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A snowy valley in the western Himalayas is the focus of one of the greatest yatras, or spiritual journeys, that any Hindu can make, and joining them can be just as uplifting for unbelievers.

Moving mountains
Story and photography by Matthew Crompton

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A HiNDu PiLGriMaGE is oftEN as MuCh about soCioLoGY as it is religion, as much an endurance event as a spiritual practice. This is especially true in Kashmir. Standing at the windy, exposed pass at Pissu Top, 3,800 metres up, these were my reflections as I watched the muddy slope far below me teem like a kicked anthill alive with 10,000 pilgrims. I was there because I loved India, and because there is no route into India’s heart – huge, diverse and unruly – more inviting than a pilgrimage or yatra, where the intense emotional energy of the subcontinent is thrown fiercely into motion. A yatra is the spiritual element of the human elevated to its rapturous extreme, and this three-day trek to the ancient Shiva cave at Amarnath, hidden deep in a snow-choked valley in the remote western Himalaya, is considered by many to be its finest and most arduous example, undertaken by more than 600,000 people during the Hindu holy month of Shraavana each summer. Many people, of course, had told me not to go there. Political violence and unrest in Kashmir closed roads and brought paramilitary crackdowns in 2008 and again in 2010 [there were yet more problems during the preparation of this article in October 2013]. Yet in July 2011, as I walked on beyond Pissu Top and into the gorgeous, green alpine river valley beyond, it was not discord that struck me, but instead a great serenity. Hindu pilgrims a n d Ka s h m i r i Mu s l i m l a b ou re r s alike were processing in their motley UPlIFTING sETTING thousands through the valley, which Sunset on the mountains at the end of the first day’s trek. was dotted with scattered grey boulders,
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crusts of old snow and herds of grazing sheep. In this throng were represented all castes and places and kinds. Lawyers and pensioners from Delhi and Mumbai jostled with computer programmers and students and call-centre workers from Kerala and Gujarat. Sufi Muslims from the lake town of Srinagar, muddy in their long grey tunics, were stoically bearing elderly Hindu pilgrims aloft on crude litters made of lawn chairs, rope and bamboo. Above them, deep and saturated as the sea, was the luminous cobalt of the sky, and beyond them and among them, their orange robes like vivid blazes marking the distance to the far horizon, huge groups of wandering sadhus. These Hindu holy men were dreadlocked, shirtless and emaciated, backs bare to the fierce mountain sun, puffing clouds of hashish in clay pipes called chillum , barefoot and smiling WARMED BY FAITH Above: A line of pilgrims leaving as they headed on into the snowy Sheshnag camp on the frosty mountain heights (and highs). morning of day two. There we were, a happy mob of Left: A sadhu at ease in the high pilgrims transiting the roof of the world, mountain meadow. alone together in the blinding sun and boundless emptiness. As we walked, I spoke to one after another, drifting along the trail from group to group. Some, I found, came for the challenge of the walk, a mountain adventure for students on holiday. Others came with prayers and wishes: for relatives to be healed, for success in business, for the birth of a grandson. For all though, it was an activity equal to more than the sum of its parts, neither purely a trek nor a simple act of worship, but a kind of itinerant festival, a movable feast for a culture that burned most vivid when gathered together in its great unruly mass. I walked into the sprawling, squalid tent camp of Sheshnag in the dust and wind of the late afternoon, settling in a rude pup tent for the night for the sum of Rs400 (US$6.20). Trash and plastic bottles blew along the mud paths of the encampment, across the green mountainsides and past the barbed-wire coils and sandbagged bunkers where bored soldiers looked out, impassively surveying the perimeter of the camp. When night fell, the light dying to purple and mauve on the dusty mountains above us, I ventured out to the communal langars, tent-kitchens where the devout served up endless thousands of free meals, we diners squatting with metal plates balanced on our knees, scooping up thin yellow dal and curried potatoes with hunks of coarse chapatti flatbread. The night was a kind of happy madness there, devotional music booming through the camp and thousands of restless pilgrims transiting past in the darkness, their numbers echoed by the stars above us clear as diamonds in the crisp mountain air. Back in my tent, I laid out over the lumpy mud on my

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meagre blanket, and sleep came over me like a heavy drug. Early in the frosted morning I went out to see a sadhu performing Surya Namaskara, the sun salutation, facing the coming dawn and bending like a willow to the ground as the sun broke over the mountains to the east. In the langar tent for breakfast, I bolted down my morning tea and biscuits, and a group of glassy-eyed boys from Jammu city took my hand and dragged me outside, where dozens of pilgrims were spontaneously dancing to spiritual music mixed with some kind of house beat, everyone from bent-backed old women to schoolchildren clapping and busting a move. It was hard to imagine a more unusual start to a day – this whole itinerant city awake and ecstatic together in the freezing dawn, the great emptiness of the mountains all around us somehow filled and enlarged by the wild passion of the human beings contained within it. I packed up my things and donned my muddy trekking clothes, and began the 700-metre climb to the 4,270-metre pass at Mahagunas Top, the highest point of the trek: more than two hours of slippery, sucking mud ascending the ravaged RAINBOW OF DEVOTION mountainside. On foot or mounted, the devout At the pass, the blinding sunlight snake up the hillsides, their saris, glinting off the snow, a man approached shirts and scarves vivid against the dusty track. me: “He left his soul here, you know. The

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For all the soldiers and their guns here in the mountains, for all the barbed wire and security checks, as I neared the holy cave, the atmosphere remained infectiously positive.

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saint, Bholay Shankar, who meditated in the Holy Cave, his soul is not only there, but it is here, all around us in the mountains.” I blinked at him. “Can’t you feel it?” he said to me, smiling widely. “Can’t you feel it all around us?” As I descended through the high green meadow on the pass’ far side, my body giddy with oxygen and endorphins from the long climb, his words were in my mind. India’s penchant for unrest and communal violence is perhaps felt nowhere more sharply than here in Kashmir, still a region visibly under Indian military occupation. Yet for all the soldiers and their guns here in the mountains, for all the barbed wire and security checks, as I neared the holy

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MORE HOLY HIKEs AND sAcRED sUmmITs
There’s a long tradition of pilgrimage in many religions and joining or re-creating such a journey can be an enriching experience – giving spiritual highs alongside more literal highs perhaps, offering a chance to connect with locals in a meaningful way that transcends the forced friendliness of much organised ‘cultural tourism’. In India especially, rivers attract pilgrims to their sources and, in the case of the Ganges, there are the almighty melas, festivals of devotion that are among the largest gatherings of humanity anywhere. More widely across the region though it is high mountains, especially those that stand alone, or offer striking or unusual profiles, that are the focus. In both the Hindu and Buddhist faiths, reverence is shown by circling these peaks, making a kora (always walking clockwise), from the Tibetan for ‘circumambulation’. You can make a kora around a stupa or temple too – even simply around the mani stones you encounter on many mountain tracks in the Himalayas – but doing so around a whole mountain is obviously a far more significant show of respect. It is worth noting at this point that climbing up these peaks is often frowned upon and, in certain cases, may even be forbidden. While walking, many pilgrims spin prayer wheels, chant mantras or prostrate themselves over and over. These activities are all intended to be meditative, the repetition a deliberate step to help free the mind, to encourage a more contemplative attitude. The classic kora that many have heard of is that around Mt Kailash in western Tibet, but there are many others, some of which are offered on commercial trips. Adventure operator Whistling Arrow, for example, offer two routes, the Kawa Karpo Kora and the Yading Kora (shown below). “The first is arguably the more culturally and spiritually immersive of the two,” says the company’s founder, Adrian Bottomley, “as the route is heavily populated with Khampa pilgrims from Eastern Tibet in the kora season (typically September to October). Yading has absolutely spectacular mountain scenery but there tends to be less devotees en route.” Bottomley is currently planning a research trip to another sacred peak: Amne Machen, in modern-day Qinghai province, where he is hoping to combine a kora with a trip to the source of the Yellow River. Anyone drawn to such journeys of discovery and fulfillment should take note too that 2014 sees us enter the Year of the Horse, said to be an especially propitious time for pilgrimage.

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This last section of the journey was also its most treacherous, a long slog up a precipitous slope, we footbound pilgrims being crushed and jostled by an endless line of litter-bearers and hire ponies, the muddy path on which we trod often less than two metres wide . . .

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cave, the atmosphere remained infectiously positive. At the final security cordon at Panchtarni, a soldier with an AK-47 smiled and gave me bandages for my blistered feet, then waved me onwards past the helicopter landing pad, where flight after flight roared loudly past, ferrying more well-heeled pilgrims to and from the distant staging camp at Baltal, a day-long walk to the west. As I trekked the final six kilometres to the holy cave, my anticipation peaked. This last section of the journey was also its most treacherous, a long slog up a precipitous slope, we footbound pilgrims being crushed and jostled by an endless line of litter-bearers and hire ponies, the muddy path on which we trod often less than two metres wide and slippery in the steady drizzle.

PRACTICALITIEs

When to go
The pilgrimage to Amarnath runs for 35 days during the Hindu lunar month of Shraavana, which begins around late June or early July on the Roman calendar. Check the official website at www.shriamarnathjishrine.com for precise dates.

What to take
It’s muddy, and rain or snow can be expected at any time, so bring good shoes, warm clothing and rain gear. Simple sleeping kit and tents are cheaply rented in camps along the way, and meals are free in the communal kitchens. Bring snacks, money, and a first aid kit. Do not leave valuables in your tent.

How to get there
The trailheads are near the town of Pahalgam (recommended), or at Baltal Camp on the Leh-Srinagar Highway. For either, you will first need to get to Srinagar, then proceed by bus or shared jeep to the trailheads (both between two and three hours). Srinagar is served by regular flights from New Delhi, or can be reached overland via a long (10-hour) bus or jeep ride from the city of Jammu, which has the nearest railway station.

Further info
You must register beforehand and bring your permit with you to the trailhead on the designated date. In India you can register at major branches of J&K Bank, YES Bank, State Bank of India, Punjab National Bank and HDFC Bank. For general information check the official website, www.shriamarnathjishrine.com/index.html, or contact their Help Desk. Many tour operators can help with arranging permits etc. The author used www.amarnathji.com for example.

Arriving at last at the steep, snowy THE MANY AND THE ONE valley with the holy cave rising at its far Left: A sea of tents lap at the valley walls at Sheshnag camp. Above: end, I dropped my pack at its mouth. I A pilgrim proudly shows off his was filthy, stinking, and unshaven, but mantric om symbol haircut. ready to make the acquaintance of Lord Shiva, who I’d walked so long to reach. I climbed the long stone stairway to the yawning mouth of the cave, lambent in the semi-darkness with music spilling out into the dusk. There, the famous stone lingam stood – a divine phallic symbol of the potency of Lord Shiva, covered in its mysterious coat of summer ice. I removed my shoes and, barefoot, walked on with my blistered feet through the grit and filthy water, moving with the mass of chanting and prostrating pilgrims onwards into the shadowed reaches of the cave. India, I was now sure, was the perfect place for those inclined to wander, a land ready to accept nomads and seekers from strange tribes, as easily as it embraced the orthodox. Moving before the lingam, I bowed and prayed with those around me, carrying inside me all the passion of my co-pilgrims, all the wild beauty of India's land and its people and their struggles, all the happy wishes and good things in my heart. A minute later, one of the temple minders shoved me roughly along, and on my way out an Indian Army soldier smiled and handed me an orange scarf adorned with Shiva mantras. The whole moment, which I’d walked two full days to experience, was over in less than five minutes. Outside the cave, looking down on the steep, narrow valley below, the half-moon shone on the snow, on the peaked roofs of the tents, and the stars were bright as Christmas lights. I felt at once supremely alone here in this distant place, and yet equally a part of an ecstatic whole; and I thought: there are many experiences here on Earth, but truly none like this, this nation that both overwhelms and humbles me. I turned and bowed once more, and then headed downhill into the darkness. AA

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