Imagine a superhero with infinite powers. The only one who knows the path to immortality. He however, has to give in to his wife’s wish to know this secret.
To keep the secret safe from any eavesdroppers, the superhero chooses a place safely distant from any life.
En route, he lets go of all his companions. His ride, the bull at Pahalgam. The moon that adorns his hair at Chandanwari. The snakes around his neck at Sheshnag. The five basic elements at Panchatarini. His son Ganesh at Mahagunas Top. To finally reach a hidden cave.
This fascinating story is the legend of Amarnath yatra.
The cave where the superhero (Shiva) supposedly narrated the immortality lessons to his wife (Parvati) – the “holy cave” of Amarnath – has become a revered destination for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.
Preparation for the Amarnath yatra
We were looking for a trek in Kashmir. The Amarnath yatra was about to start. Everyone suggested we make use of this opportunity.
We are not too religiously inclined. But the prospect of a journey with hundreds of pilgrims and seeing the ice shivling; the world’s most renowned ice stalagmite excited us.
By then, we had spent a few weeks in the Kashmir mountains. We did a few day treks in Chatpal and Yusmarg to prepare ourselves for the Amarnath yatra.
Amarnath yatra registration: On the spot (not exactly!)
In Pahalgam, we decided to definitely do the Amarnath yatra. Pahalgam is one of the starting points of the Amarnath yatra. However, Pahalgam did not have the Amarnath yatra registration facility.
We got our medical fitness certificates from the government hospital in Anantnag. We then went to the TRC (Tourism Reception Centre) office in Srinagar for the actual registration. Here we were allocated a date for commencing our Amarnath yatra.
Choosing our Amarnath yatra route
We chose the longer route for our Amarnath yatra, from Pahalgam. This is the historic Amarnath yatra route, retracing the steps of Shiva and Parvati. It is a 45 km trek from Pahalgam to the Amarnath cave. We reached the holy cave (this is how the Amarnath cave is commonly referred to) on the third day.
These days, the first 15 km, from Pahalgam to Chandanwari is just two-hour drive. The actual trek begins only at Chandanwari. (There is another option, which takes one day to reach the holy cave. This shorter Amarnath yatra route starts from Baltal. We will tell you in a while why we believe, the longer Amarnath yatra route is a better option.)
Start of the Amarnath yatra
We had been in Pahalgam for almost a week by then. But the morning we were to start our Amarnath yatra was the first time the clouds cleared. From our hotel room in Pahalgam, we got a clear view of Pissutop. This was the first mountain peak we would climb. It is a fabled “toughest stretch” of the entire Amarnath yatra route. We took this as a good omen and set out.
The water of the Lidder river was bright and clear. The sun was out. The air was crisp. Weather, perfect.
The main road of Pahalgam was choc-a-bloc with people. Excited faces. Some apprehensive. Everyone looking forward to begin their Amarnath yatra. For many pilgrims, this journey is a dream come true -a once in a lifetime event. Some get so hooked on to it, they keep coming back every year. It was a great chaotic atmosphere.
Dramatic scenes greeted us at Chandanwari. Refreshing welcome drinks were being served to the pilgrims. Fistfuls of dry fruits and chocolates were thrust into our hands. Food-wise, this was going to be a luxury trek!
Horses horses everywhere, not an inch to spare
A sea of horses surrounded us. They were waiting patiently as their owners went fishing for passengers.
We figured we would see more people on horses than on their feet during the Amarnath yatra. (For days after the yatra, the sounds of “bolo, ghoda?” – Do you want a horse – kept ringing in our ears.)
The 4 means of transport for accomplishing the Amarnath yatra: the helicopter, horse, palanquin or your own two feet!
Sadhus on the Amarnath yatra
The Amarnath yatra was our introduction to the ways and lives of the sadhus.
These days, only the sadhus walk the entire route, from Pahalgam to the Amarnath cave. Every once in a while, we would see the sadhus take a break. A break always involved a round of their favourite smoke. (No, we didn’t dare ask what exactly was in it!)
This is what a sadhu-break looked like
At campsites, we stayed in simple albeit warm tents, with mattresses and blankets. This basic accommodation was too much of a luxury for them. They slept in the open air “sadhu shelters”.
The real sadhus were an epitome of simple living. Seeing them, was a study in cutting things down to the basics.
Any form of nicotine and alcohol is banned on the Amarnath yatra. Of course these rules do not apply to the sadhus!
Sadhus thus become the exclusive source of cigarettes on the Amarnath yatra. Every night, post dinner, they would be mobbed. Specially by young guys.
Addiction after all has a place in a person’s life, it appears!
Meet Chunnilal, the barefoot braveheart of Amarnath yatra
Chunnilal was a young sadhu. We had a long interaction with him through the three days of the Amarnath yatra.
These conversations were our first real contact with a sadhu. They gave us an insight into the life the sadhus lead.
This was Chunnilal’s second Amarnath yatra. Like the last time, he was trekking it barefoot. The first time was quite tough, he said. That year, there had been more snow along the Amarnath yatra route. But this second time, he was at ease, walking comfortably.
His ultimate dream was to spend his life in Vrindavan, where, he felt God has His true presence!
Landscape along the Amarnath yatra route
To say the landscape on the Amarnath yatra is breath-taking is an understatement.
Green and fresh is how the trek begins. The initial path is through a lively pine forest and waterfalls.
The river Lidder gave us company all through the first day. The reducing size of Lidder was an indication of how high up we were.
The interesting aspect of this Amarnath yatra route, via Pahalgam, is the variety it offers. While there are steep ascents like Pissutop (day 1) and Mahagunas Pass (day 2), there are periods of a leisurely stroll as well. Some parts we walked next to a valley, some were through flat meadows. We crossed some glaciers, played in the snow and also waded through the freezing waters of the river at one point.
The biggest challenge we faced was from the horses. They were in large numbers. At times, we had to wait for them to pass and for the trail clear out for us to walk. Savouring such magnificent landscapes with the smell of horses and horse poo was a dampener.
The first night halt was at Sheshnag. The emerald waters of the Sheshnag lake were a welcome sight, indicating a campsite close by.
At the campsites, tents as well as facilities like warm water and electricity are arranged by the locals of Kashmir.
Food is provided by the devotee volunteers. Such organisations come from all over India. They run food stalls (bhandaras) throughout the period of the Amarnath yatra, serving food from breakfast to dinner – for free.
We woke up to the sight of fresh snow on the Sheshnag mountains. It was an enchanting setting for brushing our teeth!
The weather in the morning was conducive to proceed. We were to cross the peak of the Amarnath yatra, the Mahagunas Pass at 14500 feet. The greens of the previous day gradually gave way to brown and barren mountains.
The colours of our surroundings were playing with our state of mind. The lively spring in our feet had turned into an intense climb.
Realising we were in a place where nature didn’t intend for life to exist was a surreal feeling.
Mahagunas Top was lifeless, except for the pilgrims and the Indian army. Here, the army served us a welcome drink – warm water.
The Indian army along with the Jammu and Kashmir state police does a remarkable job of handling this mega logistical exercise. Controlling the huge untrained crowds of pilgrims in remote high mountains, especially in times of bad weather is a dangerous job.
As a reward for making it through the peak of the Amarnath yatra, a small descent later we came to a five-star bhandara.
The variety served here could have put a wedding party to shame! To be served it all at nearly 14000 feet, was kind of bizarre!
The next campsite was at Panchatarini. This is also the disembarkation point for the devotees who prefer the helicopters. The helicopters operate over both the Amarnath yatra routes – from Pahalgam as well as Baltal.
After Panchatarini a short ascent on day 3, took us to the site of the “holy cave” of Amarnath.
Scenes around the Amarnath cave
A buzzing market around the area of the Amarnath cave belies its height of almost 13800 feet.
The locals have set up shops where you can buy the prasad and deposit your luggage (bags or gadgets are not allowed inside the Amarnath cave). They also provide hot water if one wants to bathe before darshan. Or a bed for a short nap.
We returned through the shorter Amarnath yatra route via Baltal.
This is a straight path, with a steady ascent on the way to the cave. The base camp of Baltal is 14 km from the Amarnath cave. Thankfully we only had to descend this distance.
We were constantly walking next to a deep valley. The stunning vistas on the way up had spoilt us. Though beautiful, we found this landscape while descending to Baltal, rather monotonous.
Though this journey takes just a day, the continuous climb makes it extremely strenuous. For its variety and beauty, we highly recommend the Amarnath yatra route via Pahalgam.
The people of Amarnath yatra
As we had hoped, the Amarnath yatra was an excellent experience to meet all kinds of people. And as always, the people we met are our lasting impression of the Amarnath yatra.
There were healthy people who chose comfort as a way to holy darshan.
This man would move ahead on his four limbs, stand, fold his hands and chant a prayer. Then get down on all four limbs ahead.
We met him on Pissutop and have no idea if and when he did finally completely his Amarnath yatra.
And then, there were some whose memories will forever inspire us. Who made it through only on the strength of their faith.
They were the heroes of the Amarnath yatra, ageless devotees on a true pilgrimage.
Indian Army is a big help at the Amarnath yatra
Map of the Amarnath yatra route via Pahalgam
- Srinagar to Pahalgam is a two hour drive. You can hire a cab from Srinagar to take you directly to Pahalgam. If you want to save money, public transport is also a good option as Srinagar to Pahalgam is a pretty popular route. Take a shared Sumo from Srinagar to Anantnag, and another shared Sumo from Anantnag to Pahalgam.
- In Pahalgam, you can stay at the base camp in Nunwan. If not, Pahalgam is flooded with hotels. Rates will be escalated during the days of the Amarnath yatra.
- On the day you start your Amarnath yatra, start as early as you can from Pahalgam, preferably around 6 AM. Hire a shared Sumo or a bus to take you to Chandanwari.
- From Chandanwari, the actual climb of the Amarnath yatra commences. Pissutop and Nagakoti are the climbs on day 1. The first night halt of this route of Amarnath yatra, via Pahalgam, if you are on foot, is Sheshnag.
- On day 2, you will cross the Mahagunas Pass and Poshpathri. The night halt for day 2 is the campsite at Panchtarini. If you hire a horse, this is where you halt on day 1.
- On the morning of day 3, you will reach the Amarnath cave. Be prepared for a long queue.
- After your darshan of the ice shivling in the Amarnath temple, you can descend via the shorter route to Baltal. Halt for the night in the basecamp at Baltal.
Map of the Amarnath yatra route via Baltal
- The route from Srinagar to Baltal goes via Sonmarg. The cheapest way of traveling from Srinagar to Baltal is to hire a shared Sumo from Srinagar to Sonmarg (you might have to break the journey at Kangan, on the way to Sonmarg).
- Halt for the night at the basecamp in Baltal.
- Start the climb early the next day. Be prepared for a long day. It is a steady climb of 14 km. After darshan of the ice shivling in the Amarnath temple, descend via the same route. Rest for the night again at the Baltal base camp.
Top tips for doing the Amarnath yatra
- The best and the safest mode of transport to do the Amarnath yatra is on foot. The pictures above will show it is not impossible.
- Alternately, there are tours available that take care of all the arrangements for the Amarnath yatra. If planning for this three day trek sounds like a tedious option, do try going for the Amarnath yatra through these travel companies.
- Irrespective of your travel plans, prepare adequately before the yatra. Regular exercise in the months prior tot he Amarnath yatra will help. Practice climbing by trekking up a nearby mountain. If there isn’t one nearby, climb up the steps in the house or building.
- Respect the mountain. It is our privilege to be in the heart of the Himalayas on the Amarnath yatra.
- Most importantly, do not use the excuse of faith to flout the rules. Follow the dates and the times allotted. The rules are for our own safety. Many people do a tough job of ensuring our safety in these high mountains. Let us return this favour by being responsible ourselves.
- You can do what we did, it is in fact a common Amarnath yatra itinerary among the Amarnath pilgrims. Ascend via Pahalgam, the longer Amarnath yatra route and descend via Baltal. You can leave your excess luggage in the lockers in Pahalgam. The route from Baltal to Pahalgam will be Baltal-Sonmarg-(Kangan)-Srinagar-(Anantnag)-Pahalgam. You can stay in the Pahalgam basecamp at Nunwan.
Need help planning your Amarnath yatra?
These blog posts will help you plan your Kashmir tour
Or if you are traveling ahead of Kashmir to Ladakh
And Zanskar too…
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