History books credit a shepherd, Buta Malik for discovering the Amarnath Cave that attracts tens of thousands of half pilgrims every summer. For decades, Malik’s descendants were wrongly projected to be the main beneficiaries of the yatra. For the last six years, Malik’s and many others are out of business, a Kashmir Life report.
Unlike major Hindu shrines within and outside Kashmir, Amarnath Cave is a fairly young pilgrim destination. It was discovered during the reign of autocrat Gulab Singh less than 150 years ago. Historian credits the discovery of the cave shrine to Buta Malik, a shepherd. The discovery was accidental. The legend is that while wandering around the mountains, the shepherd encountered a Sadhu (Hindu seer) who gave him a sack of coal that converted into a precious metal once he reached home.
Impressed and obliged, Malik rushed to the spot to trace the Sadhu to thank him. He did not find the man but he found the cave.
The stalagmite forms naturally and it waxes and wanes with the moon. Adjacent to the main stalagmite, there are two smaller ones as well. They are considered the ice linghams of Parvati and their son Ganesha.
Post-discovery, the Purohits (Hindu priests) around Pahalgam started explaining the stalagmite by treating it as a Shivalingham – the phallic symbol of the Hindu god Shiva that deserves respect and worship. Maharaja was pleased with the discovery and honoured Malik. He decreed that a representative of the Malik clan would always be present at the shrine, along with the Mahant and priests during the pilgrimage. Apart from offering some estate to the family in Pahalgam and exempting the clan from land revenue (tax), part of the offering always went to the family.
But things started changing after the Jammu and Kashmir legislature passed a law guiding the setting up of a board. The constitution of the board was suggested by Dr Nitesh K Sengupta, who headed a committee that probed the death of more than 243 pilgrims during the midsummer snowfall over the twin tracks in 1996.
The Jammu and Kashmir Shri Amarnathji Shrine Act was passed in 2000 and implemented through SRO 54 on February 12, 2001. The law did away with the hereditary rights over various families on the shrine and gave the management of the shrine and the pilgrimage to the board led by a Hindu governor and 10 members. SASB will move out of Raj Bhawan if New Delhi ever chooses to appoint a non-Hindu as Jammu and Kashmir governor. In that case, SASB Chairman will be a nominee of the governor.
Exactly four years later, Buta Malik went out of business. With him went into oblivion the Mahant heading Charri Mubarak Swami Amarnathji (CMSA) and scores of Kashmiri Pandit Purohits in Mattan and Ganeshpora. Under the law, the ‘claimants’ to the shrine had no option other than accepting the one-time settlement that SASB offered them.
The economic issues related to the concerned parties erupted soon after the SASB came into being and started asserting itself. Fearing losses, the parties managing the yearly Hindu pilgrimage petitioned against the Board and a one-man tribunal headed by Justice (Retd) H N Mishra was constituted under section 19 of the SASB Act in 2000. After going through the details of traditions and practices, the tribunal gave the award on January 23, 2004.
It was Kashmir’s erstwhile governor Lt Gen (retd) S K Sinha, who as SASB head presented a cheque for Rs 10244000 to Mahant Deependra Giri (CMSA) in August 2005. The biggest beneficiary of the pilgrimage, Giri is the custodian of the saffron-robed silver mace of Lord Shiva. The mace reaches the cave shrine on the day of Rakhsha Bandhan (a Hindu festival).
Amarnath pilgrimage remained a local affair of the Kashmiri Pandits. But the biggest beneficiary of the pilgrimage for most of its recorded history of the last 150 years has remained the Giris, the Mehants of non-state origin. It was after the start of the yatra – Kashmiri Pandits say it was actually the revival of it because they have references of the pilgrimage taking place prior to the Afghan rule – during Dogra rule that a lot of Sadhus from mainland started coming to Kashmir. At one point in time, they petitioned the durbar seeking an Akhara on the pattern of Haridwar and other places. The demand acceded to that led to the constitution of the Dashnami Akhada that has historically remained in the Akhada building at Budshah Chowk.
Mahant Giri had to fight a protracted battle with the tribunal to assert his rights. After the SASB initially denied that he has any rights over the shrine offerings, Mahant produced a lot of individuals as witnesses besides a number of documents and official communications. The Mahant is actually being appointed by a Hindu religious authority, the Neeranjani Akhara in Haridwar. He offered a lot of details about the Mahants who have historically managed the yatra that started with Lok Nath Gir, Krishan Nand Gir, and Mahadev Ji Gir. Deependra Giri was initiated as Mahant on June 17, 1994, at Gadadhir Mandir in Jammu, many years after Krishna Nand Gir expired in February 1992. He, however, had performed the yatra for the first time in 1992.
Seeking a compensation of three crore rupees, Mahant Giri had submitted to the Tribunal that he has collected Rs 10580141 during the yatra in three years between 1998 to 2000. Against this income, he had disclosed his expenditure as Rs 539702.
SASB insiders said that the Mishra tribunal evaluated the averages that the beneficiaries were getting out of the offering down the ages before August 2000. On that basis, it is recommended that they must get ten times the average as one-time compensation. The Tribunal established the Mahant as the main beneficiary followed by purohits of Mattan and Ganeshpora as descendants of Buta Malik stood at the tail end of the list.
The tribunal wanted Mahant Giri to establish a trust to which the compensation will go. He set up ‘The True Trust’ and claimed the compensation. The trust is supposed to work for making arrangements for the accommodation, food and conveyance for Sadhus, irrespective of their sects and such needy members of the public, who shall accompany Charri-Mubarak (holy mace) during the annual pilgrimage. It will also strive for adopting destitute, orphans and any other deprived children by providing them requisite atmosphere, education and maintenance so that they become responsible citizens.
After the Mahant Giri took away the lion’s share, purohits from Mattan were slated to have Rs 6829340, those in Ganeshpora were entitled to Rs 3414670 and the Maliks – now putting up in Batakote – were supposed to get Rs 112000. The compensation was in lieu of extinction of their rights to the collections from the offerings at the cave.
For the remaining three parties, the tribunal offered two options – either to accept the compensation in cash or forgo the same and instead stake a claim for one job per family. It took a lot of time because it was a crowd. The claimants in Mattan constituted 184 families, those in Ganeshpora comprise 47 families and the Buta Malik’s descendants now have 52 families.
The purohits in fact desperately tried to get a higher claim. The Purohit Sabha Martand (Mattan) had claimed that in the three years prior to the takeover of the shrine by SASB they had made registered an income of Rs 9362317 and they should get three crore bucks in compensation. But they could not get it.
The creation of langhars (community kitchens) was one of the many tasks they were doing prior to the invasion of many ‘groups’ under the SASB. The Pujaris of Ganeshpora also moved a petition apparently inflating their compensation claim but could not do much.
The Maliks’, however, refused to take any kind of compensation. “It was too petty an amount that the tribunal offered us,” said Abdul Jabbar Malik, one of the descendants of Buta Malik. “We were getting one-third of the total income that the pilgrimage would generate so on the pattern of the compensation that the Mahant took, we should have got an equal amount but that was not the case so we refused.”
Unlike the Mahant, the Purohits and the Pujaris, the Maliks of Batakote made no representation to the Mishra Tribunal that eventually decided the compensation issue. “It was set up in Jammu and for various reasons we skipped appearing before it so we could not get what we should have got because the award was one-sided and ex-parte,” Malik said, adding, “We have represented before the governor (N N Vohra) and he has assured us that he will look into the entire issue and we are waiting for him (his decision).”
Maliks had suggested to the SASB that apart from compensation, it should employ one person per family. “But so far seven of our boys were appointed as helpers which is nothing special because there are Sikhs and Pandits also appointed so this is no concession,” says Malik. Earlier, he insisted the Maliks would take cuts from the offerings en route and the cave. “We would outsource patches and spots to Kashmiri Pandits on a temporary lease,” he said. Now, Maliks are out of business. At least sixty members of them are part of the crowd that pitches tents and sells different items to pilgrims, the activities they would tax till 2000.