VAISHNODEVI, KATRA, JAMMU AND KASHMIR, INDIA.
“There is a woman ahead of me. She walks bare feet on a road scorching to the touch. Her feet are blistered and band aids stick to her soles. She stops to rest, and then surges forward one painful step at a time”.
All round pilgrims are milling by. Some so old and frail, they totter on their feet and have to be helped by younger relatives. Some canter by on horses that neigh, snort and nudge you from behind to give way. While some gently wobble up and down in rhythm to the marching steps of four men who carry them in palanquins like the nobility of old.
In the midst of this chaos, small groups, face reddened by the sun, and sweat beads streaming down their brow, trudge through like recruits on training marches, chanting a centuries old ode in praise of the goddess whom they have traveled from far to visit. Nearby listeners even if they are headed in the opposite direction, join in the chorus – from almost everywhere a familiar chant floats across: jor se bolo, jai mata di, pyaar se bolo jai mata di.
On this road, no matter what your religion or belief, the fervour can engulf you. It resonates from every corner. From the people who make the climb. From the loners who walk by muttering softly: jai mata di, jai mata di. From the shops that line both sides. From the temples and shrines that stand silent witness to the pulsating spectacle. That’s when you realize this is no ordinary pilgrim road. This is the walk of faith to the holy temple of Mata Vaishno Devi, one of the country’s most pious religious destinations.
“The average pilgrim. Who makes the arduous climb is not the everyday mountaineer or triathlon star conditioned and trained for treks and climbs”.
The holy road can get crowded as visitors from across the country come to pay their obeisance to the mother goddess. In recent times with new developments incorporated pilgrims have tripled. Wikipedia mentions an annual figure of 8 million each year. The Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board puts the total at 104.95 lakh visitors for 2012 alone.
People whose daily exercise constitute of a walk in the neighborhood park or a drive to the grocer in an air conditioned car walk at different pace uphill or down. The sun, wind, weather and the distance does not dampen spirits. They push their limits and find strength to struggle forward in slippers, sandals, shoes or bare feet. They stop at stalls, sit on parapets, on the road itself, catch their breath and lumber on. Faith moves the feet on this road.
Vaishno Devi is the culminated energy of the three supreme female deities of the Hindu heavens. Kali the fearsome warrior, Lakshmi the wealth bringer and Saraswati the endower of wisdom. She is a celestial virgin who meditates in a mountain cave of the Trikuta Mountain in the Shivalik range, waiting for the return of Vishnu in his Kalki incarnation who she has vowed to marry since before recorded history. A benevolent goddess, she fulfils the wishes of all those who come to her abode. And as the saying goes, one doesn’t make the trip unless she wants them to come.
“The ancient Aryans considered the mountain holy. Centuries before it became a pilgrimage destination”.
Though temples and shrines can be found in many places along the holy road. Pilgrims don’t visit the Vaishno Devi to worship man made idols. They walk up the hill to venerate three natural rock fragments representing the goddess Kali, Lakshmi and Saraswati. The unique thing about the fragments is that each is different from the other in colour.
Trikuta meaning three headed comes from Sanskrit – the ancient language of the nomadic Aryans tribes who settled in the country after the Harappan decline and gave birth to Hinduism, the oldest religion in the world. Sanskrit is the mother of many present day Indian languages and still spoken in pockets across the country, mainly in the mantras recited by priests during religious rituals.
The name Trikuta refers to a three peaked mountain where the cave of Vaishno Devi is located. Vyasa, the poet of the epic Mahabharata mentions the mountain in a chapter and the goddess who dwells there. The epic is thought to date back to the 8th century BC. There is no scientific evidence or record suggesting why the early Aryans thought the mountain to be the dwelling place of a goddess. But they just did.
The cave is not very far from the summit and pilgrims who visit it do not go there to worship man created idols. They go there to pay their obeisance to three natural rock fragments that are taken to be of the three supreme goddesses. Each possibly over a million years old.
In peak season the area is cordoned off but you can get to view it enroute to the sanctum. Neelam Singh Jaral, a marketing executive at the Jai Maa Inn Hotel, and a local has been inside. According to him, in winter months when the ebb of pilgrims is at its lowest, the barricades are removed allowing one to get up close. Water seeps through its rocks and the base is constantly submerged. The cave has a narrow opening that certain sources suggest extends inside a 100 feet.
“The pilgrimage begun with a poor Brahmin priest known as Pundit Shridhar”.
Its common to come across pilgrims sporting read head bands with the words jai mata di and chanting the same to venerate the goddess. The shop in the distance is one of the many that line both sides of the path for the first one or two kilometers. Litter bins at intervals and religious sentiments make the road possibly one of the cleanest in the country.
The pilgrimage to the holy place is believed to have started somewhere in the proximity of the 12th century A.D, when a certain Pandit Shridhar, a poor childless Brahmin, living in a village located at the foot of the mountain, clambered up the path and discovered the ancient cave.
Pandit Shridhar made the trek up when there was no road. He did it bare feet and over pebbles, boulders, sharp rock edges and prickly shrubs. Whenever he lost his way, the goddess appeared and set him on the right course.
Today, chances of getting lost on the mountain are practically none. A paved road tiled with stones slabs and tiles wend all the way to the doorstep of the temple with security checkpoints at intervals, staircases with sign boards mentioning the exact number for steps for short cuts and a host of facilities. Put in place by the Sri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, a committee that has been instrumental in improving the pilgrimage and looking after the welfare of pilgrims.
“The developments carried out by the SRI MATA VAISHNO DEVI SHRINE BOARD are not just on paper. You get to appreciate them on your way up or down”.
A wayfarer sitting on a divider railing under a storm shelter smiles. Structures like this one with benches and beverage stalls (behind the boy in the distance) helps tired pilgrims rest and replenish energy levels, especially on hot days. Though not all storm shelters have benches and beverage stalls as yet.
Prior to the developments, pilgrims who ventured up the road did so under a lot of stress. The narrow mountain path was unkept and hard. Periled by the weather like sudden rains, hailstorms and heat, many fell sick from exhaustion and exposure. Even fewer than imagined by the common man attempted the climb.
Now, the road is broader and well paved. Storm shelters with iron benches grace its many curves and turns; protective iron nets near sheer drops guard against mishaps; local confectioneries and restaurants serve vegetarian delicacies; water vending machines and beverage dispensers keep travelers hydrated; and pharmacists and medical units care for their health.
The new developments don’t just stop here. Battery powered vehicles resembling the ordinary auto rickshaw ferry passengers on the final leg from Ahukumari to Bhawan. A helicopter service flies pilgrims right from Katra to a base close to the temple complex.
Free dormitories and rented accommodations at intervals let the old and weary break their journey, rest their aching muscles and spend more days within the temple complex. Additional public bathrooms let them bathe the grime and dust off their bodies before the darshan.
In the night, high pressure sodium vapor lamps light up the path. Ponies trot by (see Farbound.Net snippet: Ponies for the road), palanquins bearers (see Farbound.Net snippet: The Pithu) sit on the sides, cops patrol the security checkpoints and an endless stream of pilgrims course thorough. 24 hours the road is seldom empty and safe to travel alone or in a group.
Public toilets, trash cans and a respect stemming from religious sentiments also makes it one of the cleanest in the country.
“Darshani Darwaza is the entry point.
Banganga, Charan Paduka, Adhkuwari, are places the goddess stopped by when she was herself traveling to the cave. Himkoti and Sanjhichhat are the last two stops before Bhawan- the final destination in the pilgrimage. Beyond is the temple of Bhairon Nath”.
As you go higher up you get to see more of the countryside. Below is a view of the town of Katra. The temple complex is roughly 12 kms uphill. In places like Himkoti and Sanjhichhat, the view becomes even more splendid and you can see far into the distant horizon.
Darshani Darwaza is where the pilgrimage actually begins. Here Vaishno Devi in the guise of a little girl appeared before Shridhar and guided his footsteps to her mountain cave. A newly created gate stands at the spot with iron queue rails that snake through to the first and a major checkpoint. There is a separate line for women and men. X-ray machines scan bags while burly cops frisk visitors. Entry passes procured at the Yatra registration office is a mandatory requisite for venturing beyond this point.
Banganga, Charan Paduka and Adukuwari are significant points in the journey. In Banganga the goddess is said to have used her bow and arrow to pierce the earth for water. The stream still flows. In Charan Paduka, she left an impression of her footstep. The rock with the impression is its own place of worship.
In Adukuwari, a major stopover, and the half way point in the journey, she spent near about a year praying to the Lord Shiva then dug a tunnel towards the top. From Adukuwari, an alternate route cut out under the new development initiate curves to the temple complex.
If for the first odd kilometer or so, local shops, shrines and small temples flank both sides allowing people to buy walking sticks, refreshments, idols, hire horses or palanquins, the road at Himkoti and Sanjhichhat offers them a splendid view from a high vantage point. The entire countryside opens up here and many stop by to gaze upon the scenery.
“The temple complex is a heavily guarded fortress. In the peak season, throughout the year, all 24 hours of the day, it never shuts down except during the evening and morning prayer sessions”.
An extended storm shelter winds along the natural curve of the mountain road. Heightened security and the climb makes the temple appear like a medieval stronghold. In reality it is akin to a fortress. Visitors often mistake the white building in the photo for the temple. Which is still a good distance away beyond the curve.
Para military forces with assault rifles and heavy army boots patrol both inside and outside the temple complex. Passes procured at the registration office in Katra are scanned before visitors are admitted into Bhawan.
Bhawan is a bustling centre that like the temple it contains hardly sleeps. People meander past its veins looking for locker rooms, accommodations, food, public bathing rooms or stroll around the complex. Horse owners and palanquin bearers mingle with the crowd looking for business. Restaurants serve a never ending line of customers. While devotees queue up in front of the temple for the anticipated darshan.
During the morning and evening ceremony, when the temple is off limits for near about two hours, this queue can built up to more than two kilometer as people, sometimes suffering the stench of a public restroom and a floor mat wet with water, wait in a narrow lane fenced in by strong a iron net. Multiple check points manned by police personnel frisk everyone and everyone who is not a VIP stands in this line.
On heavy rush days, the darshan is like a strictly controlled guide tour. You enter with a long line of visitors, file past checkpoints where you are frisked each time, go into a large chamber with modern day idols of the three goddesses, walk into the next one to pay your obeisance to the holy cave (the original one), climb a flight of steps into an open courtyard, then finally enter a mason built tunnel that leads to the holy rock fragments before being ushered out in line.
In total visitors get to spend less than thirty seconds inside the last chamber where the rock fragments are with every step tightly monitored and under armed surveillance. But no one thinks of it as hassle and 24 hours people are pouring in to ask for blessings and pray for boons. The temple never closes, except for the two hour morning and evening prayer sessions.
“New facilities have improved things greatly. But some see them as tainting the religious nature of a pilgrimage and turning it into a picnic. What does the rest of the country think?”
The answer lies in the number of visitors. After the developments were incorporated, pilgrims have tripled over the years. Wikipedia mentions a total of 8 million visiting the temple annually. The Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board published a total of 104.95 lakh visitors in 2012 alone. The fervor has not subsided. It appears to have grown larger.
People have more options in hand now and more of them get to visit a temple 12 km up on a mountain. Helicopters and battery powered vehicles get them there faster. Trash cans and public toilets at frequent intervals keep the road clean and pious. Beverage dispensers and restaurants recharge depleted energy levels.
No one comes here to picnic. It’s too sacred for that. Some still walk up the path bare feet, feeling grateful for the solid bench under a storm shelter that allows for a moment’s respite from the sun and the road.
Vaishno Devi remains among the country’s top pilgrimage destinations and whenever the Mata as she is fondly known as, wants her devotees to make that trip to visit her, the facilities enroute ensure they don’t give up halfway.