This was one of the most painful journeys we ever undertook. Even the sublime weather and stunning mountain vistas did little to ameliorate the sheer exhaustion and fatigue. The transport was Maruti Gypsy, which is not known for comfort. The back-breaking roads all along completed the torture.
The destination was the Budha (as in aged) Amarnath temple near Poonch in J&K. The most remarkable feature of the temple is its location. Imagine a narrow valley, some 1Km across and a couple of Km long, sandwiched between two towering mountain ranges, with a torrent of a river flowing through. Mandi village lies in the middle of this valley. Tiny houses dot the mountain slopes on either side. The temple is on the bank of the river. The roaring water makes talking difficult and the overall feeling one gets is of being in a magician’s cave. The tiny market of Mandi, crowded with bearded Pathans and loaded mules looks like a location out of Arabian Nights.
The problem in mountains is that most of the 3600 beauty can only be experienced and very little of it actually comes across in pictures. Besides, we were really short of time and I could not click all the photos that I wanted to. Maybe next time.
Now where exactly is Mandi? It is in Poonch District of Jammu and Kashmir. Not to be confused with the one in Himachal Pradesh, this one is also called Loran-Mandi, with reference to another village an hour up the valley. Its claim to fame is the special variety of Kidney beans (Rajma) that it produces.
The troubled times in this beautiful but cursed state are not over yet and Mandi is home to large Army and BSF units who together, perhaps outnumber the locals! But the temple authorities aren’t complaining. Budha Amarnath flourishes on liberal donations from the forces. Soldiers in their individual capacity as well as the units and regiments in vicinity make large contributions to the temple. The temple is thus expanding rapidly, with pilgrim accommodation, parking sheds, tiled courtyard and such other embellishments showing up one after another.
The Kaawariya cult has caught up too. Mahashivratri sees a crowd of 30-40000 pilgrims descending upon this miniscule place.
The Shivlingam inside the temple is symbolic, in form of just a white rock. The Garbhgriha is rather small, but the hall has enough space for a large gathering.
The temple premises have a massive Chinar tree, said to be a hundred years old.
Besides monetary offerings, the forces also have tried to beautify the temple premises in their own way. See how the innate secularism and tolerance of India shows up in unexpected ways!
Unless you are willing to trek for two days across the snow bound wastes of Pir Panjal mountains and emerge into Tangmarrg in Kashmir valley on the other side, Mandi is literally the end of the pilgrim’s progress. India as it exists now, nearly ends here and Pakistan begins.
Budha Amarnath sits serenely at the end of one dream, and begining of another.