By a twist of fate, luck and karma, I am now sitting in a police tent amidst glacier mountains. It is minus zero and I am writing this now with semi frozen fingers. It is evening, the sun has been slowly sinking an inch at a time and we are slowly getting ready for a cold evening ahead.
The sound of the generators are buzzing outside our tent, providing what little precious electricity we can get. Sounds of laughter and chatter can be heard as mountaineering policemen and some newcomers(mountaineering students) are setting up a big bonfire outside.
This is the midway point of an ancient yatra (journey) pilgrimage route. Each year tens and thousands of devout Hindus attempt this dangerous and high altitude mountainous trek to reach a holy cave where Lord Shiva’s lingam lies encrusted in ice during the summer months.According to Hindu mythology, this is the cave where Lord Shiva told about the secret of Life and eternity to His divine consort Parvati and hence this shrine holds a very special value to the Hindus. Hindus from all walks of life, caste and wealth rub shoulders to attempt this brave journey of great faith and belief. It is a long 32 km trek over 3 to 5 days, not an easy feat even for the healthy and strong.
Throughout the journey, you can see Babas in their distinct orange robes, some walking barefoot on rocks, snow and glaciers. Old grandmothers in their saris either walking by foot with the aid of walking sticks or by a people carrier-a wooden/wicker seat normally carried by four people. Those who are less fit or able go on horses, led by Kashmiri horsemen who knows the terrain at the back of their hands. Pilgrims who are handicap also attempt this journey, many without an arm or leg and one or two are practically crawling with the aid of their upper bodies to make it to the Holy Cave. I deeply salute these people who with their deep faith and devotion has brought them here. On day 6 of my stay there, some 13 people have died. Hindus believe that if one dies on an Armanath yatra, then this will be of great blessing to the individual.
The journey brings pilgrims through stunning glaciers, gushing waterfalls, the awe inspiring Shesna lake and deep mountain valleys, it is truly a sight to behold.
The mood is upbeat despite of the pilgrims’ tired bodies. All throughout, pilgrims greet each other with shouts of ‘Jai Bhole’ or ‘Bam Bam Bhole’ (Rejoice, Praise to Lord Shiva) Even Kashmiri horsemen participate in the pilgrims’ rejoicing despite of their Muslim background. Generosity is also in abundance. ‘Langhas’ (community kitchens) provide free food to all pilgrims, these food stalls are ladden with all varieties of Indian delicacies from freshly fried poori, briyani to mountains of Indian sweets. It is truly a feast and with devotion music blaring out of the loudspeakers throughout the 32km route, it seems at times like a big party.
Now how I got here in the first place is truly a once in a lifetime experience. Hard to believe but i have been smuggled in by some 20+ mountaineering policemen arriving in a big fenced up police bus. It is through the kindness and generosity of two policemen - Jigmet and Nyamgal whom I have met on my journey from Leh to Shrinigar (Kashmir) that I had this opportunity to embark on this journey. They are on duty to rescue pilgrims who are either sick or have difficulties making the trek, it is a remarkable operation that involves great compassion, patience and strength. When I got involved in a 1 day rescue operation, I have seen pilgrims who were suffering from altitude sickness, others were cold from insufficient clothing and inappropriate footwear or are too old and frail to make the journey without help. So these mountaineering policemen work is extremely crucial for the weak and frail and it is work that brings much joy and satisfaction to these officers.
The policemen and I became friends quickly and when they offered to bring me on this pilgrimage, it was too tempting an offer to decline.
So started my one week adventure in the Kashmiri mountains, with army officers, policemen and pilgrims. With great blessings, I also made it to the cave, even escaping a 2km long queue due to special police privileges. There is hardly time to see in detail Lord Shiva’s holy lingam but just being there has been a great experience and blessing.
So I say a deepfelt thank you to all my policemen friends and to Lord Shiva. May all pilgrims make it safe to the Holy Cave and may those who have perished enroute rest in peace.