I first tried to visit Amarnath in 2010 but could not as the Police stopped us by entering in the Kashmir valley area by saying that the weather was not good and it was not possible to drive on high mountains. Later we learnt that weather was not the issue but the problem was locals of Anantnag and Kashmir valley area attacking the pilgrims. We were literally shocked and sad to hear that we were not allowed to travel in our country and people of our own country hate us. After that incident I had promised myself that I won’t go to Kashmir ever until the India-Pakistan and Kashmir issue is solved. But the only next year I made a road trip to Leh via Kashmir valley, talked with people and learnt a lot.
That experienced changed my view and motivated me to plan another trip so that I could experience and learn more about the people living in that area, their issues and problems. My friends were planning a trip to Amarnath in June this year and I immediately subscribed to it with so much excitement and hope to learn and experience more Kashmir. The Supreme Court of India was very strict this year with number of visitors and their health condition. The Supreme court made it mandatory for every pilgrim to go through necessary health checkup and proper registration because more than 250 people had died during the Yatra in 2012. Because of ecological concerns of the Amarnath glacier, the court also ordered to limit the number of visitors at 7500 per day.
We applied for our registration and health checkup in Varanasi. We had to go through the health checkup at first at our government district hospital. The procedure was insane as it involved a lot of bureaucracy and that same crazy behavior of government officers. The health checkup included three tests : A general blood test, orthopedic test and a very mysterious naked body checkup:) I call it mysterious because the doctor did not tell me why he wanted to see me naked. hahaha. Anyways, the blood test was fine but the orthopedist was so busy on phone that he did not perform proper checkup instead just stamped the paper saying that everything was all right.
That naked body test was so funny. There were all aged people in the line everyone was either laughing or kind of upset coming out of the doctor’s room. I also had the same experience when I came out of the room. The doctor asked me to stand about ten meters away from him, take of my pants and then cough. When I asked him what was this test for, he just looked at me with anger and asked me to do my business. Most probably he wanted to check hernia, I am not sure. Anyways, after getting the health certificate we had to go to Punjab National Bank because this bank was authorized by Amarnath Shrine Board to make the registration. There was a fee of Rs. 30 to get the registration but it was all right.
We wanted to go on Yatra through Pahalgam checkpoint but it was already full for sever
al days so we got permission from Baltal checkpoint. Most of the people prefer to start the yatra from Pahalgam as the route to Amarnath cave is very steep from Baltal side. Anyways, we got our so called health certificate and registration paper without going through proper health checkup. We started our trip from Varanasi by taking a train to Jammu. It was a 28 hours train ride hence we decided to stay over night in Jammu and take a rest. We started our journey again the next morning and our plan was to reach Baltal base camp by the same evening.
It was kind of surprising to see the number of Police and Army here and there but its quite normal in Jammu and Kashmir. Anyways, another shocking thing was police checking on the way to Baltal, We were stopped several times on the way, even in Srinagar where they wanted to see our registration certificate, check our bags etc. It was still 3 hours for sun to set and we were hardly 2 hours away from base camp and suddenly our vehicle was stopped and asked to park in an Army base camp. Once we entered in the base camp, we saw minimum of 200 other vehicles of such people like us who wanted to go on Amarnath yatra. We asked others about why they were stopping the yatris but nobody knew the answer.
Even Army people did not want to tell anything. They had arranged free water, tea and snacks but we needed an answer. Finally we asked an Army guy who looked from South India and he said that people from Anantnag area were attacking the vehicles of pilgrims therefore for security reasons the vehicles were stopped. He also mentioned that the traffic will be allowed again once the security is arranged on the street. It was so sad to hear such thing but what to do. We were waiting at that Army camp for two hours and finally heard that now we could start again. The fleet was guarded by Indian Army and they were with us until we crossed the sensitive area.
But it took a lot of time and we were stopped again around 70 KMs from the base camp and we had to spend a night at another Indian Army camp. There was a huge langar setup by someone from Lucknow. I had heard a lot about langars enroute to the cave but it was the first time when I saw one and I was really impressed. They had almost all of the food I can buy in my city, they were offering free blankets, hot water and several other services and everything was free of cost. Anyways, I did not eat there as the line was also huge. We hired a tent for Rs. 700 and spent the night there. The tent was small but there was nothing better than it. There were only 4-5 restrooms for maybe 5000 people so we did not take a risk and started our journey early in the morning time the next day.
We arrived at Baltal around 8 am and were planning to start trekking immediately but could not as our registration was valid for 3rd of July and we were in Baltal on the 1st. I was the only person in my whole ground who had not been to Amarnath before and everyone was telling me that the date doesn’t matter, what matters is the registration certificate. Hence we were quite sure that we would get to go on the 1st even our registration was valid for the 3rd. But because of strict orders of the Supreme court all of the rules were properly followed, rarely happens in my world:) We tried our best by talking with Police but it seemed impossible for us to start trekking that day. So we started looking for a Langar to stay and luckily found one run by someone from my own city.
When they heard that we were from Varanasi they immediately offered us free sleeping arrangement with free food, hot water, clean and private washrooms… what else do you need, it was just awesome. We spent that day just wandering around, looking at different langars, talking with people, testing different food etc. Since our registration was valid for the 3rd and it was the 1st, we did not know what we were going to do the next day. Everything was so restricted that it was not even allowed to go further away from the base camp. We met with an Army guy the same evening who suggested us to reach at the entry gate at 4 am the next day. He said that if we can reach that early then there is a possibility that we will allowed for yatra even a day early.
We had two seriously fat guys in our group and they were having really hard time in walking. Walking on high altitude mountains was a serious problem for them. Everyone suggested them to take helicopter service which would reduce the journey by 6 KMs. I had also never sat on a helicopter so I also decided to go with them. The next morning all of my friends, excluding my two fat friends and me, left the camp 3.30 am and luckily they were allowed to start the yatra. We arrived at the helicopter station around 7 am bought our tickets but the process so crazy that it took us 7 hours to get our boarding pass. I am not joking, it literally took us 7 hours. The guys working at the ticket counter did not have a computer, they were managing all the data on register.
I could easily see that they were not trained at all and did not know what they were doing. The helicopters were standing and waiting for passengers and they could not sort out who to send in which helicopter. It was seriously frustrating and hilarious. Finally we boarded on the helicopter at 1.30 PM. It was a very short journey of 7-8 minutes but good enough to get a sense about this flying machine, I liked it. The helicopter left us at Panchtarni which was 6 Kms passing the cave on the other side (en route to Pahalgam). The walk to the cave was seriously steep and fat friends could not walk hence they got on a pony. There were more ponies than human which was a serious pane. The route was very steep and narrow and then thousands of ponies running continuously was just too much.
The dust and all the shit of ponies was kind of killing the experience but the nature was absolutely fantastic. Beautiful clean rivers, water falls, mountains, snow, green valleys, lakes…it was amazing experience to hike. I had to walk on snow at several place en route to the cave. Finally I reached at the cave but the line was huge. I had to spend around 3 hours in line and then I finally got inside the cave. Everyone in the line was talking about the holy pigeons. But different people had different stories. Some of them were saying that the real holy pigeon is white, another one was saying that the real one is always with its pair… Anyways, I got to see several, minimum of 10.
I was seriously excited about seeing the Shivalingam but at first I could not really understand where the lingam was because there was snow everywhere in the cave. Other people in the line showed me a 4 feet tall piece of snow and referred it as the lingam. They said that other pieces of snow represent Ganesha and Parvati. I paid my respect and came out of the cave. It rained continuously when I was line and since I was not wearing my shoes and had not eaten anything since that morning, I felt affected by hypothermia. I was dizzy and felt seriously confused. I had never experience such physical condition before but I knew what it was.
I immediately tried to find a langar where they were offering hot Kheer. It was just like heaven to have found some food. I felt a lot better after having it. I also found my friends who had left early morning on foot. We decided to leave cave area and try to walk back as much as possible. We had decided to reach Seshnag by the night it did not work. The Indian army had closed the exit point at Panchtarni by 7 PM and it was not possible to go further. We rented a tent and spent night there. The next day we started walking back early in the morning time and reached Seshnag by 12. I know that we could have made it much more faster but I always to see the lake at Seshnag and spend some time there so we walked slowly, enjoyed the nature, talked with people…
We were only three friends who wanted to stay over night in Seshnag and rest proceeded to Pahalgam the same day and arrived there by the evening. One of my friends brother in law, Mr. Amarpal Sharma who is a member of State Assembly in UP from Sahibabad, runs his own langar at Seshnag. We stayed at his langar overnight and it was a very big relief. They provided us private tent, comfortable bed and private clean washroom. We relaxed overnight there and the next day proceeded for Pahalgam. I had always wanted to visit Seshnag lake but I noticed that nobody was going down to the lake. Everyone just walked the lake on mountain and literally there was no one other than a few pony owners. We went down to the lake and it was amazing. The lake was crystal clear with blue water.
But my friend said that he had seen change in the color of the lake because all of the waste created by hundreds of tents at Seshnag is drained into the river. This was very sad to hear. I asked one of the pony owners if they drink water out of the pond and he said they used to but not anymore because of pollution in it. He also seemed very concerned about the pond dying. I don’t know when our governments will become serious about the dying nature, seems like they have learnt nothing by the Ganges. Anyways, we left the lake and started walking towards Pahalgam. We arrived there after three hours and then took a taxi back to Jammu. We were back in Jammu the same night around 3 AM. The yatra finished but it raised several questions to me :
1) Amarnath shrine board and Jammu Kashmir government’s attitude towards the yatra and pilgram.
2) Jammu and Kashmir state police behavior
3) Locals behavior and their feeling about yatris visiting their land
4) Threat to the environment in the name of religion and pilgrimage
5) Social harmony
Going back to point number one- Amarnath shrine board and Jammu Kashmir government’s attitude towards the yatra and pilgram. This was a very strange thing I noticed that the Amarnath shrine board and Jammu Kashmir government did not seem helpful at all. All the people run langars and pilgrims were complaining about the Shrine Board and Jammu and kashmir government. The people who run langars were saying that it was very easy for them to run their langar until last year when Indian Army was given responsibility to organize the yatra. But this year its state police and Shrine board organizing the yatra and they are trying to make it as complicated as possible for langars to survive.
They said that everyday and several times some officers from either the Shrine board or the government come, try to inspect their services and always say that something is not correct. It was really funny to hear that they had made it prohibited for langars to serve anything cooked in Desi Ghee and sweets like Gulab jamun. Their argument was that Desi ghee is very heavy and people can get heart attack by eating anything which is made of desi ghee. They were just trying somehow to disturb the langar runners. By law they had prohibited carrying any plastic and were literally each and every person’s pocket and bags to see if anyone was carrying anything that had plastic. I was really happy to see such action to protect environment but after a while I realized that this rule was only for pilgrims and not for the locals at all. Locals were openly selling plastic packaged food and other items and nobody was there to stop them.
Point number 2- Jammu Kashmir Police was so rude and cruel to the pilgrims that I never felt safe around them. They stopped us at several places on the way to the base camp to check our identity, luggage and our pockets in such a way that we were terrorists. The local drivers also informed us to be more careful when being checked by such officers because sometimes they already have some illegal items with themselves which they put in the luggage of passengers while checking their bags. Just looking at them was really horrifying experience. Once our vehicle was stopped on the way to the base camp and we were asked to just wait at a parking place where there were already more than a couple of hundreds of vehicle were waiting.
We had no idea why we all these vehicles were stopped so we tried to contact some police officers there but again they were so rude that it seemed like they wanted to kill us. Finally I saw an Army personal and contacted but his behavior was completely different, he was so polite and answered all of our questions and finally we learnt that we were stopped because the locals were attacking the vehicles of the pilgrims hence extra security was needed. Finally all of the vehicles were released in security of Indian army that helped us crossing the area where tension was. I also spoke with several Indian army guys regarding their view on Jammu and Kashmir police behavior and even Army guys said that if Indian army was not present in the valley then forget about locals even the police would kill the pilgrims. It was very very unhappy feeling to see state government behavior.
Point number 3- In my view most of the locals do not like pilgrims at all. They literally called us Indian and made fun of us wherever and whenever it was possible. I could easily see hate and anger on their face for me. The locals attacking the pilgrims is not a new situation at all in the valley area and I had read about it so many times but when I went through it personally then I realized how horrible the situation was. I once talked with a guy from Punjab who runs a restaurant during the tourist season and he told me half of the people of valley area support outsiders visiting their land half area completely against it. And even the half who support it are the ones who somehow make money out of tourism. If there was no money for them they won’t support it either.
One of the stops during the journey was Sheshnag which is named after a beautiful Himalayan lake Sheshnag Lake. Most of the people just stop here to take rest and then continue walking, nobody really goes close to the lake but I did. The lake was beautiful but again I experienced something which turned all of the joy to a sad experience. I went to visit the lake with my two friends Sonu and Kuvar. When we arrived, there were no other tourists but we saw a few locals (lets say 8 or 10 young boys) who were just hanging out having fun. As soon as they saw us, their behavior changed immediately. They started throwing stones towards us, were using abusive words, a few of them got naked so that we go fight with them. All of those guys were the once who make their living by renting their ponnys to the pilgrims, very sad and scary feeling. And it was not only at Sheshnag, we noticed similar or worse behavior everywhere in the valley area.
Point number 4- Because of no regulations environment is seriously harmed by the pilgrims. I saw garbage and plastic everywhere. The snow had turned black in the entire route used by the pilgrims. All of the camps discharge their entire waste, including raw sewage, directly to the nearest river or the pond. Sheshnag had minimum of 100-200 camps offering lodging and food to the pilgrims. I am sure that minimum of 4-5000 people were sleeping everyday in Sheshnag and entire waste was being directly discharged into the Sheshnag lake. I also spoke with a few locals of that area and they said until 10-15 years ago when the yatra was not so popular and the number pilgrims was also not much the primary source of their drinking water was the water coming from Sheshnag lake but its impossible for them to use that water anymore because of all the raw sewage and other waste in it which comes directly from the camps of the pilgrims.
And this situation was not only at the Sheshnag area but it was at all of the spots wherever camps are situated for the pilgrims. There was no waste management at all and imagine the waste created by hundred of thousands of people every year who do the yatra. There is no proper waste management anywhere in India and we are used to it but seeing such beautiful and sacred place going in the same condition like any other Indian cities was one of the most disappointing feeling for me. I had a chat regarding this issue with one of the camp owners and he said that their feeling is also the same like us and they are more than willing to provide whatever is required to make the situation better and have contacted the concerned departments and government but there is no help at all. I don’t know how long those glaciers will be able to survive and we need to understand that if those glaciers area not there there then even the Amarnath won’t be able to survive there at all because he is also made of snow.
Point number 4- It is my personal opinion that the best human feeling is the harmony with the people around us and worse situation is when there is attraction or harmony in people’s relationship. It was not my first visit to the valley area, definitely first time to Amarnath but I had been to Kashmir several times before, and I have realized one thing for sure that the people of Kashmir do not like the people who come from out of valley area. There are several groups with different demands. Some of them want to go with Pakistan, some of them want to have a free nation, some of them don’t like the pilgrims because they are non-Muslims and some of them want to convert everyone to Islam.
And this movement is so strong that they have no space for outsiders. They just hate anyone visiting their land. As an outsider, for themselves, I could not enjoy as much as I could have if they were welcoming to us. The biggest reason behind my travel is to talk with the locals and it was impossible to interact with locals in the valley area. In fact I was surrendered but only because they wanted to sell me something or were begging or cigarettes or candies. The poverty in the valley is so extreme that you might encounter with groups of people begging of chewing gum if you are chewing one or they will ask you get food from the pilgrims camps for them. Other than this they have no interest at all which was very sad feeling for me. If they can just maintain social harmony then their entire situation could change in one tourist season.
Kashmir is like a heaven for Indians and everyone wants to go there but just because such experience I had, not many people return back or recommend others to visit. Tourism can bring huge amount of money to the valley which could solve most of the biggest problems they are facing but just because of the bad information spread by the locals militants and other groups they have no respect at all for tourists. It is very unfortunate situation and someday Kashmir has to come over it otherwise they will be in the same condition for coming unlimited years as they are now- poor, violence, illiterate and overall seriously crazy. The great poet Amir Khusro wrote a poetry in Persian to describe the beauty of Kashmir in this way- “Agar firdaus bar ru-ye zamin ast, Hamin ast o hamin ast o hamin ast ” meaning “If there is a paradise on earth,It is this, it is this, it is this.”
Anyways, the nature was beautiful and the experience was once in a life time experience. I hope that someday there will be peach and prosperity in Kashmir as well and the attitude of people will also be welcoming and they would also be proud of their Indian identity just like any other Indian citizen.