Trek to Himalayan shrine turns into a multicultural affair

When I see relations affected by religion and caste in India, I am pained, says Hari Chand Aneja

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‘The trek through the narrow paths and icy winds takes over 12 hours,” warned Akram, the guide to the Amarnath Cave, 3,888 metres high in the mountains. The cold wind smashed into our faces like a sheet of ice. We sat in a teashop in a village nestling at the foot of the Himalayan mountains. “That’s fine. We are determined to visit the cave,” I told him. He was taken aback with our passion. That settled it.

I was on an official visit to Srinagar during 1984. My friends advised me to visit the Amarnath Cave. This sacred cave has been a place of worship for time immemorial. In the Hindu scriptures, there are references to King Aryaraja who worshipped a “lingam” formed of ice in Kashmir.

But winter had started and all the trips were suspended due to the perilous travelling conditions in the snow. The trip normally took five days and I could spare just two days. My enquiries revealed another route via Sonamarg village, by which we could complete the trip in a day. We would commence our journey from Baltal and pass through Domial, Barari and Sangam to Amarnath. Though shorter, this route was nevertheless 16-km long and the gradient was steep. Therefore, to climb and descend the massive mountains in a day was indeed a gruelling mission.

We resumed our journey from Srinagar to Sonamarg by car. There, we met Akram and Salim, our guides who provided us with ponies.

Next day, we began our climb at 4am. But within a few kilometres, a group of soldiers stopped us. Sardar Milan Singh counselled us: “This is a dangerous route. There is no human habitation on the route.” Seeing our determination to complete the pilgrimage, he let us proceed with some caution.

The trek was tough, through one barren hill after another. There was pin-drop silence in the mountains. The only sound was that of the hoofs of the ponies clicking on small white stones on the mountainous path.

We rode the two horses while Akram and Salim walked behind. The path frequently narrowed sharply. Then, only one horse could walk on the path and the other would follow in single file. Later, the path widened. We would often see the river Amaravathy, a tributary of the Chenab River. Some water flowed only in the centre of the frozen river.

The all-pervading silence was an eerie experience. Mountains, glistening rivers, trees, grass meadows and low floating fluffy white clouds, surrounded us.

We passed the river again, this time by crossing a wooden bridge. Then we took a short recess. As we neared the cave, Akram told us, “Jenab (Sir), from here onwards you will have to walk to the cave. We will wait here.”

We started walking and saw a pigeon fly out of the cave towards the hills. The sighting of the pigeon gladdened us. Throughout the journey, we had not seen any human being, bird or animal. We climbed the last slope and entered the cave. There was no priest in the cave. Traditionally, no one stays in the cave after the conclusion of the pilgrimage season in August.

We walked around in the cave, which was 45-metre long and 30-metres wide. The cave was part of a large rock, and hence the roof was uneven. Exquisite necklaces of icicles hung from the roof of the cave. Normally, the “Shivlingam” forms in the centre of the cave. There was no “Shivlingam” ice formation, on the day. We felt fulfilled, though. We stayed in the cave for about 30 minutes, savouring the solace.

Then we returned to the waiting horses. This time we had to descend all the slopes we had climbed on the way to the cave. We were perpetually balancing ourselves on the horses, as they nimbly walked down the slippery paths. The return trek was very slow.

It started to snow. We felt as if soft feathers were raining down on us. The snowflakes covered the path, turning it into a white sheet.

Then, we came to the narrowest part of the path. Suddenly, the horses stopped and refused to move. Akram told us that the path ahead was sludgy. We would have to walk. We were told to dismount facing the mountain wall, not the deep valley.

As the sky turned dark, we rode back into the army camp. Sardar Milan Singh greeted us with open arms. He was ecstatic that we had accomplished our mission. Later, we reached Akram and Salim’s village.

Over the years whenever I reminisce my pilgrimage to the Amarnath Cave, I marvel that I was able to complete it in a day at 63 years of age. There was determination and will. But Sardar Milan Singh, Akram and Salim steered the pilgrimage.

When I see relations affected by religion and caste in India, I am pained. For I recall that a Sikh soldier Milan Singh counselled me, and Muslim guides Akram and Salim led me to a Hindu shrine, 3,888 metres high in the snowy Himalayas.

Hari Chand Aneja is a 92-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work