Chapter 21 of 22
The following morning, after meal, we leisurely left the hotel premises to start the activities of the day. The gradual descent from the highest point on Srinagar-Jammu road – Patnitop – in late morning, gathered momentum after passing through Kud, located just eight km ahead. The settlement of Kud is famous for Indian sweet Patissa, sold fresh and hot by the red-coloured sweet shops located on both sides of the NH1A. A tea here seemed to be a perfect approach to break the laziness armour-plated by the nip in the morning air. The JKTDC as well as a few private operators maintained their properties overseeing the captivating Kud valley. The township of Udhampur was still 40 km ahead.
Descending the green Shivalik hills, we soon reached the military town Udhampur (808 m). The town wore a deserted look due to Bharat Bandh, called by the NDA (National Democratic Alliance), main opposition alliance at the centre, to protest against the fuel price hike, FDI in retail as well as rationing of subsidised LPG cylinders. Greened by Eucalyptuses, the district consists of many travel destinations including the sixth-century group of temples at Khiramchi, Shivkhori, Pancheri, etc. I was particularly interested in visiting the ancient temples but was advised by the paramilitary staff, posted near the Supply Chowk, not to venture into the off-NH1A area because of the protests. Frustrated, we asked for the directions to Katra, base for Mata Vaishno Devi pilgrimage, which could be reached taking a 17 km road branching off the main highway from Domail ahead of Tikkri. Initially, we had no plans of visiting the major Hindu shrine but passing through an area, so near to the keenly sought-after destination, we just did not want to miss the opportunity.
The hill – Tirukuta Mountain – on which the main temple is sited, becomes visible from the highway itself near Domail. Revering the holy site, the road meandered in a valley-like topography and slightly gained height to reach Katra (868 m), a base-village located at the foothill of the Tirukuta Mountain. With ever increasing number of pilgrims, Katra today is a thriving tourist village offering accommodation options as well as restaurants that suit all pockets. Having been to the shrine more than half-a-dozen times, by now I was familiar with the area. Confirming an accommodation, we took an afternoon nap in the hotel room allowing just sufficient time to climb in the evening and be back, after darshan at the shrine, before the next daylight.
I usually start the yatra in the early evening so as to reach the Bhawan, the Sanctum Sanctorum which is the Holy Cave, before the evening Aarti time – a couple of hours prescribed Pooja dedicated to Vaishno Maa – which starts after the sun sets. Likewise, the morning Aarti finishes before the sun rises. Loading my backpack with camera kit, GPS device as well as basic necessities for the climb, I headed out towards the market area. With the passage of time coupled with the wider acceptance of the shrine, Katra has expanded itself from a village to a tourist town peppered with restaurants, Prasad shops selling souvenirs as well as dry-fruits, garment shops, hotels, guesthouses and dharamsalas, etc. Pilgrim registration has been made mandatory at Katra before the start of the yatra. The registration slip (also entitles with accidental insurance up to Rs 1L), so obtained, is checked thrice by paramilitary jawans on the way to the Bhawan. With over 10 million pilgrims visiting annually, the affairs of the shrine are looked-after by the government controlled Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board headquartered at Katra. Earlier, the control of the shrine vested with the Maharaja of Kashmir. The hefty offerings which the shrine receives are claimed to be utilised towards the welfare of the pilgrims as well as to improve the infrastructure.
The initial stretch to the imposing gate, marking the beginning of the foot march to the Bhawan, passed through fume-choked crowded streets of Katra. People generally prefer taking an auto from Katra to reach the gateway but I resisted doing so. The gateway is marked by a security check post that screen luggage as well as frisk every yatri. It didn’t require much explaining from my side to convince the jawan that the camera I carried was just a photo-camera (and not a video camera) and the GPS device was simply meant to record altitudes of major landmarks. The shrine has of late been subjected to substantial paramilitary presence owing to numerous threats issued by terrorist outfits such as Lashkar-e-Toiba.
Starting from a gateway-cum-checkpost located two km ahead of the registration counter at Katra, the yatra, an easy 12 km climb on graded pathways that takes up to four-five hours, passes through numerous ancient temples as well as landmarks on way to the Bhawan. Situated at a distance of one km from the gateway, the first major landmark, a gushing stream named Banganga (780 m) is popular for holy bath as well as langar run by T-Series Super Cassette Industries. This stretch of the climb is dotted with numerous souvenir shops as well as dhabas selling basic meals. Apart from incessant chanting of Jai Mata Di, the stretch is marked by Prasad shops blaringly playing the popular Bollywood numbers karaoked to “holy songs”. Pithoos, palkiwalas and ponywalas registered with the authorities could be hired in this stretch (from Katra to Banganga). Alternatively, one may like to hire the battery-operated auto-rickshaws (pre-booking required) or avail helicopter services (requires advance booking) to reach the Bhawan.
Crossing over to the other side of the valley, formed by the Banganga, the pathway steeply climbs in switchbacks to reach the next popular halt named Charanpaduka (1025 m) located about 1.5 km ahead. Legend has it that Mata Vaishno Devi took some rest here while climbing the Trikuta Hills. Aptly named Charanpaduka, the temple dedicated to the fable is said to have the foot prints of Goddess. The entire pathway, especially the first six km from the gateway, is dotted with refreshment, fruit shops, dhabas as well as the Shrine Board’s eateries. Increasingly popular nowadays, the first Café Coffee Day, selling limited items, is located 700 m ahead at an altitude of 1160 m.
The next widely accepted stopover, Ardhkuwari is located, midway on the yatra route, about 3.5 km ahead of Charanpaduka. Consisting of Ardhkuwari Temple comprising Garbhjoon, an ancient cave, believed to be a hiding place for Shri Mata Vaishno Devi from a tantric named Bairon Nath. It is from below this landmark, a recently constructed pathway, free of ponies, branched off the original route to the Bhawan. The original route climbs for four km to reach the highest point called Sanjichat after which it descends, for slightly more than a couple of kilometre, to reach the Bhawan.
Nevertheless, I took the newer route which was appreciatively out of bound for ponywalas and offered a slightly shorter access to the main temple. Whereas, the first-half of the pathway was not only crowded but full of ponies (and their shit), the remaining-half was calmer and offered splendid views of the Katra as well as distant looking Tawi River dividing the Jammu city into two. A fewer refreshment shops and Shrine Board’s eateries were located in this part of the yatra route. The major ones were at Himkoti (1500 m), located three km from Ardhkuwari, and Saket (1622 m), located 1.5 km before the Bhawan. I stopped to grab a quick Kadhi-chawal meal at the Shrine Board’s eatery at Himkoti. Open round the clock, the Board’s eateries sell hygienically cooked meal-combos, at reasonable prices, including rajma-chawal, idli-sambar, wada-sambar, dosa, kadhi-chawal, poori-chhole, etc. The Board has done well to build tin sheds, as well as wash rooms, after almost every 100 m all along the way. Apart from serving as a resting point, the sheds offers protection from rains as well as falling stones.
Plodding up the cave-shrine, the devotees often break into a dance amidst collective chants of Jai Mata Di, Zor se bolo, Jai Mata Di… The state of trance reaches its peak as one nears the cave for ultimate darshan of the three holy pindies of Mata. It was this meditative trance that makes the fatigue go vanish as one climbs the slopes of Trikuta Hills to reach the Bhawan. Being alone, undisturbed and ignorant of the happenings of the world down there, I revelled in the ultimate unison with oneself. Within no time I reached the premises of the Bhawan and having obtained a group number to enter the holy-cave, after showing my registration slip, I joined the queue to buy bhaints (offerings comprising a red chunni, dry coconut, Prasad, etc.) for Mata from a shop maintained by the Shrine Board.
Like in any other pilgrimage, one has to beware of thieves or pickpockets here as well. The incidents of luggage-lifting are not uncommon here. As carrying luggage inside the Bhawan complex is not permitted, the safest way to secure one’s belongings is to use the cloakroom services provided, free-of-cost, by the Shrine Board. However, as the insignificant-looking padlock which they provide practically carries little meaning, one is advised to carry own lock. I shilly-shallied while locking my backpack containing camera, other gadgets, wallet, wrist-watch, etc. along with shoes and belt. Afterwards, I joined the devotees of our group who sat cross-legged in a queue while listening to the Aarti being performed inside the cave as well as chanting Jai Mata Di. The tempo of collective chants increased as we neared the holy-cave which was recently renovated and modified to accommodate more devotees.
As we neared the holy-cave, I was not surprised to notice separate walkways for VIPs devotees whose entry inside the complex was prioritised based on the level of contacts each one of them had. This corporatisation of darshans was not something which was unique to this shrine. The desire as well as greed of our minds that bring us near God often remains ignorant of the fundamentals which led to the creation of God or religion in the first place. Today, the ease or rapidity of darshan at a shrine gets described either by contacts or money to buy “pooja-packages”.
The revelation of the Mother Goddess, inside the cave, is in natural form called pindies, three tiny rock-heads stemming from a single rock. After getting my bhaints exchanged from a counter located after the cave, I quickly headed towards the cloakroom where, mercifully, everything was in order. Collecting my stuff, I parked myself on a cold iron-bench located nearby the forked junction where the two pathways, from Katra, meet. It was nearing midnight but devotees of all caste, creed and sections of the society were still pouring in intoning Jai Mata Di. Considered by many to be a part of the yatra, the temple of Bhairon Nath, to be visited after Mata’s darshan, is located at a distance of 2.5 km from the Bhawan. The pathway is further linked to the Sanjichat. The last time when I visited the Bhairon Nath temple, I spotted many langoors on the way. This time I directed myself towards Katra through the preferred pathway on which ponywalas were prohibited to enter. The decent, putting additional weight on knees is harder than the ascent. By midnight I reached the eatery at Himkoti and munched on kadhi-chawal again. The never-ending groups of pilgrims, some enthusiastically cheering on others while a few dragged themselves panting for breathe, kept the trance gather momentum.
The popularity of Vaishno Devi has grown gazillion times, in recent years, making it one of the most sought-after deities in North India. A couple of decades ago, the shrine was especially popular with Punjabi community but today pilgrims comprise natives of Bihar, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, etc. as well. A great favourite of Delhi-Mumbai celebrities, the cave-shrine in due course of time has become one of the chief manifestations of Durga Mata. Descending the slopes of the hill past the Ardhkuwari, I plugged music into my ears just to escape the raucous as well as unmelodious bollywoodised songs sold in the name of religion. Lacking ideas and imagination to be put into a soothing melody, the filtering of Bollywood beats into the realms of devotion and mysticism is a culture-wide phenomenon. With the arrival of blazing Bollywood item numbers as well as the emergence of remixes, the bhajans too have undergone a makeover in the name of innovation.
It took me slightly more than four hours in reaching the gateway back from the Bhawan while the ascent had took just four. Almost immediately as I stepped on the other side of the gateway, I was surrounded by autowalas for Katra, who took full advantage of the situation and blackmailed tired visitors jacking up the fare by 10 times. In this age when both religious affiliations as well as criminal intentions are on the rise, our generation has just been enslaved by money-oriented desires and materialistic greed. I opted to continue walking to reach the hotel room. That night, I knew, I was going to get the best sleep.
View and read more on the area at the Kashmir Region Photoset on Flickr
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