Sunday, August 26, 2007


Amarnath cave, at an altitude of about 13500 ft is situated in one of the most hallowed corners of Kashmir. It is associated with the Lord Shiva and the ice Lingam that forms here holds special attraction for the Hindus. Devotees from all over India throng the cave from in July and August. The cave has however been mired in controversies. Last year there were stories in the media that as the Lingam had melted, tonnes of ice were transported from Delhi to create an artificial Lingam. This year there were reports of many devotees reaching the cave months before the scheduled date. These devotees burnt incense close to the Lingam that resulted in its earl meltdown. Then there are reports once a while of attacks on the pilgrims by militants.
However whether you get to see the Lingum, trek to the cave is an out of the world experience.
The traditional route from Pahalgam to Chandarnvani takes a total minimum three days to undertake both way and is rather easy to traverse as it does not involve too many steep climbs.
But if you are short of time and are willing to brave a steep climb on a rather narrow footpath that literally clings to the mountainside you can easily visit Amarnath from Srinagar in a one day via Sonmarg and Baltal. From Delhi take the morning flight to Srinagar and the two hour road journey to Baltal. Baltal is the takeoff point for the Amarnath cave. If you are at Baltal before eleven in the morning (one is not permitted to take the uphill trek to Amarnath after 11 am because of security reasons) you can trek up five hours to the cave but you will have to halt at Amarnath where tentage accommodation is available. Alternatively you can trek up early in the morning and be back by the late afternoon, reach Srinagar and then catch the last flight to Delhi.
I visited Amarnath in August 2005; inspite of knowing that the Lingman had already melted. On 5th August 05, I caught the 10 o clock flight from Delhi to Srinagar. At the Srinagar airport, I had to wait for about an hour before I could get a shared taxi for Baltal. The road skirts the Dal Lake and goes onwards to the picturesque Sonmarg. Half an hour ahead and I was at Baltal at about 4 pm. Baltal is located in a wide valley at the foothill of the famous Zojila pass. A festive atmosphere prevailed here. I was famished so I entered the “Ludhiana” Bhandara and partook to Dosas and Somosas. (Bhandaras are huge dining halls in which food is served free of cost to the pilgrims/devotees: Amarnath Darshan Associations, mostly from North India: Ludhiana, Jullundur, Amristar, Delhi etc, set up the Bhandaras in huge tents at Baltal). Then I headed to search for accommodation. I managed to get a small tent all for myself to spend the night in. After an early dinner at the Jullundur Bhandar, I was back in the tent and snoring away.
At five in the morning, I began the uphill trek. The footpath was narrow and was protected by machine gun totting soldiers. After four hours I reached Sangam, where the Baltal path confluences with the traditional route from Pahalgam. I was amazed to see how faith drives many of my fellow pilgrims: many are thinly clad without any warm clothing and are barefooted. On their heads they deftly balance their personal belongings. From Sangam, the footpath becomes very narrow indeed and the climb is murderous. After a kilometer the vistas broadened and the footpath becomes flat. Soon I was at the holy cave. The Amarnath Cave looms almost 40 feet high and is equally wide. However the cave is rather shallow: about 20 to 25 feet deep.
I was of course disappointed that the Lingam was not there: it had completed melted a week ago. But I got to see the fabled white pigeons perched on the top escarpment of the cave.
I took the helicopter back to Baltal that set me back by a whopping Rs 6000/- for the seven minute flight. At Baltal I hopped into a truck going towards Kargil and Leh but that is a different story ….

Thursday, August 23, 2007


A pilgrimage to Lharinyingphu – Sikkim’s Holiest Cave
-Rajesh Verma

The four holy caves of Sikkim can somehow be likened to the four Dhams that we have in Hinduism They are the traditional abodes of Guru Rimpoche and Lhatusun Chhembo situated in the four cardinal directions surrounding Tashiding.Having earlier visited some places associated with Guru Padmasambva like Riwalser in Himachal Pradesh and Taksang Monastery in Bhutan and also three holy caves in Sikkim - I had a longstanding desire to trek to fourth one too – the holiest of them all - Lharinyingphu..

About Lharinyingphu – the old cave symbolizing the heart of the Divine Hill – HH Risley wrote in the Gazetteer of Sikkim in 1894, “ It is situated about three day’s journey to the north of Tashiding along a most difficult path.” In the south is Kahdosangphu adjacent to the hotspring of Phurchachu. Pephu lies between the Tendong and the Maenam mountains. De-chen phu lies in the west and can be approached from Nampu near Pelling .The 20 kilometers bumpy vehicular road from Tashiding via Chongrang, Gangyep and Kongri to Lapdang has made the Lharinyingphu cave considerably less inaccessible, as compared to Risley’s days,although it still involves a formidable and daunting seven hours arduous uphill trek.
After spending the night at the RDD Dak Bunglow at Tashiding, we have arrived at Labdang, also called Gurung Busty, early in the morning. Labdang is slowly gaining importance because of the Relli chu power project that is coming up just a few kilometers below. The Voluntary Health Association of Sikkim has also taken major initiatives in the heath and social sector in Labdang. A community centre cum dak Bunglow has been set up by them here. The village of Dhupidara can be seen across and further away Mangnam over which rises Maenam. Towards the north, the peaks of Narsingh loom over head. Labdang is the take off point also for treks to Kasturi Oral.
We will be bivouacking and making a night halt at the cave and therefore a quick check of whether we are carrying everything required – sleeping bags, provisions, candles, utensils and so on
The older route to the cave by walking down from Kongri to Relli chu and then taking a steep uphill climb up via the village of Rungdung used to take two days to traverse and one day back. The other major problem with the older route is that there are no streams on the way and therefore trekkers have to lug their own water for drinking and ablutions. The Tourism Department, Government of Sikkim has recently carved out a shorter route to the cave by constructing a cobble stone path making accessibility much easier for those seeking spiritual merit – a very noble task indeed!
We walk four kilometers in the northerly directly through cardamom fields to reach the Relli-chu. We are now within the Kanchendzonga National Park. We negotiate a log bridge precariously laid out across the river. In fact last monsoon, the original bridge had been washed away by a wall of water that came gushing down wreaking destruction and subsequently changing the course of the river. Because of this there was immense damage downstream to the upcoming Relli Chu Project and the NHPC Hydel Station at Legship.
We jump across rocks on the river bank and reach the cobble stone foot path. About a kilometer walk and the footpath suddenly disappears. Almost one hundred meters of it has been washed away by a huge landslip that had perhaps caused the Relli chu river to be dammed resulting in pondage and subsequent
flooding. Clinging to stones and digging our feet into the mud for a foothold we negotiate this extremely dangerous landslip. We come across labourers repairing the footpath. I ponder that it is only because of their efforts that this harsh terrain is being converted to a readily accessible area and thank them from the bottom of my heart. We have to negotiate three smaller landslips. From here onwards it is a steep climb for about four hours through a thick forest. We stop once in a while to drink water from the innumerable small streams that cross our path.
Birds twitter and butterflies flit; a monal pheasant crosses our path. The thunder of Relli-chu flowing far down below resounds in the valley
Something incongruous like a mirage appears in this wilderness: a Dak bunglow. The tin roofed Dak Bunglow consists of three big rooms: two dormitories with attached toilet one for ladies and the other for gents. Three or four bare beds lie scattered in each room. Between them is a dining hall and kitchen. It must have been quite a Herculean task lugging the building material from the road head thirteen kilometers below. The Dak Bunglow does not have any caretaker and pilgrims are expected to just open the doors and walk in.

A signage outside the Bunglow says that the Cave is 1.5 kilometers away. Although dog tired and tempted to spend the night here we decide to instead biouvac at the cave itself as we have come to know that there are no pilgrims ahead of us meaning that accommodation is available at the cave which cannot accommodate more that six to seven people. This one- and- a half kilometer trek is almost vertical and takes a full hour to cover. The cliff marking the cave becomes visible through the gaps in the trees: in fact one of the caves is clearly visible. The last two hundred meters involves a short downhill walk and then a clamber through rocks to reach the cave.
Lharinyingphu is in fact a combination of four caves. Three caves lie adjacent to each other on a ledge on the edge of which grow thick foliage of cane and small trees. The view of these three caves are therefore obstructed. The first cave is the main one, the second is shallow and has a spring water source which is used by the pilgrims for drinking and washing utensils. The third one is small essentially used for bivouacking and spending the night and therefore does not have any spiritual significance. The fourth cave is a further five minute uphill walk from here and offers a good view of the surrounding area. All the caves have colourful Lungtas strung across their entrances and stone altars with the floor littered with coins and discarded brass butter lamps.
My friend Manorath Dahal, a teacher in Tashiding Senior Secondary School who visited the cave a few years did some research into the significance of the Lharinyingphu. He had this to tell:
"In the main cave one would find the figures of Namthosay(Bishramana) surrounded by the eight deities of wealth. There are naturally arisen figures of Dorjee Phagmo (Bajra Barahi) surrounded by five Dakinis. In the central cave there are naturally formed figures of Amiteyus (Tsepegme) surrounded by the deities of long life. If one writes down the name of the people whom you want to live long, they will live long. In the north end cave are the figures of the Vajra Kila (Dorjee Phurba) surrounded by ten Kilayas and Trathaps. If one visits this palce and writes down names of acquaintances, they will become free of diseases, obstacles and enemies.”
It is late afternoon and our feet are weighing tons. On the narrow ledge in front of the caves we light a bon fire and cook our food. Devotees have left utensils, crockery and cutlery and I realize that we could have come here without carrying our own. Sadly, there is also a lot of litter around: plastic bottles, food wrappers, tins and left over food. Perhaps a mechanism of disposing this garbage would have to be developed. Notices should be put up exhorting the pilgrims to carry back their garbage to the road head and disposing it properly.
It is soon dusk. On the southern horizon the lights of Darjeeling come on and it looks as though the galaxies have descended on the earth. Lharinyingphu must be at an altitude of about 9,000ft for Darjeeling seems to be slightly below. After partaking to an early dinner, we crawl into the cave and lay out our sleeping bags on the hay that has been so thoughtfully been laid out by the earlier pilgrims. The altar at the corner of the cave is adorned with the picture of Guru Padmasambva. The sweet scent of burning incense and the soft glow of light from the butter lamps quickly lulls us off to sleep.
The twittering of birds wakes us up early next morning. We enter the main cave the entrance of which has a small bust of Lord Buddha. Further inside on the left there is a small gap just wide enough for a person to squeeze through that leads to a cavern about 10 feet high. It is pitch dark inside and we light a candle the ghostly light of which shows that from this cavern radiate a labyrinth of tunnels with altars at the end of each. The walls are sculptured naturally with formations. The air is rather musty. We crawl our way through these tunnels using our mobiles as torches and offer our obeisance and prayers by lighting lamps and incense. We talk in whispers for we are in the abode of Guru Padmasambva. Besides coins, butter lamps and khadas, people have made an assortment of offerings here: torches, pens, books and I even spot a transistor radio!
We walk back to Labdang covering the distance in about six hours. The journey has been a spiritually uplifting experience and has taken us to one of most hallowed corners of Sikkim.
This route has a good scope for being promoted as a part of the Buddhist circuit in the state. Pilgrims visiting Tashiding monastery during Bumchu in March should consider including Lharinyingphu as a part of their itinerary.

(The writer is Director, Information Technology, Government of Sikkim)