Into the Hands of Vaishno Devi?

Waiting on the overhead bridge in Katra Railway station for the COVID-19 diagnostic test to be taken, my thoughts drifted back to New Year’s eve when I planned to go on a pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi temple in Jammu. The weather was harsh and cold which isn’t unusual for winters in Delhi. Ensconced in my comforter quilt, I placed my ice cold laptop on my lap and started browsing to plan my travel. It seemed that it was a climb that might take a whole day to reach the shrine. The temple is located at a height of 11,750 feet above sea level. Overwhelmed with the fear of accomplishing such a feat within a day, I researched further to find that people take at least seven to ten hours to reach the temple. The weather conditions were not supportive either. Eventually, the plan in hand was to climb up and down on the same day as the night stay near the temple became impossible with no vacant rooms available. What made me decide to go on this trip is something I will never know. On a whim, I booked a room in Katra and decided to climb uphill and back to Katra on the same day, come what may!

Northern Railways of India has always exceeded my expectations in providing a nasty ambience and in notoriously poor punctuality. Vande Bharat express was no different. I reached Katra after a ruthless eight-hour journey from New Delhi with some uncouth fellow passengers who definitely did not heed the social distancing rules. Through most of the journey, the mist and fog hid the view leaving no reason for the existence of curtains of the wide glass windows. Come Jammu, the clouds cleared to let the sun shine over the pristine waters and the shimmering rocks and stones. It was a great relief from all the ruckus my dear fellow passengers were creating. My advice to mankind would be not to choose a train that keeps you seated for eight to ten hours at a stretch. Having made the grave mistake, my feet were numb and sore as I finally reached Katra after a delay of an hour and a half.

“Jai Mata Di” hailed a few as the train pulled over at the station and the others joined to cheer heartily. As I stepped outside, the gloom which possessed me was shaken off by the fresh cold breeze of Jammu. I smiled and looked around to witness the beautiful landscape which I longed for almost a year. It made me realise how badly I missed travelling due to the intolerable lockdown. As the crowd walked through the platform of the railway station to the exit, we were told to halt for the new routine of getting tested for COVID-19. The gliding crowd started forming a line that was as lengthy as the platform. As I got promoted to the overhead bridge (which leads to the exit) from the platform, I learnt that the process would take an hour. Frustrating it was supposed to be; but the bountiful fresh mountain breeze kept me calm and happy. Pure air is a long forgotten phenomenon, living in Delhi. For the first time in the past two years, I removed my pollution mask to relish the pure mountain air. I had to wear it back though. You know, the restrictions for COVID-19!

Time seemed to pace fast as I waited. The queue was shrinking by the minute and then it was my turn at last. I cooperated with an uncomfortable procedure before I came out to the waiting area where the results were to be announced. The anxious passengers were keenly waiting for the results hoping they would not turn out to be COVID-19 positive. Cringing at the mispronunciation of my name, I collected my negative certificate and walked to the exit.

The next morning, I renounced the cozy comfort of my hotel room to leave for the climb to Vaishno Devi at five in the morning. Producing my Yatra Parchi (ticket for the journey) and going through a lousy frisking routine by the tired security guard near the entrance, I started ascending one of the longest one-day trails I have ever climbed. Greeted by the snorting horses on my way, the initial leg of the climb was in thick darkness before the dawn. The ring shaped moon was good company. The first few hours of the climb was characterised by light sporadic showers of ice-cold rain and half-open shops that served refreshments like tea and fritters. As it dawned slower than usual, the landscape started becoming widely visible and clear. The occasional sing-song of birds and monkeys on the way cheered me up to maintain my pace. By 7:30 AM, I was almost halfway there as I climbed at a steady pace with controlled breathing technique that ensured that I would not get tired. Workers who supply the groceries and other requirements to the destination were my fellow climbers who did the unimaginable task of pulling the cart that carried tons of supplies. They struggled to pull the cart at a right pace on the steep hill where one wrong move can push the cart downhill making them restart the whole tedious process. I cheered them as I climbed past to reach my first milestone, Himakoti.

The shrine is located at around six kilometres from Himakoti, which means I had covered almost half the distance of the whole journey in less than three hours. After halting the “yatra” for breakfast, I continued through the route via Himakoti to the famous Bhawan of Vaishno Devi.

Altitude is inversely proportional to temperature. As I climbed through the Himakoti route, gaining altitude, the temperature began to drop gradually. Although the rise in temperature did not bother me as I yearned for the breeze to refresh me and my perspiring body, my leg ache started to become a matter of concern. Interrupting battery cars were not helping either. The battery cars that are supposed to take the pilgrims who are unable to climb on foot to the Bhawan turned out to be a constant nuisance that hindered the pedestrians. The incessant honking added fuel to the fire and it certainly was a mood killer.

I caught glimpses of the Vaishno Devi Bhawan when I was one kilometer away from it. Ensconced in a secluded area surrounded by hills on three of its sides, the Bhawan was a conglomeration of white buildings that resembled match boxes. It was indeed heartening to witness a civilisation well hidden from the hustles of cities. By then, I was awfully tired which made the last leg of the journey strenuous. After climbing thirteen kilometers, the muscles were sore and started to become unresponsive to my commands. I managed to reach the Bhawan in about twenty minutes where I kept my belongings safe in a locker and got ready to meet the famous Vaishno Devi.

Rendezvous with Vaishno Devi was not as easy as I expected it to be. Firstly, I had to remove my shoes and walk barefoot to the sanctum sanctorum where she lives. Striding through the marble floors of the Bhawan with no shoes in a close to zero degree weather, I was in a huff for a brief moment for being the fool to have decided to visit the place. I mostly hurried my way through the path to the sanctum sanctorum. The forty two metre cave was made of marble which led to Vaishno Devi, the goddess who attracts fifty lakh pilgrims a year. It was diminutive for a cave, having less room that constrained mobility. I was glad I began the climb early in the morning, for the crowd would have crumbled me if I had reached any later than afternoon. I had to wait barefoot in a small queue which surely did test my patience. As I got closer to Mata Vaishno Devi, I sensed a divine vibration or it might have just been the trickling water flow within the cave. Whatever it might have been, it was a stimulating experience. When I almost forgot the numbing chillness my legs have been struggling with, I had to leave the sanctum sanctorum through the marble cave-exit. As I came out, I rushed through the increasing crowd to the locker where my shoes that could save my numbing soles laid locked. Hurriedly, I put on my shoes back with a sigh of relief. As I left to descend the hill, I turned around to catch a last glimpse of the beautiful abode of Mata Vaishno Devi and bid her adieu.

-Subiksha A (Freelancer)

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