Pilgrimages are serious business in India, with lakhs of devotees crisscrossing the country to pay their respects at some of the holiest shrines of their faiths. One of the more popular, albeit difficult, yatras is the trek to the cave-shrine of Amarnath, about 13,500ft up the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir. The treacherous roads and high altitudes make the journey to the cave risky but that doesn’t deter the faithful from visiting it during July and August – last year, Amarnath saw just under four lakh visitors.
Before registration opens on March 2 for this year’s yatra, here’s what you need to know:
This year, the yatra officially begins from July 2 and ends on August 29. The trip can either be made via the Pahalgam route (Jammu – Pahalgam – Chandanwari – Pissu Top – Sheshnag – Panchtarni – Shrine) or the Baltal route (Jammu – Baltal – Domail – Barari – Shrine). Flights and trains are easily available to Jammu.
A primary requirement of a pilgrim is fitness. Ladies who are more than six weeks pregnant, children below 13 years in age and elderly persons above the age of 75 are not allowed to undertake the pilgrimage.
Before you visit Amarnath, you need to register with the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) and obtain a yatra permit. Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting it done:
1. Pick a yatra date: This isn’t the date you’re planning on arriving in J&K, but the date you plan to actually visit the shrine. On this date, you will be allowed to cross the Access Control Gates at Baltal and Chandanwari (Pahalgam) to make your way to the cave.
2. Get your documents in order: Make sure you have the registration form and the compulsory health certificate (CHC) filled up. The trek to Amarnath is a strenuous one, and authorities advise pilgrims to be in good health. You can get your CHC signed by the Chief Medical Officer of your district. The SASB board and government authorities are working to authorise medical institutions and officers throughout the country. You can find a list of eligible doctors here.
3. Head to the bank: The documents can be submitted at various branches of Punjab National Bank, YES Bank and J&K Bank (Here’s the list). Make sure you take along four passport-size photos. If your application is in order, you will be asked to pay ₹50 for the yatra permit. Banks will accept these forms until 6p.m. on weekdays and until 4p.m. on Saturdays.
– Insurance: A valid yatra permit entitles you to an insurance cover of ₹1 lakh in case of death due to an accident while undertaking the yatra.
– Reaching the cave: You can choose to either walk up to the cave from the base camps in the area, or ride a horse or hire a doli (palanquin). There’s also a helicopter service from Baltal and Pahalgam to Panjtarni, after which you walk about 5-6km to the cave.
– Shelters: Toilets, shelters and rest stops are available every few kilometres on all the routes to the cave.
– Medical: All base camps come with medical centres that are equipped to deal with most altitude-related sicknesses. There are also mountain rescue teams who carry portable oxygen tanks in case of emergencies.
Rakesh Kumar Gupta, CEO of the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board, advises pilgrims to ensure they are fit and healthy before they make the journey. “It’s a tough yatra, especially given the high altitude, so visitors have to be careful,” he said. Here’s his list of what you should keep in mind while planning for your trip:
– Have an active exercise routine at least a month before you visit the temple. Gupta recommends daily walks and practising pranayam to get those lungs working well. “The level of oxygen at that height is only about 60 per cent of that at sea level,” Gupta said, “so your body needs to be able to take in as much as possible.”
– Altitude sickness is a serious problem, so give yourself some time to acclimatise to the reduced oxygen levels; a day or two should be enough.
Here are tips from the SASB’s detailed health advisory:
– Don’t be in a hurry. The journey is tough on the body, so slow down. Gupta said that the lowered oxygen levels plus the exertion from climbing puts extra pressure on the body.
– If you have respiratory or pulmonary conditions, do not make the yatra as your illnesses could be aggravated.
– Make sure you take your woollens along, as it can get very cold.
Read the SASB’s entire list of Do’s and Don’t’s here.
Kamakshi Ayyar is a former member of NGT India's digital team. She is partial to places by the sea and desserts in all forms. When she isn't raving about food, she's usually rambling on about the latest cosmic mysteries. She tweets as @kamakshi138.