CHANDANWARI, India — With faith, the stalagmite of pure white ice pouring from a large hole in the rock is the lingam of Lord Siva, fount of eternal happiness.
The phallic symbol has a powerful force. Each year, it draws about 125,000 people, mostly Hindus, who began this year's pilgrimage up a Himalayan mountainside in remote Kashmir on July 2.
They risk freezing cold, heart attacks and ambushes by separatist Muslim guerrillas to climb--or ride in roughhewn wooden sedan chairs on the shoulders of Muslim porters--to a cave 13,700 feet above sea level, to reach the abode of the Hindu god Siva.
About 12,000 Indian soldiers and paramilitary troops guard the pilgrims' passage to Amarnath Cave in Jammu and Kashmir, a disputed Indian state that has bled from a separatist insurgency for the past 12 years and is feared to be a possible spark for nuclear war between India and Pakistan.
Many pilgrims have died trying to reach Siva's shrine. Last year, Muslim guerrillas killed 35 of the faithful. In 1996, bad weather took the lives of more than 200 people on the mountain trek. On July 6, at least four Indian army soldiers guarding the route were killed and five others wounded when guerrillas hurled grenades at them.
Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf will try to take tentative steps toward ending the conflict over Kashmir at their summit today near the Taj Mahal in the Indian city of Agra.
But India continues to insist that Pakistan must return the third of Kashmir it controls and says it will never surrender any territory to separatists. While there are many reasons why, deep faith in holy sites such as Amarnath Cave is an important one.
Muslims also have a profound spiritual bond with Kashmir through religious sites such as the 17th century Hazratbal shrine in the Kashmiri summer capital, Srinagar. A lock of the prophet Muhammad's hair is preserved in the shrine, which was once a Mogul emperor's palace.
The cave housing the Siva lingam was discovered about a century ago by a Muslim herder named Malik, whose family continued to get a share of the revenue from pilgrims until this year, when the site came under the authority of the state government.
Pilgrims Offered Peace in Different Doses
"Kashmir is the lamp of Lord Siva," Hindu holy man Baba Shantpurnima Puri said as he sat under a white plastic canopy beside the mountain path where pilgrims begin their three-day, 50-mile trek to and from the cave.
With the aid of his own Siva lingam--this one made of smooth black stone--the sadhu offers counsel to the pilgrims.
To any who need more than words, or a stroke of the holy object to calm their nerves, he offers marijuana and hashish, which he sells wrapped in torn bits of old newspapers. When a reporter walked up, a uniformed Jammu and Kashmir Police Force officer took his last draw on a joint and hurried off.
Tushar Nandy, 40, took his comfort from the cool rapids where he soaked his feet after his journey to see the Siva lingam, which is said to swell and shrink with the phases of the moon.
It was Nandy's first pilgrimage and such an event that half a dozen friends came to Calcutta's airport to see him and his wife, Madhurmita, 35, off on their adventure. Nandy was just as eager to see what Kashmir is all about as he was to seek the blessings of the Siva lingam.
"We Indians always have a big question mark about what is going on in Kashmir," said Nandy, an engineer with a Pennsylvania-based metalworks firm. "I always wanted to hear the views of Kashmiris, particularly the shopkeepers.
"And I found that nobody wants this division between India and Pakistan--even if it goes to Pakistan. But they know that Pakistan is a poorer country than India because of less industrial growth, less intellectual development and maldistribution of property and wealth."
With its massive debt and faltering economy, Pakistan is never far from bankruptcy, and Indians often ask why anyone would want to join a country in such dire straits.
But after 12 years of war and widespread corruption, the economy in Indian-controlled Kashmir is also lagging far behind much of the country. Without a referendum, which India refuses to hold, it's impossible to know whether most Kashmiris want to remain in India, join Pakistan or turn their backs on both and create their own country.
Abdul Gani Bhat, head of a loose and often bitterly divided alliance of 23 separatist parties in Kashmir, insists that most Kashmiris reject India as an occupier.
"We are prisoners in a very strange prison," he said in a recent interview. "You are free and yet languishing behind. Not behind iron bars, but wooden shutters and brick walls. Each one of us is a prisoner in a much larger prison called Jammu and Kashmir."
Like many on both sides of the debate, Nandy's hopes for this weekend's summit are a lot bigger than his expectations. The reason for his skepticism is simple: "These bloody politicians."