Hiking 32 kilometers didn’t at all sound like such a big deal. After all, so many pilgrims were doing this, why wouldn’t we?
Clearly we hadn’t hiked much in mountains, especially at altitudes exceeding 3,000 metres, where the air becomes rarified and even in summer breathing can hurt your lungs. Oblivious to the physical, and thus mental, challenge that lay ahead, my partner Coen and I had set up camp at Baltal, a piece of flat land east of Srinigar in India’s Kammu & Kashmir state, which served as a base for the Amernath Yatra. It was the end of the annual month of pilgrimage, which takes place somewhere between June to August (the exact date depends on the moon), and there were only a couple of hundred tents around us. When the ice stalactite that everyone comes to see is at its biggest, there are tens of thousands.
According to legend it was on a moonlit night at Amarnath that Shiva taught his student Parvati the reincarnation theory. To reinforce this story, an ice pillar grows in this cave every year, reaching its maximum height during the full moon of August. Hinduism is full of symbols and this ice stalagmite signifies the phallus-shaped Shiv lingam. This symbol of creation is one of the most commonly worshipped objects in India. During August, thousands of pilgrims walk to the cave to make an offering or to convey their pleas to the gods.
Amarnath is little visited by foreigners, and on that day we were the only ones there. We soon had a crowd of people around us who were interested in our journey, and who helped us prepare for the long hike ahead. “Leave early, here, take these snacks of dried fruit and dal, but don’t worry, you will find food along the way.”
The locals made us part of their pilgrimage and it didn’t bother them in the least that we were foreigners and not Hindus. We felt welcome and joined the hordes at seven in the morning. Security was tight. Soldiers were posted along the switchbacks, guarding the pilgrims. Among them struggled donkeys that for a few rupees carried a pilgrim all the way up. Others were carried on a kind of litter by four men. Would this gain them points for their karma? Or would walking barefoot, like many of the pilgrims did? The muddy tracks must have felt awfully cold. The wealthy had their own way of doing things: they were helicoptered to the cave entrance.
Pilgrims walked at a steady pace, chanting and shouting “Bom-bom-boley!” or “Jai-boley!”, holy greetings that nobody could explain to us. We didn’t know a thing about Hinduism yet. We didn’t know what the purpose was of such a pilgrimage or what was so remarkable about an ice lingam. It was enough to be here, to bask in the glory of the present and to allow ourselves to be swallowed up by it.
The walk was facilitated in many ways. There was no need to carry anything up yourself except for warm clothes and a poncho. Along the way were medical checkpoints and stalls where we could regain our energy on hot milk-tea and vegetable chapatis with curd. For the most part, pilgrimages such as that at Amarnath are funded by donations, and thanks to the contributions of the wealthy, these types of religious activities are accessible to the poor as well. A few things were commercialized, such as the rental of tents and the sale of hot water for bathing at the campgrounds of Baltal.
As we slowly wound our way up, I started to get the idea of what the pilgrimage entailed. This was not going to be an easy walk. Each time I thought we couldn’t climb any higher, the trail would wind down and head up once more, a bit higher than before. The cave lies at 4267 metres, some 1200 metres higher than Baltal. Sixteen kilometers up and another sixteen down: in total we would be walking for twelve hours. While on the way up it was drizzling and our surroundings were hidden in clouds, on our return we would enjoy the green surroundings.
Around one o’clock, the landscape transformed into the remnants of a glacier. A grey valley awaited us, packed with stalls selling everything from colorful souvenirs and religious paraphernalia, and food. Seldom had curry and chapatis tasted so good, and I thanked the gods for the invention of milk tea enhanced with spices, which helped warm and invigorate our exhausted bodies.
We hadn’t reached the ultimate destination yet though. The Holy Cave of Shri Amarnathji, one of the holiest shrines in Hinduism, was another 150 metres higher. I could now feel for myself how cold the ground was: at the bottom of the stairs we had to take off our shoes, as this marked the entrance of the sanctuary, and we walked up the slippery, freezing stairs barefoot. How did these people manage to do this for 32 kilometers? I know many Indians always walk barefoot but the majority lives in the tropics, not in freezing mountains. The pilgrims didn’t seem to notice.
They were joyous to have reached their destination. They rang large bells at the entrance of the cave, announcing their presence to the gods. The temple radiated religious liveliness from every nook and cranny: an overwhelming setting of colors and decorations, of flowers, pictures, burning incense, chatting and shouting pilgrims. The lingam—the chunk of ice, protected by an iron fence—seemed a futile element within the whole exercise.
We turned around and faced our ultimate challenge: hiking the sixteen kilometers back to our tent.
Article by Karin-Marijke Vis.