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."
Among the many arguments Indians make against giving up Kashmir is the sanctity of their country as a secular state, where all religions are supposed to be treated with equal respect.
An estimated 14% of India's more than 1 billion people are Muslims, according to the CIA World Factbook. That works out to an Indian Muslim population of about 140 million, which is roughly the size of Pakistan's total population.
If Kashmir's Muslim majority broke away, either to join Pakistan or to form a new country, Sikhs in India's Punjab state could follow, and India would quickly fall to pieces, Indians argue.
But Pakistan insists that Kashmiris have a right to choose, as guaranteed in a United Nations Security Council resolution at the end of Pakistan's first war with India in 1948. India says various preconditions, including the withdrawal of foreign forces from Kashmir, were never fulfilled.
India considers Pakistani troops in northern Kashmir occupying forces, and it also accuses the Pakistanis of arming and training radical Muslim guerrillas, who it says infiltrate Indian-controlled Kashmir from Pakistan.
Conflict Began With End of British Raj
The conflict over Kashmir is at least as old as India and Pakistan themselves. As Britain prepared to pull out from the subcontinent in August 1947, it dismissed the angry objections of Hindu nationalists and created Pakistan as a separate, mainly Muslim state.
During the British raj, a Hindu maharajah named Hari Singh reigned over Kashmiris, most of whom were Muslims. His ancestors had bought the Himalayan state from the British East India Co. in the mid-19th century.
Lord Louis Mountbatten, viceroy of India and the man in charge of extricating Britain from colonies it found too difficult and costly to control, thought it was more sensible for Kashmir to join the Muslim majority in Pakistan.
But the maharajah wanted independence for Kashmir. He gave up and fled, however, when ethnic Pathan raiders invaded from Pakistan. As Indian troops poured into Kashmir, the maharajah signed the Act of Accession that legally declared the state part of India.
Pakistan has controlled about a third of Kashmir since 1972, when the two countries agreed to a cease-fire line, which some have suggested turning into a permanent international border as a compromise solution.
Bhat said that will never happen, because "a line drawn in blood can never last."
Vajpayee's government has gone to great lengths trying to prevent Bhat and his All Party Hurriyat Conference from having a direct role in deciding Kashmir's future, including, frequently, the arrest and detention without charge of Kashmiri leaders such as Bhat.
Yet he is still optimistic and believes that India and Pakistan are moving closer to lasting peace. The enormous economic drain of the conflict, and the risks of nuclear war, mean that "no hawk can block the passage" to peace, Bhat said.
Although the U.S. and other Western powers are still leaving it largely up to India and Pakistan to settle their differences, pressure from Washington is growing because it fears the spread of Chinese influence in Pakistan, Bhat argued.
China seized control of a small, northeastern part of Kashmir in a 1962 border war with India, and it has close defense ties with Pakistan dating to the Cold War, when India was a key ally of the Soviet Union.
From where sadhu Shantpurnima Puri sits next to the pilgrims' mountain path, the constellations and the movement of planets are more important to the fate of nations than political machinations.
The sadhu said he doubts Musharraf and Vajpayee will solve anything at their summit, but he was in a bit of a hash-induced haze and wasn't really sure. Of one thing, though, he was certain: Jammu and Kashmir will never break away from India.
"If it goes, everything goes," the holy man said.
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Kashmir at a Glance
Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf were scheduled to hold a peace summit today. A major source of tension between their two countries is the disputed region of Kashmir.
* Kashmir has been at the heart of a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan since the two nations gained independence from Britain in 1947. Both claim Kashmir.
* Fighting between India and Pakistan after independence ended with U.N. intervention; since 1948, the cease-fire line has been monitored by the United Nations.
* The far northern and western areas of the state
are under Pakistan's control; China occupies the northeastern corner, and India governs the rest.
* On May 11 and 13, 1998, India tested five nuclear devices, and three weeks later, Pakistan responded in kind.