THE HOLY CAVE OF AMARNTAH
(By a Pilgrim)
The land of Sarada, a home of scholarship and refuge of learning, has claimed from early times to be the land beloved of Devi Saraswati. It was famous for its Sarada or Sanskrit library, a depository of old Sanskrit Manuscripts including the world knows Mahabhasya of Patanjali, which attracted to Kashmir scholarly saints like Sri Shankaracharya and Swami Ramanuja from distant Madras when there was no railway in India. There is abundant evidence to show that for literary greatness Sarada Kshetra or Kashmir of old Hindu times was a place of pilgrimage for Sanskrit scholars from all parts of India.
As regards the Sanskrit name Sarada Kshetra Kashmir was so called in early days from its Sarad shrine, one of the most important of Kashmir Tirthas. It was once famous not only in Kashmir but far beyond its limits. The ancient shrine of Sarada is now marked by an insignificant village named Sarada. The neglect into which the Tirath has fallen in the recent times is due to the Moghul and Pathan rule of the upper Kishenganga Valley that closed the route to the village Sardi till the establishment of the present Dogra rule in Kashmir. As to the situation of the ancient shrine of Sarada Dr. Stein says in his note to the Kalhanar chronicle of Kashmir (Rajtarangini):- "The temple of Sarada rises in a prominent and commanding position above the right bank of the Madhumati on the terrace-like spur which descends from a high pine-clad peak to the East Immediately below this terrace to the N. W. is the spot where the waters of the Madhumati and Kishenganga mingle.
The pilgrimage to the Holy Cave begins from the capital of Kashmir. The old capital which is quite unknown at present lies, I am told, in ruins and is marked by a village named Puranandhisthana. It was called Srinagari, founded by the great Asoka. The new capital founded by the Hindu King of Kashmir named Pravasena II is Srinagar of the present day. Bathed with the cool waters of Vitastha (Jhelum), surrounded by magnificent hills and beautifully laid out by nature with picturesque lakes of crystal water, orchards of rich fruits and gardens of vegetables, the new city is most charming and attracts many European visitors every year to Kashmir. The house-boats are a curiosity of Srinagar, and the life of pleasure of people living on these boats is enviable. It is said that the advantages of the old capital (Srinagar) as the site for a great city cannot be compared with these presented by the situation of the new capital. Through its heart pass numerous canals from the beautiful Dala and Auchor lakes which together with the sacred Vitastha serves as the main thoroughfare of the city.
Leaving Srinagar the pilgrim's way runs along Vitastha hovering a distance of 47 miles, and terminating at a place called Khanabal. To make this journey by boat is very pleasant and takes more or less than twenty-for hours, passing through Pamar (ancient Padmapura) famous for its saffron cultivation, and Bijwara. From Khanabal, which is marked by the last bridge on Vitastha, the way runs by the great spring at Ananta Naga to Martanda, a place of antiquity and Tirtha.
From early times to the present day, Martanda has enjoyed a prominent place among the sacred sires of Kashmir. It is marked by a splendid spring traditionally represented as two, Vimala and Kamala. Like Gaya tirtha in the Province of Bengal and Hardwar in the United Provinces, this place is frequented by crowds of pilgrims, all the year found, from all parts of Kashmir State to perform "Sraddha" of the deceased ancestors. The ancient remains of the temple of Martanda – said to be constructed by King Lalitaditya of Kashmir on the bank of the holy spring – are very scanty. A little over a mile to the south east of the spring the ruins of a massive masonry edifice with a quadrangular court-yard and colonnades still show the most impressive specimen of architecture of the Kashmir of old Hindu times.
The next stage is Ganespur, from which is reached the sacred place of Ganesbal situated on the bank of rushing Lambodari or Lider. Here pilgrims take their sacred ablution and then start for the stage Pahalgam, which is 22 miles distant from Martanda. It is frequented by European every year when Srinagar becomes hot in July and August. At this place the pilgrims coming by different routes from Srinagar meet and are required to rest for a day or two. After a good rest they form one big party and start for the next stage, Chandabati, early in the morning and by breakfast time reach the stage. From this place begins the fearful ascent of Pisughati and the pilgrim's route ascends the eastern branch of Lidu or Ledari, where the lake of Naga Susravas, now known as Susravi Naga or Sesanaga, is visited and worshipped. It lies at the north foot of a great glacier, descending from Kohenpur Peak. The route then crosses a high mountain pass known as Vavajan, Sanskrit Vayuvarjana, into a high level valley drained by five streams which bear the joint name of Panchatarangini. From there the pilgrims party loiters up the lofty spur of Bhairava Ghati and descends into the narrow gloomy valley lying at the foot of the Amarnath peak, which is bathed by the rushing cool stream of Amaravati coming from the glacier of the still higher peak to the east. The march to the Holy Cave takes place every year in the bright half of the month of Sawan (August) and attracts many thousands of pilgrims, not only from Kashmir and Jammu, but from all parts of India. Amarnath is now the most popular of Kashmirian Tirthas together with the sacred Ganga lake on Mount Hara Kukuta. The distance from Srinagar to the Holy Cave is about one hundred miles.
The shrine of Amareswar is the Holy Cave, situated at a considerable altitude and formed by a huge fissure on the south side of a snowy peak 17,000 feet high called Ambaranath. The image in the shrine is 'Sayambhu Linga' represented by a large block of transparent ice formed by the freezing of the water which oozes from the rocky walls and roof of the cave. It is worshipped by the pilgrims as an embodiment of Siva Amareswar Lord of the immortals.
The Hindu faith connects a living power with rocks, stocks, trees and the like. Who can deny it and say there is not a living Power (Sakti) behind them? Does scientific faith contradict it? No, here a man of religion and a man of science quite agree. According to Hindu symbolism the image of a shrine is not God, but God is image of a shrine manifested, corresponding to the idea or thought image of the worshipper. And what better symbol than 'Sayambhu Linga, and what better image or form than a natural figure of transparent ice, an emblem of purity and serenity, there can be to represent the 'Sat' that has become this Universe of Mind and Matter? The ideal of the devoted who once inhabited the Cave and set vibrating its atmosphere with the Divine Consciousness, is the living image of the shrine of Amarnath. There is no doubt that like the Bo tree of Lord Buddha and the mountain cell of Mohammed, this Cave has become a Divine sanctuary. That the Cave or its spiritual atmosphere is full of the Divine consciousness who can deny? Every year the 'Tirtha' attracts to an elevation of seventeen thousand and three hundred feet thousands of pilgrims, the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak, the faithful and the unfaithful, the educated and the uneducated, not only from the territories of Kashmir State, but from all parts of India.