The Amarnath caves are one of the most famous shrines in Hinduism, dedicated to the god Shiva, located in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The shrine is claimed to be over 5,000 years old and forms an important part of ancient Hindu mythology.
Inside the main Amarnath cave lies an ice stalagmite resembling the Shiva Linga, which waxes during May to August and gradually wanes thereafter. This lingam is said to grow and shrink with the phases of the moon, reaching its height during the summer festival. According to Hindu mythology, this is the cave where Shiva explained the secret of life and eternity to his divine consort Parvati. There are two other ice formations representing Parvati and Shiva's son, Ganesha.
The cave is situated at an altitude of 3,888 m (12,760 ft), about 141 km (88 mi) from Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir. The Central Reserve Police Force, Indian Army and Indian Paramilitary Forces maintain a strong presence in the region due to security concerns.
Aryaraja (34 BCE-17CE) used to spend “the most delightful Kashmir summer” in worshiping a lingam formed of snow/ice “in the regions above the forests”. This too appears to be a reference to the ice lingam at Amarnath. There is yet another reference to Amareshwara or Amarnath in the Rajatarangini (Book VII v.183). According to Kalhana, Queen Suryamati, the wife of King Ananta (1028-1063), “granted under her husband’s name agraharas at Amareshwara, and arranged for the consecration of trishulas, banalingas and other”.
In his Chronicle of Kashmir, a sequel to Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, Jonaraja relates that that Sultan Zainu’l-abidin (1420-1470) paid a visit to the sacred tirtha of Amarnath while constructing a canal on the left bank of the river Lidder (vv.1232-1234). The canal is now known as Shah Kol.
In the Fourth Chronicle named Rajavalipataka, which was begun by Prjayabhatta and completed by Shuka, there is a clear and detailed reference to the pilgrimage to the sacred site (v.841,vv. 847-849). According to it, in a reply to Akbar’s query about Kashmir Yusuf Khan, the Mughal governor of Kashmir at that time, described among other things the Amarnath Yatra in full detail.
It is a popular pilgrimage destination for Hindus - about 400,000 people visit during the 45-day season around the festival of Shravani Mela in July-August, coinciding with the Hindu holy month of Shravan.
Devotees generally take the 42 km (26 mi) pilgrimage on foot from the town of Pahalgam, about 96 km (60 mi) from Srinagar, and cover the journey in four to five days. There are two alternate routes to the temple: the longer and more traditional path from Srinagar, and the shorter route from the town of Baltal. Some devotees, particularly the elderly, also ride on horse-back to make the journey.
The cave is situated on an area where terrorists and bandits were very active about a decade ago, however the situation has considerably eased recently.
Shree Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) former chief executive officer Arun Kumar was reported in The Hindu as saying "The Shivlingam has melted owing to the rise in temperatures. It is a normal phenomenon; weather affects its shape and size". The other ice lingams had not completely melted. Many environmentalists blamed global warming for the incident. The SASB has authorized the installation of a cooling system to preserve the formations in coming years.
On 26 May 2008, the Government of India and the state government of Jammu and Kashmir reached an agreement to transfer 100 acres (0.40 km2) of forest land to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) to set up temporary shelters and facilities for Hindu pilgrims. Kashmiri separatists opposed the move and there were widespread protests in Kashmir. Due to the protests, the J&K State government relented and reversed the decision to transfer land. As a result, Hindus in the Jammu region launched counter-agitations against this roll back.