Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Divine of Snow (Baba Amarnath)

यः सतत कर्त्रिनाम, भक्तानाम, अशुभं | पापं च शयती न शयती सः शिवः||

I have been planning for this holy Amarnath Yatra since the last 15 years, but as it is said in Hindu religion and it is believed that until and unless the divine calls you, irrespective of all the circumstances in your favor, you will not be able to complete his/her pilgrimage un-hindered and that was stopping me for all these years.

So, for the first time in my life I got inspired to visit the sacred Amarnath cave in Kashmir in July 2010. In India, visiting this sacred cave is described as doing Amarnath Yatra, and the pilgrims doing this yatra are called Amarnath Yatris. The Amarnath Yatris address each other as BHOLE. BHOLE is the popular name for Lord Shiva who appears in the form of "Ice-Shiva-Linga" every year in the sacred Amarnath Cave. So a devotee of BHOLE becomes "BHOLE" - such are the generosity of Lord Shiva on his devotees.

Baba Amarnath Ice Lingam
This year (2010 A.D), the Amarnath Yatra was going to be started on 1st July. Before this, it was widely reported in the print and electronic media that the Shiva Linga this year is very tall (18 feet). So huge number of people throughout India got inspired to do the Amarnath Yatra and get darshan of Shiva Linga through their own eyes. Doing the darshan of the Ice Shiva Linga is a blessing. And no Hindu wants to be deprived of it because Lord Shiva is one of the Supreme Gods in Hinduism.
Baba Amarnath : Holy Cave
ॐ मृत्यूंजाय, रूद्राय, नीलकंठाय, संभवे। अमृतेशाय सर्वाय महादेवाय ते नम:॥

हे रूद्र! आप मृत्यू को जितने वाले हैं। हे नीलकण्ठ आप अमृत सदृश्य सभी को सुख प्रदान करने वाले हैं।

 हे महादेव आपको नमस्कार। जय भोलेनाथ ..हरी ॐ

Preparation for Yatra

When the thought of the Amarnath Yatra got indulged in our soul by Shiv Ji's (a respectful way to address someone in Hindi is to add “Ji” after his/her name) blessings, I asked my Daddy, who had done this yatra in 1979 to join us, we will be benefited of his experience. Initially he denied because of his old age and health condition. But on our repeated request he got agreed for this grand Yatra. So our next step was to decide a mutual acceptable date and to book train tickets on proper time accordingly, otherwise going to Jammu would be very tough for us because there is only one train from Mumbai to Jammu tawi, “Swaraj express” and during the yatra we all were well aware about the crowd. So we collectively decided a date of 9th July (from Mumbai and from Bokaro).

Initially we were only 7 members from Mumbai who got agreed for this yatra. So we booked only 7 tickets from Mumbai to Jammu tawi. Sharp on 10th April, 90 days before (As per railway reservation rule), I asked Mangesh to book tickets for all because it was Saturday (Our off day) and I do not have Internet connection at my home PC. But by bad luck Mangesh woke up little late that day, so he got late to book tickets and when he booked tickets then the status of those tickets was in RAC (Reservation against Cancellation). Then we got little disappointed but our excitement convinced us “Don’t worry”, It will be confirmed before your departure. Similarly we booked 4 tickets for Bokaro team Via Haridwar. As J&K Govt. had announced a new rule by this year for all Amarnath Pilgrim to be get registered for the yatra from any J&K Bank. Yatri without registration/ permit will not be allowed to perform his yatra. They will be stopped at Jammu or Udhampur. So we assigned this task to Shiva to get registration form and do the registration formalities for all members by J&K bank.

Daddy advised us to take dry fruits & sufficient woolen cloths with us, as it is very cold in the mountains even during the rainy season. He said to us that rains also come very often during the yatra. So we did all necessary preparation and marketing as suggested by daddy. We bought Dry fruits, Chocolates, Haversacks, Woolen Jackets (which is normally useless in city like Mumbai), Monkey caps, Hand gloves, rain coats & necessary medicines as well. Finally after making elaborate preparations we left our home in Mumbai for Jammu on 9th July.

Mumbai to Jammu

9th July- 2010: It was raining very heavily on 9th July early morning since 8th night. I had to leave my house by 5.00 am because it takes almost 2-2.30 hrs to reach Bandra terminus from my place. We were 3 people (Me, Sushil & Ajit) from my place. We waited till 5.15 am then without caring for rain we departed for Bandra. Mangesh, Kunal, Shiva, Ganesh and Dr. Ashok Lal joined us at Kurla Station. When we reached at Bandra terminus then we got very frustrated when we knew that our train will depart after 10.00 am and that meant we had to wait there 3.30 hrs. If we had aware about this train delay then we could have left home late. Finally we boarded into Swaraj Exp. at 10.30 am and departed from Bandra.

When we boarded the train we found 80% passengers were going for “Amarnath Yatra”. Still our tickets status was showing us in RAC when checked final prepared chart. We were total 8 people and we had been allotted only 6 berths which were also not in same coach, so we divided into 2 groups 4 people went to S5 and 3 people with me occupied berths into S1. Time was around 10.30 pm. Then the train headed towards Gujrat. Since we couldn’t sleep last (8th) night so, we were much tired and were looking for one empty berth, so that we all 4 people could get rest. By luck we all 4 people got 1 berth without owner and we occupied all 4 berths for 3 hrs and went to sleep.
After Borivali our train was running towards Gujrat by speed of Shatabdi express (One of the fastest train in India), 3 hours of unstopped running, the train stopped at Surat. We gathered up and opened our lunch boxes and ate our meal. Time was around 1.45 in the afternoon. We came out of the train to see another group in S5. Cold drinks were being sold at a stall near our coach. We ordered 4 bottles. We sipped the cold drinks slowly. Spicy Punjabi music was coming to us floating in the slowly blowing cold wind. In around half an hour the driver blew horn. It was an indication that the train was to start. We went inside the coach and laid ourselves on the sleeper again. Cold air was coming from the window. Soon we went into sleep.

10th July - 2010: The train reached New Delhi next day at around 8 am. This meant we were 4 hrs late. After New Delhi our train was diverted on a new route via Muzaffarnagar - Saharanpur due to heavy flood on its original route (Via Panipat -Karnal). On 10th July we had to reach early at Jammu where my Daddy and Ranjan were waiting for us and the all 10 Yatra permits issued by J&K Bank which was with us. That time as per my knowledge, with the help of those permits we would be able to book any vehicle for onwards journey to Pahalgam. But gradually we got delayed by 8 hrs. Instead of 2.30 pm our train reached Jammu station at around 11.30 pm on 10th July. 
 Jammu is the name of both a city and a region. The Jammu region is one of the three regions of India's northern most state of “Jammu and Kashmir”. Jammu city is the capital of Jammu region and is also known as city of temples. It is a very important pilgrimage destination in India. There are many famous Hindu temples in Jammu city. The famous Vaishno Devi temple too is situated in this region. This temple is around 65 km from Jammu city. From Jammu city, people go to Katra by bus or car, which is around 50 km from Jammu city. Katra town is the base camp for devotees going to Vaishno Devi temple. From here devotees trek on the mountainous path to reach the Vaishno Devi temple which is located at a height of 5300 feet on the holy Trikuta Hills of the Shivalik Hill Range.

When we arrived at Jammu Daddy and Ranjan was waiting for us at Platform no. 1. We met them with wet eyed and a great respect. Then they took us at Saraswati Dham Dharmshala where they had already booked one 11 bed room for us. From Jammu we were 10 people in our team. Next day from Jammu we had to go to Pahalgam - a base camp for Amarnath Yatra. So we had to book any vehicle for 10 people that night at any cost. We were not in mood to waste any single day by staying at Jammu. Ranjan and my Daddy had reached there in morning so they had got enquired for further movement for any team from army camp at Bhagwati nagar and also got contacted with some private travel agencies. So that time they had 2-3 contact numbers of travel agents. Then we started to contact them for any vehicle. They were quoting different fares (Rs. 6000, 5500... and so on) for taking us to Pahalgam. We did some usual bargaining with them to arrive at a mutually acceptable fare. Finally an agent of Lucky travels agreed to charge Rs. 4500. It was a Force Traveller 12 seater vehicle. Then we finalized our pickup points at nearby bus stand.

It was 12.30 am (10th July night) our condition was not too good due to hunger, so we departed to look for any good restaurant or dhaba but it was our bad luck. We could not found any restaurant or dhaba opened. After some time we moved towards station. We got very disappointed when we not seen any dhaba or restaurant opened nearby station. Then we decided to go back to dharmshala then suddenly Ranjan asked us to wait for a min. and he ran away inside the Station. And after few min. returned back with a smiling face and called us with him. We went to platform no. 1, where one IRCTC pantry was opened and that was also supposed to close. Anyway we had Rajma-Rice there and by 2.00 am (10th July night) we came back to Dharmshala. Now we started our useful packaging. We wanted to carry only essential things which were going to be used during yatra and to left our useless items at that Dharmshala. We were late for almost one hour for packaging. Then we went for a small nap.

Jammu to Pahalgam

11th July - 2010: Sharp at 5.00 O’clock my Daddy told everybody "Hurry up, please get up". He was trying to wake up everyone without delay; otherwise we will get delayed to reach Pahalgam. All of us were very tired since last 2 sleepless nights. But no one moved a bit. He kept trying to ping us. By 5.45 am when I got up then gradually one by one everybody opened their eyes and we got fresh within 20 min Sharp by 6.20 we left that Dharmshala for our further journey. At that very moment it started to rain very heavily. After few min we got into a matador for bus stand. And we reached at Bus stand fly over where our vehicle (to Pahalgam) was waiting for us. We interchanged our vehicle there and boarded into 12 seater vehicle. It was a Force-traveller. Driver's name was Vijay. Vijay asked us to pay the entire fare in Jammu itself. But we gave him only Rs.3000/- telling him that we will pay the remaining Rs.1500/- on reaching Pahalgam. He got the fuel tank of his vehicle filled with diesel at the petrol pump. And thus our onward journey began.
In that vehicle we were 10 people so Vijay booked rest 2 seats to a family (Mr. & Mrs. Pyarelal Sharma) came from "Hariyana". In the beginning Haryana family was reserved- not speaking much to us. We were feeling a little hungry. Mangesh had brought dry fruits from home. He opened a bag and took out some dry fruits from it. We offered some dry fruits to Vijay and that family too. Perhaps this gesture from us touched their heart and slowly they began opening up with us. Soon we were all talking. Outside our jeep, the road and the scenery all around were very picturesque. Mountains were full of greenery. There were tall trees and dense grass seen spread all over the slopes of the mountains that we could see from inside our jeep. Soon Vijay switched-on the CD player installed in his jeep. There was a good collection of old hindi film songs in his CD. Old melodies sung by Kishor and Mohd. Rafi kept playing one after the other. Our jeep was now speedily moving on a very picturesque road. Our Jeep stopped briefly at a DHABA (a small road side restaurant) near Udhampur. We came out of the jeep to pee and had some breakfast and tea.
Soon we departed from that dhaba and after few hours our jeep reached a place called Patnitop. It provides a beautiful view of mountains. We asked Vijay to stop the jeep and took some photographs there.

We got ourselves photographed against a picturesque background of mountains there, and within 5 minutes we were again sitting inside the jeep. From here our jeep speedily headed forward. By the way, I forgot to tell very interesting information about the road we were moving on. It was NH -1A. To many, the number or name of the highway on which they are moving is something that they never think about. But for me, the fact that I was moving on National Highway Number One of India was making me excited in my heart. Many places went past: Banihal, Jawahar Tunnel, Quazigund, Annantnag...etc etc. We were very lucky with having a team member like my daddy who has almost 32 yrs. experience of mountaineering and expeditions, and he was very familiar with these areas we were crossing. So for each site and important places he explained us in detail. Most amazing was the experience of crossing the Jawahar Tunnel. Jawahar Tunnel or Banihal Tunnel, named after the first Prime Minister of India, was constructed for round-the-year surface transport. As daddy told us that it is the longest road tunnel in Asia. It is built near Banihal on Jammu - Srinagar highway (NH-1).

While passing through this tunnel, it feels that one is moving through a tube, because its cross-section is almost round. Its roof is not very high from inside. It is a very long tunnel (almost 2.5 km in length). It is strategically a very important tunnel for India, because it connects Kashmir with the rest of India. Therefore, security personnel guard it round the clock, throughout the year. CCTVs are installed in the tunnel for continuous monitoring. When our jeep went inside the tunnel, there was darkness all around. Since the tunnel is narrow, therefore vehicles can move inside the tunnel in one line only - no overtaking possible! When our jeep neared the other end of the tunnel, the light entering into the tunnel from that opening was creating a very beautiful view. When we came out to the other side of the tunnel it subtly appeared to me that weather this side was different from the weather of the other side we had come from.

After the Jawahar Tunnel, as our jeep moved ahead, slowly the mountains began to be left behind and our jeep was soon moving in Kashmir Valley where the terrain was almost like a plain. Yes, the sight of mountains never completely vanished. Mountains were still seen all around as distant boundary to the valley in which we were moving. There were agricultural fields on both sides of the road. Mostly rice plants were seen in these fields. Later, I came to know that rice cultivated in Kashmir is of very good quality.

When we reached Anantnag, time was around 4.00 pm. From here we took right turn towards Pahalgam. Since curfew and restrictions were imposed by security forces at many places across the Kashmir Valley including Anantnag, hence Vijay (our driver) was little tensed. He told us that the route from Anantnag to Pahalgam is not considered safe. There were few stone-pelting mobs had defied curfew at many places in Srinagar, Budgam, Baramulla in north Kashmir and Awantipora, Kulgam and Anantnag in south Kashmir and attacked police personnel. When we were crossing Anantnag City we found all shops, educational institutions, banks, post offices, businesses and government offices were shut in that city. 
There is always a risk of stone pelting and terrorists attacking a vehicle moving on this route, especially if it is driven by a non Kashmiri - he explained to us. We found both side of highway from Kazigund to Pahlgam had been covered by CRPF jawans.

 We all got scared while crossing Anantnag but again we remembered Lord Shiva and by chanting "Har Har Mahadev" we asked Vijay to go ahead because we wanted to reach Pahalgam as soon as possible. We had faith that Shiv ji would definitely save us from any harm. Nothing happened to us on this route and we finally reached Pahalgam at around 6.30pm. At Pahalgam, our jeep was stopped by security personnel on the outskirts of the town. We saw big security check-up camp was setup and securities personal were working round the clock. It was in the form of a gabble-roofed but open area of around 200 sq yards with no walls around. We were told by one police man to get down from the jeep with our luggage to undergo security check-up. Vijay told us that now he will not be permitted to taking his jeep ahead of this point so we should pay him the remaining fare of  Rs.1500/- so that he may go back. And we paid him his remaining fare. Later we came to know that after security check-up we could have taken the jeep into the Pahalgam town. We had no choice other than walking on foot. So from here we walked nearly 1 km to reach the Pilgrim camp which was created in an open area of the size of a foot ball ground. By the time we reached the pilgrim camp. This pilgrim camp had heavy security all around. We had to again undergo a security check-up along with our luggage before stepping inside the camp.

 The time was around 7.00 pm when we stepped inside the pilgrim camp at Pahalgam. Pilgrims were staying in tents here. (Later we came to know that there were two kinds of accommodations available in these tents with folding bed and without folding bed. For folding bed, charges were Rs.100/- per person per night. Without folding bed accommodation was available at Rs.60/- per person per night.) Some agents of these tents approached us asking to hire their tents. They were quoting different rates (Rs.800, 700... and so on) for one night. We did some usual bargaining with them & finally a tent owner agreed to charge Rs.500/-. We were total 12 heads including that Haryana family. That tent owner provided us kambals (blankets) and a bulb to put into a prefixed holder into that tent. Quickly we stepped into the tent and kept our luggage on these beds. After this we came out to explore the pilgrim camp. I also had to make telephone call to my sweet mom in Bokaro and to my daughter in Mumbai. My mobile (Reliance Postpaid) was not working at Pahalgam. There were signals up to Jawahar tunnel, but on reaching Kashmir Valley I saw my mobile had no signal. In Pahalgam camp there were many make-shift PCOs working with BSNL wireless phones in them. I went to one such PCO and made call to my mom and wife to inform them about our well being.

After making the phone call we started strolling in the pilgrim camp. There were tents-tents and tents, all lined in a very organized manner, all around. Rain had stopped but the sky was overcast. There were mountains all around, full of green vegetation. Actually, we were standing in a valley- known as Lidder Valley. Lidder is beautiful river that flows through the middle of the Pahalgam town. Large numbers of people (all pilgrims) were walking around. We came out of the camp from the entry gate. And Lidder River was before us. Actually the camp was on the bank of the Lidder River. Lidder River looked very beautiful.

Water was flowing in it with great speed, thus making noise by colliding with the stones lying in its course. We went towards the river to enjoy its beauty. The sight was very beautiful. Mountains all over and we stood on the bank of a beautiful mountain river in a picturesque valley. We took few photographs there. Then we walked towards JIM (Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering) Office. My Daddy was much familiar with that institute as he had sent 4 men team from his club AAROHI, 2 yrs back to this institute for adventure course of mountaineering. All main officials were very well known to him but that day (11th July) was Sunday, So the office was closed but we met to a senior instructor of that institute at the office gate. He talked with my daddy for 1 hour and shared few current updates of that institute. Slowly Sun drifted towards the west and finally went behind the mountains. Gradually darkness engulfed the mountains while the elaborate electrical lightening arrangements kept the darkness away from our pilgrim camp. Suddenly again rain started and soon we came back to our pilgrim camp. We were now feeling hungry so we immediately went towards the food area. It was situated on the way to exit gate of the camp. (We later came to know that our pilgrim camp was heavily guarded from all sides by security -mostly CRPF- personnel.
There was only one entry gate and only one exit gate in this camp. On every entry into the camp we were frisked by the security guards.) Food area was a large rectangular plot of land. On the three sides of it food stalls of different sizes were present one after the other. Inside these entire food stall an idol or a large photo of God Shiva was installed very prominently. Actually, these food stalls were running like a LUNGAR- offering best quality of food to the devotees of God for free. Staffs working in them were showing great devotion in their works. They were very carefully cleaning plates and wiping them dry with clean cloths. Some of them were loudly calling out BHOLE... BHOLE... Aao BHOLE Idhar BHOLE ( O! shiv devotees, come here, have some food) to attract pilgrims to their stall. Best quality and great variety of food items were available in these food stalls - all for free. These LUNGARS were being run mostly by religious societies and rich people of Punjab and Delhi. There were one or two Gujarati Lungars as well. We were totally overwhelmed by looking at the arrangements in all these food stalls and the devotion with which people were running them.
We all were feeling tired and we did not want to discharge the batteries of our body because we were all aware that we have to go on Yatra tomorrow. So by 9 pm we came back in our tent. We went to sleep early, so that we may get up early next morning to start our yatra.

Pahalgam to Sheshnag

12th-july-2010: We got up very early the next morning. It was still dark. Quickly we came to that part of the pilgrim camp where covered rectangular shaped bathrooms and toilets (almost telephone booth sized), all made of plastic walls and roofs, were present in large numbers. Hot water was available at Rs. 20 per bucket. There we saw many pilgrims were already present. They all seemed to be in haste to get ready quickly to start the yatra at the earliest. People were standing in queues in front of each toilet and bathroom for their turn. We too stood in one of the queue. We too went to toilet, brushed and got ready. We returned to our tent, said good bye to the tent owner and came out with our bags near the exit gate of the camp.
The time was around 7.30 am and already there were approximately 5-6 thousand of pilgrims were standing - waiting for the exit gate to open. Exit gate was strangely not opened by the security personnel. It was most irritating period for us. Initially we thought that security personnel are checking yatra permit of each pilgrim. But no it was closed due to unavailability of vehicles for Chandanwari.

All pilgrims were seen frustrated at buffet. On making some enquiry, we came to know from local shopkeepers that many pilgrims had been staying in hotels outside the pilgrim camp. These pilgrims (who stayed in hotels) had taken all the taxies available, to go to Chandanwari at the break of dawn while we were held up at the pilgrim camp by security personnel up to 10.30 am. Now we felt very bad. Either the government should have made arrangements for a regular taxi service between Pahalgam and Chandanwari or it had no rights to hold us up to 10.30 on the exit gate. I did not understand why they held pilgrims inside the camp up to so late at the first place, when other pilgrims staying in hotels were free to start their journey at 5 am or before. Perhaps governments do not understand the problems of common people.
If in future I again go for Amarnath Yatra then definitely I will never stay in the pilgrim camp of the government. I too will stay in some hotel outside the camp so that I may start my journey for Chandanwari early in the morning at the time when taxies will be available.

We came at exit gate by 7.30 am. After 2 hrs by 9.30 am, it was almost stampede like scene created. Meanwhile someone kept his body weight on Kunal’s haversack on his back. In my team only Kunal was little short tempered. After 10-15 min of tolerance, Kunal couldn’t control his temper and busted out. He was little behind to me. That time I was not able to turn a bit behind and get interfere into this issue.We were totally succumbed under crowd. Anyhow Mangesh interfered into that issue and made it normal.
Why did we come to this pilgrim camp? Why did we chosen this route instead of Baltal (a shortest route)? So many thoughts started coming and going in and out of our mind. Finally when it was opened, we came out of the camp, on the main road of the Pahalgam town. The entire road was seen crowded with pilgrims. From here we had to go to Chandanwari - a place up on the mountains (altitude about 2900 meters), at distance of around 16 km from Pahalgam. Pilgrims go from Pahalgam to Chandanwari by taxi or bus. And from Chandanwari onward, they have to trek all the way to the Amarnath cave.We immediately boarded into an empty mini bus for going to Chandanwari. After 1 hour wait and overloading the bus, driver started the bus towards Chandanwari.Soon we came out of the Pahalgam town. It was day time now. So we could see the view on both sides of the road clearly.

From Pahalgam, Lidder river too came out flowing speedily and making its characteristic sound up to some distance along the sides of the road on which our bus was moving. But after some distance its course drifted away from the road.When we reached Chandanwari, Sun was shining brightly in the sky. Chandanwari is a small picturesque valley about 6,500 feet above sea level, at the junction of Sheshnag stream and the stream for Astanmarg.

On arrival to Chandanwari, again we went through a security check-up barrier and finally we were ready for our dream yatra at Chandanwari. It was 12.30 p.m., when we started for Sheshnag at Chandanwari then suddenly 2-3 people requested us to have some breakfast at their Langar. Surprises were everywhere... I knew that langars are free. But the people there invited us so kindly to take Bhole's prasad. Even food quality was excellent. We had there a light breakfast and started trek to Sheshnag which was about 13 kms (11730 ft.). As the Yatra continued further from Chandanwari, it was a steep height to reach Pissu Top.

It is said that to be first to reach for darshan of Bhole Nath Shivshankar there was a war between Devtas and Rakshas. With the power of Shiv, devtas could kill the rakshas in such large number that the heap of their dead bodies has resulted in this high mountain (Pissu Top). The climb to Pissu Top is steep. Once one starts feeling that I have to walk up so much height, the psychological tiredness makes the body also tired. All the yatris when they see each other hail the name of the God as either bam bam bhole or jai bholenath. Hailing the Lord's names we very soon reached the top of the hill. This was the Pissu top and we noticed that we had left tree line behind. Devotees from various places had kept langar at this top. The snacks given by them and the tea with their love were quite refreshing.

When we began to walk from the Chandanwari, we were fully clad with woolens to ward off the cold, by reaching to this point we were only on a T-shirt. After 1 hr rest at Pissu top we continued towards the Sheshnag. Thereafter, the trek is on fairly level ground and only very slightly steep. From here the way to Sheshnag follows steep inclines on the right bank of a cascading stream and wild scenery untouched by civilization. What is actually dangerous about the trek is the movement of people both ways (the track is barely enough to accommodate people in single file). It was advisable for the trekkers to walk on the inner track, towards the mountain-face. It becomes a lot trickier when it begins to rain, and the ground takes little time to turn into slush.

On the route we found presence of Army, BSF and J&K Police everywhere with their open hand for any kind of help we need. Actually they were on lookout for terrorist or miscreants who try to disrupt the holy journey and create panic, confusion and communal hatred on the direction of our peaceful neighbors (they want piece, just a piece of India's beauty, Kashmir). That’s really wonderful feeling. It’s like Bhole is guarding his followers. We all were tired and in submission state in front of nature. There is an infectious kind of kinship that forms between all the yatris and everyone tries to help.
After Pissu top there was a more or less smooth gradient till Sheshnag. We were enjoying the heart stealing beauty of the nature, remembering the hailing of the Lord in rudram as the Lord fast moving river, Lord of the falls, Lord wandering over the trees and Lord of the hard rocky road moved ahead towards Sheshnag. The mind was so thrilled to be in the place which was a cradle of shaivite philosophy. As we headed further even chilled wind came into effect. Temperature was decreasing to 3-5 degree. Except Daddy, Ranjan and me it was totally a new experience for my teammates. They had not seen this kind of paradise ever before. We crossed many flowing rivers and glaciers. It was around 3.30 pm when we left Pissu top, still we had to cover 9 k.m. to reach Sheshnag. So we were walking fast, chanting Shiv Ji's name. Soon the Pissu top left behind.

Now only high mountains were seen all around. Great numbers of pilgrims were seen going and coming on this narrow path. Some pilgrims were riding on ponies and the caretakers of the ponies were seen walking along. Old and handicapped pilgrims were going on Dandies which was carried by four people on their soldiers. Movement of ponies and dandies on this narrow path was causing great inconvenience to those pilgrims who were doing the yatra on foot. After Pissu top our team was divided into 3 batches. I have instructed to team that whoever reach first at Sheshnag try to book tent as soon as possible. Our first batch Ranjan, Ajit and Sushil was moving fast and reached there by 5.00 p.m. Our second team Dr. Ashok and Ganesh reached there by 7 p.m. I was with the last and slowest batch which was getting rest of 15 min. after each 10 min walk.

We kept walking on this very tough mountainous path. By the time we reached the place known as Jozibal. We were totally exhausted. Here we noticed that it was getting dark very fast and still we have to cover 4 km distance. Without wasting our time by chanting Shiva's name, we continued our yatra because people returning from the holy cave informed us that the Sheshnag is now not too far. Now we tried to accelerate our speed but we got frustrated after 1 hour walk when one security person told us that it is still 4 km from that point. If I was not wrong I had read a sign board saying "Shaeshnag 4 km" at Jozibal Langar. Means within last 1 hour we had covered 0 distances. Kunal and Shiva was most exhausted member in my batch. And I had to follow and encourage them at any cost. Whoever coming from Sheshnag side was telling us that it will take only 15-20 min. Very soon it became totally dark and we were crossing hours and hours walk but there were not any sign of any lights or Sheshnag Lake. Soon all yatris lighted the torch for the onward journey.
We were in a place with no electricity, no luxuries, no toilets - taking care of the baggage while the team, divided in small groups. The climate in this place changes all the time. For us there was no option but to continue our journey. We were feeling very frustrated and helpless that time. On a gradual break and my dad’s encouragement we kept moving. We were having only two torches that time and the route was steep and slippery and if someone slips he will end up in the valley. Moreover, to my amazement the people who were returning from Amarnath were using the same path. In these critical circumstances people were carrying their 4-5 year old kids. I strongly feel that the kids should not be carried as it’s no way a spiritual journey for these young kids as they don’t even know where they are traveling to. When I see these young kids crying I felt that this is cruelty and parents should think twice before taking their young ones in such extreme conditions.
It is believed that by the grace of Baba Amarnath there are no major accidents in this area. In the middle of rush we all got scattered and I was with Shiva and we don’t had torch that time. My Dad, Mangesh and Kunal were somewhere else. 2-3 times I tried to call them but didn’t get any response from them. Then we stopped at a place and waited for them for 10-15 min. When they reached then again we started moving keeping 2 torch people (My Dad and Mangesh) ahead. After a few hours of climbing in this unpleasant weather we reached Sheshnag Lake. Sheshnag is an amazing mountain lake. It is situated at an altitude of about 3,658 m above sea level. The waters of this greenish blue lake are cold and clear and are covered with ice till June. As the Sheshnag approached it was about 10.30 pm and the sight of the mountain on the lake was invisible. We were not able to see anything except camp lights or our torches light.

When we reached at camp site we found an announcement center on the way. So quickly we made an announcement to call to our team members who reached there earlier. After few minutes I saw Ajit was running towards us. They had booked a 10 men tent there. The rent was ` 1800 for that tent. Sheshnag is one of the windiest places in this valley. Sheshnag, a mountain which derives its name from its Seven Peaks, resembling the heads of the mythical snake. The second night’s camp at Sheshnag overlooks the deep blue waters of Sheshnag Lake, and glaciers beyond it. There are legends of love and revenge too associated with Sheshnag.
The campsite overlooks the deep blue waters of the lake and the glaciers beyond it. We were hungry that time but due to tiredness and delay, without any thought of dinner we stepped into our tents, and started to warm our bodies. I and Sushil did some massage to my dad’s body. Now I was under fever and cold. I took crocin just for precaution and did not eat for that night. From that point nobody of us had perfect lunch or dinner. The temperature was almost -100 C and was freezing cold, so no one wants to come out of tent for dinner or pee.
As I felt here at Sheshnag we all were more or less got affected by Altitude Sickness. But it was noticed more on 2-3 people from my team. Altitude sickness occurs when you cannot get enough oxygen from the air at high altitudes. This causes symptoms such as a headache, always vomiting tendency and not feeling like eating. It happens most often when people who are not used to high altitudes go quickly from lower altitudes to 8000ft or higher. It is also known as AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Altitude sickness can be dangerous. It is smart to take special care if you go high-altitude trekking or hiking in Himalayan Range. Air is "thinner" at high altitudes. When you go too high too fast, your body cannot get as much oxygen as it needs. This causes the headache and other symptoms of altitude sickness. As your body gets used to the altitude, the symptoms go away. The main symptoms of altitude sickness include:
  • Having a headache. The headache is usually throbbing. It gets worse during the night and when you wake up.
  • Not feeling like eating.
  • Feeling sick to your stomach. You may vomit.
  • Feeling weak and lazy. In severe cases, you do not have the energy to eat, dress yourself, or do anything.
  • Waking up during the night and not sleeping well.
  • Feeling dizzy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sheshnag to PanchTarani

13th-july-2010: Next day after a fitful night's sleep, I woke up before dawn by 5 am and quickly came out of tent to get fresh. When I moved towards campsite gate I asked for toilet to a security person and he indicated his finger towards river side and I went to river side and got freshened up. After 20 min I was able to see the beauty of Sheshnag and watched the sun rise over the spectacular snow-capped mountains.
When I saw Sheshnag lake view my all tiredness vanished. It was Perfect blue water with surroundings of mountains and glaciers. That view made it worth the hard trek up the mountain and the cold and uncomfortable night. The Sheshnag Lake was aquamarine and very still and looked pristine. I was speechless at that time when I saw the mountain was covered with beautiful buttercups and its reflection into the lake. As I heard the shrieks of the marmot animals which cannot be seen as they run into the holes as soon as they hear the footsteps of a human being. It is believed that Sheshnag has lifted earth in his shoulders. Also, Sheshnag is the one who was incarnated as Lakshmana, the younger brother of Lord Rama in Treta Yuga and also as Balrama the elder brother of Lord Krishna in Dwapara Yuga. It is also believed that Sheshnag still lives here and some people had the luck to see him.
When I was coming back to my tent I saw thousands of people were stirring in their tents, getting ready to continue their trek. When I came back to my tent, all were sleeping, then I started to ping all of them for getting fresh, so that we could depart on an earliest time. Within 1 Hr. all got freshened up. While departure we all had tea & breakfast (I had got paratha, chhole and Jalebi) at a hariyana based langar. At that Langar we found Shiva’s condition was not so well, He vomited 2-3 times over there. So we asked him to have light breakfast before taking any medicine. We got worried due to his bad health at that point, but after 1 hr rest over there everyone munched happily and by chanting "Jai Bhole nath" "Har Har Mahadev" we started our onwards yatra.

The path for a short while crosses a grassy plateau before making the final ascent to the top of the pass. Initially the trek was steadily gaining height winding up to Mahagunas top (4500 Mts/ 14700ft.) the highest point of the trek. The sun drove off the cold weather. It was quite warm in fact. That is why the layered clothing is suggested for mountaineering, as it gets warm a few layers could be removed and when it gets cold more could be added. The climate at the high altitudes changes quite drastically in very short time. Now we were walking on frozen ice, but not feeling so cold, as much it was expected. As earlier there were quite some Indian military men on the path. Their presence was a moral boost to many yatris. They were greeting the yatris bam bam bhole and were encouraging the yatris. They also helped the old yatris to cross certain difficult snow covered passes. After walking a couple of distance felt quite tired. The path was not so easy than we had anticipated in morning. I was walking with two sacks.

We found there almost 5-10 feet snow on the route. Few local people were trying to make some steps on snow for yatris. But unexpectedly, we all had fallen down 5-6 times on this route. The route to Mahagunas is full of rivulets, waterfalls, springs. We reached top of the mahagunas well within an hour. This was the highest altitude point in this trek. It was at an altitude of 4500 Mts from the mean sea level. There were even small kids aged around 7-8 years were walking praising the Lord bam bam bhole. The top was giving us the most amazing views of the surrounding countryside. From this point it was a downward slope. The walk was initially on the ridge of the mountain with a deep slope on one side.
On the way from Mahagunas Top to Panchtarni comes POSHPATRI, where we stopped for 1 hr at one of the best langars of the yatra – with a surprising variety of dishes -- was organized at that altitude by Delhi Based Society "Shree ShivSewak". Again we have been stopped and requested to have some food by a ShivSewak and we couldn’t denied him. We had Chhole bhature at that langar and moved ahead. From Poshpatri to Panchtarni it is more or less the same level. It was a gradual walk to Panchtarni. The trek descends to the meadow-lands of Panchtarni, the last camp en route to the holy cave. The descent to Panchtarni crosses flower filled meadows before reaching a bare treeless landscape where our campground for the night could be found at the foot of the Mount Bhairav where five streams converge. It is said that the five rivers originated from Lord Shiva's Hairs (Jataon). By the time we reached Panchtarni by 5 pm.
When we reached at the main gate of Camp site we found our all team mates (Except Ranjan) waiting there and a great Ranjan Chalisa was started by team mates. We got shocked when they told us about Ranjan. They informed us that since last 2 hours they were regularly on every 15 min interval announcing for Ranjan but there were no any response or indication of Ranjan’s presence over there. Then we (Me and Daddy) also started to look for him and through announcement center we also started to call him by name and by location but it all went waste. Now weather was started changing. Within few min all campsite was by covered rain and it started pouring us with chilled water.
Rain in Plain area and in Himalaya is completely different. In Plain area rain is accompanied by wind. Here rain was accompanied by chillness. Rain water was icy cold. We were just looking for Ranjan by standing at announcement center by the faith that he must be booked a tent for us and went to sleep and due to tiredness it might be deep. We were getting wet by chilled rain drops. Meanwhile Kunal, Ganesh and Mangesh started trying to convince me to go for a new tent booking. It was 2 min job to book any tent and stepped into it. But the matter was about our missing member. I was getting frustrated that time. We were running through with different feelings and thoughts. We went to 2 available medical camps with the thought of injuries to Ranjan. Actually Ranjan was our main cashier and was carrying our 90% cash. After 2 hr of desperate search we got much tensed and frustrated and assumed that he might be reached earlier here and moved ahead towards holy cave.

Now we were totally wet with effect of chilled rain drops.We were completely drenched at that time and were shivering. Baba Amarnath was trying to examine our patience at the last point of yatra near the abode. I remembered and prayed to Baba Amarnath and my Bapu ji. Mind screamed to the Lord, "Oh BholeNath Please help us." Certainly He blessed by giving the determination to move ahead and book your tent, if He has to do everything without our hard effort then what exactly are we good for!! Now we don’t had any other option rather than to book a new tent. Soon we booked a tent without interest and stepped in. We changed our wet cloths. In this tent we were not able to hear any announcement, so on regular intervals we kept visiting to that announcement center. After that we took medicines and tried to sleep.
By 8.00 pm I found everybody slept in my tent. But due to missing Ranjan I was not feeling well that time. I was trying to forget about Ranjan but I couldn’t. I was just thinking if in case He moved ahead to this point then, whenever He will meet us, He will face a very loud anger of us because it was well decided and convinced to every team mates that Panchtarni will be our next halt.

Until late night I tried to search him and was trying to open my ears to hear the announcements of missing people on loudspeakers and I don’t even know when I got slept. From here it was just 6 km to the covetous abode where we wanted to worship the "Baba Barfani". We have to start early in the morning, to get ahead in the queue to the cave.

Panchtarani to Holy Cave

14th-july-2010: Next Day, we got up very early in the morning. Temperature at Panchtarni was very low at that time. In the month of July, weather of Delhi or Mumbai a generally very hot. But here at Panchtarni the weather was too cool. But we had no time to enjoy the coolness and stillness of Panchtarni. We had to start for the holy cave. So immediately after getting up, we went to the toilet, after which we brushed teeth quickly without bath keeping in mind that we will get bath at AmarGanga River near cave. But Ganesh and Doctor Ashok lal took a quick bath there just out of our tent. Hot water was being sold there by local Kashmiri people at ` 20 per bucket. They were heating water in big drums by burning logs of wood in an earthen chulha near our tent towards the bathroom area of the pilgrim camp. And within 45 minutes of getting up we were ready to go.
Still I was furious for Ranjan and being boiled to shout on him when he meets me.
By keeping all essential items for puja (like Bhang, Dhatura and Gangajal brought by dad) in upper pocket of my sack, we started our holy journey to the holy cave.

When we started off from Panchtarni the legs started pleading. The path initially looked very smooth gradient, so started walking enjoying the flow of the side by flowing river. Soon we saw the climb that took to the peak of the mountain. The tired leg made the mind just get shocked how this pass could be crossed. It appeared there was hardly any energy left. But the lovely Lord was calling! With so many pauses continued the climb. With very frequent halts was inching forward. The haversack which was carrying some chocolates, Honey, Energy drinks etc also appeared heavy like the bundle of iron rod, though may be helpful at times was still a burden on the shoulders.

The military man encouraged, "Be brave, move ahead." Somehow got over this pass and the path was less steep afterwards. As we kept walking on this very tough route, which was in the form of a narrow pagdandi full slippery ice, some unknown source - may be himself, the Lord Shiva!- kept providing us with the strength to continue walking despite the fact that we have not much stamina. On crossing few distance there was a junction (known as Sangam a point falling in the path of the holy yatra where Baltal and Pahalgam route merge) where one another path joining this one. That comes from Baltal to the holy cave. This was a shorter route as compared to this traditional route, but was more steep and difficult route as compare to this traditional route. We had to return back through this shortest path only to Baltal.
We continued our yatra by chanting Shiva's name, because people returning from the holy cave informed us that the cave is now not too far. When the mind was full of fatigue and body was inching forward one of the person from the yatra service who was returning after having the darshan appeared and said that the cave could be seen just if the curve was crossed. It was like the darshan of the great saintly devotees to the ones who are trying amidst their struggles to reach the Lord's bliss. From here we climbed a very difficult rise for some 45 minutes and the curve got over we saw our first glimpse of the holy cave, the fruit for which all the effort was!! The marvelous sight of the Magnificent Lord's holy cave!! Walking some more distance and our path descended into a narrow valley full of ice. The sight of the holy cave had rejuvenated our spirits. The mouth uttered bam bam bhole, Om NamaH shivAya. Now there was quite some refreshment in the mind. By praying the Bholenath and chanting Rudrashtakam we moved ahead.
Meanwhile I noticed that as earlier again we had divided into 2-3 groups. Kunal, Mangesh and my daddy was with me and we were not aware whether the other groups were ahead or behind us. But we didn’t stop there and slowly kept moving. The ice on which we were walking was actually a frozen river. Beneath the top solidified layer of ice, liquid water was flowing at high speed. That water was flowing below the ice that we were walking on, was apparent from the faint sound of flowing water that had filled the entire environment. When we reached within 2 km of the holy cave after crossing the Sangam Top, one of the most beautiful natural scenes came to our view. Time was around 8.00 am and date was 14th July, 2010. Day was Wednesday. We were walking in a narrow valley. A wide frozen river was present here. Here the environment was almost dust free. So the sunshine was brighter.

The ice of the frozen river was shinning and sparkling in this sunshine. We walked some distance over this frozen river. Then we found the path was bifurcating at a point where too many paths were getting merged. For the ease took the one that was not going up it was only for pony and dandi. Actually the other one was the correct path and this one though takes to the holy cave is over the icy caves under which the stream runs. At this point my legs just refused to move ahead. The cave was just 1.5 kms away. But it was a climb again. Here I stopped and started looking for other missing members (Shiva, Ajit, Doctor, Ganesh and Sushil). Soon they also reached and meet us. Later on I noticed that this place was Pony stand for the cave. No one allowed moving ahead on pony from this point. Now my eyes was only looking for Ranjan at any point by assuming that he might be waiting for us for Darshan on the way. Slowly we moved forward towards the cave.
Again the body started slowly affected by fatigue. Little ahead we found thousands of shop on the both side of route throughout the cave in which prasadam, chunni, and other worshipping items were on display for sale. The climate was clear and it was very nice time for prayer. One pony wala on the way asked us to sit near the fire for some time. Though the legs were pleading for rest the Lord's abode was pulling.

On the bank of AmarGanga river at one place one shop keeper asked us to put our luggage and get bath, he will provide us hot water at the rate of Rs. 50/- per bucket and he will not charge extra for taking care of our luggage during our prayer. After little bargaining we got agreed on Rs. 30/-. Then Zaheer (shopkeeper) took us inside the tent and arranged some space for us by clearing the floor which was littered with bags, sticks, quilts and eatables. We immediately dropped our self there. The tent was on a small square shaped ice platform. This tent was also working as a makeshift cloak-room. Many pilgrims who had gone to have darshan of Amarnath ji in the cave had left their bags and other belonging here. Later we came to know that there was a condition-applied tag for the safe keeping of your bag in this tent. You need to buy prasadam from the tent's shop. Yes, they were not charging any rent for keeping bags from pilgrims.
Our tent owners were a group of 4-5 friends. All of them belonged to Anantnag in Kashmir. They were all Muslims but they respected our Hindu sentiments. Every year, during Amarnath Yatra, they come to set their shop near the sacred cave. For this they have got license from the State Government of Kashmir. They have been coming to set their shop here for the past many years. We talked with them desultorily on various issues. We enjoyed chatting with them so much that we had lost track of the time. Now we had to get bath as soon as possible. Getting bath in the open sky, at a place on a glacier/ frozen river, was like Discovery channel people do. Cool wind was blowing with very high speed. But we had no any other option.

We quickly got fresh and were ready to go to the sacred cave. I was so overjoyed by the bath. Even cold vanished with it. We bought prasad from Zaheer’s shop. And we began to walk towards the cave. When we walked about 1 km we saw a line of people standing to do darshan of the ice shiv-lingam in the cave. We too stood in this line. Time was around 9.30 am when we stood in the line. The line was passing through a security check-up barrier. We also had to pass this Army checkup. I greatly respect these security personals as they work day and night for our safe yatra.
When we reached at that point of security barrier I noticed that one smiling face was looking forward to us by waving his both hands. Here my search was over and he was Mr. Ranjan. Few hours ago I was so angry on him and I had decided to shout on him when he meets to me, but don’t know what happened to me that time. My all anger got melted like butter in front of "Baba Barfani" (Ice Lingam). I hugged and squeezed him like my 7 months old son (Rudransh). So we all got tension free at that point and asked him to wait for us. We handed over our all mobile phones and cameras to him because these things were not allowed after that barrier. Soon we crossed that barrier and joined the queue again. After 7 am, helicopters began arriving at a frequency of every 5 min bringing people from Baltal to immediately near the cave.
Few people who were arriving there on dandi, reached at Panchtarni by Helicopter and then the rest 6 km distance on Dandi. Those arriving in the helicopter were being accorded VIP treatment. There was no queue for them. They were directly escorted into the cave. So helicopter passengers could do the darshan in 10 minutes. But their convenience was causing lots of trouble to pilgrims like us who were standing in a long line. Due to these helicopter passengers getting direct access in to the cave our line was moving slower than an ant. These days money can buy you anything. Human civilization has become so much money minded in this era that even God's home is not spared from it. Security personnel and managers of pilgrim places un-abashedly give priority to rich at the cost of great inconvenience to common people.