KATRA, JAMMU AND KASHMIR, INDIA.
Reaching the cave of the Vaishnodevi.
Mata Vaishno Devi is a religious destination located in the Trikuta mountain of the Shivalik range. Unlike the Kumbha, the pilgrimage to the holy cave can be undertaken any time of the year by trekking up a steep 12km well paved road on foot, horseback, palanquins or in a helicopter. The important thing to keep in mind is that pilgrims who visit the cave of the Vaishnodevi do not go there to venerate man made idols but three (over a million year old) rock fragments taken to be the representation of three goddesses (See Farbound.Net story: The Pilgrim road).
The 12 km pilgrim path is tightly monitored by police personnel and paramilitary forces with multiple checkpoints at intervals. Frisking and searching of personal belongings is frequent. Video cameras are not officially allowed on the trek (unless with special permission) but you can take along cameras without having to pay a separate fee.
How to get there.
Katra is a rapidly growing town 47 km from the city of Jammu. Currently it is connected by the National Highway 44 and a newly built railway station located within Katra itself. To get to Katra, you will either need to book a ticket on the Sri Shakti Ac Express running from Delhi to Katra. Or make your way to Jammu city which also has a railway station and an airport. Then hire a cab or take the local bus.
There is also the option of reaching the pilgrim town via one’s own vehicle or long distance buses, such as sleepers and volvos, which operate from Delhi and other cities, and will take you directly to Katra ( see Farbound.Net review: Sleepers for Katra.)
A registration pass is prerequisite for going up the path. These are available at the Yatra registration office located near the main market in Katra, right opposite a circular fountain in the middle. For guidance ask any of the locals there.
Darshani Darwaza is the entry point and can be easily identified by its elaborate temple like gate and queue rails. This is a main checkpoint where luggage and personal belongings are checked in an x-ray monitor and visitors frisked by security personnel. Without the pass you will not be allowed beyond this point.
Pilgrims who wish to venerate the three rock fragments with a traditional offering can do so with a single piece of Chunri, chola, sari or silver ornament for each goddess. Or buy the items in a collective package from local shops in Katra. Prices differ in quality and size.
The silver ornaments, such as the crown, is melted into coins and handed over to pilgrims. Visit the Bhaint, Prasad & Offerings page on the Sri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board website to know more.
Symbolic places along the way.
Banganga, Charan Paduka and Adhkuwari are milestones on the journey. Each of these three places has a symbolic significance associated with the goddess. Adhkuwari is the mid way point. Himkoti and Sanjhichhat are the final two stops before Bhawan – where the temple complex is located.
Darshani Darwaza: The main entry point with a Hindu temple like structure and the first checkpoint – without registration passes visitors cannot proceed farther.
Banganga: A symbolic place lined with shops, eateries and shrines on both sides of the road. Pilgrims can hire horses or palanquins from here as well as along the pilgrim path.
Charan Paduka: Footprints of the Vaishno Devi on a rock slab -that pilgrims stop by to touch before beginning the climb up.
Adhkuwari: A place where the Vaishno Devi is believed to have spend time meditating inside a cave now located at a distance of six kilometers. Considered the second most holy place next to Bhawan.
Himkoti: Located on a new stretch of road. Battery powered auto rickshaws operate from here. The stretch offers a splendid view of the countryside.
Sanjhichhat: Breath taking sights of the countryside. Helipad located in the area. Visitors can hire horses or palanquins for the remainder of the journey.
Bhawan: The main temple complex with locker rooms, lodging facilities, bathing areas and restaurants. The area is heavily guarded by paramilitary forces.
Bhairon Nath Temple: A temple dedicated to a mortal whose lust for the beautiful Vaishno Devi finally ended with his death at the hands of the goddess herself. In lore the temple occupies the spot where his head fell. Two kilometers farther-up from the main temple complex.
Facilities on the road.
The road is a well maintained one with staircases at intervals for short cuts. Local shops, shrines and temples flank both sides of the road for the first leg of the journey.
Storm shelters, iron benches, beverage dispensers, eating establishments, drinking water, medical units, pharmacists and public toilets (more of the Indian squat type) are present at intervals, all the way to the top.
At night, high powered sodium vapour lamps illuminate the path that is seldom empty and safe to travel on. Horse and palanquins operate even during these hours. But the helicopter service and battery powered auto rickshaws only operate during the day.
Katra has numerous hotels and lodging options for a long or short duration stay. Accommodations both paid and free are available at Katra, Adhukuwari and Bhawan.
Free accommodation facilities are in the form of dormitories with cots for beds. Blankets for the night can be availed by depositing a security amount.
Upon reaching Bhawan, there are several cloak rooms where you will need to deposit your shoes, bags and other personal items before visiting the main temple, bare feet. If you wish to bathe before visiting, there are public bathing rooms at Bhawan.
How to take the journey.
The average time to reach the temple complex on foot ranges between 4 and 7 hours. Depending on your stamina and will, you can undertake the journey in a day starting at sunrise and return the very same evening. Or break your journey over the course of two or four days at either Adhukuwari or Bhawan itself.
In summers the ideal time would be to begin in the early hours preferably 6 am or after dusk. Days can be hot and a trek in the afternoon will quickly sap your energy.
The cave of the Mata Vaishno Devi is to found within an elaborate temple complex but is cordoned off during peak seasons. The Darshan take place in a masonry built tunnel where the three rock fragments are present and approached via an open courtyard.
The temple complex can be visited all 24 hours but is off limits to visitors and pilgrims during the evening and morning prayer sessions, which are of two hours respectively.
If you happen to visit during these hours, you’ll be standing in a queue which depending on the number of pilgrims present can extend to more than two kilometers.
If you do not like to travel on foot, you can hire horses and palanquins for the trip up or down. Battery powered auto-rickshaws offer another alternate mode of transport from Adhukuwari to Bhawan.
There is also a helicopter service that operates from Katra. For the helicopter service you will have to book online and in advance.
What to take along.
A light jacket or sweater in the backpack comes handy as evenings and nights up in the mountain can turn cold even during summer months. For winters its heavy woolens and jackets. A spare set of fresh clothes, helps in case of sudden thunder showers or to get rid of sweat drenched overalls. Water bottles, confectionery, food and medical supplies are available along the way.
What to keep in mind.
Food served at hotels and all restaurants in Katra and along the pilgrim path is strictly vegetarian. A voter’s ID card, pan card, driving license, passport or other identification papers are necessary.