To him the heavens had opened. He had touched the feet of Shiva. He had to hold himself tight, he said afterwards, lest he should swoon away ... 1 have enjoyed it so much!' he said half an hour afterwards. 1 never enjoyed any religious place so much!' He always said, that the grace of Amarnath had been granted to him there, not to die rill he himself should give consent. And to me he said, 'you do not understand. But you have made the pilgrimage and it will go on working. Causes must bring their effects. You will understand better afterwards. The effects will come."
Do you know who was about to swoon away inside the cave-temple of Amamath? It was Swami Vivekananda. The above record is left by Sister Nivedita.
Vivekananda felt the living presence of Lord Shiva in Amarnath and he was also granted a boon. Others might not have had as great a spiritual experience as Vivekananda, but such is the lure of Amarnath that year after year, thousands of people pay homage there, despite the difficulties they encounter on the way.
Amarnath is situated in Kashmir, in the hinterland of rocks and snow, at a height of about 4000 metres. For a greater part of the year, the region remains shrouded in snow and mystery. From September to June, nature denies all access to human beings. The mouth of the cave opens only in August, which happens to be the rainy season in the region. But pilgrims brave the rain and trek uphill from Pahalgam. The journey takes them about a week.
"Umbrellas are held up not so much to shelter their owners as to prevent the fires being extinguished and the food being spoilt. Men in saffron-coloured robes, drenched to the skin, move about or huddle together in groups," describes a pilgrim.
Along the route taken by the pilgrims, flows the river Dudh Ganga, like a
never-ending line of white birds flying and flapping their wings. Its water is almost milk white. As one reaches Panjtarini, one is charmed by the sight of five rivers flowing side by side. Mount Kailas and Mount Vairo stand like sentinels over the serene silence of the region, their towering presence adding to its majesty.
Finally, one stands inside the eight-metre-high cave temple, deeply moved by the peace that prevails there. Many feel the presence of a divinity in the atmosphere.
It is not a man-made shrine. It is a cave, a dwelling on earth for the Divine, made by Nature. No man-made idol is to be seen either. Icicles slowly grow to form the symbol of Shiva. The symbol increases in size with the waxing of the moon and decreases with the waning. Pilgrims consider this phenomenon a miracle.
It is said that a shepherded boy once entered this desolate area in search of his lost lamb and rediscovered the cave that lay forgotten for a long time. He carried the news to the king of Kashmir, who hurried to have a look at the place himself, and soon it became known to the people.
It must have been a long, long time ago. We know from the Rajataragini which is a record of events in Sanskrit verse written in the 12th century, that pilgrims went to Amamath long before the book was written.
But why is Amamath a sacred place? 'Amarnath' literally means 'Lord of Immortality'. Legend says that once Parvati asked Shiva, "You are the God of gods. Can you not find a garland made of anything better then skulls? " "These skulls are very precious to me, since they happen to be yours! You have taken birth and have been my wife many times. Every time you die, your skull is collected and added to this garland," answered Shiva.
Parvati was amazed. "Why do I die while you remain immortal ?" she asked.
"That is because I know the mysteries that make one immortal," replied Shiva.
"You must disclose those mysteries to me," said Parvati, and she insisted on knowing them.
Shiva looked for a place where no living creature could be found, for he did not want his narration to be heard by anyone. He finally selected a cave and sat inside it with Parvati by his side. He asked his spirit-servants to drive away all the living creatures from that area. The spirits carried out the order faithfully and with as much alacrity as they could.
Shiva then started narrating the mysteries of immortality to Parvati. From time to time Parvati said, "Hm." That was the indication that she listened to him with great attention. Shiva went on for many hours. When he finished, he realized that Parvati had fallen asleep while he had been talking. Who then could have kept repeating "Hm"?
Shiva suddenly saw a tiny shuka, a parrot, come out from under the rock on which he sat and fly away in the twinkle of an eye. Shiva's able servants had driven away all creatures from the entire area, but it had not occurred to them to look under the seat of their master. Inside lay an egg. The chick had come out of its shell while Shiva spoke. It listened to the narration and responded when Parvati fell asleep.
Now, as the bird flew away, Shiva pursued it. Far away was the hut of Vyasa, the great sage. In the courtyard of the hut, his wife was sitting and combing her hair. As she pulled the comb through her hair, her mouth was open for a moment. The little parrot flew into her mouth. Shiva soon reached there, but could do nothing.
In the womb of Vyasa's wife, the bird was transformed into a human child. He remained in the womb for 12 years. Finally he came out and was acknowledged as a great seer. He was called Shukadeva.
The cave in which Shiva revealed the secret of immortality is the cave of Amarnath, one of the holiest places.