Legend and discovery of the shrine at Amarnath pilgrimage

The 43-day Amarnath pilgrimage in the Himalayas of South Kashmir will begin on June 30 this year, after being suspended for two years due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. In 2021, a 56-day Yatra had been announced through both the Baltal and Chandanwari routes from June 28, but it was called off due to the rise in Covid-19 cases.

The annual Amarnath Yatra to the cave shrine of Lord Shiva high up in the Himalayas is among the country’s most revered pilgrimages. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make the trek up to the shrine each year. However, there is no official record of when the Yatra formally began.

Legend and discovery of the shrine

According to legend, when Lord Shiva decided to tell Parvati the secret of his immortality (Amar Katha), he chose the Amarnath cave deep in the Himalayas in South Kashmir. The cave is situated 3,888 meters above sea level and can be reached only on foot or by pony. Pilgrims travel 46 km from Pahalgam or 16 km from Baltal along a steep, winding mountain trail.

According to lore, the cave was discovered by a Muslim shepherd named Buta Malik in 1850. Malik was high up in the mountains with his herd of animals, when a Sufi saint gave him a bagful of coal. After he returned home, Malik opened the bag and found it to be full of gold. The ecstatic and overwhelmed shepherd ran to the mountains to thank the saint, but he could not find him.

What he found instead, was the cave, and its famous ice lingam.

The ice lingam, representing Lord Shiva, is formed by a trickle of water from a cleft in the roof of the cave. The water freezes as it drips, forming, over time, a tall, smooth ice stalagmite. The Shiva lingam gets its full shape in May every year, after which it begins to melt. By August, it is just a few feet in height.

On the left of the Shiva lingam are two smaller ice stalagmites, representing Parvati and Lord Ganesh.

The streamlining of the Yatra

The family of Buta Malik remained the traditional custodian of the shrine, along with Hindu priests from the Dashnami Akhara and Purohit Sabha Mattan. This unique ensemble of faiths turned Amarnath into a symbol of Kashmir’s centuries-old communal harmony and composite culture.

In 2000, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah’s government intervened, saying facilities for the Yatra needed to be improved. The Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board was formed with the Governor at its head, and Malik’s family and the Hindu organizations were evicted. This streamlined the Yatra but also did away with one of its most unique features.