Amarnath: Significance and Mythology

Significance of Amarnath Yatra

Few pilgrimages attract as much attention and publicity in India as the Amarnath Yatra. It is considered one of the topmost pilgrimages in importance and attracts a huge number of devotees and even other yatris. This year six to eight lakh yatris are expected to undertake the pilgrimage.

Amarnath yatra’s significance lies in its fascinating ice shivalingam, the attractive, scenic setting, and the journey that itself is a form of tapasya or penance. Its importance is not because the shrine, Amarnath cave, ranks as the holiest of the holy sites dedicated to Shiva or Mahadev: Amarnath is not among the 14 Jyotirlingas and it is only one of the 51 Shaktipeethas. 

To understand this, one has to delve into mythology that includes some very captivating stories around Shiva. There are 12 Jyotirlingas and these are the highest ranking among the holy sites dedicated to Shiva. According to mythology, once Brahma and Vishnu were arguing about who is the most powerful among them. Shiva appeared to settle the debate. He produced a huge pillar of light and asked them to find its end. Brahma and Vishnu went in opposite directions to see its end. Brahma returned and lied that he had found the end, while Vishnu conceded defeat. To punish Brahma for his lie, Shiva cursed him that even though he is the creator, he would not be worshipped. The Jyotirlingas are manifestations of that endless pillar of light. “Jyoti” means radiance. Shiva Purana mentions as many as 64 Jyotirlingas. Out of these 12 are called Mahajyotirlingam or the Great Jyotirlingas.

Next in significance are the Shaktipeethas, Shakti means power. Shaktipeetha means the seat of power. These are sites where a part of Devi Sati’s body, or a piece of her jewellery, fell to earth. Shakti refers to the Goddess worshiped at each location, all being manifestations of Sati; later known as Parvati, Durga, and Kali. 

As the legend goes, Sati was the first wife of Lord Shiva. She was the daughter of Prajapati Daksha, a Brahmin priest and son of Brahma, the creator of the world. Married Shiva against the wishes of Daksha who did not like Shiva because of his appearance – an ultimate yogi living on the margins of society, absorbed in meditation for eons, naked except for cremation ash rubbed into his skin and a tiger skin around his waist, with wild dreadlocked hair and smoking ganja. 

One day, Daksha decided to hold the great horse sacrifice, the Ashvamedha Yagna, and invited all the devas except Lord Shiva. Sati implored him to show her husband respect. He not only refused, but insulted Sati in front of his guests and heaped abuse on Shiva. This angered Sati. She took the form of the goddess Adi Parashakti and cursed her father and his sacred yagna ritual. Then she ignited her inner yogagni (yogic fire), set herself ablaze and burned to death. 

When Shiva learned what had happened, he flew into a rage and performed the terrible Tandava Nritya, or Dance of Destruction. He plucked two dreadlocks from his hair and thrashed the ground with them. One transformed into Virabhadra, Shiva’s destructive and terrible incarnation, and the second arose as Bhadrakali, or Rudrakali, the Supreme Goddess’s violent and intense incarnation with 18 hands. Shiva ordered them to wreak havoc.

A fierce celestial war ensued, ending with Virabhadra swallowing Vishnu’s Sudarshan Chakra (discus) and Vishnu conceding defeat and giving him permission to punish Daksha. Daksha was beheaded. The sacrifice was ruined, and Sati’s curse came true.

One version of the story says that when Shiva performed his Tandav Nritya with Sati’s charred body on his shoulders, parts of her body the pieces fell at different places on earth.

In another, Shiva placed Sati on his shoulders and roamed about the universe, for eons, crazed with grief. The Gods eventually asked Vishnu to restore Shiva to normalcy and calm. Vishnu threw his Sudarshan Chakra and dismembered Sati’s lifeless body (and as per Vaishnava Puranas) into 51 pieces that fell to Earth, to become sacred sites where people pay homage to the Goddess. 

The places where Sati’s parts landed are called Shakti Peeths. Amarnath is the place where her throat fell, making it one of the sites of Shakti Peeth.

There is another story about the Amarnath shrine. Once Goddess Parvati asked Shiva why he wears a garland of skulls and what it implies. He told her that every time she is reborn, a head is added to the garland. She asked Shiva how was it that she dies every time while he remains immortal.

On constant urging from Parvati, Shiva decided to narrate the story of immortality – Amar katha – to her, He looked for a secluded place for this, and this was the Amarnath cave. On the way to Amarnath Cave, Shiva renounced his worldly belongings. He left his bull Nandi at Pahalgam, removed the moon from his hair at Chandanwari, released his snake at Sheshnag Lake, left his son Ganesha at Mahagunas Parvat, and at Panjtarni he left his five elements Earth, Fire, Water, Air, and Sky. 

After entering Amarnath Cave, Lord Shiva sat on the deerskin and took a Samadhi. To completely ensure that no one heard the story, Lord Shiva created a Rudra named Kalagni. He ordered Kalagni to set fire around the cave in order to destroy everything living there. After that, he narrated the story, Amar Katha, to Maa Parvati at this cave. The name Amarnath is likely derived from this story.

Historicity of the shrine and its rediscovery

The Amarnath shrine finds mention in Kalhana’s Rajtarangini written in 1148 and again by a French physician during the time of Aurangzeb. In the ups and downs of history, the shrine apparently faded from public memory till, as the story goes, it was rediscovered by a Muslim shepherd named Buta Malik in 1850. Malik was grazing his animals in the mountains when a Sufi saint gave him a bagful of coal. When he returned home, Malik opened the bag, and found it full of gold. The ecstatic and overwhelmed shepherd ran to the mountains to thank the saint, but he could not find him. What he found instead, was the cave, and its famous ice lingam.

Scientifically speaking, the ice lingam, representing Lord Shiva, is formed by a trickle of water from a cleft in the roof of the cave. The water freezes as it drips, forming, over time, a tall, smooth ice stalagmite. The Shiva lingam gets its full shape in May every year, after which it begins to melt. By August, it is just a few feet in height.

On the left of the Shiva lingam are two smaller ice stalagmites, representing Parvati and Lord Ganesh.

The family of Buta Malik remained the traditional custodian of the shrine, along with Hindu priests from the Dashnami Akhara and Purohit Sabha Mattan. This coming together of people of different faiths turned Amarnath into a symbol of Kashmir’s communal harmony and composite culture.

In 2000, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah’s government intervened on grounds of improving facilities for the Yatra. The Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board was formed with the Governor at its head, and Malik’s family and the Hindu organisations were evicted. This streamlined the Yatra, but also did away with one of its most unique features.

The duration for undertaking the Yatra was initially 15 days or a month. In 2005, the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board decided to spread the pilgrimage out over nearly two months. It is one of the most famous pilgrimage destinations of India and is organised every year by the Jammu and Kashmir government.

Article By: Kashmir Ahead

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