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 ….