You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it's going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it's always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Robert M. Prisig
It is said that you can’t go for Vaishno Devi Yatra until and unless there’s a calling from divine goddess herself. Do I believe it now? Well I still have my share of doubt but after an array of invitation from friends, family and acquaintances over past few years I finally acceded to my colleagues request to join them for trip to Vaishno Devi, well a pilgrimage is more like it.
Vaishno Devi Pilgrimage in India is second only to Tirumala Venkateshwara Temple which is the most visited religious shrine in India. Located in the Trikuta Hills 14 kilometers from Katra – from where the pilgrimage starts- Vaishno Devi is one of the most revered Hindu shrines in India, visited by almost 8 millions pilgrims every year.
On 24th of February after an exciting day at office which was preceded by weeks of frenzied planning by excited colleagues, our motley crew boarded Doronto Express from Sarai Rohilla station for Jammu. There’s no pantry car in the train so many of us were carrying our dinner which we had together.
Well talking about the train journey, it was a long time since I had travelled in a sleeper coach. And I do missed the comforts of the AC compartment. The biggest luxury of traveling in AC coaches is the clean toilets. The toilet of Doronto was in sorry state and even flesh were not working. Ah! Mamta Didi if only you’d let the best Rail Budget in quite a few years pass and not gone for populist measures I would have hoped for improvement in Indian railways. Alas! It was not to be.
The train, Doronto Express, left around 10 O’clock in the night from Delhi and we arrived in Jammu in the early hours of a cold but fresh morning. Getting off the train was a relief. Outside the station, we had a hot cup of tea with snacks. Most of the other passengers were doing the same. Out of nowhere a nondescript lady in tattered clothes arrived and began accosting people gathered near the tea stall with some choicest expletives for our top politicians and India. That was one - and thankfully only - shocking incident to greet travelers, mostly Vaishno Devi Yatra pilgrims, in Jammu.
At the bus stand we were joined by one more person – an army officer and friend of one of my colleague and our group of pilgrims answering mata’s call was complete. A bus ride from there to Katra was supposed to be a 2 hours ride through rolling hills and scenic valleys. But then where’s the fun when everything is already planned.
In all the trips I have made this was the most neatly planned tour, planned 2 months in advanced whereas normally its not more than 2 hours of planning where to go on a weekend. If every piece of the jigsaw had fit together, Vaishno Devi pilgrimage plan entailed that we will begin our climb by 3-4 in the evening the same day and get back to Katra the next morning and then leave for Patnitop and cover Nathatop the next day and catch the train from Udhampur on Monday evening. But fate had other plans for us.
Even before we could have traveled for half an hour, the bus we were traveling on got stuck in a massive jam. From there it moved at snail’s speed for a few more kilometers before coming to a complete halt somewhere ahead of White Knight’s Golf Club. To our dismay we found out that the highway is clogged up with vehicles 14 kilometers further up the hills and for next 3-4 hours we were not moving at all and that there was no guarantee if the vehicles would move at all before evening. So we were in a predicament. Were we really?
The place where our bus was stuck was flanked by a hillock on one side and a valley on the other with a stream flowing through it, green pastures and horses grazing in it. So we took the trail and descended towards the stream. The adrenaline rush of adventure was palpable in members of our group. Shouting and screaming in excitement everyone was charged up as the rejuvenating natural ambience left each one of us enchanted. There was a frenzied photo shoot and after an hour of frolicking we returned to bus to recharge our batteries.
Soon our stock of water was over and I along with a friend embarked on a little adventure of our own to find water to drink. After walking a few kilometers we arrived near a cantonment area. There was a large open ground were people were picnicking. Can you believe all were travelers stuck in the jam and there were 100s of them? After walking a few 100 meters we arrived at the only source of water which was a water tank of the army. As I was carrying only 1 bottle which I knew I’d need when I walk back and since I also had to carry some water for fellows back there by the bus, I asked an army man if they could provide us with some bottle in which we could carry water. He replied that the only bottles that they have are empty bottles of Rum which we could wash and then carry our water. Was I surprised? Not at all! I know that in army if there’s one thing which could be found in plenty and very cheap, it’s the alcohol.
When I returned to the bus almost 3 hours had already passed and most of our group member were now hungry as well as thirsty and there’s were no signs of jam coming off. After much deliberation and conversation with local drivers we decided to walk ahead. They told us that a few kilometers ahead there is a dhaba so leaving two person behind to look after the belongings we decided to walk to the joint to fend for our food and drinks. It was also taken into consideration that in case the jam clears we could always catch the bus as we were moving in the forward direction.
I believe that we walked for like an hour or so and at that time it was like we were walking forever. Everyone we asked en-route told us that the so called “dhaba” is 1 kilometer ahead and we were told this over and over again as we keep on walking up the winding road. The sun was out and after a while we began to feel the heat. Even as we walked every banner caught hold of our sight appeared like our eagerly awaited dhaba. At that particular time and moment I could feel a kinship with dwellers of desert and could actually see the mirage. Every hoarding and billboard raised our hope, beckoned us, inspired us to keep moving, and ever drew us forward like a burnished beacon; like an oasis in desert.
After walking forever we did arrive at “the dhaba”. To our relief and disappointment all we could find there was tea and drinking water which we did with much gusto. When we asked about where we could find something to eat and drink, the locals told us half kilometer ahead. And we burst into laughing exhausted after walking so many “half kilometers”. We stayed there sprawling on the green grounds near the tea stall and waited for our bus the jam was giving way to smooth traffic and after 20 minutes or so our bus did arrived and finally we were on our way to Katra. Not half kilometers ahead we did saw a proper dhaba and a bar and we looked at each other and burst out laughing again. Now that’s what I call the interplay of “predestination and freewill”.
After riding for more than 8 hours we arrived in Katra which is not even 2 kilometers drive from Jammu Railway Station. We were down but not out. I couldn’t believe when everybody encored that we should begin our trek as soon as we dump our luggage and freshen up in the hotel. Finally at around 9 O’clock, we began our Vaishno Devi Yatra from Katra. The pilgrimage was finally on.
The path to the shrine is well paved and one could find it strewn with shops all along the way to Adhkuwari. This is perhaps the most commercialized pilgrimage I have ever undertaken. You can eat and drink all that you want to provided it is not alcoholic. Pilgrims who undertake have 4 options to reach the shrine of Vaishno Devi at Bhavan. They could either walk – the most arduous way, take the palanquin – mostly preferred by rich elderly pilgrims, hire ponies – the most common and suits middle class budget and finally fly on board Pawanhans Helicopter – suitable for those who don’t have much time to spare.
We walked in the blanket of darkness which otherwise would have been quite an incredible view as well as motivation for the tiring trek we were on. Every kilometer of the uphill climb was like walking 100. After the tiring walk of the day we were yet to recover from the fatigue and it was taking its toll even. Soon we were all separated from each other in groups of 2-3 and 4. I along with my friend formed the rear – and I was the only seasoned trekker in the group, what a humbling experience. Walking with me was Dinesh and he had decided to attempt the entire pilgrimage barefoot – in which he eventually succeeded. I only walked barefoot for half an hour at Bhavan and I needed 1 hour just to have the sensation back in my feet. It went cold and numb and I couldn’t feel a thing, it is amazing bordering on flabbergasting that he done the entire uphill climb barefoot in snowy season.
Somehow we kept walking and after following the arduous trail arrived in Adhkuwari at around 11 O’clock. It was quite an achievement. We regrouped near a food joint and I had one of the most flavorsome teas I ever had in my life for just 4 bucks. Quickly 4 cups were gulped by me that was quite enough to quench my appetite. Everything else available there came at much higher price. Every packaged snack, biscuit etc were priced half as much. After years of traveling it doesn’t baffle me anymore that “serving gods” means good business. Even in Devbhoomi Uttarakhand, cabs cost twice as much as they should normally - most of them are owned by religious trusts and swamijis. I could understand the price of maggi owing to the hardship of transportation and all when I go trekking but where vehicles are available and pilgrims throng the place round the year such overpricing is confounding or sheer business in the name of religion and piety.
Anyways, as everywhere else, all around the trail to the shrine, plastic bags adorn both sides even when dustbins are available all along. Pilgrims don’t think twice before disposing off their litter anywhere but in the dustbin. It’s alarming to see the amount of plastic waste which is casually thrown everywhere. I don’t think Ma Vaisho Devi will take this is her own stride because it’s definitely poisoning and destroying her abode. Adhkuwari also bears the brunt of the litter. It’s dirty and strewn with garbage. Although, sweepers and cleaners do their job round the clock but then there are thousands of apathetic pilgrims and only a handful of them.
There was a long queue at Adhkuwari and we were assigned our number which ranged in 390s – a number which is assigned for darshan at garb joon where Ma Vaisno Devi took refuge for nine months from Bhairav, the Tantrik. She was supposedly meditated for power and wisdom to defeat Bhairav. She was eventually located and emerged out of the garbh joon incarnated as Maha Kali and in a fit of rage struck Bhairav with such force that his severed head flew more than 2 kilometers before falling on a hill top where now the fatigued pilgrims have to walk in order to appease Ma Vaisno Devi and ensure completion of the pilgrimage. There’s a blessing even in the curse and when demons die they eventually find salvation when it comes to Hindu mythologies. Even our modern day demons are as blessed and it was spectacularly summed up by Pranab Da in his budget speech as he quoted Hamlet “I must be cruel only to be kind”. Ah! The irony of it all.
Diversions apart, given the assigned number, we unanimously agreed to press ahead and reach Bhuvan then press on to Bhairav before returning back to Adhkuwari and audaciously we also decided to do so before our number for darshan is called. So again we hit the trail and started to climb uphill. To our relief, this was a moderate climb but fraught with danger of slide as well as increasingly cold weather. It had snowed and we could feel it as we walked ever ahead. The trail was fairly empty and we could only encounter fewer and fewer pilgrim en-route.
Again I fell in beside Dinesh and we engaged in a healthy discussion on pilgrimage, piety, religion and all those abstract topics which ever confounds me when in comes to almighty and all. I think that was the most satisfying stretch of my Vaishno Devi yatra. It reinforced my beliefs and it also made me understand the other perspective. Ultimately, there are meanings which are always personal, just as pilgrimages are. One could do it listening to his/her ipod, as a date with his/her bf/gf, as an attempt to woo, in palanquin, in helicopter or barefoot; there are always perspectives and there are always motives and every time they are personal.
Even appointments with gods come with privilege. A pilgrim with VIP pass could bypass all number and answer his/her calling with a privilege which a poor barefoot pilgrim couldn’t even dream of. An Amitabh Bachhan has more easy access to god than a mere “Nikhil Chandra”. Perhaps gold is a precious metal even among gods…who knows why the world is the way it is.
Well we did arrive in Bhavan a few hours later and paid our homage. I saw people tying clothes on the steel railing on way to Mata Darshan where it was clearly written in bold not to do so, I saw people shouting Jai Mata Di where it was clearly written not to talk aloud and I saw how the deity of old has given way to shining idols as the original cave is not accessible anymore, at least not to us.
From there it was a tiring walk to Bhairon to complete the pilgrimage as it is mandatory in order to have the privilege of Ma Vaishno Devi blessings. By the time we arrived in Bhairon the sleep was threatening to take over, my body was exhausted and I was afraid even to stand still as I would have fallen asleep standing. As we were descending, it was arduous to keep my eyes open even as I walked. I was afraid I might fall asleep and fall. I slowed my speed to a crawl and was afraid to take the step as it was too risky in the condition I was in. As compared to 28 kilometers of Dodital which rejuvenated my senses, this 7 kilometer walk had my body exhausted as never before. Somehow I did managed climb down to Adhkuwari where I slept for an hour.
The sleep was healing. Soon we had our little walk inside the garbh joon and our pilgrimage was complete. Even as the queue crawled as we made our way to the garbha, I couldn’t but notice people ready to fight it out, to bypass each other so that they could enter first, the phoney faces, the tired faces, the casual faces and a few calm faces.
Every pilgrimage I have undertaken or have heard of requires pilgrims to take a bath somewhere and walk some distance. I have always believed that they are just symbolic, taking a bath at Banganga and walking the trail before taking a bath again in Bhavan does not purge a pilgrim of his sin. Same is true for other baths and walks, be it the Harmandir Sahib or Hemkunt Sahib or the Baba Dham. When scriptures demand that one should come clean to seek the blessing it’s not the body, it’s the mind and spirit. The hardship and trials of journey and meditation along the way is what purges a pilgrim of his sins so that he is clean when he seeks the blessings of his/her god.
The hardships during the climb are the real test and if they don’t transform you in anyway and if that doesn’t makes you stronger; than the pilgrimage ever always fail. When you are standing in the queue, your temperament decides if you have been blessed or not. When you eat that kurkure or drink that kinley, its where you throw the empty bottle and packet that decides if you have been blessed or not. Because blessings of Vaishno Devi Yatra if ever come, comes from within, because only you have power over you to transform yourself and become better and one always has that choice. It’s not there in Garbha joon or Bhavan, the blessing that everyone seeks; it’s all along the way.
Sorry for being gotten carried away. I think it’s better if I talk about my trip to Patnitop in my next post. Hence I should with all due regards conclude my Vaishno Devi Yatra here. And I also once again reiterate that all the views expressed here are personal and no offense is intended to anyone.