Amarnath Temple is a Hindu shrine located in the Pahalgam tehsil of the Anantnag district of Jammu and Kashmir, India. It is a cave situated at an altitude of 3,888 m (12,756 ft), about 168 km from Anantnag city, the district headquarters, 141 km (88 mi) from Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, reached through either Sonamarg or Pahalgam. It is an important shrine in Hinduism.

The cave, located in Sind Valley, is surrounded by glaciers, snowy mountains and is covered with snow most of the year, except for a short period in the summer, when it is open to pilgrims. In 1989, pilgrims numbered between 12,000 and 30,000. In 2011, the numbers reached a peak, crossing 6.3 lakh (630,000) pilgrims. In 2018 pilgrims numbered 2.85 lakh (285,000). The annual pilgrimage varies between 20 and 60 days.

The Amarnath cave, abode of the Mahamaya Shakti Pitha, is one of the 51 Shakti Pithas, the temples of the Indian subcontinent that commemorate the location of the fallen body parts of the Hindu deity Sati.

Shiva Linga

Ice lingam of Lord Shiva at the Amarnath Cave Temple

The Shiva Lingam at the shrine is a Swayambhu lingam. The lingam is a natural stalagmite formation inside a 40 m (130 ft) tall cave at an elevation of 3,888 m (12,756 ft) on the Amarnath Mountain, which has a peak of 5,186 metres (17,014 ft). The stalagmite is formed due to the freezing of water drops that fall from the roof of the cave onto the floor, resulting in an upward growth of an ice formation. Here, the stalagmites considered as the lingam, a physical manifestation of Shiva, form a solid-dome-shape. Two smaller stalagmites are thought to represent Parvati and Ganesha.

According to the ancient Hindu texts of the Mahabharata and Puranas a lingam represents Shiva. The lingam waxes during May to August, as snow melts in the Himalayas above the cave, and water seeps into the rocks of the cave; thereafter, the lingam gradually wanes. Religious beliefs hold that the lingam grows and shrinks with the phases of the moon, reaching its height during the summer festival. Hindus believe this is the place where Shiva explained the secret of life and eternity to his divine consort, Parvati.

Lidder Valley, where the cave is located, has a number of glaciers. In 2009, glaciologist Sh. M. N. Koul, the former head of the geography department at the University of Jammu, has said that while more scientific studies are needed, contributors to change in lingam size could include changes in the water’s pathways to the lingam. The cave is made of limestone and gypsum. Heat generated by tourists affects the size of the stalagmite. Outside temperature changes also affect their size. To minimize artificially induced temperature changes, helicopter trips and helipad sites are regulated. There has been talk of artificially extending the life of the stalagmites; this was met with objections.


Ancient history

The book Rajatarangini (Book VII v. 183) refers to Krishaanth or Amarnath. It is believed that in the 11th century CE, Queen Suryamati gifted trishulas, banalingas and other sacred emblems to this temple. Rajavalipataka, begun by Prajna Bhatta, contains detailed references to the pilgrimage to Amarnath Cave Temple. In addition, there are further references to this pilgrimage in many other ancient texts.

Medieval history

Mughal painting depicting Amarnath, c. 1600

The cave and the Shivling find mention in Abu’l Fazl’s 16th century work Ain-i-Akbari. According to him, the site attracted many pilgrims. He describes the waxing and waning of the lingam according to the seasons and the moon.François Bernier, a French physician, accompanied Emperor Aurangzeb during his visit to Kashmir in 1663. In his book Travels in Mughal Empire, he provides an account of the places he visited, noting 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” referenced in this passage is the Amarnath cave — as the editor of the second edition of the English translation of the book, Vincent 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….”

Modern history

Painting of devotees in the Amarnath cave temple. Jammu, Pahari, circa mid-19th century

In 1895, pilgrims would first travel to Kheer Bhawani for a brief stop. Sustained by free rations from the state, the pilgrims would then travel to Srinagar. From Srinagar, in batches, the pilgrims would then head up Lidder Valley, stopping at locations for holy dips. At Mach Bawan, local Hindus would join them. Maliks of Batok were responsible for the route during these years. Sister Nivedita, in Notes of Some Wanderings with the Swami Vivekananda, writes of Swami Vivekananda’s visit to the cave in 1898.

Yatra suspensions and causes

2016: Kashmir unrest

The Amarnath pilgrimage was suspended in July 2016 due to the Kashmir unrest. Some Sufis and Shias later demanded resumption of the Yatra. Kalbe Jawad, a Shia cleric and general secretary of Majlis-e-Ulama-e-Hind and Sufi cleric Hasnain Baqai expressed concern that the tradition had been suspended because of upheaval in Kashmir.

2019: Threat of terrorist attack

The pilgrimage was suspended in August 2019 after the state government stated there was a threat of terrorist attacks. Similarly, the pilgrimage to Machail Mata was suspended as well. However, it was also speculated that the Yatra suspension might have been linked to the revocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir.

2020 and 2021: COVID-19 pandemic

The annual pilgrimage was cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 pandemic. On 22 April 2020, the Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Board announced the suspension of the Yatra because of the COVID-19 pandemic in India. Later however it withdrew the press circular and announced cancellation of the suspension. Lieutenant Governor G. C. Murmu said that a final decision would depend on future developments related to the pandemic. In light of the pandemic, the union territory government on 4 July announced that only 500 people would be permitted road travel to the shrine and everyone entering Jammu and Kashmir would be tested for COVID-19, and quarantined until their reports came back negative. The pilgrimage was later cancelled on 21 July due to the pandemic, with cases of coronavirus in the union territory increasing greatly since 1 July. Facilities for viewing the prayer ceremony online were made available.

The shrine board on 27 March 2022 decided to resume the pilgrimage after a gap of two years, starting from 30 June and lasting for 43 days, while following protocols to prevent the spread of COVID.

2022: temporary suspension due to flash flood

On 8 July 2022, at least 16 people were killed, over 40 missing, and dozens were injured while around 15000 pilgrims were stranded near the Amarnath Holy cave due to a flash flood triggered by a cloudburst near the Lidder Valley en route to the venerated cave. The Amarnath Yatra was halted due to the flash flood on 8 July for 3 days.

According to legend, Sage Bhrigu was the first to discover Amarnath. A long time ago, it is believed that the Valley of Kashmir was underwater, and Sage Kashyapa drained it through a series of rivers and rivulets. As a result, when the waters drained, Bhrigu was the first to have darshan of Shiva at Amarnath. Thereafter, when people heard of the lingam, it became an abode of Shiva for all believers and the site of an annual pilgrimage, traditionally performed by lakhs of people in July and August during the Hindu holy month of Savan.

It is believed that Shiva left Nandi, the bull, at Pahalgam (Bail Gaon). At Chandanwari, he released the Moon from his hair (Jata). On the banks of Lake Sheshnag, he released his snake. At Mahagunas Parvat (Mahaganesh Mountain), he left his son Ganesha. At Panjtarni, Shiva left behind the five elements – Earth, Water, Air, Fire and Sky. As a symbol of sacrificing the earthly world, Shiva performed the Tandava Dance. Then, finally, Shiva entered the Amarnath Cave along with Parvati and both of them manifested into a lingam made of ice. Shiva became the lingam of ice and Parvati became the yoni of rock.

Yatra (pilgrimage) details and routes

Amarnath Yatra Camp

Pilgrimage opening timeframe: July–August during ice lingam formation

Pilgrims visit the holy site during the 45-day season around the festival of Shravani Mela in July–August, coinciding with the Hindu holy month of Shraavana. The Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage occurs when the iced stalagmite Shiva lingam reaches the apex of its waxing phase through the summer months. The period of July–August is a popular time for the pilgrimage. The beginning of the annual pilgrimage is marked by pratham pujan (transl. first prayer).

The time frame, during which the pilgrimage remains open, depends on the formation of iced lingam. For example, in 1995 the pilgrimage remained open for 20 days. From 2004 to 2009, it remained open for 60 days. During the following years, it remained open for between 40 and 60 days. In 2019, the Yatra remained open for 46 days from 1 July to 15 August.

State quotas and mandatory pilgrim pre-registration & e-tracking

Pilgrims have to pre-register months in advance and are allotted quotas according to state. States comprising a majority of the allotment include Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra and West Bengal. To ensure the health and safety of the pilgrims, such as during the disaster or medical emergency etc., each pilgrim and vehicle is given a unique wearable traceable identification tag which are scanned at the several designated places along the pilgrim route. Since 2019, pilgrims are given identification cards for the duration of the pilgrimage which are scanned at several locations for tracing the pilgrims. Similarly, the vehicles are also tracked via the tags, so that the entire pilgrimage can be traced.

Transport and roads

Nearest airport is Srinagar International Airport. Nearest railway stations are on the Jammu-Baramulla line – Srinagar railway station for the north pilgrim route through Baltal and Anantnag railway station for the south route via Pahalgam-Chandanwari. The State Road Transport Corporation and private transport operators provide the regular services from Jammu to Pahalgam and Baltal. Also privately hired taxis are available from Jammu, Anantnag, Pahalgam, Srinagar, etc.

On the south route via Pahalgam-Chandanwari, the helicopter services from Chandanwari base camp to Panjtarni (6 km from the cave) are also available from various private operators.

Chandanwari-Sangam Highway as part of NH501, including 11 km long Khanabal-Baltal Tunnel (Sheshnag Tunnel) under the Mahaganus Top (Ganesh Top), is the 22 km long greenfield section of the national highway on the South Route which will connect the South and North yatra routes via the highway tunnel. In January 2023, MoRTH’s NHIDCL invited RFP submissions by vendors by 20 Feb 2023 for preparation of DPR (detailed project report) which will take 10 months to prepare, subsequently after 2 months long pre-construction preparation the construction will take 5 years, with the target completion date of 31 March 2029 (total 6 years).

Two main routes

Pilgrims en route to Amarnath

Devotees travel on two main routes which are partially motorable and partially foot-track near to the holy cave: the shorter but steeper 13 km northern route from Baltal Basecamp, and the longer but easier and busier 43 km Pahalgam-Chandanwari basecamp route.

South route – 43 km: Pahalgam-Chandanwari route

Amarnath route

It begins with a 43 kilometres (27 mi) mountainous trek from the Nunwan and Chandanwari basecamp at Pahalgam and reaches the cave-shrine after night halts at Sheshnag Lake and Panchtarni camps. The journey from Pahalgam takes about five days. It runs from Pahalgam (on Jammu-Srinagar NH) to Chandanwari Basecamp (9,500 ft) – 16 km, Pissu Top – 3 km, Zoji Bal-Naga Koti-Sheshnag (11,730 ft) – 9 km, Waribal-Mahaguns Yop (Ganesh Top, 14,500 ft) – 4.6 km, Pabibal-Panchtarni (22,729 ft)-Sangam (T-section for North route via Baltal) – 6 km, Amarnath cave – 3 km. The whole foot track route takes three to five days one way.

The route is motorable up to Chandanwari, which will become motorable up to Sangam after construction of NH501 Chandanwari-Baltal Highway which includes Khanabal-Baltal Tunnel (Sheshnag Tunnel) under the Mahaganus Top (Ganesh Top), see “Transport” section above. Once completed, all the route will become motorable except the last 3 km from Sangam to Amarnath cave.

North route – 13 km: Baltal route

It runs from Baltal basecamp to Domail – 2 km, Barari – 5 km, Sangam (T-section for South route via Pahalgam-Chandanwari) – 4 km, Amarnath cave – 3 km. This track is motorable till Baltal and Baltal-Amarnath foot track takes one to two days return trip. Once the NH501 from Pahalgam-Chandanwari to Baltal is completed, including Sheshnag-Sangam tunnel under the Mahaguns Top (Ganesh Top), this route will become motorable except the last 3 km from Sangam to Amarnath cave. This shorter route is just about 14 km long, but has a very steep gradient and is quite difficult to climb. The route is along the Amarnath valley and all along the route one can see the Amaravati river (a tributary of Chenab) which originates from the Amarnath Glacier.

Ancient route: Awantipur-Pissu Top-Sheshnag-Panchtarni

Bhrigu’s Amarnath Mahatmya identifies a number of locations on the pilgrimage route to the Amarnath cave: Shurahyar, Shivpora, Pandrethan, Pampore, Javati, Awantipur, Barsu, Jaubror, Belihar, Wagahama, Chakreshwar (Tsakdar), Hari Chandar, Sthalwat (Thajwor), Suryai Gohwat (Sriguphvara), Lambodari, Sirham, Bodrus, Bala Khelyan, Ganish, Mammaleshwar, Bhrigupati Kshetra, Nila Ganga, Pissu Hill (Pissu Top), Sheshnag, Wavjan, Panchtarni, Amravati. On the return journey Mamleshwar and Naudal are crossed. Following the construction of drivable road, alignment of this pilgrimage route has presently changed at some places

Organisation and facilities

Pandal tents serving free community kitchen food to the pilgrims on Pahalgam–Chandanwari route

Officially, the Yatra is organised by the government in collaboration with the Shree Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB). Various agencies provide necessary facilities all along the route during the Yatra period, which includes provision of ponies, supply of power, telecommunication facilities, firewood and setting up of fair price shops.

En route to the cave, various non-governmental organisations have set up food supply and resting tents called pandals which are available for free to the pilgrims. Near the shrine, hundreds of tents which are erected by locals can be hired for a night’s stay.

Srinagar Pilgrimage Centre, with capacity to host 3000 yatris, facilitates pilgrims’ stay who are travelling for the holy pilgrimage. The state government began its construction in May 2022.

Security of pilgrims

Every year, thousands of central armed forces and state police personnel are deployed to provide security to pilgrims from potential terror threats. The forces position at various halts and also on the perimeter of the shrine. These include CRPF, BSF, ITBP, NDRF/SDRF and state police and traffic police.

Economic impact of yatra

The yatra is a source of revenue for the state government by imposing tax on pilgrims. Local Muslim Bakarwal-Gujjars also make a living by offering services to the Hindu pilgrims. This source of income has been threatened by the Kashmiri militant groups who have harassed and attacked the yatra numerous times.

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