Shiva is one of the holy trinity. The most holy and oldest book of India, the Rig Veda brings to mind his presence in its hymns. Vedic myths, ritual and even astronomy bear witness to his existence from the time immemorial. But Shiva, the destroyer, the mendicant, can not be defined: he is a big yogi, the guardian of the unlimited.

Shiva is considered to have made his abode in the Himalayas. He built no cottage or shelter, for himself or for his wife. He was a hermit.

Legend has it that Shiva narrated to Parvati the secret of universe in a cave in Amarnath. Unknown to them, a pair of mating doves listened to this conversation and having learned the secret, are reborn again and again, and have made the cave their everlasting abode. Many pilgrims state seeing the doves-pair when they trek the strenuous route to pay their respect before the ice-lingam (the phallic representation of Shiva).

The trek to Amaranth is done in the month of Shravan (July-August). A large number of pilgrims flock to this unbelievable shrine, where the image of Shiva, in the shape of a lingam, is formed naturally of an ice-stalagmite, and which waxes and wanes with the moon. By its side are, interestingly, two more ice-lingams, one of Parvati, and other of their son, Ganesha.

Positioned in a tapered gorge at the farther end of Lidder valley, Amarnath is at a height of 3,888 m and is 44.8 km from Pahalgam and 141 km from Srinagar. Though the initial pilgrimage meant that the yatra be undertaken from Srinagar, the more widespread practice is to begin journey at Pahalgam, and cover the distance to Amarnath and back in five days. Pahalgam is approximately 96 km from Srinagar.

The trek from Pahalgam to Amarnath cave is on a very old peregrine route. The distance is 45-km and is covered in four days, with night stoppages at Chandanwari, Sheshnag (Wawjan) and Panchtarni. The distance from Pahalgam to Chandanwari (12.8 km) is covered up in about five to six hours, and the track runs along the Lidder River. Pilgrims collect here on the first night out. A major draw here is a bridge covered, year round, with ice even though the environs are free from it.

The next day’s trek, of 13 km, is through stunning, primeval countryside, and the main centre of magnetism is Sheshnag, a mountain which derives its name from its seven peaks, similar to the heads of a mythological snake. The third day’s 13 km trek gradually gains height, winding up across Mahagunas Pass at 4,600 m and then downhill to the meadow-lands of Panchtarni, the last camp on the route to the holy cave.

From Panchtarni to Amarnath it is only 6 km, but an early morning’s start is suggested for there is a long queue awaiting entrance to the cave. The same day, following darshan, devotees can return to Panchtarni in time for lunch, and carry on to Wawjan to spend the fourth night out; or continue further to Zojibal, coming back to Pahalgam on the fifth day.

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