Amarnath Cave Temple
|State||Jammu and Kashmir|
Amarnath cave is a Hindu shrine located in Jammu and Kashmir, India. The cave is situated at an altitude of 3,888 m (12,756 ft), about 141 km (88 mi) from Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, reached through Pahalgam town. The shrine represents an important part of Hinduism, and is considered to be one of the holiest shrines in Hinduism. The cave is surrounded by snowy mountains. The cave itself is covered with snow most of the year, except for a short period of time in summer when it is open to pilgrims. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus and other devotees make an annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave across challenging mountainous terrain.
Inside the 40 m (130 ft) high Amarnath cave, a stalagmite is formed due to the freezing of water drops that fall from the roof of the cave onto the floor and grow upward vertically from the cave floor. It is considered to be a Shiva Linga by Hindus. It is mentioned in the ancient Hindu texts of Mahabharata and Puranas that Lingam represents Lord Shiva. The lingam waxes during May to August, as snow melts in the Himalayas above the cave, and the resultant water seeps into the rocks that form the cave; thereafter, the lingham gradually wanes. As per religious beliefs, it is said that the lingam grows and shrinks with the phases of the moon, reaching its height during the summer festival, although there is no scientific evidence for this belief. According to Hindu religious beliefs, this is the place where Shiva explained the secret of life and eternity to his divine consort, Parvati.
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The book Rajatarangini (Book VII v.183) refers to krishaanth or Amarnath. It is believed that, in the 11th century AD, Queen Suryamati gifted trishuls, banalingas and other sacred emblems to this temple. Rajavalipataka, begun by Prjayabhatta, contains detailed references to the pilgrimage to Amarnath Cave. In addition, there are further references to this pilgrimage in many other ancient texts.
Discovery of Holy Cave
According to legend, Bhrigu Muni was the first to have discovered Amarnath. A long time ago, it is believed that the Valley of Kashmir was submerged underwater, and Kashyap Muni drained it through a series of rivers and rivulets. As a result, when the waters drained, Bhrigu Muni was the first to have darshan of Lord Amarnath. Thereafter, when people heard of the lingam, it became an abode of Lord Bholenath for all believers and the site of an annual pilgrimage, traditionally performed by lakhs of people in July and August during the Hindu holy month of Shravan. According to researchers and as per the belief of locals, the gadaria community were the first to discover the Amaranth cave and saw the first glimpse of Baba Barfani.
François Bernier, a French physician, accompanied Emperor Aurangzeb during his visit to Kashmir in 1663. In his book Travels in Mughal Empire, he provides an account of the places he visited, noting that he was "pursuing journey to a grotto full of wonderful congelations, two days journey from Sangsafed" when he "received intelligence that my Nawab felt very impatient and uneasy on account of my long absence." The "grotto" referenced in this passage is obviously the Amarnath cave — as the editor of the second edition of the English translation of the book, Vincent A. Smith, makes clear in his introduction. He writes: "The grotto full of wonderful congelations is the Amarnath cave, where blocks of ice, stalagmites formed by dripping water from the roof are worshipped by many Hindus who resort here as images of Shiva...."
The peak pilgrimage occurs when the iced stalagmite Shiv lingam reaches the apex of its waxing phase through the summer months. The July–August popular annual Hindu pilgrimage, undertaken by up to 600,000 or more pilgrims to the 130 feet (40 m)-high glacial Amarnath cave shrine of iced stalagmite Shiv linga at 12,756 feet (3,888 m) in the Himalayas, is called Amarnath Yatra. It begins with a 43 kilometres (27 mi) mountainous trek from the Nunwan and Chandanwari base camps at Pahalgam and reaches cave-shrine after night halts at Sheshnag Lake and Panchtarni camps. The yatra is both a way of earning revenue by the state government by imposing tax on pilgrims, and making living by the local Shia Muslim Bakarwal-Gujjars by taking a portion of revenue and by offering services to the Hindu pilgrims, and this source of income has been threatened by the Kashmiri militant groups who have harassed and attacked the yatra numerous times,  causing killings and massacres, with at least 59 people killed till July 2017 on this yatra causing death of mostly Hindu pilgrims, at least 10 Muslim civilians, and security forces personnel.
The Harkat-ul-Mujahideen group had in the past imposed what it called a "ban" on the yatra in 1994, 1995 and 1998 while threatening the pilgrims of "serious consequences". The Amarnath pilgrimage was suspended in July 2016 due to the Kashmir unrest. A section of Sufis and Shias later demanded resumption of the Yatra. Kalbe Jawad, a Shia cleric and general secretary of Majlis-e-Ulama-e-Hind and Sufi Cleric Syed Hasnain Baqai expressed concern that the tradition had been suspended because of upheaval in Kashmir.
The number of pilgrims to the site has risen from around 12,000 in 1989 to over 400,000 in 2007. This popular yatra destination for Hindus, received about 634,000 people in 2011, the highest recorded number for the site. The number was 622,000 in 2012 and 350,000 in 2013. Pilgrims visit the holy site during the 45-day season around the festival of Shravani Mela in July–August, coinciding with the Hindu holy month of Shraavana.
In olden days the route was via Rawalpindi (Pakistan) but now a direct train is there connecting rest of India to Jammu, the winter capital of the State. The best part of journey is between Guru Purnima and Shravan Purnima. But the highly unpredictable weather of the mountains should be more obliging before Guru Purnima as rains would not start. There is a bus service from Jammu to Pahalgam (7,500 ft.). At Pahalgam the pilgrims arrange for coolies or ponies to carry gear of food and clothes etc. Pahalgam in Kashmiri means the land of shepherds.
In 2019, the Yatra would commence on 1 July and end on 15 August.
The State Road Transport Corporation and Private Transport Operators provide the regular services from Jammu to Pahalgam and Baltal. Also privately hired taxis are available from Jammu & Kashmir.
The shorter northern route is just about 16 km long, but has a very steep gradient and is quite difficult to climb. It starts from Baltal and passes through Domel, Barari, and Sangam to reach the cave. The northern route is along the Amarnath valley and all along the route one can see the river Amaravati (a tributary of Chenab) which originates from Amarnath Glacier.
It is believed that Lord Shiva left Nandi, the bull, at Pahalgam (Bail Gaon). At Chandanwari, he released the Moon from his hair (Jata). On the banks of Lake Sheshnag, he released his snakes. At Mahagunas Parvat (Mahaganesh Mountain), he left his son Lord Ganesha. At Panjtarni, Lord Shiva left behind the five elements - Earth, Water, Air, Fire and Sky. As a symbol of sacrificing the earthly world, Lord Shiva performed the Tandava Dance. Then, finally, Lord Shiva entered the Holy Amarnath Cave along with Mata Parvati.
En route the cave, various non-governmental organisations have set up food supply and resting tents called pandals which are available for free to the pilgrims. Near the shrine, hundreds of tents which are erected by locals can be hired for a night's stay. Helicopter services from base camp to Panjtarni (6 km from the cave) are also available from various private operators.
Every year, thousands of central armed forces and state police personnel are deployed to provide security to pilgrims from potential terror threats. The forces position at various halts and also in the perimeter of the shrine.
Of the 622,000 yatra pilgrims in 2012, 130 died during the yatra. The major cause was attributed to people who were not physically fit for the arduous climb, high elevations, and adverse weather undertook the yatra. Some also died in road accidents before reaching the base camp from where the yatra starts. Of the 130 deaths, 88 were due to purported health reasons and 42 in road accidents. The 2012 pilgrimage ended on Shravana Purnima (Raksha Bandan) Day, 2 August 2012.
Officially, the Yatra is organised by the government in collaboration with the Shree Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB). Various agencies provide necessary facilities all along the route during the Yatra period, which includes provision of ponies, supply of power, telecommunication facilities, firewood and setting up of fair price shops.
1990s terrorist threats and 1996 yatra tragedy
The number of pilgrims in 1992 reached 50,000. The first attack against the pilgrims happened in 1993, that year Pakistan-based Harkat-ul-Ansar had announced a ban due to demolition of Babri Masjid. The pilgrimage however passed off mostly peacefully.
In 1994-5 and 1998, the group again announced a ban on the annual Amarnath yatra. In 1996 the militants had assured that they would not interfere allowing a resumed yatra with far greater numbers than in previous years. However, unseasonal blizzards in late August of that year led to a tragedy that claimed the lives of 242 yatris, killed by exhaustion and exposure.
2000 pilgrimage massacre
The pilgrimage suffered another setback with the massacre at Nunwan base camp in Pahalgam of at 32 people (including 21 unarmed Hindu pilgrims, 7 unarmed Muslim civilians and 3 security force officers) in a two hour long indiscriminate shoot out by Kashmiri separatists on 2 August 2000. Most were yatris on their way to Amarnath or porters and horsemen who would have ferried the pilgrims to the site. This attack on Amarnath yatra was part of the larger 1st and 2nd August 2000 Kashmir massacre in 5 separate coordinated terrorist attacks that killed at least 89 (official count) to 105 people (as reported by PTI), and injured at least 62 more. Then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee blamed Lashkar-e-Taiba for the killings.
On 20 July 2001, a terrorist threw a grenade on a pilgrim night camp at Sheshnag near the Amarnath shrine in which at least 13 persons, including 3 women, were killed in two explosions and firing by militants, 2 were security officials and 3 of the killed person were Muslim civilians. 15 other were also injured in the attack.
On 30 July and 6 August 2002, in two separate incidents terrorists from al-Mansuriyan, a front group of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, massacred 2 and 9 pilgrims and injured 3 and 27 people in Srinagar and near Nunwan pilgrimage base camp respectively.
2017 yatra attack
Seven Hindu pilgrims were killed on 10 July in a gun attack returning from Amarnath. The Pakistani outfit, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, was found responsible.
The yatra was suspended in August 2019 after the state government stated there was a threat of possible terrorist attacks. Similarly, the pilgrimage to Machail Mata was suspended. However, it was also speculated that the Yatra suspension might have been linked to the revocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir.
On 22 April 2020, the Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Board announced the suspension of the Yatra because of the COVID-19 pandemic in India. Later however it withdrew the press circular and announced cancellation of the suspension. Lieutenant Governor G. C. Murmu said that a final decision will be dependent on any future developments relating to the pandemic. In light of the pandemic, union territory government on 4 July announced that only 500 people will be permitted road travel to the shrine and everyone coming into the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir from outside will be tested for COVID-19, being quarantined until their reports come out to be negative. The pilgrimage was later cancelled on 21 July by the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board due to the pandemic, with cases of coronavirus in the union territory increasing greatly since 1 July.
2008 Land transfer controversy
On 26 May 2008, the Government of India and the state government of Jammu and Kashmir reached an agreement to transfer 100 acres (0.40 km2) of forest land to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) to set up temporary shelters and facilities for Hindu pilgrims. Kashmiri separatists opposed the move citing reasons that it will jeopardize the article 370 that gives separate identity to the people of Jammu and Kashmir and prevents any Indian citizen to settle in Kashmir. People in Kashmir staged widespread protests against this decision by government of India. Due to the protests, the J&K State government relented and reversed the decision to transfer land. As a result, Hindus in the Jammu region launched counter-agitations against this roll back.
Environmentalists have expressed concern that the number of people participating in the Amarnath Yatra is having a negative impact on the area's ecology and some have expressed support for government regulated limits on the number of pilgrims permitted to make the trek. However no studies have been made nor has an environmental impact assessment done. As of date, the Government of India restricts travellers only on the basis on logistics, time window for the yatra and weather.
Amarnath yatra tax controversy
The Government of Jammu and Kashmir had in 2010 issued a notification under the State Motor Vehicle Taxation Act 1957, under which vehicles going to Amarnath Yatra will have to pay a tax of ₹ 2,000 for seven days and ₹ 2,000 per day after that. Similar provisions were made for pilgrims going to Sri Mata Vaishno Devi under which they need to pay ₹ 2000 for a period of three days. India's central political party the Bhartiya Janata Party expressed its ire over imposition of entry fee and accused the then UPA led central government to direct the Jammu and Kashmir dispensation to desist from making attempts to "discriminate" between followers of various religions. BJP criticized the decision "as a reminiscent of Jizya imposed during Mughal period on Hindus," In response to the question in Lok Sabha (Lower house of the Indian Parliament) then Minister of State for Finance, S.S. Palanimanickam clarified that tax is levied on all India Tourist Vehicles entering the state and is therefore not correct to say that Government of Jammu & Kashmir is levying any additional tax on vehicles going to Amarnath and Vaishno Devi. He also said that Taxation of Motor vehicles falls under the purview of State Governments as per the seventh schedule of Constitution of India and Central Government cannot direct the State Government to change the tax rate on vehicles.
Helicopter service up to panjtarni on route to Amarnath Cave
Glacier over Lidder River in Chandanwari on the way to Amarnath Temple
- Kanwar Yatra, another popular Hindu pilgrimage.
- List of caves in India
- List of rock cut temples in India
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