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Tirtha of Amreshvara

By M.M. Munshi

At the head of the Sind Valley in Kashmir, flanked on the North by great Himalayan range and Sachkach (Sasakat) mountains in the south is located the holy Tirtha of Amar Nath Ji Cave "Amreshvara". (340.12' : 750.01') at an altitude of 12, 720 ft. (3878m) where Suaymbhu (self-created) the only Ice linga in the world, has been worshipped since early historic if not prehistoric times. The earliest references pertaining to Holy Amar Nath Ji Cave are found in Bhrngish Samhita (1) Nilmat Purana (2) Kalhana's Raj Tarangni (3) Mahatmayas of Amarnatha (4) and Amreshvara Kalpa (5).

Mahatmayas :

According to Bhrngish Samhita the Mahakala approached the "Devtas" and told them that they would have to die. The devtas were troubled at this threat and proceeded to the abode of Swami Surji (Lord Shiva) and entreated his protection. Shiva appeared to them with bright countenance, showered upon them great favour and enquired about the cause of their distress. The devtas explained that Mahakala was about to destroy them and they dreaded his Power upon which Shiva with his great mercy and kindness bestowed upon them the water of immortality by which the "devtas" were freed from the persecution of Mahakala. After the devtas left, Shiva resumed his devotional abstractions and when he was again sought by the devtas they could not see him. They were, therefore, in great distress and lifted their hands in prayer and entreated him to show Himself. Shiva appeared in the form of ice linga and hence began the pilgrimage and prayers at Amreshvara.

The other view pertaining to the formation of Ice Linga is that Shiva's consort Parvati was eager to learn the secrets of life and immortality. She prayed to her lord to reveal the same to her. While moving with the Parvati over the Himalayas, Shiva rested in a cave and revealed the secrets of life to Parvati and got himself transformed into the Ice Linga. A pair of snow pigeons over-heard Shiva's discourse and became immortal. According to Bhrngish Samhita a person who bathes in the waters of Amur Veth (Amuravati) and rubs himself with the ashes gets Moksha. A person who performs Amarnath Ji Yatra after observing ablutions along the traditional approach route gets the same boons as one gets from Ashvamedha Yagya.

A pilgrim who performs ablutions at the sangam of Amur Veth and Panjtarnagini in Kalyug, gets pardon for crores of sins. Pilgrimage to Amarnath Ji is considered several times more auspicious than the pilgrimage to Kashi or Triveni. How Amarnath Ji cave could have been originally discovered I quote from the life of Swami Vivekananda; "I can well imagine how this cave was first discovered. A party of shepherds, one summer day must have lost their flocks and wandered here in search of them. What must have been their feeling as they found themselves unexpectedly before this unmelting ice lingam of white camphor, with the vault itself dripping offerings of water over it for centuries unseen of mortal eyes? When they came home they whispered to other shepherds in the valleys how they had suddenly come upon Mahadeva".

Physiography :

The mountain ranges in the area include Great Himalaya trending North West-South East isolating Sindu (Indus) basin (represented by Suru river) from that of Vitasta or Jhelum (represented by Sind and Lidar rivers), and Chandarbaga or Chenab basin (represented by Batkol-Marwah rivers). Saraibal a south westerly spur of great Himalaya isolates Jhelum from Chenab basin. Another spur called Sachhkach (Sasakat) of the Himalayas, bifurcating near Mushran, forms a water-parting between Sind and Lidar rivers. The Sachkach also follows a south-westerly trend and a Drun Nar or Hangsatu immediately below Sonamarg is traversed by the Sind river forming a narrow gorge beyond which it is known as Sogput or North Kashmir range isolating Kishenganga from the Kashmir Valley. The triangular mass of mountains is bounded on the north by Sind Valley, on the east and south by Lidar Valley and on the west by main valley of Kashmir with peaks of Kolahi or Gashbrar, Mahadev and Suresvari. The latter, over looking Dal Lake with lakes of Tarsar, Marsar and Hodsar has no modern name but was known in ancient times as Dudavana.

A number of pilgrims and authors in the past and recent times have wrongly referred to the snow beds and snow fields along the Sind Valley, Chandanwari near Panjtarangni (Panjtarni), and Amravati as Glaciers. These snow beds (Sheendob) are nothing but fresh snow accumulated in depressions by snow fall snow creep, avlanches and drift snow in winter.

A glacier (Handar in Kashmiri) is a solid mass of ice moving down the slope along the valley with an average velocity of 1 to 3 feet per day.

However, the vertical `U' shaped profiles of almost all the valleys in the upper reaches of Kashmir, including Sind and Lidar and their tributaries, have been carved by glaciers during pliestocene times. The glaciers have since retreated to higher levels, some have disappeared, while a few still remain like Kolahi, Koenjhar in the South East of Sheshnag, Machoi near Zojilla pass, Harmukata (Harmukh) in upper reaches of Sind and Amuravati near Mushran. In the area under review during the pliestocene times glaciers extended much below down stream of Gagganjir and Pahalgam in Sind and Lidar valleys respectively.

Routes :

The holy Amar Nath Ji cave though located in the Sind Valley beside a small tributary of Sind river called Amar Veth or Amuravati (Amar Nath Nar) has been approached traditionally from the Lidhari (Lidar) valley. According to Amreshvara Mahatmaya some of the important places where pilgrims had to perform ablutions while on pilgrimage where Anantnaga, Mach Bhawan

Route Map of Amarnath :

(Mattan). Ganeshbal (Ganeshpora, 6,800 ft.) Mameshwar (Mamal 7,300 ft.) Nilganga. Chandanwari (9,220 ft.) Shusshram Naga (Sheshnag 11,330 ft.), Panjtarangni (Panjtarni, 12,611 ft.) and Amuravati. Between Sheshnag and Panjtarni the pilgrims crossed from Lidar to Sind Valley at the pass of Vayuujana or Mahagnus (VOWJAN) 13835 ft. The Sind valley route bifurcating from Srinagar - Leh Highway at Baltal was used in the past in early summers. During the late summers it used to become very difficult and sometimes impossible due to melting of snow bridges over the Sind river. But with the construction of a bridle path recently by the army and border roads organisation this route has become negotiable throughtout the summer. Amarnath Ji cave is also approachable by a very short foot track from Zojilla pass which descends near the cave from the side of Amarnath Peak. Another track branching off from Kishtwar-Suru-route, Via Marwah-Wardwan Batkol Valley. Lidar valley via Gulol gati between Shesh Nag and Mahagnus (along which the redoubtable Wazir Zorawar singh passed several times between 1834 to 1841 during the Dogra conquest of Ladakh, Baltistan and parts of Western Tibet) enters. The least known route through Saeki Pantsal Pass is the most difficult route and has never been used by pilgrims.

History :

Like the mention of glaciers along the Amarnath Ji route, the history of Amarnath Ji has also been wrongly documented. Numerous writers in the recent past have maintained that Amarnath Ji cave was lost for a very long time (like one saying 'for thousands of years') till it was rediscovered by Maliks of Batkot. It is said to have been `rediscovered' according to some in 1775 C.E. and according to others by about 1600 C.E., quoting old Kashmiri Pandits and Maliks of Batkot without any authentic documentry evidence. Some have tried to give credit to the Maliks of Batkot for having originally discovered the holy cave for the first time in the middle of 18th Century C.E.

According to Kalhana's Rajtarangni, Tarang II, Samdimat (Arya Raja) 34 BCE-17 C.E. a great devotee of Shiva who rose from the position of Minister to be the King of Kashmir "used to worship a Linga of snow above the forests, which is not to be found elsewhere in the whole world during the delightful Kashmir Summers," He abandoned his kingship and retired to Nandiksethra (Nandkul) Sind Valley to join a hermitage where he was welcomed by old sages.

Kalhana further in Tarang I of Rajtarangni narrates the legend of Naga Suravas who bestowed his daughter Chandralekha upon a Brahmin youth who had helped the Naga in partaking the part of harvest from the fields. King Nara whose domain flourished around Chakardara (Tsakdar) near vijeshvara (Vijbror) cast an evil eye on the young Brahmin's Naga wife, which aroused the wrath of Naga Suravas resulting in death of Nara and destruction of later's kingdom. After completing the frightful carnage the Naga took his son-in-law (Zamatur, in Kashmiri) along and carved a place for him besides his own abode, Shushram Naga (Shesh nag). Kalhana says : "It is seen to this day (i.e. 1148-49 C.E.) by pilgrims proceeding to Amreshvara". Upstream of Shushramnaga towards Koenjnar glacier is located a smaller lake cased Jamtarsaras (Zamtirnag) the residence of this Brahmin son-in-law transformed into a Naga. The full translation of the verse 267 Book I of Kalhana's Rajtarangni, reproduced below leaves no doubt about the continuation of the pilgrimage to Amarnath Ji during the middle of 12th Century.

The lake of dazzling witness (resembling) a sea of Milk, which he created (for himself as residence) on a far off mountain, is to the present day seen by the people on the pilgrimage to Amreshvara' Stein's, Translation.

The fact that Kind Zain-ul-abdin (1420-70 C.E.) the pious Muslim ruler of Kashmir, besides visiting a number of Hindu shrines, also visited Amarnath Ji cave, has been documented by his chronicler Jonaraja.

Francios Bernier, was the French Physician who accompanied Emperor Aurangzeb to Kashmir in 1663. After visiting Trisandiya, Verinag, Achabal, Wular lake, Sangsafed in front of Harmukh, he was just after two-days' march from some place in Sind Valley, in a magnificient cave full of wonderful congealations"; apparently Amarnath Ji cave. When he was called back by Aurangzeb. The relevant para of the Bernier's book "Travels in Moghul Empire" is reproduced here. "I was pursuing journey to a grotta full of wonderful congelations, two days journey from Sangsafed when I received intelligence that my Nawab felt very impatient and uneasy on account of my long absence".

The 2nd edition of Bernier's book has been edited by vincient A Smith who has observed, "The grotta full of wonderful congelations is the Amarnath cave, where blocks of ice, stalagmites formed by dripping water from roof are worshipped by many Hindoos who resort here, as images of Shiva; glaciers surround the ..... which is considerably to the South East of ..."

Pilgrimage :

Vigne in his book "Travels in Kashmir, Ladakh and Iskardu" (1842) says; "The ceremony at the cave of Amarnath takes place on the 15th of the Hindu month of Sawan, 28th July . . . not only Hindoos of Kashmir but those from Hindoostan of every rank and caste can be seen, collecting together and travelling up the valley of Lidar towards the celebrated cave, which from his description must have been the place which Bernier intended to visit but was prevented."

Vigne himself, after returning from Ladakh and Tibet by 1840-41, during the rule of Maharaja Sher Singh son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab attempted to visit Amarnath Ji cave along the traditional route via Sheshnag in late season, but was forced to return from Vowjan pass due to bad weather. He has given a beautiful description of the pilgrimage, gathered from others, which indicates that pilgrimage was in good vogue before 1840-41. From his narrative we can easily conclude that pilgrims from the plains, outside Kashmir, visited Amarnath in great numbers.

From this it is clear that Amar Nath has been visited in regular memory, the Yatra has been continuously undertaken not only by Kashmiris but also Hindus from other parts of India. Even if it is assumed that the holy shrine was 'rediscovered' by Maliks of Batkot, for which no authentic document is available it can be easily surmised that Amarnath Ji cave was not `lost' for thousands of years, The pilgrimage may have been disrupted due to political upheavals and persecution of Hindus during Muslim rule in Kashmir for a period varying at the most from 50 to 125 years.

Lawrence in Valley of Kashmir mentions that pilgrims to Amarnath were joined by Brahmins of Mattan and further up at Batkot the Maliks used to take charge of the pilgrimage. According to Lawrence the Maliks were supposed to keep the track in order, guide, escort the pilgrims and carry sick ones and ensure nothing was stolen, and received one third of the offerings at the Amarnath Ji Shrine. The other two shares used to go to Pandits of Mattan and Giri Mahants of Amritsar who used to and still lead the pilgrimage with Chari Mubarak, Lawrence does not mention any where that share of offerings to Maliks was in lieu of their having discovered/rediscovered' the cave. There is no mention of receipt of ransum rahdhari from pilgrims nor grants from the State Govt. for the services rendered by Maliks. Apparently the share seems to have been received by Maliks for the services rendered.

Rediscovery :

Besides Lawrence, earlier travellers and authors in Kashmir have also not mentioned about `rediscovery' of Amarnath Ji cave by Maliks. It is not difficult to conclude that Amarnath Ji cave could not have been lost during the short span of 50 to 125 years during which the yatra might not have seen the traditional pomp and show, and may have remained a low-key affair in view of the adverse political climate.

The theory that the Maliks having `discovered' or `rediscovered' the Amarnath Ji cave in or around 1775 C.E. is also constrained by the adversity of that time. At that time Kashmir was ruled by Afghans (1753-1819 C.E.) who persecuted Kashmiris in general and Hindus in particular. Afghans would not have taken kindly to Maliks, or anybody else, claiming to have 'rediscovered' any Hindu or Buddhist shrine. Such a `discovery' even if it had been made would have been kept under wraps. It is also highly improbable to presume that pilgrimage to a `lost' Amarnath Ji cave could have been resumed during the Afghan rule for reasons mentioned above. Moreover, all the passes and routes with the exception of Baramulla-Muzafarabad route which they needed for direct communication with Kabul were closed for traffic during the Afghan rule and hardly any Hindu pilgrim from plains could have entered Kashmir and reached Amarnathji.

According to Prof. O. N. Chrungoo, the Amarnath Ji cave was rediscovered by Maliks of Batkot by about 1600 C.E. i.e. during the rule of Emperior Akbar, that pilgrimage again remained in abeyance during the Afghan rule ((1753-1819) and was resumed only after Maharaja Gulab Singh arrived on the scene in 1846. Maliks themselves claim that they discovered the cave by 1775 and Pervez Dewan in his article Discovery of Lord Shiva's cave temple in Daily Excelsior also states that the rediscovery of cave was made some times between 1750-1775. All these claims are contradictory and can not be accepted as factual. As already indicated pilgrimage was going on during the Sikh rule long before Gulab Singh appeared on the scene.

Maliks :

In order to arrive at a logical conclusion we have to understand the history and background of the institution of Maliks. According to Baron Von Hugel, Malik is a title of honour and distinction given to successors of Devarpatis, Margesas (later called Magres) holding charge of watch-cum-military stations on feudal basis on the important routes and passes, entering and leaving Kashmir, by the independent Sultans of Kashmir and also to other clans like Chaks, Rainas, Dars for latter's loyal service. After the annexation of Kashmir by Mughals in 1586 C.E. most of the Maliks of Raina, Magrey and Chak clans etc. who had fought against the former were hunted out killed and banished from Kashmir. Some of them escaped to remote and inaccessible hills and valleys to avoid persecution. But those who latter submitted themselves before Akbar and took the oath of loyalty were allowed to resume the duty of guarding the routes, administration and even judiciary. All routes except the Baramulla-Muzafarabad route remained closed during the Afghan's rule.

With the advent of Dogra rule in 1846, opening up of all the routes and gradual establishment of police posts at vulnerable places, the ancestral occupation of Maliks came to end. Since the latter part of 19th century the Maliks had to content themselves with guiding, and escorting the pilgrims to Amarnath Ji, Harmukh, probably to Sharda in Kishenganga valley and other places of pilgrimage. The allotment of a part of offerings, as at the Amarnath shrine, could have been in lieu of these services.

Since all the arrangements including maintenance of track, erection of sheds enroute, medical care and protection for pilgrims are now made by the government and several voluntarily non-government organisations, the receipt of the one third of the offerings by the Maliks is a historical relic, comparable to now abolished Jagirdaris and privy purses. Further research would have to be carried out as to how old was the settlement to Maliks at Batkot as it is located on an unimportant route through which no invasions of Kashmir were attempted or expected nor trade carried out.

Prof. Chrungoo in his article has stated that "some people interested in anthropological or geological research have said that it is an encrustation of lime; chalcedony and archeological research by Pandit Anand Koul has revealed otherwise." It is true that several observations made by people about Amarnath Ji cave are not factual including one in "Tirtha" published by CMC Ltd. (11) that Amarnath is an ice covered linga, "Similarly chalcedony is a variety of silica with waxy lustre and can not get assimilated by water or ice under any circumstances.

However scientifically speaking ice linga is somewhat like an icicle and my contain dissolved bicarbonate of calcium (lime) which cannot be visualy seen. Anthropology is the science of physiological, physiosocio logical and racial study of man while as archeology deals with things used, or made, by man from prehistoric to medieval times both having absolutely no scope for research at Amarnath Ji cave.

A news item under the caption, "Another cave Shiva temple in upper Pahalgam" appeared in the Daily Excelsior of 28th August 2001 stating that another cave not far away from the Amarnathji cave, which is being visited by over one hundred thousand pilgrims every year, had been discovered. The news report reiterated that old Amarnath Ji cave was discovered by Maliks in 1775 and ruins, besides the (new) cave, suggest that a Dogra Governor of Maharaja Ranjit Singh's rule attempted to build a Shiva temple at the spot in 18th century. Firstly the presumption of a Dogra Governor having built a temple during the 18th Century is the height of imagination of the correspondant. All the governors during the Sikh rule in Kashmir without exception were Sikhs or Punjabi muslims; Sikhs ruled Kashmir between 1819-46 that is 19th century and not 18th century.

As already discussed Amarnath Ji cave was known centuries before 1775.

Return Halt :

Prevez Dewan has hypothesised that the newly rediscovered Shiva cave temple near Hapatgund could have been a base camp for Amarnathji yatra. That postulation too, does not stand scrutiny, as the new cave is not located along the traditional route along which lie the different tirthas at which performance of ablutions was a must for a merit-ful yatra. According to Vigne (1842) and Gates (1872) the pilgrims used to approach Amarnathji cave from Panjtarni and Bhairobal and after having darshan returned passing down the Amurveth upto its Sangam with Sind, from where they found their way back to Pahalgam by a different route from the one by which they arrived via Hatiara Talab (where scores) of pilgrims have perished. They crossed the water shed between Sind and Lidar valleys by a pass West of Sachkach (sasakot) peak, Astanmarg and Zanin, The Hapatgund cave temple which lies along this route could have been a halting place on the return journey. The spring described by Parvez Dewan is well known and is shown on the survey map of the area. Swami Vivekananda also returned via this route in 1895 and described the Hatiara Talav as celebrated lake of death. This route was abandoned in early 20th Century for being the most difficult and dangerous one.

Regarding newly discovered temple at Hapathgund (Slaiv Van) the identification of top-knot on the head and serpent coiled round the neck of the idol, and presumbly a trisual and a yoni shaped tank some distance away from the caves, leaves no doubt that the cave houses an ancient Shiva temple.

Since the idols according to Pervez Dewan are in situ i.e. rocks in original position, not transported by natural or human agencies and presence of such a large number of Shivlings in a limited space and their damage by water indicate the possibility of the idols and shivlings being natural stalagmites formed by percolation of calcium bicarbonate bearing water and subsequently scuptured by man. Wind action can carve rock shelters and not caves in areas under review which receive moderate to high rain or snowfall. Neither the caves nor the rocks inside can be carved by wind but mostly by percolation of carbon dioxide laden water and occasionally by joining and fracturing. The sculpturing and carving of idols inside the pre-existing caves and construction of yoni shaped tank might have been possibly done as a token of thanks giving by pilgrims returning from a successful yatra of Amarnathji. A number of temples built at Wangat in Sind Valley by pilgrims, after returning from Harmukh shows that such, indeed, was the practice.

Present Status :

Despite the turmoil of militancy prevailing for more than a decade, Amarnathji continues to be one of the most popular Tirthas of Kashmir, and lakhs of Pilgrims from all parts of the country visit the shrine inspite of the fact that a few of them fall victim to militant attacks. The number of aspirants for pilgrimage has always been more than the Government does allow for security reasons.

Conclusion :

The only Ice Linga in the whole world, at the Amarnathji cave, has been visited and worshipped by pilgrims since early historic if not prehistoric times. There is conclusive historic evidence that pilgrims were regularly proceeding to the holy cave via Sheshnag during the middle of 12th century and in middle of 15th century. The Shrine was well known even during the rule of Aurangzeb when Bernier attempted to visit it but was prevented. There is no evidence to prove that the Amarnath Ji cave was `lost' for thousands of years until it was `rediscovered' by Maliks of Batkot some time between 1750-75.

The pilgrimage to Amarnathji might have been disrupted during the political upheavals for period varying between 50 to 125 years. Full pilgrimage was resumed after annexation of Kashmir by Sikhs and since then the Giri Mahants of Amritsar have been associated with the Yatra; the track might have been retraced by Maliks. Maliks have been receiving one-third of the offerings of the shrine for keeping the track in order, guiding and escorting the pilgrims etc. rather than for `discovering' or `rediscovering' the cave.

The newly discovered Lord Shiva's cave temple near Hapatgund could not have been a base camp for Amarnath Yatra but a halting place on the return journey. The cave temples are man-made only to the extent of sculpturing of pre-existing stalagmites.

Despite the disturbed condition prevailing in Kashmir pilgrims in large numbers still throng the Shrine.

Source: Kashmir Sentinel

 

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