There comes a time in your life when a tiny voice in your head urges you to look beyond the pleasures of life and beckons you to the abode of the Almighty to say a small prayer of thanks.
A very favorite and preferred (because the trek to the shrine is not very tedious, has a ‘holiday’ twang to it and holds great significance for the pilgrims) religious trip, for the devotees of Mother Goddess, is a trip to one of the holiest destinations, Vaishno Devi in Jammu, the winter capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in India. The Vaishno Devi temple is located on the Trikuta Mountains.
There is a very popular belief that one ends up on this pilgrimage only if Ma (Mother) Vaishno Devi ‘calls’ you (‘bulawa aaya hai‘) for her darshan‘ (make herself visible). There have been many instances when devotees have reached the base camp (Katra) but have not been able to make the climb to her shrine. In the same breath, it is said that when the Goddess calls you, you need to take only one step in her direction and she will take you up all the way for her ‘darshan‘.
With the firm belief that we would be able to complete our journey with her divine blessings, we booked the Air India flight to Jammu, the closest airport to the base camp, Katra. The flight took about 1 hour from New Delhi.
Reaching Katra from New Delhi
Jammu is a regular small city, situated on the banks of the River Tawi. There is nothing much to see in Jammu other than the Raghunath Temple. The city although throngs with people from all parts of India as it is a major stop for people going to Kashmir, Poonch and Ladakh. This of course, other than the lakhs of pilgrims visiting Vaishno Devi throughout the year. Summers are hot, so be careful with the clothing. Also remember that up at Vaishno Devi it can get quite cold in the nights, even in the summer.
Our taxi from the airport took 45 minutes to reach Katra, 42 Kms away. The recently constructed new road has reduced the one-and-a-half hour ride to only 45 minutes. Jammu is not as scenic as Kashmir and the road cutting through the mountains up to Katra is not something one can go gaga about. With the kind of tense poliyical situation in Kashmir and its proximity to Pakistan, there are regular checks by the army on the road. Monkeys are a common sight, but taking a selfie with them is not recommended.
Due to the huge popularity of the shrine, the government has constructed a state-of-the-art railway station at Katra, called the ‘Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Katra Railway Station’, making travel very easy for those coming by rail. The train trip is fascinating since the railway line passes through many tunnels and over many bridges.
Katra is a small town, situated in the foothills of the Trikuta Mountains, where the holy shrine of Vaishno Devi is located. This place is bustling with people through the day and night — by pilgrims who are starting the journey and those who are returning after the ‘darshan‘. It is lined with hotels, restaurants and lately, even fast food joints. Most commercial places are also open throughout the night. No non-vegetarian food is served anywhere. Do keep a few hours aside to walk through the main market here. It’s a delightful place to buy dry fruits, souvenirs etc and specially anything religious. And do remember to bargain. Try surveying the market before your climb because you will be exhausted when you get back.
Collect your ‘Yatra Registration Slip’ or ‘parchi‘ from the Yatra Registration Counter. This has to be stamped at Banganga when you start your pilgrimage.
There are various means of reaching the shrine, which is 13.5 kms from Katra. The easiest is taking the helicopter (up to Sanjichhat, 9.5 kms from Katra) and the toughest is the walk.
Other modes of transportation are ponies and ‘palkis‘, carried by 2 or 4 men.
A wide and new road has been built recently which has reduced the distance to the shrine by half a kilometre. The route is covered by a roof top which can withstand small stones since there have been tragedies associated with stones rolling down the mountain in bad weather.
The legend of Ma Vaishno Devi
Vaishnavi was a beautiful girl who was ‘created’ by the collective ‘tejas‘ (divinity) of the three manifestations of the supreme Goddesses; Maha Kali, Maha Laxmi and Maha Saraswati. Wanting to merge with the supreme creator, Lord Vishnu, she started penance at the foothills of Trikuta.
Bhairon Nath, a tantrik, was besotted by her beauty and wanted to marry her. To avoid his advances, Vaishnavi started walking up the hill. Banganga was formed by her by shooting an arrow in the ground, when she felt thirsty. Where she sat down to rest, the imprints of her feet are found (charan paduka) and then she tried hiding from Bhairon in a cave — the ‘Ardh Kuwari‘. It took Bhairon 9 months to locate this hideout. For that reason, the cave is also called the ‘Garbha Joon‘ (garbha means womb).
Vaishnavi then ran up the Trikuta mountains till she reached the cave where the shrine is built. Bhairon followed her to this cave too and when Vaishnavi saw that Bhairon was being persistent, she cut off his head with such a blow that the head rolled and fell 1.5 kms away. His body is supposed to be the boulder at the entrance of the shrine. When Bhairon begged for repentance, Vaishnavi forgave him with the boon that the pilgrimage of a devotee who doesn’t visit his temple after visiting hers, will remain incomplete.
She then went inside this cave, shed off her human form and turned herself into a rock with three heads, immersed in meditation forever. The heads in the form of the three ‘pindies‘ are present in the ‘Sanctum Sanctorum’ of the cave and is revered by all.
Jai Mata Di – Vaishno Devi
As one sets off from Katra, one soon sees the holy river ‘Banganga’. Those who cannot walk, can take an auto rickshaw up to Banganga. The atmosphere is festive all through and its like a ‘mela’ on the road. Groups of devotees, enthusiastic youngsters, the ponies, the palkis — all almost jostle their way on the road, sportingly, chanting,”Jai Mata Di” (glory be to the goddess).
The best part is that anybody lagging behind due to exhaustion is encouraged by passer bys to carry on. Devotees going up are egged on by devotees climbing down after the darshan. Its like a big family out there.
From here, help of ponies and ‘palkis‘ can be taken all the way to reach the shrine or half way up to Ardh Kuwari. (Ponies till Ardh Kuwari take Rs. 500 – USD $ 7.7). The road is lined with shops and restaurants for almost 2 kms long.
The first temple, just 1.5 kms from Banganga, located enroute to the shrine is ‘Charan Paduka’. Here, on a rock, the foot prints of the Goddess can be seen. Pilgrims take blessings and then carry on their journey.
The next major stop is Ardh Kuwari, 4,800 ft above sea level and also called ‘Hathi Matha‘, since it resembles an elephant’s head. The cave, where the Goddess rested for 9 months, is narrow and just about 15 feet. In spite of its narrowness, the belief is even the heaviest person can easily pass through it. Devotees rest here for some time before proceeding. There are wash rooms and small eateries here. Paranthas and red bean curry is the most common meal at all eateries.
After this mid-point, the road to the Bhavan, gets a little steep.
To make the pilgrimage comfortable for the elderly or invalid, eco- friendly, battery operated vehicles ply between Ardh Kuwari and the Bhavan. One vehicle can accommodate 8 people and they charge Rs. 300 per person for going up and Rs. 200 while coming down. But the downside is that these vehicles ply every 3 hours as they need to be recharged and so if you don’t reach on time, you end up waiting for the next few hours. Also, they get sold out very fast due to the obvious convenience.
The last leg of journey to the shrine fills one with enthusiasm, fervour and gratitude. You will sense your steps become lighter as the Bhavan becomes visible at a bend in the road. The chants become louder and there is a lot of activity going on on this stretch of road. Shops and restaurants miraculously start appearing again in the last 2 kms.
From the base of the Bhavan, one needs to climb stairs for almost 3 storeys. There is provision to deposit your footwear and other belongings at this point. No cell phones are allowed inside. Show your receipt at the Yatra Slip Counter and you will be allocated a number for your dharshan. Just carry the offering for the deity and get into the line when your number is displayed.
Those who are willing to climb up to Bhairon Temple, then move on while others just look up at it with folded hands and pray for His blessings.
On the return, there is also provision for using a leg massager, just for Rs. 50 for 15 minutes, to relax the aching muscles.
Online helicopter booking from Katra to Sanjichatt
Before we left for Jammu, we made online reservations for the helicopter service from Katra to Sanjichatt for Rs. 1200 each. We had booked for the early morning, 6.30 am ‘aarti‘. It costs Rs. 16,000 per person and a room along with dinner and breakfast is complimentary near the Bhavan.
At Katra, a vehicle took us to the helipad, where we were ‘measured’ and asked to board the Himalayan Helicopter, according to our weight. Its just a 5-minute flight to Sanjichatt. Many a time the flight is cancelled due to bad weather. The money is refunded and you then join the rest of the devotees going by road.
We reached the Bhawan complex and checked into the comfortable rooms. Delicious vegetarian food was served for dinner.
We reached the sanctum sanctorum at 6 am in the morning. ‘Vishesh aarti’ starts outside with ‘mantras’. Then, 10 of us booked for the ‘vishesh aarti’ were taken inside and we witnessed the divine aarti and ‘bhog‘ for the Goddess. After this we joined the other 100 people waiting outside the cave for ‘Atka aarti‘ and the ‘aarti‘ was performed again till 8.30 am. ‘Prasad‘ was then distributed. The general line for the other devotees is then opened.
We had a hearty breakfast of ‘poori‘ and ‘halwa‘ at the mess and proceeded for the helipad for our journey back, feeling totally elated and at peace, silently praying that we get a ‘bulawa‘ from Mata again.