scream in his belly. Luckily it remained with in the ambit of the belly. Many cursed the management of the railways for its lack of professionalism and callousness. Three testing days on board the train. No proper food, no refreshments. Alas.. Finally, it arrived at Jammu-Tawi at night, eight hours late.
The hermit's journey towards the holy cave, Amarnath begins here. M/s.Om Prakash Saraf and C.I.Chaudhari were present at the railway station to receive him. The hermit decided to begin the journey the same night itself. With so much hesitation they took him to the stadium in their car where the yatrees are assembled to proceed towards Pahalgam, which is the base camp. Jammu is hot, may be hotter than the previous years. To blame the global warming
Here comes the announcement.......Buses to Pahalgam will be available by 05.00 in the morning. ......Here onwards The Indian Army takes over you. Nothing will happen with out the army's permission. By 5.30 am the army cleared the buses after conducting extensive checking and counter checking. Metal detectors are everywhere; the eagle eye of the army is always on you. They don't believe you, for that matter none. Be serious; don't play prank. Its one of the most disciplined and professional forces in the world. And it is true the presence of the army makes one feel secured in the land of bombs and explosions.
There are two routes to the Holy Cave. One from Chandanvadi and the other from Baltal. Chandanvadi (36 kms) is the traditional one and most of the pilgrims prefer this route. From Baltal it is just 16 kms and one can complete the darshan in the same day. But the route is very narrow and dangerous and often remains closed due to unpredictable weather conditions.
Many charitable trusts arrange free food for the pilgrims through out. In some counters south indian food is served. South Indians in large numbers visit the Holy Cave and its a new phinomenon.
Tents are available en-route on a very nominal rent.
PAHALGAM -- the Valley of Shepherds.
The journey began on convoy, the army's armoured vehicle in front leading the way. It is a wonderful breath taking experience. En route to Pahalgam one comes across the beautiful lidder valley. The valley is a photographer’s delight, even an amateur will be tempted to click some and the result could probably turn out to be a professional's envy. One, if lucky, may find the large brown bears, the natural inhabitants of the valley.
The origin of Pahalgam is obscure. Mugal rulers ruled this region in the medieval period and later became part of the Kingdom of Kashmir, which was ruled by local Hindu Kings. Once India became independent Kashmir merged with Indian Union. Situated at the confluence of the streams flowing from Sheshnag lake and Lidder river, Pahalgam (7000 ft) was once a humble Shepherd's village. Now it is a tourists’ paradise famous around the world. The temperature remains cool even during the peak of summer and never exceeds 25*C.
The Base Camp.
The hermit was greeted by the army men with a question "Konsa service mem he ??" He was taken aback for a while. He took a few seconds to come to senses and answered politely " I’ m civilian". There comes the suggestion to change the army like attire the hermit was wearing. "The attire could mislead the army men and the terrorist as well. So proceed as a civilian yatree for your own sake".
The Army checks every thing and every one before entering in to the camp. X-ray equipments for the luggage, metal detectors and physical check up for the yatrees. Separate counters for male and female. Very friendly and polite and very firm when it required. Most of the army men are from South India. Malayalees, Tamils, Kannadigas, Andhraites etc. and a few from Orissa and Bengal.
Extensive arrangements have been made for the yatrees in the base camp. Hundreds of tents, toilets, medical facilities, food, telephone facility, hot water etc. are readily available. A group of volunteers are at call to attend to the needs of the yatrees. Its 08.30 in the evening/night still the sun is pretty bright. The sun doesn't set before 08.15, the locals say. The hermit felt the need for a light meal and a good sleep. The bus to Chandanvadi is at 08.30 in the morning.
There is a small makeshift market beside the base camp. Yatrees can buy things which are necessary for their yatra. Dont forget to taste kawa, the great Kashmiri (sweet) tea.
Chandanvadi is 16 k.meters away from Pahalgam. Its a beautiful valley situated at a height of 9500 feet from sea level. On the way to chandanvadi one sees the betab valley where the film Betaab, the Sunny Deol block buster, was shot decades back. The trek to Amarnath cave begins here.
There is no proper single way for the trek. Depending on one's adventural instinct a new route could be made. The three kilometers of steep climb to Pissu top is a real experience. The myth behind Pissu top is that to be first to reach for darshan of Bhole nath Shiva, there was a war between Devtas and Rakshasas. With the help of Shiva, Devtas killed the Rakshasas in such large numbers that the heap of their dead bodies has resulted in to this mountain. En-route yatrees get a protective feeling as the Army men greet them with smiling faces. The Army's eagle eyes are every where to keep the terrorists at bay. Always obey the instructions of the men in Khaki or else?????? Only Amarnathji knows.
The second day of 12kms from Chandanvadi is through spectacular primeval countryside and reaches Sheshnag. A mountain, which derives its name from its seven peaks, resembles the heads of the mythical snake. The journey to sheshnag follows steep inclines on the right bank of a cascading stream and wild scenery untouched by civilisation. The second night's camp at sheshnag overlooks the deep blue waters of sheshnag lake, and glaciers beyond it. There are legends of love and revenge too associated with sheshnag, and at the camp these are narrated by camp fires. The stillness of a pine scented Himalayan night increases your inner joy. Yatrees can take bath and get their fatigue alleviated. It is beautiful and scenic.
From Sheshnag one has to climb steep height up across Mahagunapass at 14,500 ft. for 4.6 kms and then descending to the meadow lands of Panchatarni at a height of 12000 ft. The last camp en-route to the holy cave is made on third day. Here one faces cold winds which cause the skin to crack. Hence cold cream is very useful for protection of skin. Some times yatrees get affected by deficiency of oxygen. Some may get the feeling of vomiting. The Hermit had to witness the death of a very senior pilgrim. He was suffering from oxygen deficiency. Dry fruits, sour and sweet eatables like lemon etc. are useful to control these symptoms. The route to Mahagunas is full of rivulets, water falls and springs. Panchatarni is a very beautiful place at the feet of Bhairav Mount . Five rivers flow here. It is said that the five rivers originated from Lord Shiva's hairs . Pilgrims camp at Panchatarni on the 3rd night. In Panchatarni there is a small clinic which offers treatment to minor ailments.
THE HOLY CAVE OF BHOLENATH
The holy cave of Sri Amarnathji is only 6 kms from Panchtarni. As there is no place to stay the pilgrims start in the early hours of the morning after their stay at Panchtarni. On the way to the holy cave one comes across the sangam of Amravati and Panchtarni. Some pilgrims take bath at Amravati near the cave to become pious before going for darshan. Near the cave is found white soil known as bhasam. it is the most beloved soil of Sivaji. The pilgrims apply this holy soil to their body and then go for Sivalinga darshan. There are two smaller sivalingas too . One Maa Parvathy and the other of Sri Ganesh. It may be noted that after having early darshan of the Sivalinga at holy cave one can return to Panchatarni well in time the same day itself. Some pilgrms camp at Panchtarni while others continue their journey and reach back sheshnag by the same evening. Those who prefer to visit Srinagar could take the Baltal route which is one km of the cave. This sixteen kms. trekking could be devastating considering the unpredictable weather of the Himalayas. The narrow dusty stretch otherwise a relief.