While I’ve always held a fascination with natural beauty on my journeys, religious sites proved to be a necessary accompaniment. A visit to them also provides important insight into our history and the perceived thought process of India – at large. It was the difficult time of July’s curfew in Kashmir and I had somehow hitchhiked my way to Sonamarg.
After spending a productive afternoon exploring the meadows and the scenery around Thajiwas Glacier, it was time to do something else. Later when I sat at a dhaba in the rain, sipping nun chai and savouring Kashmiri bread with a generous lathering of butter; I drew a blank about where to go next. A chance encounter with a taxi driver had resulted in me staying at a local family’s comfortable home in Shitkadi, a small village near Sonamarg. Overly delightfully tasty freshly made Kashmiri Kahwa the locals suggested that a short trek to Basmai lake could be undertaken but that would cost too much since I was alone.
It was another problem when the police officer wouldn’t let me walk past the barricades in Sonamarg. The phones weren’t working and someone had to go and call Altaf Bhai (the guy’s home I was staying in Shitkadi) to get me out of there. At dinner-time, it was understood that I could go on the Kashmir Great Lakes trek that began in 2-3 days. I quickly realised that Baltal wasn’t too far away and asked the locals if I could go to the Amarnath Yatra.
A permit is required for anyone who wants to go to the Amarnath Yatra, and of course I had none. The locals suggested that some people without permits have done it in the past and if an intelligent excuse was made, the Jammu & Kashmir Police would let me through. I was told to not try the honest approach and instead say ‘My other friends have gone ahead yesterday and the permit paper has gone with them.’
Did it work? The execution
I slept well in the night and had been advised to leave early for Baltal in the morning. The family provided me chai and chapati for breakfast and I set off with my backpack. It was a cloudy morning as I walked to Sonamarg and waited for a shared taxi. A short drizzle made a good omen for the journey as a local jeep dropped me at the Yatra entrance at Baltal.
Want to read another adventurous account? : Doing the unthinkable – Solo Trekking to Zanskar
From the road, the first entrance was around 1 km. I instantly met my ‘fellow yatris’, 2 jolly guys from Indore. They had made it in a convoy from Jammu; stealthily passing Srinagar in the night. It was steadily drizzling and my raincoat problem was solved when a flimsy raincoat was bought from a local guy. There were many tents scattered at Baltal for pilgrims to stay, ranging from as little as 100 Rupees to 500 Rupees. There was a huge lane of bhandaras from various parts of India welcoming pilgrims. We rushed past it because there was a rumour that entrance to the yatra may be stopped because of the bad weather.
A gaggle of horsemen gathered and tried to get us interested with hiring a horse for the uphill journey to the holy cave. They were from all parts of Jammu & Kashmir; from Rajouri, Doda, Anantnag, Kishtwar. Due to less rush, the prices that were initially quoted as 1000/- came down to 200-300 Rupees! Rain had made the surface slippery and we kept walking. We reached the main entrance gate at around 9 am – 930 am, and a small crowd of pilgrims was seen waiting. The rain had steadily increased and bad news was in the offing.
My small hike to the Thajiwas Glacier was a nice way to get prepared for Amarnath Yatra.
Entry for the day had been closed and my fate without the Amarnath Yatra Entry Pass was not known yet. We turned back and were welcomed wholeheartedly by the Bhandaras. The rain had increased and hot breakfast of paranthas and chai was lovingly presented at Sirsi Haryana Bhandara. It had turned incredibly cold and the leaking tin roof made us search another accommodation option. The nearby Chandigarh Bhandara was even more generous; there was a huge tent for staying and we were given 3 blankets.
It was strange to see utterances of ‘Jai Bhole’ and ‘Jai Shiv Shankar’ from Muslim mouths along the way. In the bhandaras, (Offerings of free food for the pilgrims) it was the same story the other way round; Hindu workers were feeding Muslim horsemen as they would feed the pilgrims.
Rain continued, we slept for some time since we had nothing else to do. The phones weren’t working either. The Indore guys had their Amarnath Yatra pass done months in advance. I was in a quandary, what if the police guys decided to not let me move ahead and asked me to turn back without the permit? It would essentially mean much ado for nothing. I decided to focus on the tea, coffee on offer and clouds floating by for the moment.
Most of the day was spent sleeping in the warm and cosy blanket. Dinner was splendid, there was Rajasthani choorma with ghee for dessert. I stuffed myself with repeated helpings and thanked the kind hearts of the numerous Bhandaras who were all doing this for free for the pilgrims.
After waking up sharp at 6, we were at the gates at 7 am next morning. The pony wallahs at Domail had surrounded us again and we had managed to say no to them again. The two Indore guys had no problem whatsoever at the security check. I was told to stand aside, the Jammu & Kashmir Police Officer looked like a muslim and sternly asked me why I did not have a permit? I told exactly as I was instructed, the entire J & K security team checked my bag, looked deep into my eyes only for the Chief to take me aside and say
“Go and don’t tell anybody!”
Some excerpts from the diary written on the trek :
The trail was full of slush after the rain, great scenery on view. Weather clears a bit as we climb higher. Brari Top at 4000m, maybe the highest point of the Amarnath yatra trek is at 4300m. There are Bhandaras along the way at every 1-2 kms. Amarnath yatra base camp is located on snow. The Pahalgam – Chandanwari track joins the Sonamarg – Baltal route at a place called Sangam.
Now I am walking on the Kali Mata track, stupendous views of the snow covered peaks. Strong army movement and presence, supposedly they are in charge of the yatra’s security and well being of the pilgrims (or is it CRPF?). The local horsemen say that due to lesser tourists, prices of horses for pilgrims have come down to 300/-, in high season they can go as high as Rs. 3000/- and Palkis (for elderly pilgrims) for Rs. 12000/-.
A short distance has also to be covered on snow which hasn’t melted yet. First sight of Amarnath Cave. There are lots of shops selling prayer paraphernalia. They were all owned by Muslims who sang of Lord Shiva’s praises while urging the pilgrims to buy their wares. It was heartening to see sturdy Muslim men carry old and crumbling Hindu pilgrims toward the divine cave, some were even helped on their shoulders. For many Indians from the plains, the path to the holy cave was made even better with generous doses of Kashmiri hospitality. We kept our bags at one shop and also brought some prasad to be presented at the cave.
We reached at around 1130-12 noon. Quite hungry and mild AMS (Altitude mountain sickness) too. Beautiful steps lead to the holy cave, security check at the start. Cameras, bags, mobiles etc are not allowed with the pilgrims and are kept by the security personnel. We were told to come back within 1 hour. The natural ice shivling inside the cave has melted. There is tight security inside the cave too. Some guards explain the history and significance of the cave to me.
I remembered the kind hearted homestay owner of Losar – Spiti, who had helped me in the winter and made an offering dedicated to them.
On the way down the stairs, a policeman shows us two white pigeons on a roof. Seeing them is supposed to be auspicious, I can’t exactly remember the story that he narrated. Also because the clouds were closing in and it had already started drizzling. I was not sure how long my 20 Rupee raincoat would hold on for. We quickly cascade down the stairs and head to the most crowded bhandara for lunch, to start our return journey as soon as possible.
There are a lot of sadhus and pilgrims at the bhandara, as also Kashmiri horsemen, even the shop owners are welcome to eat there. The bhandaras are meant for everyone who is assisting in the yatra, all distinctions of Hindu & Muslim are forgotten.
I wonder if the Amarnath Yatra will prove to be a way for Indians to understand Kashmir better. In hindsight, Kashmir seems to be that piece of a jigsaw puzzle that has no solution. On my journeys, it has been consistent – All human beings are good and want peace and happiness. Kashmiris are indeed very friendly and I had a great time being helped in troubled circumstances.
We collect our bags and begin our walk back at around 130 pm. It has stopped raining. The Indore boys are beginning to get slower; they opt to sit for a while where the paths bifurcate – one is a walking path hereafter and the other meant for horses. After all, their target is to only reach the camp/Bhandara at Baltal for the night and move to Srinagar and Jammu thereafter, on the next day. They ask me to move ahead, saying they will join me shortly.
I notice a few dhoti-clad old men from Maharashtra, who are walking barefoot for the pilgrimage. I wait for a while for them to join me, but choose to move ahead when I don’t see their sign for the next 20 minutes. It is frightfully cold, I didn’t know it earlier but the Amarnath Yatra trek is a high altitude and most of it is over 4000m. I keep plodding with my backpack, hardly able to click pictures with the dslr because of the constant smattering of raindrops.
Every once in a while I look back to see the views that had gotten even more spectacular. After crossing some Bhandaras, I come upon a crazy sight : Punjabi Bhangra music is playing at a bhandara and men are dancing away! Incredible India, for sure!
Progress is quick, the sun has began shining in the far distance drying the muddy trail and making it easier to walk. I opt to drink some kahwa at a dhaba at Brari top to give myself a breather and also to relax the shoulders from the weight of the backpack. It is a lovely walk, even more so because of the lack of other trekkers on the route.
An apple seller on the route sells me some apples mixed with salt. Gives me much needed energy. I reach the bhandara at 5 pm and thank the staff for all the help. I am informed that the Jaipur Bhandara is one of the biggest of the Amarnath Yatra. Over a cup of chai, I inform the officials to let the Indore guys know of my arrival (whenever they reach).
I am pleased by the turn of events today, everything has worked in my favour. It has been an excellent way to prepare myself for the Kashmir Great Lakes Trek. I try to find a ride to Sonamarg. With no luck, I labour my way to the road till Baltal on the highway. It is still daylight and a ride duly comes. Local Kashmiri songs in the shared taxi make my heart sing.
Sunset brings a variety of colours on the horizon when I head to TRC Sonamarg to check if there’s a cheap room available. I am not keen on troubling the Shitkadi family today, especially when its approaching dark. I call my family to inform them of my whereabouts and the successful completion of Amarnath Yatra.
Important Facts :
Trekking distance from Baltal to Amarnath Cave : 14.50 kms
AMS can be an issue and prior acclimatisation is recommended before embarking on this trek.
Medical facilities are available en-route.
BSNL mobile network works on the entire Amarnath Yatra Trek.
A pass is mandatory for the Amarnath Yatra Trek.