Considered to be one of the holiest pilgrimages in the world, Sri Mata Vaishno Devi Mandir is located in a three p e a k e d mountain cave known as the Trikoot. It is said, it is difficult to tread the route without the ‘calling’. So we ventured to the pious calling of this holy place to seek the blessings amidst a spiritual belief, lingering with vibrancy. One gets bound to an implicit faith of an unknown connotation adored by the divine love. As they say, ‘a mother herself calls’. It is a matter of experience by pilgrims who take this epic journey to visit the holy shrine upon this ‘call’. It is said that a person needs to take just one step and leave the rest to Her, and the journey would be fruitful with Her divine blessings.

Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Mandir is maintained by the Sri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board. In manifestation of the Mother Goddess, it is also known as Vaishnavi or Mata Rani. The shrine is a beacon of faith and fulfilment to millions of devotees from all over the country. The exhilarating and fascinating pilgrimage to the shrine holds great significance to the visitors. Though the formal pilgrimage starts from the threshold of autumn ‘Navratras’ and remains in swing for the next three months, the devotees however visit the shrine throughout the year in great numbers.

According to history, the shrine of Mata Vaishno Devi was discovered about seven hundred years ago by Pandit Shridhar. As per the belief, Mata once helped in organising a ‘Bhandara’ at Shridhar’s abode. But she had to leave the place to escape to Bhaironath. As the Mata left the place, Shridhar, in grief, gave up food and started to fervently pray for Mata Vaishno Devi to reappear.The Mata came in his dreams, told him to break his fast and to search for Her in the caves located in the Trikoot Mountains. Every time he seemed to lose the way, the vision of his dreams reappeared before his eyes and finally led to the discovery of the caves. Shridhar found the three head atop a rock, which are now known as the holy Pindies.

As per the spiritual traditions of the righteous, the objectives of human life being Dharma—Arth, Kaam and Moksh can be achieved by paying a visit to Vaishno Devi once in a lifetime. Notwithstanding, a visit to this place becomes obligatory simply because of its natural beauty. The enchanting journey enthrals the pilgrims to a memorable fulfilment of a lifetime wish.

We reached Katra at dawn covering a distance of approximately 650 km overnight by train from Delhi. The Jammu-Katra section is purely majestic, passing through the quaint valley of Jammu and the town of Udhampur via sections of high raised infrastructural marvels in vast escapes of panoramic surroundings. The atmosphere of a train bound for Katra has its own religious ambience becoming a sanctum sanctorum in its own way. The travellers dwell in tranquility with an aura pious in nature. There is of course the mood of the people that is positive and the feelings that are pure. De-boarding at Katra gives an exclusive vigour to head on withfervour for the holy trek. Situated on the first floor of the Katra railway station is a unique buffet cuisine cum guest room provided by IRCTC, blending hospitality and transit for devotees with spacious facility of a cloak room. A convenient shuttle is provided by the guest house for pick up and drop for the pilgrims. Prior booking is recommended for the guest rooms. The November month provides a pleasant weather and a climb commenced early morning assures a timely descent by dusk.

Army’s ticket counter-cum-waiting hall facility issues passes for authorised personnel for entry through Gate 5 at the bhawan. Gate 2 is meant for VIPs. Every year, a large number of people from various walks hailing from different parts of the country visit Katra for the ‘Darshan’ of Sri Mata Vaishno Devi. The faith revered in the belief rests in an unspoken connect that pilgrims refer to once they commence the ascent. Thousands of devotees, some old enough to be taken on horses, palanquins, and on porter carried arrangements in a holy trek highly believed in. Some pilgrims visit the place each year to implore blessings for a health cure. They walk about 12 km uphill to reach the little caves of Shakti Peetha. Vaishno Devi is a manifestation of Durga Mata, the Mother Goddess according to Hindu scriptures. Throughout the trek, hymns and songs devoted in praise of Mata Vaishnavi gives a shot in the arm. Such undoubting belief in the Mata makes the climb feel effortless. It is with feelings of joy that one witness the devotion and enthusiasm of the pilgrims while they climb. Those on the decent cheer their counterparts on the uphill. The holy chant, ‘Jai Mata Di,’is on all lips and is a great inspiration and strength for the strenuous trek. This chanting gives a fillip to one spirit and inspireseven the lame and crippled to climb with ease. Sights of extreme devotion are also commonly seen where some pilgrims prostrate themselves on the floorafter every step of the journey.

A basic checklist for the holy itinerary includes a light trek gear, comfortable but durable light weight shoes, a walking stick, and a changeover for a holy bathe before the ‘Darshan.’ Travel light, as all basic and essential facilities including dormitories, restaurants, medical aid and commuting facilities are adequately available throughout the route. If you plan to carry your infant child, baby carriers with a comfortable shoulder rear lift gives a steady backup which also provides for a power snooze. Make sure the straps are of exceptional quality with buckles that grips the child to a comfortable position. It is advisable not to carry extra items while walking up to the bhawan, barring the yatra parchi, prasad, cash, and walking stick with a bandana on the forehead without any bag or cell phone.

The entire trek is an administrative marvel. Enroute, the pilgrims cross Banganga, Charan Paduka, Adkuwari and Sanji Chhat before one reaches the holy caves. Shacks for energy drinks, fruits and eats, restaurants like Bhojanalaya, CCD and Sagar Ratna, dormitories and rest rooms, waiting rooms, benches, with a whole lot of information boards for pilgrims are in plenty. Ponies and palanquins help the first timers and those unable to trek the trail on foot. Porters and palanquins escort up to Adkuwari, while electric tempos ply from Adkuwari to the bhawan. Porters even carry infants and luggage. The stretch is an epitome of cleanliness; with marked horse resting bays and stables which are clean and are well managed. The ponies normally do three to four trips a day in a good season. Centralised Bose speakers add to a well administered public announcement system for commuters. The entire stretch is decently paved with a number of shops selling essential religious items, souvenirs, ‘prasad’ and other sweets to offer during the ‘Darshan.’ Some shops give a breather to unwind and offer masseuse to the weary calves and feet. The place offers a great combination, inclined towards Hinduism and nature.

The entire route till Adkuwari can be treaded through the walking route and via steep steps which are shorter and rejoin at every curve uphill. The bhawan can be approached through two routes from Adkuwari. The first is meant for horses. The second is for walking, which has a gradual ramp and is decently covered and caged to avoid the monkey menace. Route indicators to the bhawan help in pacing the steps. The first half of the route till Adkuwari is a steep climb. Horses only ply for this part of the trek. The gradual ascent from Adkuwari lessens till the bhawan giving a respite to pilgrims who stop by to pay compliments at Adkuwari. Sudden drop in temperature is felt after sunset and short of the bhawan.

The ‘Aarti’ of Vaishno Devi at the bhawan is performed twice a day; before sunrise and in the evening after sunset. Darshan during this time is halted. Pilgrims must plan their itinerary accordingly. The visit to the bhavan typically starts with a holy shower and a change of clothes for the holy visit. The queues are so long that it normally takes hours before one makes it to the bhawan. The queue is managed through a maze to handle the crowd. The manifestation of Mata Vaishno Devi resides at one end of the cave. After worshipping the deity, the worshippers proceed to the other end of the cave. One can continuously hear the chant of ‘Jai Mata Di’ by the pilgrims. The Darshan of the Holy Goddess is done in quick time, the devotees paraying for Blessings from the Mother. Sight of the holy ‘Pindies’ gives an exclusive vigour of gratefulness and satisfaction. Beside the holy ‘Pindies’ is the natural symbol of Lord Pashupati Nath. Cold water gushes out from the base of the Holy Pindies and flows out of the cave which is known as Charan Ganga. Devotees collect this water in containers. The same water is also channelised to the bathing ghat where devotees take a dip before their Darshan.

The sight of Katra town on the way down is purely marvellous. The entire route is lit up with the constant hustle of the oncoming pilgrims. A day never ends at Katra as devotees throng to the sacred site by day as well as by night. Truly an uplifting experience.

Sqn Ldr Siddharth Kharbanda is a serving Air Force officer based in Delhi.

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