come april 28 and it's time to get going on a real exciting trip, after weeks of homework, deliberation and co-ordinating... and a string of bookings/reservations. what was supposed to be a quick pilgrimage turned out to be one of the most intriguing and whackiest experiences ever - the tales, the generosity of people, the facilities, the easy comraderie, the fear of attacks, the excess security personnel... and so much more.
tripsheet: fly from bangalore to delhi.. take a train to jammu...a quick dekko around jammu... hop on a bus to katra... walk up the hills... have darshan.. marvel at everything around.. come back happy and dead tired..take a bus to delhi.. fly back to bangalore.
reach New Delhi's IGI airport at 6pm ...stepping into Delhi was like constantly being at the wrong end of an exhaust fan :) The temperature was inching towards 40 degree Celsius at that hour... gosh! we take an auto-rick from the airport to the nearest Metro station, Dwaraka sector 9, thanks to 'Yahoo! answers' on 'the cheapest way to reach New Delhi Railway Station from the airport'... 50 mins later we are at the railyway station. the train to Jammu, the Southern Kranti Express, arrives at 8pm and leaves at 8:40pm.
april 29: The train sees us off at the Jammu railway station at 7am. We take ricks to(the heart of) Jammu town, freshen up, eat and hire some more ricks to take us around. For Rs.300, an auto-driver is a guide for a day. He has a list of 6 temples that he will take you to(jammu is a temple town, remember?), and has no time restrictions.
The first in the list was Shiv Dhaam... a beautiful temple in marble, beside an irrigation canal. There is a basement to this temple where some more deities are housed. All idols are in white marble and decked with shimmering clothes, jewelry and flowers
Next was Har ki Paudi - a group of temples, popularly known as mini-Haridwar, by the Tawi river side. There are security personnel here, there, everywhere all over Jammu. You are supposed to leave your bags, and cell-phones and camera behind. We visit all the temples there. My favourite one was a Devi's Shayan Kaksh - a very pretty depiction of a goddess' bedroom. The temples are at multi-levels and you get to do a lot of climbing stairs and going round in circles. The water in the river was chill, though the river itself had dried up for most part and receded a long way from the banks(got an inborn talent for visiting places at the most wrong times). standing there, right ahead was the rest of the town on the river banks, on the left was this bridge for the new railway tracks that were being laid, and on the right was a (brown)palace ( now converted into a museum) perched on a hillock and beyond it, was a range of hills. And behind us, this cluster of temples. Talk of being in the middle of things ;)
The third was a very impressive Kali temple - one inside a fort. There's a heavily guarded parking lot and a mosque, and a pathway that leads to the fort. Once again, no cellphones, no camera and minimal baggage. There is a huge lawn spread out before the fort doors, and a small lake on your left and beyond the lake is the city sprawled out like an unfolded map. The queue was a very long one, there were separate queues for men and women. It takes us quite a while before you can reach the main shrine.
Once out of the temple, there were people serving ice-cold water from huge vessels that had large ice blocks floating in it. Prasad was a cup of halwa. You come out of the fort, and in the lawn are stalls put up, on either sides of the pathway. Each stall belongs to a group of people or to a family and they are dishing out food to people, for free, as a service to God. You get approached by someone or the other who'd say "please come to our stall", take you there, a family then greets you warmly and hands you a plateful. How cool is that! Poori and black channa and pumpkin sabzi, and rice and rajma were the popular foodstuff on offer. And every stall had sweets too. The mood is festive. People sit all over the lawn to eat. It's one amazing and peaceful place, or so you think, till you see the security folks on patrol. all in all, you'd be glad if you ever visit this temple.
Our fourth place was a Shiv temple in the midst of a narrow residential alley. some years ago, our rick-guy-guide doesn't know the year, this temple got occupied by a bunch of anti-social elements, who used the sanctity attached to the temple to their advantage. ever since, the security-personnel are now all over the insides of the temple as well. umm. errr... pretty weird! to go to a temple and have not one, but a bunch of people watching your every move.
Our fifth was the Raghubeer temple. The centre of the Jammu town is a marketplace, and the centre of the market place is this temple. The temple has a cloak room attached to it where you got to leave your stuff(by now you know the drill) - cellphones, camera, baggage. The entrance is again gaurded heavily by the police. This temple is spreadout over a large area... and has many smaller temples. It takes quite a while to look at all of them.
we cancel temple no.6 ...a quick look at the marketplace and we rush to take a bus to Katra. Katra, our prime destination, is a small town at the foot of the Trikuta mountains that house the Vaishnodevi Shrine, and is close to 50 kms from Jammu. The bus-ride to Katra is a good one, circuitous uphill roads amidst almost dry vegetation(wrong time of the year), picturesque gorges and dry waterways. Our rick-guide earlier told us that for all it's glory and proximity to srinagar, it never ever snows in Jammu. The bus takes the NH1 for a while(3 days after our trip ended, a section of this road got damaged in bombings). vaishnodevi's shrine is visible from the bus, long before you reach Katra. We reach around 3:30pm, and eat lunch first thing in Katra. After the hot and tiring day at Jammu, the climb/walk-uphill is postponed to late evening.
We leave for the Yatra(the walk uphill towards the Vaishnodevi temple) around 7:45pm and hop into a rick to take us from the hotel to the security gates that mark the beginning of the ascent, that's about 2.5kms. The security checkpost is where the Yatra of 13+ kms begins in its earnest. Here, you and your baggage are frisked and the Darshan slip(Yatra Parchi) checked. Yatra Parchi's can be got for free from an office en route, well before the security checkpost, or over the internet for a small fee. It's a very important piece of paper.
The 13+km path is used by the uphill and the downhill pilgrims. Hence, all along the way and at the security checkpost, you meet a lot of folks who are on their way back. Soon after the security checkpost is a cloakroom where you can check-in your excess baggage. As for us, we had decided to do the Yatra barefoot and we checked in our footwear(yeah, you can check-in that too!). Many folks do that as well. Once barefoot, we noticed how well the entire path was tiled, lighted and canopied.
The first point you hit on the Yatra is the BanGanga, about a km from the security post. Cool water pours out of a pair of (stone) lion heads. From here, upto 3kms or so, there are rows of shops and stalls on either sides of the Path, selling chunri, headbands, souveniers, dry fruits, a few eateries, shops lending footwear(surprising.. but true.. you can borrow walking shoes and return them after you're back), walking sticks et al. The entire path is well lit with sodium vapour lamps.
As you walk further, the shops thin out and the path continues in a serpentine manner with umpteen hairpin bends, getting pretty steep at these bends. All along the path, you also have these cement blocks that barricade the valley-side of the path and double up as nice places to sit and relax, when tired. From here, you can also trace the entire trail, thanks to those sodium lamps.
The chanting of "Jai Mata Di" and "Jai Kara Maa Sheraan Vaali Daa, Bol Saache Darbar Ki Jai" begins where the loud music of the stalls end. Pilgrims chant in unison and the tempo only rises when the group going the other way, join in. The chanting never stops till the time you are back and far away from the starting point.
Walking is not the only way to reach the Darbar(the main temple). There are mule/pony rides - tastefully decked ponies with tinkling bells will take you to your destination. Then there are pitthu's or porters. You can hire their services either to carry your baggage or to carry small kids or, if you are very old, then to merely assist you to walk along. Folks are devout enough to be in an extremely messed up physical form and yet have the faith to make it uphill on foot. Pitthu's let such people lean on them as they walk alongside. Then there are palki's or palenquins. This is for people who cannot make it on foot as they are too old to walk and too infirm to make it on a horseback. hence the palki. Apart from these, you could also take a ride in a helicopter upto Sannjhi Chhat, thats about 9.5kms from the start point.
Then there are water-holes every now and then along the Path - taps and tiled and all. Very neat. There are separate water holes for the ponies - they drink out of elevated tubs. The path is also canopied at many stretches and there are many resting points. There are an additional 2 or 3 security checkpoints. At one place, I think it was just beyond the Sannjhi Chat, the ponies get a frisk too. Everything has to be off-loaded from the ponyback including the saddle, for the benefit of the security personnel and put back again.
At most places along the route you have an option of taking short stairways too, with a board beside it telling you how many stairs it has. After walking for a few hours, you hit a fork - the left one takes you to the Bhawan the himkoti way(5.5 kms to Bhawan)and the right takes you the Adhkuwari way(6.5km to Bhawan). Adhkuwari has a history. Hence, thats the way to go. ( wonder what we missed at Himkoti )
At this fork, the crowd thins out into half the initial numbers. There are boards telling us the importance of a particular spot, the distance to the Bhawan, the emergency contact numbers etc. There are several view points made with seating arrangements. There are two charitable hospitals and a few eateries spread along the path and some of these even keep oxygen cylinders for emergencies. If they do, they have a board saying so.
It's a different culture altogether, everybody greets everybody else with a "Jai Mata di"... it's infectious and a perfectly normal thing to do.
It's 12am and we are still walking.
The uphill walk is the one to die for... the enthusiasm is contagious..the crowds encouraging... the chatter non-stop... the stories from fellow pilgrims plentiful.. the downhill crowd egg you on saying "bas pahunch gaye.. chalte raho"... and of course "jai mata di"... now, that's fun.
We make it to what is called the Bhawan at 2am, it's the centre of most activity. There's an office for enquiries and donations and then a locker area and just beside the locker facilities is the mesh-covered pathway to get to the sanctum sactorum. A little ahead on the right is the blanket store-room(more about this later) and other offices, and bathing facilities for men and women separated by a huge seating area.
so you bathe in cold water(now that's mandatory no matter how cold the weather is), leave your belongings in the locker and watch out for your group number to be announced, the one mentioned on your Yatra Parchi, and get into the queue to the Darbar.
After about 300 metres or so, we arrive at huge golden doors and step into what appears to be a room. This houses the mouth of a cave that was earlier the way to reach the darbar, but now closed to public. Pooja-n-bhajans are held here every morning and evening(and telecast live on MH channel) There is a small barricade in front of the cave opening, but we can peep as deep into the cave as possible from our place in the queue. ...deposit the coconuts into a counter and collect a token for the same and climb a few more marble stairs to arrive into the open. Here, with the mountain as the backdrop, there are silver doors. All around is the very obvious heavy security. You step inside the door and find yourself in covered passage in white marble. Chanting is not allowed here. 30 metres or so and there is the sanctum sanctorum on your left. It's a marble platform about 3 feet high, on which a pujari sits. And a few feet away(towards the far end) are the holy pindis. The cave forms the roof. There's a small stream of water running from this cave to the outside and finally to the BanGanga that you meet at the start of your Yatra. You get to hang around for a few seconds, before your turn is over. This is also where you turn in the offerings you've been carrying. Beyond this, the cave-roof continues and you have to bend very low to descend the few steps and then there's another marble covered passage and another pair of silver doors. And the darshan is over.
Just outside the doors, is another water point, the tiny stream flowing from inside the cave, pours out of three lionheads in stone. So the pilgrim has to drink from here and make a promise to come back for a darshan the following year. The queue moves on.
We are now given a silver coin - every pilgrim gets one, and if you make a donation(at the counter near the lockers), then you get some more. After this is the Prasad counter where you get a spoonful of piping hot halwa, kept in hotpans. Halwa is cooked in a very mysterious way, one of the many stories heard during the Yatra. Seven large handa's(huge bronze vessels) are stacked one above the other over a fire place and cooked at one go. Though the topmost container is checked to see is the dish is done, the halwa in each of the vessel gets cooked to exactly the same extent. Another story's that the lady PM once demanded to see the kitchen and was promptly turned down.
A little ahead are three counters: at the first you get a packet of prasad, at the second you get the coconuts back in exchange for the token, and the third counter is a souvenir shop. Here, you can buy the chunris that have been earlier used on the pindis.
It's was 4 am when we finished with the three counters.
A breakfast of rice and rajma and tea later, we collect our belongings from the locker. Too tired to continue, we borrow blankets from the blanket-store. There are 3 free blanket stores, one at Adhkuwari and 2 at the Bhawan. Devotees can borrow blankets for a refundable deposit of Rs.100 per blanket. This place is 3 stories high and people are asleep all around you in neat rows, on the floor. There are a few rooms and large corridors, and they all house sleeping folks. So we find enough place for ourselves and zonk off for 2 hours.
At 6am, we resume our journey. It's not over yet since we also have to go pay a visit to Bhairon Nath. It's a temple on the adjoining hill, and a pilgrimage to Vaishnodevi is considered incomplete without a visit to BhaironNath. The walk towards BhaironNath is particularly tedious and steep, and if barefoot, this is also where you notice the blisters on your feet. the BhaironNath temple is a much smaller one. There's plenty of canopied-place to sit around and relax, before you begin on your way back. And of course you got to go slow on your way down, to avoid straining your ankles.
Dead tired and rest for the rest of the day. In the evening, we take a quick look around the market place... a neat little street with shops that sell dryfruits(walnuts and raisins mainly), pickles, local spices, clothes, etc. the market place opens into a square that doubles as the city bus-stop. We catch a bus to Delhi around 6:30pm ( plenty of transportation, buses and cabs, are available from katra to delhi) reach around 9am the next day and rest till it's time to get to the airport... and before we know it, it's home-sweet-home Bangalore.