Some of the most bizarre idols of worship on the planet, the strangest temples, and the most unusual shrines seem just out of our reach. Among them are the likes of Karni Mata Rat temple at Deshnoke, India, where over 20,000 rats are housed in a place where devotees linger to see them crawl over coconut shells and various food remains. Another is the snake temple in Penang, Malaysia, where incense burns as vipers coil on the floor. Yet another is Chao Mae Tuptim Shrine in Thailand where huge phallic symbols abound and women travel from far and wide to become pregnant, and of course, the Amarnath Caves in India and bordering China, a remote shrine stands where a stalagmite inside a deep cave is worshipped by several thousand Hindu devotees every year.
Trek through Jammu and Kashmir
In the state of Jammu and Kashmir you can find this 5000 year old cave and rotund stalagmite after trekking through arduous mountain terrain and into the snow covered elevation just beyond Pahalgam town. It is usually not open in winter months due to the treacherous nature of the climb when the snow is falling at its fullest force, but in summer months you can travel to an altitude of over 12,700 feet, about 88 miles from the capital of Jammu and Kashmir to one of the holiest shrines in Hinduism.
Shiva Lingam, Heaven on Earth
The icy stalagmite within the cave is thought to be the lingam of Shiva (as described in the Rig Veda) and has been as large as fifteen feet long. It has disappeared to nothing in recent warmer months, and then reappeared in less obtuse proportions, sometimes only being two feet in its full expression. It is believed that the stalagtite shrinks and grows in a cosmic dance with the waxing and waning moon (Parvati). Shivaites do not deter from visiting the site, regardless of the stalagmites size, even though their very presence and the heat they create has been noted as the cause of its shrinkage in recent years. There are also two smaller stalagmites, which are said to represent Ganesh (the Elephant God known as the remover of obstacles) and Parvati (the wife of Shiva, the ultimate Goddess, incarnation of Adi Parashakti).
Sexual or Spiritual Pillar?
The Shiva lingam appears in many forms to devotees. Lingam is the Sanskrit for phallus or ‘eternal procreative germ,’ but it is also the sign of the holy male aspect. It resembles a sexual symbol, but is not to be mistaken as such, since the creative force of the Divine is not merely sexual, but artistic in the truest sense – after all the male and female qualities are inseparable by most Hindu standards.
In Hindu mythology Shiva is above both Brahma and Vishnu, and is seen as the all-pervading force of creative consciousness in full expression. The Shiva Puranas explain this more completely, and hymn in the Atharvaveda praises the stambha (pillar, phallus) which was possibly the initiation of the worship of Shiva in this particular form. Considering that over 400,000 pilgrims visited the Amarnath caves just last year, on overcrowded and snake-like paths, which hug the sides of the mountain in true James Bond style. The pilgrims carry walking sticks, and take squatting breaks along the green areas to eat lunch or chant prayers like this one:
From the Vedas (Also called the five-syllable mantra, or Panchakshara Mantra ~ na-ma-shi-va-ya):
Om Namah Shiva
Aum (om) – this is considered the primordial sound of creation. It encompasses gross, causal and complete consciousness, or samadhi (nirvana).
Namah – this Sanskrit word means to adore or respect – when one gives all they see or experience to the divine, and does not claim it for the small, egoic self.
Shiva – Is the Absolute Reality – Infinite Groundless Being which Hindus see as the formless before it mingles with the creative quality of the feminine to give birth to the world.
With so many followers flocking to Amaranth Cave every year, it is worth understanding the devotion behind the symbol. The cave has special meaning to Hindus because it was chosen by Bhole Shankar to narrate the secrets of immortality and creation itself to Maa Parvati, the Goddess of all Goddesses. The cave was discovered by a shepherd named Buta Malik. He was once of the first Darshans to visit the cave on his way to the Himalayas, and perhaps spread word of its existence by mouth, and over many thousands of years.
Srinagar is the nearest airport if you want to get to Pahalgam town, and the nearest rail station is just 80 miles from the site. Temperatures drop to below freezing from November to April and during Monsoon season the hilly roads can get very slick and even harder to traverse. The best time to go is from June to August when the temperatures are cooler and pleasant.
The best time to go is from June to August.