Joining a Hindu Pilgrimage to the Amarnath Cave in India

Hindus on their Pilgrimage to the Amarnath Cave in the Himalayas, India (©Coen Wubbels)

Somewhere along these steps is the entrance to the sanctuary, from where you have to continue barefoot (©Coen Wubbels)

The ultimate goal is almost in sight: an ice stalagmite. A holy one, mind you. I flop down on an ice-cold stone and vigorously rub my feet, which have turned blue. They lost all feeling after I climbed stone steps without number in subzero temperatures. Barefoot, that is.

Dozens of pilgrims walk past me, undisturbed by the elements. Many of them have hiked the entire 8.7 miles in bare feet. In rain, in mud, in freezing temperatures, from 8.800 feet to 13.000 feet in Kashmir’s Himalayas. I’m not sure it’s because they can’t afford shoes or because walking barefoot to the sacred Amarnath Cave gains them points for their karma.

Hiking to the Amarnath Cave

Milk-tea along the 17-Mile Hindu Pilgrimage to the Amarnath Cave, India (©Coen Wubbels)

Milk tea along the trail (©Coen Wubbels)

This morning I joined thousands of Hindu pilgrims in toiling up and down trampled paths that wind through mountains void of forests, and home Himalayan glaciers. Despite the cold and the wet, slippery ground they went at a brisk pace.

They smiled, sang, chanted and shouted, “Bom-bom-boley!” and “Jai-boley!” all day long – some sort of spiritual greeting whose meaning remains a mystery to me. Others went up on a donkey, or were carried by four men on some kind of litter. The most affluent pilgrims remained invisible; they were helicoptered to the holy cave.

Before we were allowed to set foot on the Amarnath pilgrim’s path, we underwent security checks with metal detectors, a body search and a thorough search of our daypacks. The Amarnath Cave is considered one of the – if not thé – most important shrines in India, but since this Hindu sanctuary is located in the Muslim territory of Kashmir, soldiers stand all along the trail, guarding the pilgrims.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You want to join a Hindu pilgrimage.
  • You embrace the challenge of a 17.5-mile hike at high altitude (8.7 miles one way).
  • The Himalayas are a fantastic region for hiking, and this pilgrimage offers you the combination of nature and culture.
  • You need to be fit and have a lot of perseverance; it’s a strenuous hike.

Shiva’s Reincarnation Theory and the Ice Lingam

Offering at the Hindu Temple of Amarnath in India's Himalayas (©Coen Wubbels)

Pilgrims offer coins, flowers and lit incense (©Coen Wubbels)

According to legend it was at the Amarnath Cave that Lord Shiva, one of India’s most revered gods, recounted the reincarnation theory to his consort Parvati. He did this on a night with a full moon and in order to reinforce this story, each year an ice pillar grows in this cave, reaching its maximum height during the full moon in the month of Sharavan (July/August). The ice stalagmite stands for male creative energy or the phallus, generally used as a symbol of Lord Shiva. The cave is a symbol of Parvati, representing the womb of the universe.

All in all enough reason for the site to grow into a place of pilgrimage. From all over India, but also from abroad, hundreds of thousands of Hindus flock to Kashmir for this pilgrimage. Fortunately for me, the organization allows non-Hindus to participate as well.

When I arrived, the August moon was waning and the peak season had passed. Nevertheless, I hiked the two-meeter wide trails with some 2,000 pilgrims, which may sound like a claustrophobic experience. It wasn’t, and that had everything to do with the exuberant ambience.

Free Food and Medical Assistance

The Hindu Pilgrimage to the Amarnath Cave in the Indian Himalayas (©Coen Wubbels)

Pilgrims on donkeys traversing the valley of the cave (©Coen Wubbels)

I joined the pilgrims in their enthusiasm and responded to their holy greetings with just as much fervor. I chatted with them at the stalls along the path where free food was provided. Curries, vegetable chapattis with curd and piping-hot milk-tea warmed our chilled bodies and re-energized us for a next stage in seemingly never-ending ascents and descents.

The trail reached a valley cluttered with foodstalls, accommodation tents and merchants selling all kinds of religious paraphernalia. I was convinced I had reached my destination. I hadn’t. At the far end of the valley loomed a long series of steps, 500 feet up. Somewhere on those stairs was the entrance to the sanctuary, where I had to leave my shoes behind and continue barefoot – as is custom for all Hindu sacred places.

Kids on the Hindu Pilgrimage Trail to Kashmir's Amarnath Cave, India (©Coen Wubbels)

Ready to hit the trail? (©Coen Wubbels)

As I am rubbing my feet I smile at the pilgrims who announce their presence to the gods by ringing large bells and calling out once more, “Bom-bom-boley!” At last I find the strength to join them.

The temple radiates religious ardor from every nook and cranny, an overwhelming setting of colors and decorations, flowers, pictures, burning incense, chatting and shouting pilgrims. The lingam – the chunk of ice, protected by an iron fence – seems only a futile element within the whole exercise. We had reached our first goal for today and now faced the second — 8.7 miles back — fueled with renewed energy from the setting and our fellow pilgrims..

Practicalities

  • The cave lies 90 miles east of Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital, which can be reached by plane or bus (e.g. from Delhi).
  • During the height of the Amarnath pilgrimage season you will find a bus to take you from Srinagar to Phalgam or Baltal, where the trail starts. Otherwise, rent a car to get there.
  • The short route, from Baltal up to the Amarnath Cave, is 8.7 miles (one way). The long version starts in Pahalgam and covers 29 miles (one way). You either walk back the same day (which is highly strenuous and suitable only for those in great shape: figure 12 hours of walking for the Baltal route.) Or you can rent a tent in the glacier valley of the cave (for the equivalent of  a dollar) – don’t expect comfort or the place to be clean, this is really roughing it. Of course, you can also bring your own camping gear.
  • This website provides actual information on dates and aspects such as a mandatory registration, and this website is handy for practical info on what (not) to bring, and dos and don’ts.

 Photos by Coen Wubbels.

 

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