Porters carry Hindu pilgrims to the Amarnath Shrine, a mountain cave that is considered a shrine to Lord Shiva. The route is a treacherous Himalayan mountainside – rocky, snowbound and insurgent infested.
Inside that cave is a hump of ice, a natural phenomenon caused by water dripping on the cave floor and instantly freezing.
To Hindus, that hump is sacred and every summer thousands brave a harsh terrain, narrow slippery mountain paths, avalanches and mud slides to visit the cave and heap garlands and sweet meats on that hump. Lucky hump.
Overheard, Lord Shiva, muttering under His hashish laden holy breath….
“That’s just a stupid fucking stalagmite in a stupid fucking mountain cave in the middle of stupid fucking nowhere that you are risking your lives to see, you stupid morons. Am I not supposed to be everywhere, omnipresent? Then, why the fuck do you have to do this?”
Honestly, why? Its like that American student who wanted to visit North Korea and instead, came back a vegetable. Why did he have to go to a place where everybody looks alike and behaves weirdly?
Maybe pilgrimages are a desire to behave weirdly for a change. In the south of India too there are hordes of absolutely insane folks who take a punishing 35km long trek through dense foliage and mountainous terrain, enduring bug bites, leeches and venomous snakes, to a joint called Sabarimalai to pay homage to their ‘Lord Ayappa’.
It must be the kick, the adrenalin, the satisfaction that comes from deliberately bearing pain, spurred on by some weird sense of guilt, the feeling of unworthiness and the overpowering need to be cleansed.
But no, even in that there is deceit. Instead of trying to make it on their own steam, (which is supposed to be the original objective of any pilgrimage) they engage porters to haul their sorry asses up the mountain, as shown in the Hindu Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage photo above.
In the image, the only ones deserving of salvation in my opinion are those desperately poor young men, who haul well-heeled pilgrims up the treacherous mountainsides. If Lord Shiva is really smart, he will shine his blessings on these young men instead. Quite ironically, they are predominantly Muslims who are desperately in need of work, any work. They might be Muslims, but it seems to me that they are the true pilgrims in this picture.
Elsewhere, for their own pilgrimages, Muslims have figured out a way to perform the rituals that only look strenuous but actually are kinda 5-star. There are two pilgrimages to Mecca : ‘Hajj’ – known as the Greater Pilgrimage and ‘Umra’ – the lesser pilgrimage. While the Hajj can be undertaken only during a certain period in the Muslim calendar, you can do an Umra anytime you like.
One of the rituals Muslims have to perform is known as the Sa’i, a trek that Abraham’s wife, Hajar, took through the scorching desert to look for water for her young son to drink. It is a roughly 2-km walk between two hills, in the scorching heat. And if you throw in the walk to Mina and Arafat and back, it all boils down to a lot of walking and in the 50°C environs, it’s not easy.
Deliberately induced pain – all the trudging in the heat is supposed to leave Muslims feeling cleansed and pure. In actual fact however, there is no trekking in the desert. Instead, the walkways have all been completely covered inside long corridors by the Saudis, shielding pilgrims from the direct rays of the sun. Cute, isn’t it? Ask a Muslim and he’ll say – ‘hey, the Quran doesn’t mandate that you have to necessarily walk in the open. As long as you walk from Safa to Marwa and back, technically you’re okay and by the book. If the Saudis have the cash to enclose the whole area, what’s your problem?’
Muslims of the Shiite sect do get a bit carried away though, but that doesn’t happen at the Hajj or the Umra. On the 10th day of the first month of the Islamic calendar, Muharram, some – specially rural – Shiites go berserk. They inflict terrible pain on themselves, flailing their own backs with chains that are spiked with sharp knives. It is supposed to be a show of solidarity with the sacrifices of their martyrs.
The Christians and the Jews are quite blaise and down to earth about their pilgrimages. How many Catholics do we see taking a trip to Rome just to pay homage at the Vatican? Very close to zero. They go there to take in the art and soak in the history, more concerned about the ruins of the ancient heathen Romans than their Holy Father. They make pilgrimages when the trip is tied into some nice sight-seeing and frolic. A trip to Jerusalem for example, is 99% fun, frolic and gawking at archaeology and 1% pilgrimage. There’s none of the trekking in the desert shit, even though both religions are Abrahamic faiths whose founding pillars – their most basic raisons d’etre – are pain, suffering and oppression.
The July 2017 terrorist attack on Hindu pilgrims at the Amarnath Yatra was tragic but then maybe it is God’s way of teaching us a lesson – to cut the crap and instead of trying to manufacture pain, look for salvation within ourselves.