I first visited the Holy Shrine of Lord Amarnath in 2015. But by the time we had darshan the ice linga of Lord Amarnath had almost melted down. Even though the Yatra goes on for two months, the Linga usually melts before 30 days. Though we enjoyed that journey, there was a hidden desire in me to go there once again. While having a casual discussion with some friends, the discussion came up and I thought I should go this time. Eventually the number got added up to 5. But one person dropped out on the penultimate day. So it was finally 4. To undertake the Amarnath Yatra you need to follow few procedures. The registration usually opens in the month of March for the Yatra which usually begins towards the end of June. You can keep an eye on the website www.amarnathjishrine.com for the exact dates. There are restrictions on numbers. From a mid size city like Mysuru, only 5 people are allowed to register for any given date from a specific route. There are basically two routes to reach Amarnath. One is through the Baltal route which is about 14-15 KMs and the traditional Chandanwadi route which is about 35KMs. I suggest people to take the Chandanwari route. This route is absolutely scenic and provides a wonderful view of the Himalayan peaks. Baltal route, though shorter, is steep, dusty and narrow. This route is not at all recommended. You may use this route to come down as it significantly reduces the travel time. The registration process involves taking a Medical Certificate from specific doctors and formal registration at Jammu & Kashmir Bank branches and few other designated banks as specified in the website www.amarnathjishrine.com. This is mandatory. Suppose you are a group of more than 5, you can directly write to the Amarnath Shrine board and request permission. For all details refer to the official website.
Luggage – Thermal wear, Sweater, and Shoes are a must for this Yatra (Though I must admit that some people come barefoot). About 3 pairs of clothing should suffice for most people. Anything more will make your luggage heavier. I added up my camera, two batteries and a power bank. Some dry fruits and chocolates were purchased.
Day 1 and Day 2 : Bangalore to Vaishnodevi and from there to Srinagar
I thought of visiting Sri Mata Vaishnodevi first. Vaishnodevi Temple has a trek of about 13 KMs. + 4KMs if you are going to visit the Bhyrava Temple also. I thought it is better to start our Yatra from Vaishnodevi. The idea was that in addition to taking the blessings of Mother, it would also serve as a good preparation for the difficult Amarnath Trek.
We took a flight from Bengaluru to Jammu. There was no direct flight and it meant the journey was longer. From Jammu to Katra we had to take a train and the train was delayed by more than 2 hours. Perhaps Taxi was a better option. But since we expected the train to arrive on time, we thought of taking the train. We reached Katra at 7:45PM. Our plan was to have the darshan of Sri Mata Vaishnodevi on the same night. Jammu is usually hot and the best time to start the trek is at night when the weather would be slightly cooler. We had taken accommodation in one of the lodges of the Vaishnodevi Shrine Board. After having dinner and keeping all our luggage in the lodge, we started our Trek at 11:00PM. It was basically a 26KM journey to and fro and we planned to return back by 10:30AM.
The Vaishnodevi Temple had slightly less number of visitors that day and it meant we could get past the checking gate quite fast. Even for Vaishnodevi visit, you need to register. But the process is quite simple. You can register at the Airport, or the Railway Station and at specified counters set up by the Vaishnodevi Shrine Board in Katra. You can also register online. Vaishnodevi Shrine Board has one of the best managements. They have been doing an exceptional job for so many years now. Our trek method is usually simple. We let the members go alone but only want them to be available at a specified place. But if there are some people who are expected to have difficulties we keep one person with him. Raghu Dwarakanath was the eldest in our group and with a slightly less knowledge of Hindi. This time, I thought I will go with him. Raghu and Krishna, the two other in the group were free to go at their pace.
The route to Vaishnodevi Temple is well maintained. They have pavement all throughout and also roof. There are many shops which sell cool drinks and food all the way. So practically there is no problem for the Yatris. The temple is also open for 24 hours a day. Even Coffee Day and Nescafe have their outlets on the way and they function all throughout the night. They have kept the prices lower. En route Trek, there are many places where you can take steps if you find it faster compared to the pavement road but it is difficult for older people and those who may have problem in their knee. By the time we trekked for 3 KMs our group was separated and as planned initially I stayed with Raghu Dwarakanath. He started having difficulties as we went up. His new shoes was giving him problem and also the high temperature of Jammu. He almost dehydrated after vomiting few times. Electrol Powder that we carried with us came to use then. I adviced him to take a Horse but he was determined that he will walk even if it gets late. But the problem we had was that we had booked our flight from Jammu to Srinagar on the very next day! I somehow had confidence that we will be able to finish the trek by morning. The plan will go topsy turvy if we don’t make it back to Jammu according to our plan. But thankfully he recovered fast and even with that it was 5:00AM when we reached the temple. It meant we had taken about 6 hours to complete 13KMs. The best thing for us was that there were less people in the queue for darshan. On the first occassion that we went to Vaishnodevi, it had taken us close to 4 hours in the queue to have darshan. Any such repetition this time would have spoiled our plan. Thankfully, we had darshan within 30 minutes! It meant we were ready to start by 6:30AM. If you are a good walker, you can climb down Vaishnodevi Hills in about 4 hours. Raghu Dwarkanath left behind his shoes and said he will walk barefoot as he feels that is more comfortable! He agreed to take the Electric Vehicle for 6KMs (Vaishnodevi board has this facility. They are planning to extend it to the full distance in the near future.) We couldn’t meet Krishna. But as we were confident that he will make it, we didn’t worry. All 3 of us decided to take the Electric Car for 6KMs. It also would mean that we will get just about ample time to reach the Jammu Airport by 01:00PM. Still we took about 3 hours to climb down 7KMs as we had not slept and had also walked 13KM the same night. It was 10:30AM when we reached Katra. We took a Taxi to Jammu Airport from there and reached there just in time for our flight.
Most people start their Amarnath Yatra from Bhagavathi Nagar in Jammu. We also did the same way in 2015. But I was very uncomfortable with the arrangements there. We couldn’t sleep the previous night as there were so many ants in the dormitory and then the bathrooms were are all usually occupied and even getting a bus ticket to the Pehalgam base camp was an herculean task. So I wanted to rather start from Srinagar which is close to the Pehalgam base camp. We also had luggage and few things to be given to the Srinagar Ramakrishna Mission. It appeared to me that going to Srinagar and starting from there is the best option for us. From Jammu to Srinagar the distance is about 225KMs but takes almost a full day to reach. Even the bus and taxi fare is between 700 – 1000 rupees whereas a flight was available for 1500 rupees! That was the reason we took flight from Jammu to Srinagar. It is a short journey of less than an hour. We reached Ashrama by 4:00PM and took the much needed rest. We were also happy to find some monks from Mysuru Ramakrishna Ashrama here who had finished having the darshan of Lord Amarnath. Ramakrishna Mission of Srinagar is very beautiful and calming. I have always felt at home here. There is one Swamiji, one Brahmachari and one senior devotee who always stay here. The Ashrama has a beautiful old Shiva Temple called Shivalay. The Ashrama conducts free tuition and also runs a free dispensary.
Day 3 : Shankaracharya Hill
Srinagar has a famous Shankaracharya Hill. It is a place where Adi Shankaracharya is said to have done Tapas. There is one small Shiva Temple here. The Hill has been provided with a very high level security. This is just besides the Dal lake. The hill is about 7KM and Autos are available. As we wanted to continue our trekking preparation to Amarnath, we decided to walk even here. We had good rest after our heavy duty in Vaishnodevi and were ready to go. Here also we took about 2 and 1/2 hours to trek 7KMs. This is not so steep. Shankaracharya Hill is quite beautiful. We get a nice view of Srinagar City from here. The temple stands tall and there is a small cave where the great Shankaracharya is believed to have Tapasya. After the trek by road, we need to climb around 200 steps to reach the temple. After spending some time at the top, we came down. The security personnel advised us to take a shortcut route than going by the same route we came by. One Bhelpuri seller, Chintu by name who was going by the route took us with him. It reduced our journey distance by around 3Kms. We reached Ashrama just by the evening prayer time and took part in the prayer. The next day we had to start for Amarnath!
Day 4 : At the Pehalgam base camp
Pehalgam base camp is about 95KMs from Srinagar. Just as we started from the Ashrama, we met an army personnel from Karnataka there. He was so happy to see us and even treated us with a Mountain Dew. He was so nice. We were told that we won’t get direct transportation to Pehalgam and that we need to go to Anant Nag and from there to Pehalgam. We expected to reach there in 3 hours. We took a shared taxi to Anant Nag. But after traveling about 30KMs we were stopped by the Army people who told us that we aren’t supposed to go to Ananth Nag and that we have to go by a designated route to Pehalgam base camp. That route had Army security and we aren’t supposed to take any other route for security reasons. We had to get down from the shared taxi which was going to Anant Nag. After waiting for about an hour we got another taxi which was recommended by the Army personnel themselves. But even this guy took the non specified route and we were again stopped at another check point. Here we had to wait for more than two hours to get the clearance from Army and J&K police. Here I entered into a discussion with the J&K police officer who explained the ground reality in J&K. Sentiments of Kashmir with India aside, we listened to his narration of the existing problems in Kashmir. He said that this problem will never get solved! He was an honest officer who, it appeared to me, spoke Truth. He told whatever he may feel inside, at the end of the day it is the local people that he sees and with them he and his family has to live. So it makes it difficult for him to work the same that the rest of India wants him to.
After directing the driver to take us by the designated road to Amarnath, they finally let us go. Such obstructions are to be expected while on a journey. The new driver was a good and friendly person. We enjoyed the rest of our journey till Pehalgam. But immediately after reaching Pehalgam, I contracted fever and had to give up all plans of local sightseeing. We had plan to visit the nearby Baisaran Valley but as we lost close to 4 hours getting past the security hurdles and since it also started drizzling, we had to cancel and take rest. The base camp had Dispensaries. I took some medicine for fever and rested for the day.
Day 5 : Towards Amarnath
After freshening up we started from the base camp around 6:00AM. The first 16KMs from Pehalgam to Chandanwari is by bus or shared taxis. Buses are very few in number and hence Shared Taxis are the primary option. It takes about 30 minutes to reach there by Taxi. It is a steep road and the surrounding Himalayan mountains give you a fair idea of what to expect as we start from the Chandanwari Gate. This time the Yatra was stopped few times before we started and hence the crowd was quite huge at the Chandanwari entry gate. We don’t remember seeing this much crowd last time. It took us more than two hours to finish our check-in and pass the entry gate.
Really the hardest part of the Yatra is the first 6KMs. We were aware of this. It was three years back that we had come here but certainly for me it looked much tougher. I have obviously put on some weight since then and the fact that I got fever the previous night made it almost impossible for me at places. I was not helped by the bright sun. Last time it was very cloudy and had made it slightly easier to trek. The hot sun coupled with the steepness of the road made it tougher. Every time I sat down out of exhaustion I understood the words of Swami Vivekananda – “Strength! Strength is what we want! Strength is the medicine for all the diseases of the world, Strength is Life, Weakness is death etc.” It really helped to move forward. However much I had tried to reduce the luggage I was not very successful. The camera weight also got added. But there was no hurry. We had thought of reaching the second base camp in case we reach Sheshnag early. But the option was kept open. In case we are staying in Sheshnag, you really don’t need to hurry much. Once it got tougher at Pissu Top, it was decided that we will stay in Sheshnag. So all the worry on that count was put to rest. Once you reach the Pissu top, the Yatra suddenly feels easy :). I got my freshness back and enjoyed the nature as much as I possibly could. This time I wanted to record some videos and wherever I found charming places, I chanted some Vedic Hymns and made a Video recording.
The sun was bright throughout the day. Though it made the journey little tough, we were happy that at least it didn’t rain badly. One group that had gone earlier than us had to wait for three days in the mid of the Yatra since it rained badly. We were happy that at least we don’t need to face that type of an issue.
It was about 5:00PM when all of us reached Sheshnag. We got a Tent here and rested for the night. One Langar here was very good. They were very clean and were doing a very good service for the devotees. Food choices were also very good. We had our dinner here.
The weather was not good the next morning and hence the gates were not opened early. People got anxious that the Yatra may get halted, but thankfully the gates were opened around 8:00AM. But indeed the weather stayed bad almost the whole day but was just about good enough to move on slowly. It also rained quite a lot making the road muddy and slippery. But it was lot better than the previous day where we had to do steep trekking under the hot Sun. This task was slightly much easier. The only difficult part is the first couple of hours where we have to pass through the Maha Ganesh Top. But this is not as steep a Pissu Top. If you complete this part the rest of Yatra is almost a cakewalk.
I thoroughly enjoyed the trekking of the second day. I had borrowed my sister’s bag for the Yatra. But came to realize during rain that it was not Water Proof! But somehow managed it. Though it rained almost all throughout the day it was my best day in trekking. It was quite memorable. Few Kms before Panchatarini, there is a place called Poshpatri. One Bhandara/Langar here is noteworthy. It is incredible that somebody can setup such a langar at such an height where everything has to be transported through horses. They have almost all Indian dishes and even bakery items and it is all free for the Yatris. The following Video will give you an idea.
We planned to reach the second base camp of Panchatarini by 3:00PM. But it was 3:30 when I reached there and by then the gates were closed. So I had to halt at Panchatarini. Panchatarini is very cold towards the morning. Last time when we were here I couldn’t sleep at all. I had slight fever and also had been walking in the rain since morning. But thankfully I didn’t suffer much this time. There were many blankets in the Tent and I took 4 blankets to cover myself. That really helped to sleep peacefully that night. The tent is slightly expensive in Panchatarini (Rs. 500/- per person)
Day 6: Amarnath Darshan
The last 6KMs of Amarnath is quite exciting. Having come this far it feels like a breeze to cover these last 6KMs. This is not exactly a cakewalk but something keeps you going here. I had felt it even the last time I was here. I reached near the Amarnath cave by 8:00AM. After having bath in one of the makeshift bathrooms here, I went for darshan. We have to leave behind mobiles, cameras etc before taking the steps of the Holy Cave. There is a cloak room to deposit these things. We need to climb around 200 steps to have the darshan of Lord Amarnath. Towards he end, the floor will be wet and cold due to ice. Before taking up the last 10 steps, I sat on one of the chairs and did some meditation. It feels nice to sit there. Then I move to have darshan. This time the Shiva Linga was still about 4-5 ft tall but had become lean. I felt it may last only for another 10 days. After having the darshan of Lord Amarnath in that divine cave which appears like the handiwork of a great Architect, I slowed moved down. There is a belief that if we see two pigeons after having the darshan of Amarnath, all our wishes will be fulfilled. I saw those pigeons both while going up and coming down.
On the way back I met 3 elderly people from Bengaluru and spoke to them for sometime. Also purchased some Kesar which is sold at 20 rupees per gram (Costs more than hundred rupees per gram outside). I took the Baltal route to come down. It is about 13KMs and can be easily covered in 5hours. As I said earlier, this route is not that good. In fact I started regretting choosing this route. Anyway, it was too late to go back by another route. The problem with Baltal route is that it is very narrow and quite dusty. Even the Langars are very few in this route. Nothing notable while coming down. I reached Baltal by evening and took rest in a Tent. Our phones were not working (only local BSNL sim works in Amarnath) and hence I couldn’t meet the other team members. We had decided earlier to meet in Srinagar Ashram and hence that was not a problem.
Day 7 : Back to Srinagar
At 3:30AM, the tent owner came to our Tent and urged us to move out. It is because the vehicles will start moving at 4:00AM and all these vehicles will be under Army vigilance. It is only when I came out to catch my vehicle to Srinagar at 4:00AM that I realized the magnitude of the Amarnath Yatra. Thousands of vehicles were already ready to move out and the security was so high! I took a shared taxi to Srinagar and reached there by 7:00AM. Our team also had reached by then and we all took a much needed rest. We used the rest of our time to wash our clothes and sort out our luggage.
Day 8 : Local sightseeing and visit to Mata Ksheer Bhavani
In Srinagar Ashrama we met Swami Vishukrupananda who had come all the way from Bangladesh. It was decided that we will accompany the Swamiji for our local sightseeing. We went to the Sarikadevi Temple (the presiding deity of Srinagar), Mata Ksheer Bhavani Mandir, Jeshta Mata Temple and Adi Shankaracharya Hill again. Most of the temples in Srinagar are being safeguarded by the CRPF.
The significance of Ksheer Bhavani Temple
When Swami Vivekananda had come to Kashmir, he did severe penance in this temple. During one of those days he felt a great anguish at his heart seeing the dilapidated condition of the temple which was damaged by the Islamic invaders. He said to himself, “If I was present here that time, I wouldn’t have let this thing happen” just then he heard a voice very clearly, “Do I protect you or do you protect me? It is my wish that I be here like this. If I so wish, I could have a golden temple here.” Swamiji recalled later that he heard this voice of Mata Ksheer Bhavani very clearly and from that moment he started to say, “As mother wishes.”
With Swamiji for company we did Bhajans in all these temples and returned to Ashrama for the evening prayer. This day was the birthday for Sri B L Kaul, who has been very instrumental in maintaining the Ashrama in Srinagar. When all the Hindus were being forced out of Kashmir, he not only stood ground but also made sure that the Ashrama remained in tact. We felt so happy to be there on his birthday and to wish him. Such people are indeed rare and it is always a great pleasure to meet such people.
Next 7 days in another post :). Thanks for reading.
More high resolution photos from the Yatra