Amidst the rugged and frozen peaks of the Himalayas, lies one of the most revered and enigmatic pilgrimage sites in India, the Amarnath Temple. Devoted to Lord Shiva, this shrine is a natural wonder where profound divinity comes together with the surrounding pristine landscape. From the annual pilgrimage with strict rules, to the mysterious ancient legends, many things about this temple are unusual. This story is about what makes Amarnath Temple so unique.
Nestled in the heart of Jammu and Kashmir, this remarkable temple is situated at an altitude of 3,888 meters. The temple is located approximately 141 kilometers from Srinagar, and can be accessed only via the popular Amarnath Yatra, a challenging pilgrimage which is permitted during the summer months. The traditional route to the Amarnath Temple is around 45 km long and begins at the picturesque town of Pahalgam and takes pilgrims through Chandanwari, Sheshnag, Panchtarni, and finally to the sacred site. The shorter route, that goes from Baltal to the cave shrine is a shorter path, with 14 km of trekking. This route is being developed into a completely motorable road, and in November, 2023, a four wheeler reached the Amarnath Cave Shrine for the first time in history.
What is special about Amarnath Temple?
The mystical Amarnath Temple is like no other temple, because here, both the abode and the Shivalingam (symbol of Shiva) are created by nature, and not man. The shrine itself is a 40 m high natural cave made of limestone and gypsum, which is covered with snow for most part of the year. Inside the cave there is a mesmerizing swayambhu (formed on its own) Shivalinga, made of ice. It is said to be formed from the freezing of water droplets that drip from the roof of the cave to the floor. The numerous glaciers in Lidder Valley, where the temple is located, are said to create hidden water pathways to the cave, which is the source of the water. The Shivalinga waxes and wanes with the lunar cycle, reaching its maximum size on a full moon during Shravan (around August). The ice lingam is believed to symbolize Lord Shiva, his immortality, and his power to conquer time.
What is the origin story of Amarnath Temple?
According to legend, the divine goddess Maa Parvati asked Lord Shiva why he wore a mund mala (garland of heads). Lord Shiva replies that he added a head to his garland each time Parvati is reborn. Perplexed with this mystifying revelation, Parvati asks him why he is immortal, while she dies and is born again. Lord Shiva tells Devi Parvati that in order to understand this mystery, she must listen to Amar Katha, the story of immortality. Parvati agrees to this, and Lord Shiva sets upon arranging the right place where such a cosmic discourse can be held. He tries to find a solitary location, far from the reach of any living being, and ultimately chooses the hallowed Amarnath Cave.
In utmost secrecy, Lord Shiva parted with his faithful vahana, Nandi, at Pahalgam. At Chandanwari, he released the moon (chand) from his matted locks (jata). On the shores of Lake Sheshnag, he set free the serpents. Even today, the Sheshnag area is surrounded by seven identical peaks, which depict the seven-headed Sheshnag. Lord Ganesha was left at Mahagunas Parvat. At Panjtarni, Lord Shiva relinquished the Five Elements (Earth, Water, Air, Fire, and Sky) that constitute the essence of life and of which he is the Supreme Lord. Then, Lord Shiva entered the sacred Amarnath Cave with Parvati Maa and entered a state of Samadhi (profound meditation). To ensure absolute secrecy and prevent any living being from hearing the immortal tale, Lord Shiva created Kalagni, commanding it to spread a blazing fire to eradicate every living presence in and around the Holy Cave.
With the stage set for revelation, Shiva began narrating the secret of immortality to Maa Parvati. However, it is said that she fell asleep at some point, while a pair of pigeons who were inside the cave happened to overhear the celestial discourse. These pigeons became immortal themselves. Even today, despite the high altitude and frigid temperatures, pilgrims can sometimes see a pair of pigeons in the cave. And thus, this cave became a holy place of Shiva-Parvati, and one of the most sacred places in Hinduism. The cave is also considered to be one of the 51 Shaktipeethas. There are two smaller ice formations in the cave, which are considered to depict Devi Parvati and Lord Ganesha.
What is the significance of Amarnath Yatra?
Religious legends say that the ancient Sage Bhrigu discovered the Amarnath Cave, and surviving textual references to the site can be found in works composed in as early as the fifth century. According to scholars, the cave has been a place of worship and a pilgrimage site for centuries, despite the dangerous and difficult journey needed to reach there. There are also some ascetics (sanyasis) and yogis who live in the treacherous area permanently. In modern times, the temple is open for a short period each year between June to August, which is announced by the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board. The Yatra, which begins from Pahalgam and Baltal, can be physically demanding, as devotees trek through challenging terrain, often battling extreme weather. Pilgrims can make this journey only after registering with the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board and following their safety guidelines. Pilgrims and vehicles are given unique, trackable RFID tags to wear for security and identification.
There have been many incidents of terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and accidents during the Yatra leading to deaths of pilgrims, but still, thousands of undeterred devotees travel to this temple each year for the blessings of Lord Shiva and Devi Parvati. It is said that with a visit to Amarnath Temple one is absolved of all sins and attains moksha (freedom from the cycles of suffering and rebirth). Amarnath Temple continues to be a unique destination of devotion and discovery, where we can seek blessings and guidance from Lord Shiva.