Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Haramukuta Amarnath Kheerbhawani in kashmir

Historically the holiest of the Kashmirian Tirthas has been the Haramukuta, the “Siva’s Diadem”. It is the present day massif of Haramukh peaks and the lakes of Gangabal and Nund-Kol at the foot of these mountains. The main peak in the massif resembles mount Kailash above Lake Mansarovar in Tibet which is the source of River Indus (Sindhu). Kashmiris considered the Gangabal Lake as the true source of Kashmir’s Ganga or Sindh River and it was known in ancient times as “Uttaraganga”. Nilmata Purana describes the Lake as “Uttaramanasa”. It was the final goal of the great “Haramukuta Pilgrimage” which used to take place annually in the month of Bhadrapada and was attended by thousands of pilgrims. The ashes of the persons who had died during the year were immersed in the sacred waters. A short distance below is the Lake Nund-Kol fed by a hanging glacier chunks of which keep on breaking and falling into the Lake with a great roar from time to time. One gets the impression of a thunder storm on a cloudless sky. The old name of the Lake was “Kalodaka” or “Nandisaras” which is derived from a legend making the Lake as the joint habitation of both Kala i.e., Siva and his faithful attendant Nandin. From the later the whole collection of these sacred sites gets the name of “Nandiksetra” by which name the author of Rajtarangni, Kalhana mentions these throughout his narrative. These sites were so sacred in ancient Kashmir that every King before ascending the throne would go there to take a dip for washing away all his sins. In case of any wrong doing, the best way to atone was to take a dip in the icy waters of Gangabal. Almost the entire narrative of Kalhana’s Raj Tarangni emphasises the importance of this pilgrimage. Nara-Nag was the first halt where even now the ruins of a massive temple complex exist. The pilgrimage would proceed from here to Gangabal along a steep mountain spur of Bhuteshvara, the present Bhut-Sher. There were many temples along this route which have now disappeared under thick vegetation. The pilgrimage was still popular till the visit of Sir Aurel Stein, the translator of Rajtarangni who came here for the first time in 1888. There is ample and conclusive historical evidence, on the other hand, to prove that the holy cave and the ice lingam were known to the people since very ancient times and have been continuously and regularly visited by pilgrims not only from Kashmir but also from different parts of India. ( Buddha Amarnath )

“While the earliest reference to Amarnath can be seen in the Nilamata Purana (v.1324), a 6th century Sanskrit text which depicts the religious and cultural life of early Kashmiris and gives Kashmir’s own creation myth, the pilgrimage to the holy cave has been described with full topographical details in the Bhringish Samhita and the Amarnatha Mahatmya, both ancient texts said to have been composed even earlier.”

References to Amarnath, known have also been made in historical chronicles like the Rajatarangini and its sequels and several Western travellers’ accounts also leaving no doubt about the fact that the holy cave has been known to people for centuries. The original name of the tirtha, as given in the ancient texts, is of course Amareshwara, Amarnath being a name given later to it. (  Harmukh Harmukutaganga Gangabal )

Giving the legend of the Naga Sushruvas, who in his fury burnt to ashes the kingdom of King Nara when he tried to abduct his daughter already married to a Brahmin youth, and after the carnage took his abode in the lake now known as Sheshnag (Kashmiri Sushramnag), Kalahana writes:

“The lake of dazzling whiteness [resembling] a sea of milk (Sheshnag), which he created [for himself as residence] on a far off mountain, is to the present day seen by the people on the pilgrimage to Amareshwara.”(Rajatarangini, Book I v. 267.Translation: M. A. Stein).

This makes it very clear that pilgrims continued to visit the holy Amarnath cave in the 12th century, for Kalhana wrote his chronicle in the years1148-49.

At another place in the Rajatarangini (Book II v. 138), Kalhana says that King Samdhimat Aryaraja (34 BCE-17CE) used to spend “the most delightful Kashmir summer” in worshiping a linga formed of snow “in the regions above the forests”. This too appears to be a reference to the ice linga at Amarnath. There is yet another reference to Amareshwara or Amarnath in the Rajatarangini (Book VII v.183). According to Kalhana, Queen Suryamati, the wife of King Ananta (1028-1063), “granted under her husband’s name agraharas at Amareshwara, and arranged for the consecration of trishulas, banalingas and other [sacred emblems]“.           ( Kheer Bhawani Temple )

In his Chronicle of Kashmir, a sequel to Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, Jonaraja relates that that Sultan Zainu’l-abidin (1420-1470) paid a visit to the sacred tirtha of Amarnath while constructing a canal on the left bank of the river Lidder (vv.1232-1234). The canal is now known as Shah Kol.

In the Fourth Chronicle named Rajavalipataka, which was begun by Prjayabhatta and completed by Shuka, there is a clear and detailed reference to the pilgrimage to the sacred site (v.841,vv. 847-849). According to it, in a reply to Akbar’s query about Kashmir Yusuf Khan, the Mughal governor of Kashmir at that time, described among other things the Amarnath Yatra in full detail. His description shows that the not only was the pilgrimage in vogue in Akbar’s time – Akbar annexed Kashmir in 1586 – but the phenomenon of waxing and waning of the ice linga was also well known.

Amareshwar (Amarnath) was a famous pilgrimage place in the time of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan also. In his eulogy of Shah Jahan’s father-in-law Asif Khan, titled “Asaf Vilas”, the famous Sanskrit scholar and aesthete Panditraj Jagannath makes clear mention of Amareshwara (Amarnath) while describing the Mughal garden Nishat laid out by Asif Khan. The King of gods Indra himself, he says, comes here to pay obeisance to Lord Shiva”.

As we well know Francois Bernier, a French physician accompanied Emperor Aurangzeb during his visit to Kashmir in 1663. In his book “Travels in Mughal Empire” he writes while giving an account the places he visited in Kashmir that he was “pursuing journey to a grotto full of wonderful congelations, two days journey from Sangsafed” when he “received intelligence that my Nawab felt very impatient and uneasy on account of my long absence”. The “grotto” he refers to is obviously the Amarnath cave as the editor of the second edition of the English translation of the book, Vincient A. Smith makes clear in his introduction. He writes: “The grotto full of wonderful congelations is the Amarnath cave, where blocks of ice, stalagmites formed by dripping water from the roof are worshipped by many Hindus who resort here as images of Shiva…..”

Another traveler, Vigne, in his book “Travels in Kashmir, Ladakh and Iskardu” writes about the pilgrimage to the sacred spot in detail, clearly mentioning that “the ceremony at the cave of Amarnath takes place on the 15th of the Hindoo month of Sawan” and that “not only Hindoos of every rank and caste can be seen collecting together and traveling up the valley of Liddar towards the celebrated cave……” Vigne visited Kashmir after his return from Ladakh in 1840-41 and published his book in 1842. His book makes it very clear that the Amarnath Yatra drew pilgrims from the whole of India in his time and was undertaken with great enthusiasm.        ( Martand Teerath Anantnag )

Again, the great Sikh Guru Arjan Dev is said to have granted land in Amritsar for the ceremonial departure of Chari, the holy mace of Lord Shiva which marks the beginning of the Yatra to the Holy Cave. In 1819, the year in which the Afghan rule came to an end in Kashmir, Pandit Hardas Tiku “founded the Chhawni Anmarnath at Ram Bagh in Srinagar where the Sadhus from the plains assembled and where he gave them free rations for the journey, both ways from his own private resources”, as the noted Kashmiri naturalist Pandit Samsar Chand Kaul has pointed out in his booklet titled “The Mysterious cave of Amarnath”.

The Tiratha of Kheerbhawani is not very frequently mentioned in Rajtarangni which is the earliest book of recorded history not only in Kashmir but the entire sub-continent. It occurs in the fourth book at verse 638 during the reign of Jayapida as “the land of Tulamulya where hundred Brahmans less one had sought death in the water of that stream”. However, during the reign of King Jayapida the organisation of the Purohitas was a very well to do and an influential body and the Tiratha had become very important pilgrimage. The spring of Kheerbhawani located in present day Tulmul is quite large and is supposed to be very sacred to Maharajni, a form of Durga and has always been held in veneration by the Brahman population of Srinagar. The spring is said to exhibit from time to time miraculous changes in the colour of its water, which are ascribed to different manifestations of the goddess. Turning of the colour into shades of black is supposed to signal approaching bad times. Some people say that before the exodus of the Pandits from Kashmir the colour had turned completely black in 1990! The legend has it that there were 360 springs surrounding the main spring but all of these seem to have disappeared as the land has become marshy all around. In the last half century the pilgrimage had become the most important for Kashmiri Brahmans who used to come here from all over the State and even from outside. Kheerbhawani is considered to be the Presiding Deity of most of the Kashmiri Brahmans. The annual festival held here on Zetha Ashtami (usually in May) has been declared a public holiday for the Kashmir province by the State Government. This year the Mela is on June 4. A comprehensive account of this holy shrine written by Samsar Chand Koul has been carried by Vitasta Annual Number and is accessible at: upheaval of 1990 which resulted in unprecedented exodus of the whole community of Kashmiri Brahmans made the pilgrimage go into total oblivion. There was no body left to worship at the temple except the paramilitary forces guarding it. However, for last few years the pilgrimage has picked up again and a large number of both Kashmiri Brahmans as well as others visit the shrine. Mufti Sayed had proposed to bring back Kashmiri Pandits by settling them in special tenements constructed around the temples at Kheerbhawani and Mattan (enroute Amarnath Yatra). Apart from the fact that the idea itself is preposterous as settling Kashmiri Pandits in just two concentrations guarded by paramilitary forces would not bring back the amity which existed between the two communities prior to the Exodus, when they were inter-mingled throughout the valley, the project has converted these holy shrines into built up localities thereby destroying their traditional and historical ambience. A recent visit to the shrine revealed that the ancient description of the famous large spring surrounded by 360 smaller springs in a marshy land thick with vegetation is completely gone. It looks like any other temple in the middle of a city. The area around the temple has been completely filled up and strengthened by piling. A large number of two storey brick houses have been built all around. These are meant for the returning “migrants” of whose return so far there is no surety. The legend about the discovery of the spring when a pious Brahman Krishna Pandit had a vision in which he was asked to engage a boat up to Shadipur where from a snake floating over the marshes would guide him to exact location of the spring remains in historical records only. Everything is now built up. The least the Government can do now is to cover entire area with fast growing vegetation like weeping willows so that some ambience of a green and natural environment of the Goddess is restored. Immediate concern for the Pligrims is the need to provide sufficient number of toilet blocks. There is also a dearth of blankets at the time of the annual festival.  Finally, one thing which looks obnoxious and monstrous is a steel girder bridge built over the stream, most probably for transportation of building materials. It is expected that this would be removed after the construction is over and the traditional approach is maintained and if possible suitably improved. In Kashmir we are experts in rebuilding historical monuments and not preserving these. Incidentally the colour of the spring at present is whitish green which denotes peace and prosperity!

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