Amarnath Yatra : A Militarized Pilgrimage

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Every year for about 40 days between July – August, lakhs of people travel to the Amarnath cave in South Kashmir to pay obeisance to an ice stalagmite, which is believed to be an embodiment of the Hindu deity Shiva. According to mythology, it is here that Shiva narrated the story of eternity to his consort Parvati, from where the cave gets its name Amarnath, meaning God of Eternity.

The ice stalagmite is located in a cave at an elevation of 13,500 feet. At the rear end water drips through crevices which starts freezing as it touches the floor of the cave, thus forming the stalagmite. While several kinds and shapes of ice stalagmites are found the world over, in the case of the one in the Amarnath cave, several such spirals of stalagmites unite to form a solid dome-shaped form of ice. Next to this dome are two smaller ice formations believed to represent Parvati and Ganesh.

The Amarnath Cave is situated in the region north of Pahalgam and south of the Zojila Pass in Kashmir. It can be accessed through 2 routes – one from Pahalgam, district Anantnag (Nunwan), to the Cave and the other from Baltal, district Ganderbal. The Pahalgam route is also the traditional one, and since it is 33 kms long it takes yatris 5 days from Nunwan to the Cave and back. Prominent milestones on this route are Chandanwari, Pisu Top, Sheesh Nag, Mahagunus Top, Panchtarni, Sangam. The second route from Baltal is a newer and shorter route of 18 kms which can be completed in a day. Both routes meet at Sangam from where there is a single path to the Cave.


Popular lore is that it was during the Dogra period, around 1850, that a shepherd, Buta Mallik of Batkote, a village near Pahalgam, strayed into a cave while he was up in the mountains with his sheep. He saw the ice stalagmite, described it when he came back, and the Hindus who heard about it concluded that it must be a Shiva lingam. Another legend says that while he had taken his sheep out to graze in the mountains, he met a man near the cave who gave him some coins, and when he came home, he saw that they had turned into gold. When Buta Mallik went back to the spot to meet the man, he instead found the ice stalagmite.

The Cave is way above the tree line and meadows. The last meadows are between Sheesh Nag and Panchtarni and none at all between Sangam and the Cave. What then was a shepherd doing there with his herd? Nevertheless, since then, the role of the Malliks has been acknowledged and they have been given a share of the offerings made at the cave. Socio- religious organisations who back the Yatra do not accept this story, suggesting that there is an attempt to force the Yatra to take on secular hues. Instead, these organisations claim that the Yatra has its roots in ancient times and that Buta Mallik, at best ‘re-discovered’ it. It is believed that the Yatra first received state patronage after the British sold Kashmir to the Dogra kings in 1846.

The Dharmarth Trust was instituted by the Dogra kings in the same year (1846) with the mandate of managing religious institutions under its care. Just four years after the Dharmarth was set up Buta Mallik ‘discovered’ the cave. The Dogra rulers then invited a representative of the Dashnami Akhara from Varanasi to set up their institution (also called Akhara) in Kashmir, which was instituted in 1870 in Srinagar. During this time the practice of carrying the mace to the cave was also introduced.

According to some people in the valley, initially the mace was placed in Amritsar, which today lies in Punjab and it was much later that it was shifted to Srinagar. Institutionalising a Yatra to the Cave, was interpreted as one way for Hindu kings to establish an ancient legitimacy on their Muslim subjects and their lands. It appears that this Yatra has had political compulsions even in the past. The current day rituals and belief of the Amarnath Yatra are therefore only as old as 150 – 160 years, and can hardly be considered to be ancient.

However, there has been an attempt to retrace the history of the Yatra to ancient times and to the practices of Kashmiri Pandits. Since 1846, yatris comprised of sadhus and people from the present Punjab and Jammu with only a handful of Kashmiri Pandits participating. According to Prof. Triloki Nath Ganjoo, a scholar based in Srinagar and a Kashmiri Pandit himself, the Yatra was discontinued around 1752 and re-started in 1822 after the region came under Sikh rule. The Nilamata Puran, believed to be written between 6th – 8th century AD, documents, the geography, history, religion and folklore of Kashmir. In a list of pilgrimage sites of religious importance to Kashmiri Pandits, enumerated by Kanjjilal in his translation of the Nilamata Puran, there is no mention of the Amarnath Cave. Nowhere in recent history do we see a relationship established between the Amarnath Yatra and the Kashmiri Pandits. Several Kashmiri Pandits, some living in the Valley and others living Jammu and Delhi also asserted that while some people from the community do go on the Yatra, it is not religiously significant. They also shared that the day of Shravan Poornima is not celebrated as Raksha Bandhan in Kashmir.

Those people of the valley who are now in their mid-50s recall that the arrival of sadhus in the Durga Nag temple, where they stayed in the shade of the two massive chinar trees in the temple’s vicinity, was an indication to the people of Srinagar that Yatra would be underway in a few days. About 10 days prior to Shravan Purnima, the Mahant would bring the mace to the Durga Nag temple, and upon concluding the rituals, would lead an entourage comprising of several sadhus and a few other people, and embark on the journey to the Cave. The sadhus are remembered as being in a state of trance, and merriment, as many were invariably under the influence of bhang.

The procession would first go around Srinagar before it started its journey to the Cave, and people who intended to go on the Yatra joined the procession along the way. The children of the city would crowd the streets to see this motley group which was received with much amusement. Sadhus joined the procession from Mattan and Pahalgam as well. While most sadhus undertook the pilgrimage on foot, others organized transport until Pahalgam, 98 kms from Srinagar. Up until the 1980s not more than a few thousand people annually made this journey annually. It was only in the late 1980s and early 1990s that there was a visible change in the way the Yatra was conducted, and the number of yatris grew from a mere 2000 in 1980 to 42000 in 1985. This growth has continued, and uncannily shadows events linked to the resurgence of the Hindu right in India.


The political use of the Yatra came from the 1990s onwards, when a conscious attempt was made to link the Yatra with a nationalist agenda as one of the ways to counter people’s call for freedom from India. The Yatra in the current form was a political move by organisations like the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and their youth wing, the Bajrang Dal. The difference between now and the dogra period is the extent of State intervention in religious matters. While the Dogra kings created the religious structure in the form of installing the Pandits of Mattan and Ganeshpora to perform religious rites at the Cave, they also ensured that a seeming communal harmony would be maintained with the involvement of the Mullicks of Batkote. What the Indian government did in 2001, when it created the Shrine Board was to ensure complete State patronage and ownership by taking overall control of the Yatra in the name of providing basic facilities to the Yatris. Travel operators and hotel industry of the Kashmir province were have also been removed from the Amarnath Yatra Advisory Committee. The reason cited was that they are Muslims, and cannot be on a Committee which took decisions linked to a Hindu Yatra.

A press statement in 2011 by the then international secretary general, VHP, Pravin Togadia stated:

The Yatra is very much a spirituo – patriotic pilgrimage and mountain adventure. It strengthens national unity and territorial integrity. The two-month long Yatra mobilises people from all nooks & corners of the country thereby strengthening national unity.

Rajesh Gupta, VHP, Jammu in an interview  says that the Yatra has played a crucial role in ensuring that Kashmir remains with India and that pilgrimages is a critical way forward to ensuring integration. To this end, creation and initiation of newer pilgrimages are the region are being planned.

Mobilising people to come on the Yatra, is another way that the socio-religious organisations have been able to achieve the polarisation linked to the Yatra. This mobilisation began in 1996 when the Bajrang Dal brought more than 50,000 people to the valley. Preet Pal Singh, SASB, in the interview said, “…that yatris are cadres of these socio-religious organisations. They eat at the langars and stay in tents and are ferried in trucks.” Surendra Agarwal, VHP also shared that “several people agree to participate in the Yatra since they believe that by going to Kashmir, they would be playing a role in putting an end to what they believe is extremism.

Chanting ‘Hindustan mein rehna hai bum bum bhole kehna hai’ and waving Indian flags also prove that the yatra isn’t spiritual alone.


Sangam. Last camp before the cave. Grey snow and litters everywhere. | National Geographic

The route at first traverses through forests, high altitude lakes and meadows, finally leaving behind all vegetation closer to the cave. The path on the Chandanwari and Baltal route runs parallel for a significant part of the Lidder and Sindh rivers respectively. This track is at a distance of about 5-6 kms from the Kolahoi glacier, counted as ‘critical’, out of the 3116 glaciers present in Kashmir. Most of the langars pitch their tents in this environment and most of the solid waste or plastic from these langars go into Lidder River which later joins into Jehlum. Even thought some Yatras across india are not allowed to be performed more than once, there is no such limit to Amarnath Yatra. Thus, making the environment even more volitile.

Hydrological data suggests that the discharge of most of the rivers in Kashmir, including the Lidder, has halved in the past 50 years.The result of the polluted water of Lidder is that the people of Pahalgam mostly develop Jaundice and Hepatitis B in the months immediately after the Yatra. Some reports suggest that 55,000 kgs. of waste are generated per day of the Yatra. Toilets in the Sheesh Nag camp are built on the ridge with the Lidder river while the ones with pits overflow every now and then into it. Defacing on banks of rivers is common. In his report, Arjimand Hussain Talib (2007) speaks about a villager in the Sindh valley who states that the water flow of the Sindh Nallah has also depleted due to early melting of snow.

Pahalgam and Sonamarg have been designated as dumping grounds for waste brought from the upper reaches. In Sonamarg the dumping ground is at Sarbal, while in Pahalgam it is located just above the Tulian Nallah (a major tributary of the Lidder river). When the rains are heavy the waste flows into the nallah. Besides, the dumping ground is located so close to the nallah that surely the ground water must be contaminating the stream as well.


Lakhs of devotees undertake the Amarnath Yatra every year. | Tehelka

The langar operators who provide free food to the yatris right from Jammu until the Amarnath cave have also been instrumental in informing people about the Yatra and encouraging them to participate. Langar operators for Amarnath Yatra also provide free food to the yatris in various pilgrim sites. The state government provides langar operators with free water and electricity and they pay no rent for the land they use to pitch their tents and dumping their waste. Most of the times the yatris along with langar operators have a very offensive attitude towards Kashmiris one of the examples of this offensiveness is the separate eating places for Kashmiris. The Yatra that used to be performed for 15-19 days before is now performed for about 60 days in sprawling settlements.


The military has no place in a space of divinity. If the terrain renders the Yatra dangerous then disaster management institutions need to be involved and not the armed forces! There have been no attacks on the Yatra and indigenous groups have been repeatedly committed to this. The people of Kashmir have consistently supported yatris in times of crises, be it in 2008 with the setting up of langars for stranded yatris, or saving their lives in the accident near Bijbehara or when Kashmir was facing brutality from the State in 2016, like never before since its formation in 1947 no harm was brought to the yatris by the Kashmiris. This compassion by the Kashmiris must be responded to by reduction of the armed forces from the Yatra route.

Every year, a few weeks before the Yatra, there are reports in newspapers about intelligence received regarding an impending attack on the Yatra. This is used to increase the number of armed personnel deployed on the Yatra route. Further, any attacks on the armed forces or state machinery, either before or during the Yatra, is seen as directed at the Yatra. The vagueness of the reportage, the aura of mystery surrounding these reports and the timeliness of these incidents vis-a-vis the Yatra, forces one to wonder if these are planted incidents to justify the continued and increasing presence of the armed forces during the Yatra.

At the same time, Muhharam processions have been banned in Srinagar since 1990. One of the reasons quoted by the State for this is the potential for conflict between the Shias and the Sunnis. This is just an excuse that the State uses, since there is no overt issue between the Shias and Sunnis in Kashmir that would necessitate the banning of the procession. This continues to be a bone of contention for the people of Kashmir, who see the State going all out to promote the Yatra while stifling religious sentiments of the people of the Valley.



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