Reminiscing my ascent to Siva’s cave abode

By Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani,
Pondicherry, South India

As i tearfully read about the 200 devotees who died tragically in August on their Amarnath pilgrimage [see page 40], I remembered the early morning of August 15, 1969. Sixteen of us, including a 70-year-old American woman, Rukmani Devi, of Portland, Oregon, had set off on our ponies and pack horses with our Muslim guides. “That old lady will die and it will be a lot of trouble,” our grizzled chief guide Aneez muttered. He himself was 80, but a veteran of hundreds of trips to Kashmir’s holy cave, which he too held in reverence. His entire family made their living from these pilgrimages. “I’m happy to leave my body here. I already wrote my children,” Rukmani retorted gaily, “Siva, here I come.”

Swami Gitananda Ji, my guru-husband and the head of our troupe, wrapped a bright orange turban and chanted “Aum Namah Sivaya” so loudly the mountains seemed to tremble. We had spent the night in Pahalgam, a sleepy little village and the base camp. Our ponies were frisky and spirits were high in the cool morning air. Many other pilgrims were also trudging along the road. We knew we had reached heaven when we rounded a bend near 4pm, and there stood a small shack with a large sign—“TEE STAULL.” We greedily drank several cups—paying 50 times the going rate. Light was receding. It catches one by surprise in mountain country how fast the Sun leaves the Earth and how little can be done without the light. We pitched our camp in Sheshnag in an old log cabin. It was freezing cold in spite of ample sweaters, many blankets, gloves and socks.

Morning came, warm and soft, and we washed in a shockingly brisk clear stream. Wide awake—minds crystal clear, we prepared for the ascent. Smiling pilgrims thronged everywhere—all in the same family on the way to pay our respects to the same Father Siva. We walked barefoot over the Kolahoi Glacier, reaching the 12,729-foot-high Amarnath cave. Siva was here before us—within us, without us, in the high peaks of consciousness, reached after strenuous effort and hardship. The majestic ice Lingam vibrated with chants of eager devotees. Could this exaltation ever be matched again in one lifetime? “Hara Hara Mahadeo!” How many times did we chant this rousing spiritual song? How many bodies, minds and emotions vibrated in resonance? Even the lofty and austere mountains seemed full of the holy sounds. 

“We must go,” Aneez said. “The light is leaving and we must follow it. Cold comes soon and paths are narrow.” But he too was suffused with awe and wonder in the presence of this majesty. The road down was much easier; it always is.