“You should definitely go. I know you haven’t been there. Never mind the religious part, but if you believe in God, there is no harm in going especially if you call yourself a hiker” was the friendly advice from my neighboring cubicle when I made a loud thought about my friend Rajeeb’s invitation for a weekend pilgrimage-cum-hike to the Vaishno Devi temple in Jammu. Finally I reply that I’m in, and we agree to work out the nitty-gritty of the travel shortly.
During my childhood days, I remember the music shows on the state channel (we didn’t have private/cable TV until the 90’s) where there was at least one song where we see the leading characters of the film going on a pilgrimage, climbing a hill singing devotional songs. “That’s where I’m going!” I told my sister.
A little workouts and some keen packing, I am roaring to go. Any hike which needs scaling of 5000 feet is always a “must go” for me. Finally I started off with Rajeeb. Train was on time (I love Rajdhaanis!) and the journey comfortable despite the slight uncomfortable situation of my intestines. We de-board the train and wait for our contact Shanti who is a trustworthy driver with a good local knowledge. We wait in the twilight in open space where we can be identified. Shanti seems quite unusual name for a Sikh man but I like his polite mannerism. He gels very well with us, and we zoom off to Katra.
Despite the twists and turns and the incomplete sleep, I am surprised at the comfort of Shanty’s driving compared to my unhealthy history with hilly roads. The Army and paramilitary forces have a significant presence in the area but the air is seldom tense. People roam around in motorcycles even without helmets, yet their sense of driving is much better than their helmeted counterparts in Delhi, similar for drivers of other vehicles as well. People enjoy their common responsibility of sharing the road.
“What kind of a hotel do you prefer?” Shanti was gauging our choices “Normal, medium or high?”
While I was guessing without a clue what it meant to be “normal,” Rajeeb confirms the requirement to be “medium.” Hotel Kashmir Residency is a tall building on the side of Kashmir Road, Katra. Shanti’s efforts turn positive when the hotel manager offered us a 60% discount (whoops!) on the marked price. Off season travel has its benefits, indeed!
The Deluxe Room was spacious, well furnished and had good storage space, in house geyser (hot water is a must in winters) and a comfortable bed. A help-desk person calls up to ask if we would like to avail the services of gym. I deny it outright, planning to stick to my goal of getting fit without gyms. Rajeeb announces his support. “We are here for the hike, not for the gym!” Yes it is pilgrimage time. We take a quick nap, order lunch and start off to Katra town to begin the pilgrim’s hike.
Waiting for the hotel taxi to drop us off to the entry point seems boring. We choose to walk instead. Rajeeb suggests that a 2 km walk to the entry point would be a better warm-up. We start off towards Katra town.
Every pilgrim who intends to visit the holy cave of Vaishno Devi has to register her-/himself at the registration counter located near the bus station of Katra town. Asking me to wait, Rajeeb enters the office and returns with the ticket. The entry ticket indicates the number of visiting, and the time of registration. I would learn later that this registration is a necessary step that would finally gain us entry to the Holy Shrine located 14 kilometers away, up the hill at 5800 feet above the mean sea level.
We walk downhill towards the entry point for the pilgrimage near Banganga, where according to legend is the place where the estranged Ganga returned her son, the young Devavrata (who will grow up to become the legendary Bhishma) to her husband king Shantanu during the Mahabharata age. My geographic knowledge is not accurate to instantly identify if this noisy and unrelenting stream is indeed a tributary of the mighty Ganges. I imagine how it would feel to have a rendezvous with one’s estranged wife where she asks the shy teenager accompanying her to “go forward and pay respect to your father.” The thought makes me smile.
The entry point for the pilgrimage starts with a long line. Devotees are frisked by the police, and their luggage scanned (not exactly airport style, but still quite similar) before they start off. This is the first of several such check points manned by the Jammu & Kashmir Police to ensure that terrorists or trouble-makers couldn’t get in. After getting ourselves metal detector-qualified, bag scanned and entry ticket verified, we start off.
Before us lay 12 kilometers of high terrain, slashed and paved with concrete tiles eventually dirtied with droppings of aggressive mules, heaps of mud brought in by rains and occasional landslides. I remember Lily’s email asking me if it is safe to go. She knows I cannot resist the occasional rush towards the great outdoors. I said I’m safe. Little did she know how crowded our holy places are!
I would like to confess that I hate crowded places – still do. And I also know that there is hardly any famous landmark in India that doesn’t attract crowds. So I was prepared to face crowds, and share the pleasure of the hike. What I wasn’t prepared was the sudden rush of mad underfed mules running up and down the narrow lanes. “Better keep the cameras in the bag itself. You’ll never know when a mule will brush past you” Rajeeb’s advice is logical and based on experience.
The route is flanked by shops – numerous shops – selling food, music CDs, fruit juices, colas and holy items. I notice the bamboo stems placed on display at a stall and tells Rajeeb I might want to buy one. I wish I had a hiking club of my own. That’s what I’m going to do when I reach back. Rajeeb agrees. “Take me along when you are buying it.”
One wonderful aspect of this hike is that there are plenty of water taps offering cold water. A splash of cold water on the face will refresh you more than an energy drink could. We agree to have ‘pit stops’ at water taps and cool ourselves off with splashes of water washing clean our sweaty faces. Walking together with a large crowd of strangers is sometimes a nice experience. After some pit stops I started picking up familiar faces. “See the mother and daughter wearing glasses? They were right in front of us at the first check post.” Rajeeb nods. He is searching the adjacent shop for a suitable bamboo stick to use as support. We may need such sticks to push through … it’s a long hike.
Occasionally I see the palanquin-bearers carrying people off on Aluminum wire-meshed structures that looked like mini cages. Their steps follow a rhythm which is maintained automatically and not moderated with hums, or sighs as the heavy load workers in Kerala did. It was natural that they were all of similar height, but I am curious to observe that their steps followed the same distance and angle. Impressive.
“Stick to lighter and sweeter foods. That way you can maintain your energy and reduce fatigue.” Rajeeb suggests. I agree. We keep chocolate bars; drink lots of water and sometimes colas to keep our glucose levels to pump more energy as and when needed. At a pit stop I wash my face and sit on the bench nearby. Rajeeb joins in. That’s the moment my mobile rings loud. It’s a call from Tilak Nagar. While talking I see the mother-daughter duo (I believe they are from Delhi by their mannerisms) pass us and move forward. Not wanting to commit the same mistake committed by Aesop’s hare, I have the strong urge to get up and run and maintain my lead. Rajeeb seems to understand what’s going on in my head and calms me down.
Half-way up the hike, the track for the beasts is separated from that of humans and we feel relieved. The pavements now appear more dry and clean. Suddenly, walking becomes a pleasure despite that we both sweat like burning candles in a cathedral. We pause to take some photos. A few more drinks, an ice cream and some more check posts later; we are at the entry point of the shrine. We meet mules crowding the area. To a slight surprise, I closely observe that many of the porters, palanquin bearers and the mule managers are Muslims. No one cares to observe or comment. They are all just like us. They rear mules and maintain palanquins to carry overweight people from Delhi and elsewhere towards the holy shrine. They’re doing a good job.
Sri Vaishno Devi is one of the most famous religious shrines in India, standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Kashi Vishwanath Temple (Varanasi, UP); Somnath Temple (Gujarat); Balaji Temple (Tirupati, AP); Meenakshi Temple (Madurai, Tamil Nadu) and Sabari Mala shrine (Kerala). Open 24 x 7, this temple is flooded by visitors all the year irrespective of season or weather. I am amazed by the polite nature and patience of devotees standing in line to get inside the temple. No matter how rude or unpredictable they may be in their respective hometowns (I’m sure of Delhi-ites, though not much about others) they are equal and similar here, irrespective of the corporate identities they wear, annual perks they earn or the metal boxes they drive (all key in Delhi standards of status).
Before the entry, there is a store where devotees can buy the “prasad” (offerings made to God). Also the pilgrims need to present their entry cards to a specific office which examines the crowd situation inside the shrine (IT rocks!) and allot a group number. Rajeeb asks me to wait outside and gets in line himself to buy the Prasad. I wander a little further and find the ticket office and requests allocation of group number. The official in pokes his nose closer to the computer screen, plays with some keys and writes “51” in bold italic letters. We walk forward. “There is time.” Rajeeb examines the crowd and comments. We later submit out belongings (that include footwear also) to a locker room (funnily titled “clock room”, though we don’t spot any clocks there) and get in line. The next entry is for Group No. 47, the board indicates. “We may get in if we are lucky” Rajeeb smiles. I agree.
“It’s time for aarti” someone sighs from behind us. “Aarti” is the evening devotional prayer in a temple where the priest lights the ceremonial lamp and undertakes the ritual prayers according to the hour. In the North, there are 2 aartis – one each during morning and evening. While in the South, some specific temples have mid-day prayers as well. Little did we realize that this wait is going to keep us up on out feet till the wee hours of the dawn.
It is a good exercise to see a pack of strangers closed up in a metal cage from where there is no escape. Unlike what we see in Hollywood horror flicks, people sit down on the floor beside each other discussing issues ranging from politics to business to family and personal matters. The occasional shout of “Jai Mata Di!” (Victory to Mother Goddess!) maintains our energy and helps overcome fatigue. Finally after 3 hours of long sitting, over-hearing of people’s political and business views we got entry to the shrine. The way is unusually long and tedious (mechanical way to control crowds is to make them stand in a long line that creates a maze across the room) before we climb a couple of stair sets to reach the entry.
The sanctum sanctorum is a small cave where there are sacred stones depicting the presence of Goddess Durga. The real holy cave is quite small and cannot contain the kind of crowd that the place attracts. Hence the Shrine Board decided to move the sanctum sanctorum to a more elevated and accessible part of the cave. Rajeeb indicates the entry of the original cave. The sound of gushing water flowing through the subterranian channel is a pleasure to the ears. I bow down and pay my respects. Later in the new shrine, the priest blesses me off with a ‘tika‘ a mark of holy vermillion on my lower forehead.
We walk out to have dinner. There are several eateries offering food and snacks at low-floor prices. Profiteering is not an option on the hill, it seems. “Onions and garlic are banned here” Rajeeb reminds me. “So the food won’t be as tasty as we may want it. Better stick to basics.” We agree and find a seat. The place is quite crowded. We manage to get dal-chaawal (lentils and rice) for dinner. The lentils I had there was one of the tastiest I have ever had, I must admit. It’s almost 10:00 night when we decided to continue the hike to reach an associated temple of Bhaironath some 2 kilometers away. “Legend has it that your trip shall not be considered complete till you visit Bhaironath” Rajeeb says. We try to negotiate with the mule dealers. All of them have steep prices. We let go and stick to our alternative of hiking. The next day’s trip can be called off. We continue.
That 2 kilometer trail which connects Vaishno Devi shrine to the Bhaironath temple is the steepest in the overall hike, with an average elevation angle of 65 degrees. Add to it the poorly lit roads and the risk of being hit by an uncontrolled mule, and the pleasure quotient of the hike is justified. We share occasional smiles with pleasant strangers. People follow us in a line, allowing mad mules to go up and down. I feel a slight pull on my bag. I turn around to see the smile of an old woman holding my bag (yes the hike is too steep for her age) saying “mai thaare peeche aa rahi hoon” (I’m following you). I agree. Later she would take a break and wait for her husband and kids to join her, while we make a pit stop to wash sweat off our faces.
Bhaironath temple has comparably much lesser security staff and devotees. I get inside to pay homage while Rajeeb waits outside, watching the luggage. In the entry line I see the old woman again. We exchange smiles. She is accompanied by her husband and young girls. I let them pass through before climbing the stairs. Here the priest just offers a blessing. No holy vermillion. I return and let Rajeeb visit the shrine while I watch the luggage. There are no lockers or “clock rooms” here. A young couple asks me which route to take for the return. “This way” I indicate the direction and point to the sign board to prove it. Rajeeb returns and we continue our hike down, through a different way.
The experience overall
To the many friends across the globe who asks me about religion, I confidently say “I do not practice anything anymore.” It is not a question about what religion; I just do not actively follow or practice any religion anymore. This came as a surprise to many friends who know I’m a believer and I stay spiritual. Yes I still do, but not anymore confined within the walls of a religion. Hence during my recent visits to different cities, I have seen and am used to spending time in broken temples that doesn’t house any god, or those where ceremonies and prayers aren’t conducted. Those are my favorite ones, and I spend more times in such former places of worship where man has now abandoned god. Those are the places where god actually needs man. I have a soft corner for such places maybe because I had some such spots inside the palace where I grew up.
Having grown up in a mixed family where both parents followed different religions, I always had a longing towards temples. This visit to a temple is my first in the past 5 years. The last visit was to the temple of Lord Krishna en route Mount Abu from Udaipur in 2007. The Vaishno Devi experience was not only a pilgrimage; it was also a wonderful hike for me and Rajeeb. He is planning a return in February 2013.