It was in the course of an open-air meal in the Mogul Gardens at Achhabal, that the Swami suddenly announced that he would go to Amarnath with the pilgrims, and take his daughter1 with him. Within our little party, there was too much feeling of delighted congratulation, for any obstacle to be put in the way of the fortunate member. And aided thus, as well as by the State officer, in charge of the journey, preparations went forward for this unique experience.
Kashmir seemed, in those weeks, to be full of pilgrims. We left Achhabal, and returned to our boats at Islamabad, for final arrangements, and everywhere we saw the march of gathering hosts. It was all very quiet and orderly and picturesque. Two or three thousand people would encamp in a field, and leave it before dawn, with no trace of their occupation, save the ashes of their cooking-fires. They carried a bazaar with them, and at each halting place, the pitching of tents, and opening of shops, took place with incredible rapidity. Organisation appeared to be instinctive. A broad street would run through the middle of one part of the camp, and here one could buy dried fruits, milk, dahls, and rice. The tent of the Tehsildar, — with that of the Swami on one side, and my own on the other, — was generally placed near some advantageous spot for the lighting of the evening fire, and thus his neighbourhood tended to form a social centre.
There were hundreds of monks, of all the orders, with their Gerrua tents, some no larger than a good-sized umbrella, and amongst these, the Swami's influence appeared to be magnetic. The more learned of them swarmed about him at every halting place, filling his tent, and remaining absorbed in conversation, throughout the hours of day light.
The talk on their side, he told us afterwards, had been all of Siva, and they had remonstrated with him seriously, when he had insisted, occasionally, on drawing their attention to the world about them. Even foreigners, they urged, were men. Why make such distinctions between Swadesh and bidesh?
Nor could many of them understand the warmth of his love and sympathy for Mohammedanism. The same other-worldliness that made Swadesh and bidesh indistinguishable, also prevented these simple souls from formally conceiving of a unity, in which Hindu and Mohammedan were but rival elements. The soil of the Punjab, they argued, was drenched with the blood of those who had died for the faith. Here, at least, let him practise a narrow orthodoxy! In answer to this, as became one who was, in fact 'an anachronism of the future', the Swami made those practical concessions of the moment that were expressive of his love for the brethren, and drove his principles home to their minds with the greater force and vehemence.
But, as he told the tale of his warm discussions, the foreign mind could not help, with some amusement, noting the paradox that the Tehsildar himself, and many officers and servants of the pilgrimage, had been Mussulmans, and that no one had dreamt of objecting to their entering the Cave with the Hindu worshippers, on the ultimate arrival at the shrine. The Tehsildar came afterwards, indeed, with a group of friends, begging formal acceptance by the Swami as disciples; and in this, no one seemed to find anything incongruous or surprising.
Leaving Islamabad, we caught up some-where with the pilgrimage, and camped with it, for that night, at Pawan, a place famous for its holy springs. I can remember yet the brilliance of the lights reflected in the clear black waters of the tank that evening, and throngs of pilgrims proceeding in little groups from shrine to shrine.
At Pahlgam — the village of the shepherds — the camp halted for a day, to keep ekadasi2. It was a beautiful little ravine floored, for the most part with sandy islands in the pebble-worn bed of a mountain stream. The slopes about it were dark with pine-trees, and over the mountain at its head was seen, at sunset, the moon, not yet full. It was the scenery of Switzerland or Norway, at their gentlest and loveliest. Here we saw the last of human dwellings, a bridge, a farm house, with its ploughed fields, and a few saeter-huts. And here, on a grassy knoll, when the final march began, we left the rest of our party encamped.
Through scenes of indescribable beauty, three thousand of us ascended the valleys that opened before us as we went. The first day we camped in a pine-wood; the next, we had passed the snow-line, and pitched our tents beside a frozen river. That night, the great camp-fire was made of juniper, and the next evening, at still greater heights, the servants had to wander many miles, in search of this scanty fuel.
At last the regular pathway came to an end, and we had to scramble up and down, along goat-paths, on the face of steep declivities, till we reached the boulder-strewn gorge, in which the Cave of Amarnath was situated. As we ascended this, we had before us the snow-peaks covered with a white veil, newly-fallen; and in the Cave itself, in a niche never reached by sunlight, shone the great ice-lingam, that must have seemed, to the awestruck peasants who first came upon it, like the waiting Presence of God.
The Swami had observed every rite of the pilgrimage, as he came along. He had told his beads, kept fasts, and bathed in the ice-cold waters of five streams in succession, crossing the river-gravels on our second day. And now, as he entered the Cave, it seemed to him, as if he saw Siva made visible before him. Amidst the buzzing, swarming noise of the pilgrim-crowd, and the overhead fluttering of the pigeons, he knelt and prostrated two or three times, unnoticed; and then, afraid lest emotion might overcome him, he rose and silently withdrew. He said afterwards that in these brief moments he had received from Siva the gift of Amar, — not to die, until he himself had willed it. In this way, possibly, was defeated or fulfilled that presentiment which had haunted him from childhood, that he would meet with death, in a Siva temple amongst the mountains.
Outside the Cave, there was no Brahminic exploitation of the helpless people. Amarnath is remarkable for its simplicity and closeness to nature. But the pilgrimage culminates on the great day of Rakhibandhan, and our wrists were tied with the red and yellow threads of that sacrament. Afterwards, we rested and had a meal, on some high boulders beside the stream, before returning to our tents.
The Swami was full of the place. He felt that he had never been to anything so beautiful. He sat long silent. Then he said dreamily, "I can well imagine how this Cave was first discovered. A party of shepherds, one summer day, must have lost their flocks, and wandered in here in search of them. Then, when they came home to the valleys, they told how they had suddenly come upon Mahadev!3"
Of my Master himself, in any case, a like story was true. The purity and whiteness of the ice-pillar had startled and enwrapt him. The cavern had revealed itself to him as the secret of Kailas4. And for the rest of his life, he cherished the memory of how he had entered a mountain-cave, and come face to face there with the Lord Himself.