Vaishno Devi is one of the nine incarnations of Divine mother. Her shrine nestles in a cave in the mountains of Jammu in northern India. The origins of the cave are lost to antiquity and so is the beginning of the pilgrimage by Hindus. It is believed that one doesn’t simply go there, one is invited by the mother. Every Hindu cherishes the time when s/he will be invited to visit the shrine. It is a very emotional issue for most people. One has to really make the trip to feel the fervor of the pilgrims as they trek up twelve kilometers. It is a beautiful and intensely spiritual experience. My first pilgrimage to the shrine took place in nineteen sixty three when I was all of eleven years old. The summer vacations had just started and my father and his very close friend made arrangements for the journey. Today the train goes right up to Jammu; back then, it ended at Pathan Kot.
We boarded the train at Delhi in the evening and made ourselves comfortable. There were altogether five kids in the group and the excitement was at fever pitch. All of us kept running around at the platform much to the chagrin of our parents. There were eighteen coaches in the train and it was hauled by a steam engine. Diesel locomotives had not yet appeared on every train.
We left Delhi and were soon chugging along merrily. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep and kept myself glued to the window peering out into the night. The countryside was lit only by the moonlight and appeared very mysterious. I remember keeping a mental record of all stations that came and went. I must have dozed off because when I woke up next day, we had reached Pathan Kot. After a hurried breakfast at a small restaurant outside the station we prepared for the next part of our journey. Bedding, suitcases and hand bags were gathered at one place as my father and his friends scouted for a transport to Jammu. Today Pathan Kot is very well served by buses from every part of northern India but at the time of my first trip the sole means of transport were rickety and ramshackle taxis that seated seven people but were invariably crammed with up to eleven as the owners tried to maximize their profits. The luggage was stashed in the trunk and on racks strung over the roof.
We left around ten in the morning and after a three hour ride reached Jammu. We had some lunch and then boarded a small bus for Katra. It seated around thirty five people. It was a curious looking contraption as the bus body was mounted on a truck chassis. From the front it looked like a truck but the rest of it was all bus. It was one more curious thing on my list which was soon to become quite a bit longer.
The journey started with a spontaneous salutation to the goddess from every one on board and continued at various intervals until we reached Katra. People sang hymens, clapped to the tune of devotional songs and made merry. It was a hilarious experience.
We reached Katra in the evening. Unlike the modern bustling township which it is today, Katra of those days was a little village which appeared to be in deep slumber. There was no electricity and the main street had three Dhabas or eating joints and a few sundry shops selling milk, sweets and tea. There was also an assortment of shops selling dry fruits and handicrafts like carved wooden sticks, locally made woolen items etc. The whole street did not extend beyond three hundred yards.
My father knew the local priest who rented out rooms to pilgrims like us and it was to this house that we went. The room was as bare as it could be. There was no furniture, no bed, no chair; nothing. A window looked out to the mountains and allowed some light. Ceiling fans and electric light were conspicuous by their absence. There was a kerosene lamp and some candles which we lit. For a kid like me who had never been to a place like this it was a mixed feeling. I have always loved mountains but I wasn’t prepared for the total darkness which soon descended upon the country side.
For dinner we went to a nearby Dhaba and had a hearty meal as all of us were famished. Then came the exploration part. We had carried flashlights with us and barring my two sisters, I and the two of my friends friends set out to explore Katra. We roamed around the place for about two hours. The streets were empty. The visit to the main bus station was disappointing as it was deserted. There were very few people around and it was a desolate place.
We started for the shrine early next morning after some tea. The route went up an incline and then sloped down. About fifteen minutes of walking brought us near Baan Ganga which is a mountain river flowing near Katra. The noise of water rushing and tripping on the huge boulders created a steady roar and pretty soon we had to shout to be heard. A little way ahead the river made a lagoon which was deep enough to allow us to take a swim. We cavorted around for a while. The water was cold and invigorating and soon our teeth were chattering. All the sleep and fatigue of the past twenty four hours was washed away and we were ready for the trek ahead. Getting out of the water was a relief. There were two eating joints selling hot Alu-puri (Patato curry and fried bread) and after gorging ourselves on it we set out again.
The main shrine is situated twelve kilometers away from Katra if one follows the winding trail. There is however an alternate route which consists of rough hewn stairs from the rocks. These steps had become rounded and polished from thousands of pilgrims visiting the shrine for hundreds of years. They were slippery and it took some time getting used to climb them.
The elders opted for the easier, gently climbing trail while we the kids went up the stairs. I guess we were all showing off to our parents who watched bemused as we took the shorter route and reached the trail ahead of them.
The climb was great fun. Unlike at present, there were no shops selling CDs and cassettes and playing loud music. The climb was peaceful and it was quite an experience to hear the sound of wind whispering through Chir and deodar (Fir) trees. It was very quiet all along. The Sun was bright, the sky a deep blue and there were bird calls everywhere. For me it was paradise. Forty years later I can still feel the bliss of that climb.
Occasionally one could hear the singing of pilgrims as they climbed. The atmosphere was festive and cheerful without being noisy.
Climbing was thirsty work but there were water points all along the route dispensing water, boiled black chickpeas and lumps of raw sugar. Every thing was free, we paid for nothing. Even so every one of these places had a heap of copper coins (pennies) left there by grateful travelers.
We reached Adh-Kunwari the half way point about noon. There were four small restaurants selling a simple meal along with two or three tea stalls.
Lunch was definitely in order and we polished off a big one. After some tea we started our trek again. The climb now took a very arduous turn. The stairs went steeply up and climbing twenty at one go was energy sapping experience. The trail’s character changed too. No longer was it a gently climbing one. Walking uphill was now a difficult proposition. The stairs now had steel pipes stretched along both sides to prevent slipping. This climb is called Hathi-Matha (elephant’s forehead) and we soon realized why.
It was slow and tiring and all of us needed to rest every few minutes. The trail kept climbing for a while and then became a little easier. We were now on our way to a resting place called Sanjhi-Chat (common roof as it sat astride two mountains) and reached there after about an hour. There was a concrete balcony and it afforded a grand view of the mountains. It was really beautiful to see rolling hills all the way to the horizon. Gazing down, Katra looked a small white-brown speck on the green hills. The winding approach road to Katra was visible. Some where further ahead was Jammu; now lost in the mist.
After a short rest we started again and once again the climb became grueling. The stairs were about fourteen inches high here and my calf muscles almost gave up. My legs were shaking with the strain and every breath was a gasp. We were now going across to another mountain and it kept on climbing steadily. Another hour’s worth of walking brought us to the top where a temple devoted to demon Bhairon is situated. This marked the highest point and now the trail sloped down hill. I remember passing through a canopy of dense forest along the way. We finally reached the Shrine around six in the evening. It was getting cold now and we had to unpack our sweaters.
Unlike today there was no place to spend the night up at the shrine and all we could find was a shed with a corrugated tin roof. We spread our bedding on the floor and prepared to wait for our turn. There were quite a few people ahead of us and the estimated time for our turn was around two in the morning.
It is mandatory for all able bodied pilgrims to clean themselves before entering the cave where mother goddess has her abode.
There is a natural spring at the top of the mountain and it flows down through the cave and onto a channel which guides it to the bathing place. These days there are water pipes dispensing water at half a dozen points but in those days there was just one spout from where water gushed out in a stream about a foot across. It was icy cold and had the force of a jack hammer. There were bets going around to be won by any one who could stand under it for sixty seconds. As far I know no one won a prize that day.
I remember spending the briefest possible time under the spout to satisfy the bare minimum requirements of the ritual and then ran out numb from the cold. A change of clothes stopped my shivering and I retired to my place in the line. Our turn came around two in the morning.
The Shrine had a diesel electric generator, and the cave as well as the approach to it was lit with electric bulbs. The generator must have been ancient as the electric light was not a steady bright one. It pulsated with every turn of the generator. The effect was somewhat like the decoration lights we see in fair grounds.
They allowed people in the compound in groups of fifty at a time. Each group was divided into five sub groups. The spiritual fervor here was intense. Salutation and chants in praise of divine mother went up every so often. I remember one gentleman ringing the bell at the entrance of the cave continuously without any let up.
The entrance to the cave is very narrow and one has to wriggle through the foot stone and the overhanging rock to enter it. The stone here is worn smooth from centuries of touching by human hands and was smooth and slippery to the touch. The floor of the cave was covered with ice cold spring water and my feet were soon quite numb. The left side of the cave is nothing but sloping and slippery rock and I climbed on to the smooth stone to keep warm. There were a few light fixtures on the right side of the cave and they provided enough light to navigate. The diameter of the cave is about six feet at its widest but is often only two feet across There were people coming out and going in through that narrow space and I had to constantly climb the rocks on either side to avoid collision..
A few more yards and I reached the three steps that lead to the sanctum sanctorum. A constant stream of water flows over the steps and one has to be careful climbing them. My turn finally came and I had my first glimpse of the famous three round stones in which the power of the divine mother resides. Each stone was wrapped in red cloth. Ornate silver Chhatra (Umbrella) was hanging over them. There were three lamps burning and the air was fragrant with incense and Keora water. I did not know how to pray and so I bowed by head and asked for forgiveness for what ever wrong I had done. I spent about ten minutes there and then it was time to make space for the people behind me.
Coming out took another ten minutes and I returned to where we had pitched our bedding. Sleep was easy after that and I woke up fully rested the next day. The return journey was almost a repeat of the one on the way in. The journey back to Delhi was uneventful.
Over the period of next thirty years I went to the shrine twenty one times. My last visit was in nineteen ninety five. I have seen an enormous change come over the whole place. Gone is the peace and quiet of Katra town. It now resembles a resort. Gone too is the serenity and quiet of the scenic route. Its place has been taken by crassly commercial shops selling and playing their music system at top volume. Ill conceived and unplanned construction is an eye sore and has killed the natural beauty.
The rushing waters of Ban Ganga are gone too. The stones there are silent. They sing no more as the stream that used to rush over them has been diverted to quench the thirst of tourist industry and an ever expanding mass of people. The pristine valley is now a land fill for garbage. I could be wrong but I feel that for most people the shrine is now a holiday destination.
The character of the place has changed totally. I guess it is called progress, and I am told its march is relentless. But I do wish that the clock will roll back and bring back the harmony and tranquility of the place.
If divine mother could grant me one wish I guess that would be it.
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