Praying for Ice
Long before people called themselves Muslims or Hindus, long before they fought and died over these or any labels and turned a paradise into what has been called “the most dangerous place in the world,” water dripped and froze inside the Amarnath Cave at the heart of Kashmir.
It began as a trickle, but became a steady stream. Water leaked through as the July sun hit the Himalayan snowpack above, only to turn to ice again as it entered the 135-foot high grotto that maintains a wintry temperature deep into the summer. There the water gathered to form first a frozen stick, then a frozen wall, then something more mysterious, a six-foot-tall mound of ice that seemed almost ready to walk away. As July turned to August and the cave temperature rose, the ice formation melted, as they do. But the next year it formed again; it always did.
It’s impossible to say how long the ice came and went hidden within the Amarnath Cave before people happened along to give it meaning. According to legend, a Muslim shepherd named Malik discovered it in the twelfth century. Kashmir at the time was an interreligious land, even at the individual level. It was not unusual that this follower of Islam had spent a fair amount of time in Hindu temples, and so when he saw the column of ice—slightly taller than it was wide, with its rounded top like the crown of a man’s head—he knew just what it looked like: a lingam, the phallic symbol of the god Shiva, Hindu deity of creation and destruction.
Driving his goats down from the mountains, Malik decided he should inform a local Hindu priest of what he had seen. The priest doubted the shepherd’s description, but still he followed him to Amarnath to have a look himself. When he entered the cave and saw the lingam he was overcome with devotion, and immediately began offering prayers.
In the eight centuries since then, the Amarnath Cave has become one of the world’s major pilgrimage sites.
Although it has long been a source of regional pride and a boon to the local economy, the frozen symbol of Shiva ran into trouble in recent years as temperatures both political and global began to rise. The “ice lingam,” as the Muslim-discovered depiction of the Hindu deity has come to be known, entices hundreds of thousands each June to set off on the yatra, a journey to the shrine that usually takes five days by foot or horse.
Once the pilgrimage officially begins (this year on June 25), the route to Amarnath is open only through August—after snows have melted on the mountain pass that is the last leg of the journey, but before the heat has risen to ice-melting temperature within the sacred cave.
For two months, Kashmir regains the religious diversity that once was its hallmark. The regional capital, Srinagar, until recently prided itself as a city in which the Muslim majority and the Hindu minority—“Pandits” as they are called—lived in peace. As recently as the 1990s, Muslims provided “the entire logistical support for pilgrims’ food, shelter, and transportation,” according to reports by Hinduism Today. Like the shepherd Malik’s familiarity with Hindu symbols, this kind of cooperation and knowledge across the boundaries of religious tradition was not at all unusual in Kashmir’s past.
That changed in 1992, when the entire Hindu population of Srinagar—more than one hundred thousand—fled almost overnight, after fighting between Kashmiri insurgents and Indian army troops gave rise to attacks on Hindu civilians. Today the weeks of the Amarnath yatra is the only time when Pandits visit the land they once called home. The exodus they suffered has made their pilgrimage as much a political statement as a spiritual journey, an annual enactment of the Kashmiri version of the right of return.
The road to Amarnath now is filled with empty buildings. Twenty years after the minority Hindu population fled Kashmir, the Pandit-owned lodges and hospitality huts that dot the Himalayan foothills remain vacant. With a shrinking pilgrimage infrastructure and numbers of pilgrims increasing, an already difficult journey has become dangerous.
The official list of guidelines for pilgrims includes innocuous advice like starting an exercise regime in the weeks before the trek (“It is advisable to start preparatory morning walks of about 4–5 kilometers per day at least a month prior to yatra”) as well as suggested attire (“Carry needful warm clothings and wind shield and proper shoes . . . the climate is unpredictable and changes abruptly from sunny weather to rain and snow . . .” ). More ominously, it also offers advice on how to insure your body will be recovered if you are separated from your group (“Keep a slip with your Name, Address and the name of accompanying guide in your pocket . . .”) In 1996, a sudden snowstorm during the yatra claimed hundreds of lives.
And it is not only the terrain that is treacherous. On August 1, 2000, a group of pilgrims was attacked in retaliation for a recent Indian army siege of a Srinagar mosque. Dozens were killed.
Since then, increased military presence on the yatra has further heightened tensions. The pilgrimage that once was an interfaith collaboration—born of a Muslim shepherd and a Hindu priest, sustained by Hindu pilgrims and Muslim hospitality—has become yet another flashpoint in a potential holy war.
Even with protection from the heated political climate, the ice lingam is at risk. Average summer temperatures are on the rise in Amarnath, adding a level of uncertainty to a natural phenomenon that once seemed as reliable as the tides. Snow melting earlier in the year is good for the pilgrimage, but it is very bad for the object of devotion at journey’s end. As the pilgrimage becomes more and more political, a greater number of Hindus from outside the region are making the trek as a show of support to the Hindus of Kashmir. Although the attacks were surely intended to stop the pilgrimage, the more violence pilgrims endure, the more will come. In the enclosed space of the holy cave, more bodies means more heat. And more heat, of course, means less lingam.
In 2004, the administrative body that oversees the yatra enlisted the help of Defense Research Development Organization (DRDO), the science wing of India’s Department of Defense. The DRDO undertook several initiatives in support of the pilgrimage, foremost among them an effort “to maintain ambient temperature below 8 degree Celsius in the cave shrine to ensure that the holy lingam does not melt due to soaring temperatures.”
Although the work of government engineers relied on the latest high-tech gadgetry, they basically installed air conditioning.
The journey to Amarnath ends at a sacred space, but these days a pilgrimage requires a few pragmatic spaces as well. Without the aid of cooling mechanisms in the viewing area, pilgrims arriving at the holy cave in recent years have seen a most peculiar sight: the ice lingam is at times not made of ice at all—at least, not the kind of ice the pilgrims expect to see. In the event the object of the pilgrims’ devotion melts to nothing before the high point of the pilgrimage, shrine officials call for the hasty formation of a stand-in, a lingam made of snow hauled into the cave from a nearby hillside.
At such times, officials downplay the possibility that the lingam would not return. Given its long history, they explain, it was certainly possible that the lingam had previously gone through periods of shifting size and frequency of occurrence.
“The lingam has melted owing to the rise in temperatures. It is a normal phenomenon,” the Shree Amarnathji Shrine Board’s Arun Kumar said. “Weather affects its shape and size.”
From the pilgrims’ perspective, it does not make much difference. The journey is the point, after all. They carry out their usual devotions before the substitute lingam, and the shrine soon becomes filled with gifts of jewlerly, coins, and a rainbow’s worth of garlanded flowers—perhaps an even more unlikely sight deep with a Himalayan cave than ice in the shape of the gods. In the end, what they bring with them may be as holy as what they find.
Legend has it that the first lingam was formed one day when the goddess Parvati, former consort of Shiva, so missed her lover that she fell to her knees and clawed the ground with her hands. She cried until she had no more tears, and then came up with a handful of earth shaped by her closed palm. Her tears had turned the soil to clay and, when she placed the clump of dirt before her, she saw that she had made a figure three times as tall as it was wide, rounded by the curve of her thumb. It was only dirt, she realized, but it was also a symbol of all she wanted in life. It was a perfect depiction of her absent lover—never present but always on her mind—because it meant everything and nothing at once.
That may be the key to understanding the lengths to which the faithful will go to stand on, and fight for, holy ground like the ice cave in Amarnath. Even as religious symbols rise and fall—as ephemeral as an ice cube or a fistful of dust—the land remains. Holy ground reminds us of all we hope for, and all that might be lost.
Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.