Omanand Koul

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Shravan Purnima

The pilgrimage to Amarnath - Lord of Immortality

In Kashmir, the major day for celebration in the month of Shravan is Shravan Purnimashi (Shravan Poonim- in Kashmiri-the last day of the bright half of the month). It is marked by a fast and worship of Shiva at home, with one meal allowed at about 4 P.M. The main ingredients of the meal include cooked rice, collard greens and kohlrabi.

Shravan poonim, for some, culminates with the darshan of Shiva after a hike to Amarnath cave situated at about 13,000 ft above sea level in the snowy mountains of southern Kashmir. The hike takes four to five days from the resort station of Pahalgam and covers nearly 26 miles by treacherous paths up through heights and glacier bridges to the cave. The pilgrim’s progress is punctuated by a few well-placed nightly stop-overs a few miles apart. The stopover places are named: Pahalgam, Chandanvari, Sheshnag, Mahagunas, and Panjtarni. This pilgrimage is called Amarnath yatra. The aim of this yatra is the darshan of an ice lingam- a column of ice formed by dripping water inside the cold cave.

Legend has it that on the day of Shravan purnimashi, Shiva in seclusion with Parvati, narrated the secret of immortality (Amar- in Sanskrit) to Her, hence the other name of Shiva is 'Amarnath'- lord of immortality. Since Shiva wanted to be alone with Parvati during this moment, He left Nandi (the Bull, His vehicle) at Pahalgam. At the second stop, Chandanwari, He removed the moon. At the lake shore Sheshnag the snakes around His neck came off. His son Ganesha was left off at Mahagunas. The five tattwas’ were dropped off at Panjtarni (five basic components of our body: loosely translated from their Sanskrit names as earth, water, air, fire and space). Then reaching the cave site, He enlisted Rudra Kalagni -the flame of time (a manifestation of Shiva) to burn down everything around the cave site.

Thus after nothing was allowed to survive, Shiva and Parvati, seemingly by themselves, entered the Amarnath Cave. A legend has it that a pigeon- couple had secreted themselves in there and eavesdropped on the conversation and thus became beneficiaries of the secret formula of immortality. Another variation on this is that an egg was left under the deerskin mat of Shiva and the couple (apparently the egg gave birth to two) that came forth from there became immortal. Nowadays, sighting a pair of pigeons at the cave site during the pilgrimage is taken as an auspicious sign of success after the arduous trek.

Traditionally the pilgrims would trek up to the cave in a procession lead by a sadhu-a holy man-carrying the holy mace of Shiva. The holy mace is the Trishul-the trident of Shiva- to protect pilgrims from any hazards along the way. The holy mace is called Chhaddi Mubarak (Chaddi Maharaj) and is described as a gift from Shiva to a Rishi who used to lead the pilgrimage a long time ago. Then there is the story of an interaction between a saint at the cave site and the shepherd Buta Malik who received what he thought to be a sack of coal from him, but turned out to be gold. Because of the interaction with the saint, the incident had turned out to be a source of ongoing steady income for the Malik family-they used to receive a portion of all proceeds collected at the cave.

The arduous nature of the traditional trek of the yatra demands dedication, and persistence in the quest for solitude of Amarnath cave. It compels the pilgrims to go through a process of forced contemplation about their place on this earth. During this hike, the traditional stopovers used by the pilgrims follow those undertaken by Shiva and Parvati to the cave while He shed His various adornments and elements culminating in the knowledge of immortality at the cave site. In philosophical interpretations, Shiva represents the eternal soul (parmatman) and Parvati the perishable body (shareer) of an individual. The traditional stopovers have esoteric connotations in meditative path of Kashmir Shaivism embedded therein. The individual who goes through the process of meditation and prayer, goes through a sequential de-attachment from desire’, lose the need of analyzing each thought, and learn failings of the ego, and seek detachment from that as well. Thus eventually the five elements (the five tatwas) of one’s own body (Shareer) are in union with the soul (Atman) and rest of the universe, and ready to perform the Tandava dance of Shiva at the cave site as a result of the ecstatic achievement. However, the use of nontraditional routes, different dates of darshan, and mechanisms now employed to reach to the cave in shorter amount of time are seemingly eroding away at these features.

But then, isn’t the life in the new real world also moving at a faster pace? And would the progress to immortality also enter an accelerated pace: the ultimate realization and promise of darshan of Amarnath! May the lord Shiva provide us with clear thoughts and be with us at all times to protect and preserve us.

An addendum:

Raksha Bandhan: The festival of Rakhi (a decorated wrist band) also occurs on the day of Shravan Purnima. Rakhi is tied by a sister on a brother’s wrist to signify and celebrate the bond of love between a sister and a brother. Rakhsha means protection, hence the Rakhi signifies the willingness of a brother to help and protect his sister at any cost. One can become a Rakhi brother to someone even though they may be unrelated by blood after accepting a Rakhi. Legends in India describe such Rakhi brothers and sisters with no restriction of religion. After exodus, the festival has become more popular among Kashmiri Pandits.

Omanand Koul, Burlington, Massachusetts  

Shravan Purnima 2013



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