Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Danger, Beauty & God-Intoxication: A Journey to Amarnath, Kashmir

असित गिरि समं स्यात् कज्जलम् सिन्धु पात्रे
सुरतरुवर शाखा लेखनी पत्रम् उर्वी
लिखति यदि गृहित्वा शारदा सर्वकालं
तदपि तव गुणानां ईश पारं याति  
asita-giri-samam syāt kajjalam sindhu-pātre
sura-taruvara-shākhā lekhanī patra-murvī,
likhati yadi grhītvā shāradā sarva-kālam
tadapi tava gunānām īsha pāram na yāti.

O Lord, if the blue mountain be ink, the ocean the ink pot, the branch of the Parijata tree be pen, the earth the writing leaf, and by taking these if the Goddess of Learning writes for eternity, even then, the limit of Your virtues will not be reached. (Shiva Mahimna Stotram - Verse 32)  

Danger, Beauty & God-Intoxication
A Journey to Amarnath

By Elizabeth Usha Harding

I have lived with a picture of the Amarnath ice lingam on my wall for many years, and though I am a seasoned traveler and have made it a point to visit all the major places of pilgrimage in India, I never went to Kashmir.  I thought a journey to Amarnath was beyond my reach, at least in this lifetime.  The trek to the holy cave is strenuous and the political situation in Kashmir is mostly unstable.

            Last April, my friend George called to let me know that he and his artist-partner Claudia were going to Kashmir and planned to visit Amarnath.  I immediately expressed my concern on the difficulty of this journey, reminding him of his health problems.  “We’ll take a helicopter,” said George and laughed.  When he mentioned ‘helicopter’ a spark went off in my head.  I saw a green signal as it were, a possibility for me to visit the Lord at Amarnath.  

“I’m coming with you,” I said.  This was my chance of a lifetime.  “Of course,” was George’s immediate reply.  George was familiar with Kashmir having lived there for many years as a disciple and personal attendant to the well-known Shaivacharya Swami Lakshmanjoo.  Moreover, he had all the contacts necessary to enroll me in the 2016 Sri Amarnath Yatra.

            To me, Kashmir is the land of God, the land of Shiva – the land of learning, philosophy, poetry, music and art.  Swami Vivekananda in one of his letters called the Kashmir Valley “Paradise on Earth.” After reading Sister Nivedita’s The Master as I Saw Him, I had always longed to visit Kashmir and Amarnath.
Sister Nivedita
            “Never had the Swami visited a religious place with such spiritual exaltation,” wrote Sister Nivedita.  “To his European disciple he said afterwards, ‘The image was the Lord Himself.  It was all worship there.  I never have been to anything so beautiful, so inspiring!’ Later on, in the circle of his Gurubhais and disciples, he said dreamily, ‘I can well imagine how this cave was first discovered.  A party of shepherds, one summer day, must have lost their flocks and wandered in there in search of them.  What must have been their feeling as they found themselves unexpectedly before this ice image white like camphor, with the vault itself dripping offerings of water over it for centuries.’” (The Life of Swami Vivekananda by His Eastern and Western Disciples, p.592)

            There is some controversy about the discovery of the holy cave of Amarnath.  Some say that this cave has been a Hindu destination of pilgrimage for thousands of years being mentioned in the ancient Kashmiri Sanskrit text Rajatarangini, while others say that this cave had been discovered not that many generations ago by a Muslim shepherd named Malik. 

Swami Vivekanananda and followers in Kashmir

The valley of Kashmir, according to Hindu epics, was a big lake in ancient times.  Kashyap Rishi drained the water through a number of rivers and rivulets.  Soon after, Bhrigu Rishi came on pilgrimage to the Himalayas and was the first to have darshan of the holy cave of Amarnath.

            So many stories are attributed to this cave.  Ma Parvati asked Lord Shiva when and why he started wearing the munda mala (garland of skulls).  “Whenever you die, I add more heads to my mala,” replied Lord Shiva.  “Please tell me the reason why I die again and again but you are immortal,” asked Ma Parvati.

            “If you want to know the secret of immortality, you will have to listen to the Amar Katha,” said Shiva.  He took Ma Parvati to a lonely place where no living being could overhear him tell this ‘secret of secrets’ and ultimately chose Amarnath Cave.  Shiva left Nandi at Pahalgam and released the crescent moon he carries on his forehead at Chandanwari.  At the banks of Lake Sheshnag, Shiva released the snakes, left his son Ganesha at Mahagunas Parvat, and at Panchtarni, he left the life-giving Five Elements (earth, water, fire, air and ether). After leaving all these behind, Lord Shiva entered the holy Amarnath cave and revealed the secret of immortality to Ma Parvati.

            Nothing is perfect even in the world of Gods.  Lord Shiva took so many precautions to keep anyone other than Ma Parvati from hearing the secret of immortality, yet by chance, a pair of white pigeons dwelling in the cave overheard the secret and became immortal.  To this day, pilgrims visiting Amarnath often report having seen a pair of white pigeons in the cave.

            I booked my airline tickets for India and planned to arrive in Srinagar on Saturday, July 16.  George had already booked a helicopter to take us to Amarnath on July 19 which happened to be Guru Purnima.  Envisioning the trip to Kashmir, my heart was filled with anticipation. Beside George and Claudia, my dear friends John and Denise Hughes and their daughter Shanna were also going to be in Srinagar.  They are all Swami Lakshmanjoo’s close disciples who, after the master’s passing, founded the Kashmir Shaiva Fellowship in Los Angeles.  They have dedicated their lives to translating and publishing books of Swami Lakshmanjoo’s teachings on Kashmir Shaivism.  I happily accepted when they invited me to stay at Swami Lakshmanjoo’s ashram in Srinagar.

Everything was perfect until the night before I left Laguna Beach for India.  My friend Sangeeta called me and told me that the Amarnath yatra was stopped, and Kashmir was under curfew after violent protests in the wake of the killing of a militant commander and his associates.  Everything was uncertain.  Would I be able to fly into Srinagar, and would we be able to proceed to Amarnath?

I questioned whether to stay in the U.S. or proceed with my India itinerary.  I’m glad that the call to Amarnath proved stronger than the hesitation in my brain.  After arriving at the Delhi airport, I was waiting for my connecting flight to Srinagar when Shanna unexpectedly appeared.  It was a relief to be on the same flight.  Shanna is a strong woman who spent her childhood in Srinagar.  Two policemen backed off from stopping us exiting the Srinagar airport when Shanna replied to their inquiries in fluent Kashmiri.

It was a bit like a high-speed race you see in the movies as the taxi driver expertly maneuvered past rocks and razor-sharp concertina wire on the road.  All shops on both sides of the road were closed, and the only people on the road were military and men throwing rocks at them.  Though it was an eerie scene, nothing could take away the beauty of Srinagar with its majestic mountains and timeless, serene-looking Dal Lake. We passed many soldiers, and curiously enough, one vendor pushing an ice-cream cart.  Then, just when we were about to be stopped by soldiers, the driver turned into a small lane.  We had arrived at Swami Lakshmanjoo’s ashram.

Swami Lakshmanjoo in Srinagar
Swami Lakshmanjoo was a mystic master of the ancient tradition of Kashmir Shaivism.  He was expert in bringing understanding to one’s limited knowledge and letting you get a glimpse into the nature of God’s Divine Play.  In Swami Lakshmanjoo’s words “The cycles of bondage and liberation are both one with Lord Shiva.  It is only a trick that we think that some souls are bound in ignorance while others are elevated.  It is only Shiva’s play that we think that this covering of diversity actually exists as a separate reality.  There is not a second being or reality.  His trick, therefore, is our trick, because we are Shiva.  We have concealed ourselves in order to find ourselves.  This is his play and also our play.” (Shaivacharya Swami Lakshmanjoo, A Short Life Sketch, published by Ishwar Ashram Trust, New Delhi.)

I love this teaching because it reminds me of Swami Vivekananda.  Sri Ramakrishna predicted that Naren would no longer hold on to his body when he remembered who he really was.  When Swami Vivekananda went to Amarnath and saw Lord Shiva in his full glory, he became transformed. He remembered.

 Sister Nivedita writes, “And if Amarnath had been an awesome religious experience to him, more so than Amarnath was the Swami to his companion.  So saturated had his personality become
with the Presence of this God that for days thereafter he could speak of nothing but Shiva.  Shiva was all in all.” (The Life of Swami Vivekananda by His Eastern and Western Disciples, p.593)

Meeting with a Shaivite Master

 Perhaps I should explain how I met Swami Lakshmanjoo.  He came to Los Angeles to see his Western disciples in 1991, and one Sunday morning in May, my mother who was visiting me from Vienna, Austria, and I went to pay our respects.  It was a large house in the Wilshire area.   There were people standing about while others were sitting quietly in a corner. Everybody seemed busy with themselves.  Assuming that the Swami was going to give a lecture, I asked one lady about the program.  “What program?” she asked.  “We don’t know what Swamiji will do in the next five minutes.”

I thought of Sri Ramakrishna.  He also did not follow a fixed program or planned lectures.  Nobody could predict what he would do next or when he would go into samadhi. 

Not knowing what else to do, I sat down cross-legged in the large living room, and my mother sat down on the couch behind me.  Swami Lakshmanjoo slowly entered the living room.  Using a cane to support himself, he walked to a couch on the other side of the room.  He sat down facing us.  Though he looked old and frail, he was strikingly handsome.  He wore a brace around his neck.  Without moving or saying a word, he sat on the couch looking at us for the longest time.  Just when I thought that he would never talk, Swami Lakshmanjoo said something to a devotee sitting next to a harmonium.  Promptly kirtan began, and sweet sounds of devotion reverberated in the room.

Then something happened that I will never forget.  Swami Lakshmanjoo began to look animated, and suddenly, he tore off the neck brace with one swooping motion.  He sat for a while, and then abruptly, he tossed his cane into a corner and got up.  With arms upraised, Swami Lakshmanjoo started to dance.  Keeping rhythm with the bhajan, he put full weight on each foot as he danced.  Then he stopped before a devotee that stood near him.  Swami Lakshmanjoo bent down and clapped his hands in front of the man’s knees, and clapping again and again, he moved up from the man’s knees to his head.  He turned and danced again with vigor.  One by one, he stopped at people in the room clapping his hands from their knees to their head.
 I had never seen anything like that.  As the Swami danced closer to where I was sitting, I was wondering if I, too, who was just an observer, would get this treatment.  When Swami Lakshmanjoo danced before me, I forgot to think, forgot who I was and everything else.  His eyes looked blue and deep like the mountain lakes I had seen in the Austrian Alps.  His face emanated ecstatic joy as tears flowed down his cheeks.  I barely remember that Swami Lakshmanjoo touched my hands prompting me to stand up.  My body flew up from a seated position as if it were a feather.  I watched him clap his hands in front of me, and when he moved to the next person, I sat back down dumbfounded.  That day, I was rather proud of my mother.  Even though she had been a devout Catholic all her life, she was open enough to appreciate Swami Lakshmanjoo’s ecstatic behavior.  

Swami Lakshmanjoo
Swami Lakshmanjoo lost the ability to walk soon after the day of the dance, and he left his mortal body a few months later in New Delhi at the age of 84.

Years later, George told me that Swami Lakshmanjoo’s ecstatic dance on that day was not a common occurrence.  Swami Lakshmanjoo revealed to his devotees that he had had a vision of Goddess Durga which prompted his excitement. “How fortunate is America that Durga is present in this country,” Swami Lakshmanjoo said.  “I am surprised. It’s not a partial form of Durga.  I saw a full installation of Durga including Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha and Kartik.”

Kashmir at a Boil

Many years passed since 1991 and my arrival in Srinagar on July 16, 2016.  I had seen photographs and videos of Swami Lakshmanjoo at his ashram in Srinagar and often thought that I’d like to visit.  Now I was here but at a most inconvenient time.  Though the ashram atmosphere was spiritual and peaceful, there was turmoil outside.  The people of Kashmir were suffering:  curfew – no traveling on the streets, no phone connections, no internet connections.  Only limited food and medical supplies could be obtained.  ATMs were running out of money, and garbage was piling up.

The next day, on July 17, things looked especially grim.  Listening to an old, battery-operated transistor radio, we got the news that thousands of pilgrims on their way to Amarnath were stopped in Jammu.  The road via Anantnag was too dangerous for travel.  Many people had been killed due to unrest.  According to our itinerary, we would have to leave for Pahalgam on this day to be in time to catch the helicopter for Panchtarni early morning on July 19, Guru Purnima. To make things worse, George had developed a very bad cough, and I was wondering whether he would be fit enough to travel. 

When the ashram was quiet in the afternoon, I slipped into Swami Lakshmanjoo’s temple in the ashram compound and sat before the Shiva lingam that Swami Lakshmanjoo himself had worshiped.  “I have a request,” I said, hoping Swami Lakshmanjoo could hear me.  “I’ve come a long way and waited so many years.  Please help me to see Lord Shiva at Amarnath.  Please clear the obstacles.”  Later, when I joined the others drinking Kashmiri tea on the veranda, I saw that someone had left a photo of Swami Lakshmanjoo on the couch leaning against a partially covered paper.  On the portion of the paper I could see were the words: “Request Granted.” 

I felt confident that everything was going to be alright when we left Srinagar for Pahalgam around 10:30 pm.  Driving during the day was not possible because of the curfew.  In the dark car, George’s iPad dimly lit Claudia’s face as she searched for a file.  I could hear Swami Lakshmanjoo chanting a sloka when I started chanting the Hanuman Chalisa, asking Hanumanji for protection.  I always do that before going on a trip.

The driver took us quickly through dark, deserted streets until we reached the highway.  There were many cars and trucks taking advantage of the night, which since the onset of the curfew had become the only safe time for driving.  Somewhere along the route, George asked the driver to stop before a brightly-lit mosque and turned to me asking, “Do you have a hundred rupees?  We should make an offering here.  Whenever Swamiji travelled to Pahalgam or Jammu, he always stopped at this mosque and made an offering.”

When we turned north onto Highway 501 leading to Pahalgam, the streets were deserted, and we came across very few cars.  We saw razor-sharp barbed wire, rocks on the road, and periodically, we saw soldiers standing in groups.  We were stopped a few times, and soldiers carrying rifles peeked into the car through the windows.  When we told them that we are on a yatra to Amarnath, they let us proceed.

 In August 2000 about 32 people including Amarnath pilgrims and police officers were killed in Pahalgam during a terrorist attack.  As a consequence, we had to get out of the car at a checkpoint just before reaching Pahalgam.  Our luggage went through X-ray and everybody was searched for guns and other weapons.  Nobody seemed to mind being frisked.    

We arrived at our hotel around 2:30 am, and though I was very tired, I could not help but notice how charming and clean our room was.   

In the morning when I stepped out of the room and onto the veranda, I was greeted by crisp, fresh air and a breathtaking view of high mountains covered with pine forests. 

 Looking past the hotel’s meticulously-kept green lawn and beautiful willow trees, I could see the Lidder river and hear its roar as it rushed through the valley.  

At breakfast I noticed that we were the only guests in the entire hotel. While the others moved about a bit, I spent most of the day sitting on the veranda in front of our room and staring at a majestic mountain in the distance.   

  Time passed.  I listened to my head arguing with my heart.  Om Namah Shivaya!  Here I was in Pahalgam.  Om Namah Shivaya!  My brain said: “After all these years avoiding Kashmir and its political conflicts, I had to come during a most dangerous time.”  Om Namah Shivaya!  My heart said, “This is the right time; this is when I am supposed to be here.” Om Namah Shivaya!  “Spiritual power often manifests strongly during conflict.”  Om Namah Shivaya!  “The Bhagavad Gita was not spoken during a time of peace.”  Om Namah Shivaya! Om Namah Shivaya! Om Namah Shivaya!  I watched a helicopter flying in the direction of the beautiful mountain I had been staring at and felt a tremendous longing to see Lord Shiva at Amarnath. 

Pahalgam, at 7,000 feet, is the base camp for the annual yatra to the Sri Amarnathji cave shrine.  The yatra trek runs along the river to Chandanwari, and from there, the trek becomes steep and is accessible only by foot or pony.  One has to climb to Pissu Top and then trek to the mountain lake of Sheshnag which is close to 12,000 feet high.  From Sheshnag one has to climb a steep height across the 14,000-foot Mahagunas Pass and then descend to the meadowland of Panchtarni.  At the foot of Bhairav Mount, there are five rivers that flow at Panchtarni.  Many pilgrims bathe in these five rivers before trekking the last four miles to the holy cave of Amarnath which is situated at 13,000 feet.  Altogether the trek from Pahalgam to Amarnath is 31 miles long and takes most pilgrims three days to complete.  There is a shorter route via Sonamarg and Baltal, Domail and Barari Marg which is only 9 miles long.  However, few pilgrims are fit enough to trek this route because it is extremely steep and dangerous.

Swami Vivekananda tried to get to Amarnath via Sonamarg but had to turn back due to bad weather and landslides.  This turned out to be fortunate for Sister Nivedita because Swami Vivekananda let her join him on the pilgrimage to Amarnath via the Pahalgam/Chandanwari route. 

Josephine McCloud, Mrs.Bull, Swami Vivekananda & Sister Nivedita in Kashmir

Sister Nivedita wrote in her memoirs: “Through scenes of indescribable beauty, three thousand of us ascended the valleys that opened before us as we went.  The first day we camped in a pine wood; the next, we had passed the snow line and pitched our tents beside a frozen river.  That night, the great camp fire was made of juniper, and the next evening, at still greater heights, the servants had to wander many miles in search of this scanty fuel.  At last, the regular pathway came to an end, and we had to scramble up and down along goat paths on the face of steep declivities till we reached the boulder-strewn gorge in which the Cave of Amarnath is situated.” (The Master As I Saw Him p.91)

Lord Shiva at Amarnath

At my age, I could not have undertaken the three-day trek, and my only option to see the Lord at Amarnath was to take a helicopter.  We got to the helicopter pad early on the morning of Guru Purnima.  A few people were ahead of us, and we watched as they boarded a helicopter.  Six people besides the pilot can be seated in the helicopter.  When it became our turn, we had to split up.  George and I boarded the first helicopter.  I thought the helicopter ride would be scary, but on the contrary, it was exhilarating and beautiful.  I looked down at the pine trees and then watched as we flew past glaciers of eternal ice.  I saw the beautiful, translucent blue Sheshnag Lake sparkling like a rare jewel faceted between snow-peaked mountains.  Soon after, we landed at the helipad at Panchtarni. 

Sheshnag Lake

George decided to wait at the helipad for the others to arrive in the next helicopter.  “I have to go,” I said to George.  “Lord Shiva is calling.  I’ll see you all at the cave.”

Somehow, deep in my heart, I always knew that I had to make this journey alone – at least the last leg of it.  I passed the security area around the helipad and started to walk along a muddy path.  It had rained a lot over the past few days, and the mud was deep and stuck to my shoes.

Soon I was surrounded by many men who all offered their services to take me to Amarnath.  I looked around.  All the way up one mountain were men waiting with their horses for pilgrim customers.  Palki wallahs were sitting around waiting to be hired by pilgrims who never came.  These men are all Muslims who depend on Hindu pilgrims to hire them.  Money earned during the Amarnath yatra season helps them to get by during the harsh winter. 

One old man agreed to take me to the cave for Rs 1,200 - a fair price according to the Amarnath Yatra Shrine Board.  He whistled and motioned up the mountain until a young boy brought a white horse to where we were standing.  I was glad to see that the horse was not too tall.  Just as I was contemplating how I should approach getting up on the horse, I was expertly hoisted up into the saddle by the old man and the young boy.

“Auntie,” said the boy.  “Give me your bag.  I’ll carry it for you.”  I was grateful.  This way I could hold on to the saddle with both hands.  With steady gait, the boy began to walk up the muddy path, expertly leading the horse past rocks. 

There were only a few people on the path to Amarnath.  I saw one sadhu clad in gerua walking barefoot.  He had one bad leg and was limping, but that did not stop him from briskly walking on.  Once in a while pilgrims returning from the holy cave greeted me with a hearty “Jai Bole!” or “Har Har Mahadev!”  I saw three middle-aged Indian ladies dressed in kurtas panting for breath.  They did not stop walking, and with each step, they said, “Jai Shiva!”  I saw smiling faces, and I saw exhausted faces.  At almost every turn of the path, I saw soldiers sitting or standing, keeping watch. 

The path was steep.  Looking down, I saw a river with milky blue water flowing about 1,000 feet below.  The boy was leading the horse with great confidence, and I wasn’t worried that the horse may slip even when we passed a difficult rocky terrain.  I was thankful.  This boy and this horse were taking me to Lord Shiva.  In retrospect, I wish I could remember this Muslim boy’s name.  He became very dear to me.

When we reached Sangam, a Jammu & Kashmir police officer stopped us.  “You have to get off the horse here and walk the rest of the way,” he said to me in perfect English.  It was still a walk of almost two miles to the cave - mostly over ice and slippery terrain.  I asked the officer to please let me continue riding the horse a bit further.  The officer was adamant.  “No, everybody has to get off their horses here,” he said.  Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a man appeared in army fatigues and started arguing with the police officer.  “She is a special guest of the Indian army,” he told the police officer.  They argued for quite a while.   

At last, the police officer gave me permission to continue, and the boy, the horse and I resumed our journey toward Amarnath.

Walking slowly over snow-covered mud and ice, the horse carefully avoided holes in the ice.  Some holes were so big that you could see a river flowing underneath.   

 We passed a big rock next to the river, and I was wondering whether this was the place where Swami Vivekananda bathed before entering the holy cave.  Soon after, multi-colored tents that pilgrims can rent as well as army and police tents lined the path.  At one tent, we were stopped again, and a man said something in Hindi about a ‘mobile and camera’.  Luckily, I didn’t understand him and kept my mobile and camera.

 We arrived at the steps leading to the holy cave.

The boy helped me get off the horse and said, “Auntie, I’ll wait here for you.”  I started walking up a few steps and soon became aware of the high altitude.  I stopped, caught my breath and walked up another few steps.  I was glad to see that I was not the only one who had to rest.  Even younger people than me had to stop for a while. About half way up, there was a tent where pilgrims left their shoes.  The steps didn’t feel cold at all as I continued barefoot.  The last long flight of steps seemed the hardest.  There were pilgrims holding on to the railing while others sat on the steps to catch their breath.  The cave was near, and though I was out of breath, I pushed on, driven by longing and adrenaline.

As soon as I reached the level walkway inside the holy cave, I felt completely overwhelmed.  The combination of exhaustion, high altitude, shortness of breath and intense emotion as I was imbibing the sheer power of the place made me stop.  There were only a few more steps up to the ice lingam, but I had to sit down.  It couldn’t have been more intense if I had walked straight into Lord Shiva’s arms. Tears were rolling down from the corners of my eyes as I sat by myself on a green wooden bench in the cave.  A policeman walked by, looking at me as I sat there helplessly overcome with feeling.

I don’t remember how long I sat there.  Finally, I composed myself and took out the bag with cashews and raisins I had brought from America as an offering for Lord Shiva. There remained only a few steps up through a brass gate, and I was before the Lord.  The ice lingam had melted quite a bit and only one-third still remained.  It did not matter to me that the ice lingam was not high.  My heart was so full.  I think if the divine vibration in the cave would have been any stronger, I would have fainted.  I handed the bag of cashews and raisins to one tall, young priest for offering.

Entrance into the holy cave of Amarnath

For a moment I thought that the priest might not give me enough prasadam to bring back to all the devotees in the U.S.  I reached past a few people to get the attention of the priest.  When I failed to get his attention, I took out my mobile and showed the priest a photo of our Sri Ma Dakshineswari Kali of Laguna Beach.  All of a sudden, there was a huge commotion.  Everybody wanted to see Ma.  I held my mobile high so that all the people could see Ma and suddenly realized that I was holding it up to show Lord Shiva in the ice lingam.  Again, I got overwhelmed and had to go back down the steps and sit on the bench to compose myself.

The priest came down the steps to hand me the prasadam that I had forgotten.  Another priest came and filled my arms with more prasadam and put holy bhasma on my forehead.  The policeman came and put wooden shoes on my feet.  “You must be cold,” he said.  An old man carrying a small bucket used a ladle to pour maha-prasadam – hot payesh with lots of saffron - into a paper cup and handed it to me.  So much love, so much kindness.

Swami Gambhiranandaji
The Amarnath Cave is very high and wide but not as deep as I had imagined.  Some pigeons were flying high in the cave.  I was still sitting on the bench and felt a bit self-conscious for having shown so much emotion.  Then I remembered that even Swami Gambhirananda, the 11th President of the Ramakrishna Order, became emotional when he visited Amarnath.  President Maharaj, Swami Atmasthananda, had once told me that Swami Gambhirananda, who was usually very reticent talking about his spiritual experiences, said that he saw Thakur Ramakrishna seated in the ice lingam. 

When my friends arrived in the holy cave, they also got wooden shoes to wear as they walked up the steps to the shrine of the ice lingam.  Wooden shoes are the only footwear allowed in the cave, and the priests, police and staff who have to stand on the cold ground for a long time wear these shoes. 

There are three ice lingams in the cave.  The large ice lingam is worshiped as Lord Shiva.  The ice lingam next to Lord Shiva is worshiped as Ma Parvati and next to Ma is Ganesha.  The area is protected by a grill, most probably to prevent devotees tossing items at the lingams. 

I noticed that George did not look well.  He looked intently at the ice lingam, and then he and Claudia chanted the aghora mantra for quite some time.

Aghorebhyo ‘tha ghorebhyo ghoraghorataribhyasca
Sarvatah sarva! Sarvebhyo namaste rudrarupebhyah”

Swami Lakshmanjoo gave two meanings of this mantra. “I bow to all shaktis which are embodiments of Rudras from all sides and always: those are Aghora Shaktis, Ghora Shaktis and Ghoratari Shaktis.” (Swami Lakshmanjoo, personal letter to John Hughes, June 1989)
 “O Lord Shiva! You alone transform yourself into all forms, into the forms of the powers of Rudra as Aghora, the enlightening and uplifting energy; Ghoratari, the frightful darkening energy which pushes one down, and Ghora, the energy which keeps one fixed, neither rising nor falling.  These forms, embodied in Rudrashiva are helpful to the aspirant who is aware and frightful for the one who is not, pushing him down and down.” (Swami Lakshmanjoo, Sacred Verses for Worship, translation of Aghora mantra 1990)
           More people started to come into the inner cave, and the friendly priest gestured for us to move.  At least two hours must have passed since I first entered the holy cave.  I could never have stayed this long during normal times.  The problems in Kashmir prevented most pilgrims from reaching Amarnath.  On peak days, I was told, there is a long line of devotees standing on the steps, and it is not unusual for them to wait for two hours before they can have darshan of the ice lingam for just a minute.  The most auspicious time for the Amarnath yatra is the month of Shravan which starts with the full moon in July – Guru Purnima – and ends with the full moon in August – Rakhi (Shravan) Purnima.

On our way down from the holy cave, one old sadhu unexpectedly stopped George.  “Your knees are not good,” he said, and with a quick gesture, he vigorously rubbed George’s knees.  “Knees are okay now!” said the sadhu and quickly disappeared.  George told me later that, in fact, a lingering pain in his knees subsided after the incident with the sadhu.  We walked to the end of the steps and stopped at a tent where people were eating.  There is no charge for food at Amarnath, though one may leave a donation.  My mind was flying high, and I did not feel like eating.  I stood at the tent entrance looking up at Amarnath when I heard a voice next to me.

“Auntie, I am looking for you,” said the Muslim boy who brought me in on the horse.  “Come quickly.  It will rain.”  I waved to the others and followed the boy.  He carefully took my hand lest I should fall on the slippery path.  When the path got steeper, he stopped at a stall selling trinkets and said, “Auntie, wait here.  I’ll bring the horse.”  I watched the Muslim shopkeeper cover trinkets, Hindu deities and prasadam he had displayed for sale with a plastic cloth.  It started to rain a bit.  The shopkeeper motioned to me.  “Come stand under my tent and put your bag on the table so it won’t get wet,” the shopkeeper said with a friendly smile.

The boy appeared with the horse, and I made a sad attempt to get into the saddle. “Auntie jump,” said the boy.  The shopkeeper kindly helped to hoist me onto the horse and tucked in my plastic raincoat around the saddle.  The weather was changing rapidly as we started on our way back to Panchtarni.  A strong wind had picked up and the rain felt sharp on my face, but I experienced too much joy to feel cold.  Steady and unperturbed, the young boy walked through mud and ice, perfectly guiding the horse back to Panchtarni.

The innocent, loving kindness this boy had bestowed on me touched me deeply.  I felt that he was my family, and I was not just a rhetorical aunt.  I wanted to make him happy and all I had to give was my gratitude and some money.  I handed him a nice tip of Rs 500 note as a gift before I got off the horse in Panchtarni.  He held the money and looked perplexed.  “Oh no, auntie,” he said.  At this point, the old man who owned the horse appeared and I paid him the agreed amount of Rs 1,200.  The boy was still holding the Rs 500 note, not knowing what to do.  When I put the note into his shirt pocket and said, “Dakshina,” I was rewarded with a smile I shall treasure for a long time.

I realized that George was quite ill when he reached Panchtarni.  He had high fever, and his cough sounded worse.  It was cold and raining heavily.  We needed to get him back to the hotel in Pahalgam as soon as possible.  Though there were quite a few people in front of us waiting for a helicopter, people at the helipad put George on the next helicopter.  Claudia and I were lucky to get on the last helicopter to Pahalgam for the day, and we got to sit in front next to the pilot.  The most amazing scene presented itself right in front of my eyes – to the left and to the right were majestic mountains, silent witnesses of Lord Shiva’s glory.  I wished I could have made myself very large, so large that I could have spread my arms and embrace these beautiful mountains clad in eternal ice.

Praying for Divine Intervention

We stayed in Pahalgam for three days waiting for George to get well enough for the return journey to Srinagar.  Due to the curfew, I stayed in the hotel and had ample time to reflect.  This area of Kashmir is predominantly Muslim.  I thought of the cooperation between Hindus and Muslims I had witnessed at Amarnath and wondered if this would be possible in all of Kashmir.

“It’s not a Hindu versus Muslim problem,” said the hotel manager, who is Muslim.  “It’s a Kashmiri problem.  Everybody here is suffering.  The hotel is empty.  This tourist season is a loss and we may not recover for the next three years.”

The way the manager talked about suffering touched me.  He had the stoic expression of someone who is used to suffering.  I learned that the distinguished man who served us meals so attentively was not a waiter at all.  He was a professional trekker but had no clients.  He told me of a French man he trekked with.  “He had a large camera and wanted to take pictures of the Pahalgam Ramakrishna Ashram,” said the trekker.  “You have to hike up the mountain for about an hour or so or take a pony.  Nobody lives there; it’s mostly a big rock with writing on it.”  I wondered if this rock relates to Swami Vivekananda’s travels in the region.

Hindu pilgrims visiting the holy shrines of Vaishno Devi and Amarnath have a significant impact on Kashmir’s economy, but Kashmir’s troubles are not only of an economic nature.  They are complex.  There are political clashes: Kashmir is a disputed territory administered by three countries – India, Pakistan and the People’s Republic of China.  There are clashes by separatists who want Kashmir to be autonomous.  There are religious clashes:  Kashmir is an important region for Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists.  And to add intensity, self-interested parties instill hatred in good peoples’ hearts.  As a result, senseless violence kills too many individuals who could have lived productive lives.

One thing all people in Kashmir have in common, whether they are the security forces, the militants or the general public who live there: they are all suffering.  The taxi that took us back to Srinagar had a broken rear window.  It was a new Toyota, and I was curious how the window got broken.  The driver explained that a man standing on the street threw a rock at his car because he was driving Hindu pilgrims.  Most Amarnath pilgrims leaving Pahalgam joined a military convoy to take them down the mountain over dangerous roads.  We passed a long line of taxis and felt sad that people had to take such precautions.

My heart goes out to the Kashmiri people who are stuck between warring parties, who just want to go on with their normal lives and who suffer with seemingly no end in sight.  My empathy goes to all the disappointed pilgrims who were stopped and could not proceed to the holy cave of Amarnath.  I am also sorry that I was not able to visit the Ramakrishna Mission due to the curfew in Srinagar.  I pray to Sri Ramakrishna to turn hatred into respect and understanding and bring peace and harmony to the beautiful but troubled region of Kashmir.

Om Namah Shivaya



  1. A divine journey. Thank you for bringing us with you, Usha Ma. Har Har Mahadev!

  2. Oh Usha! I feel as though I was there with you. What an amazing pilgrimage. OM NAMAH SHIVAYA! Jai Ma!

  3. Teary eyed now ! Har har har mahadev ... ����❤❤❤

  4. Thank you for taking us with you ❤