As a hobby trekker,I have explored different terrains and destinations. But never before had I gone for a trek that is associated with divinity. To experience what it would be like to go on such a journey, I joined my parents, aunt and uncle, last year for a pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi. Not only is this temple considered to be one of the most significant and revered holy shrines of the Hindus, but the journey to this place is also known to be the most difficult. The Vaishno Devi Temple sits in Udhampur district, at about 5000 feet in the northern part of Jammu. Our journey started at Amritsar, which is the closest major city with all possible transport options. We booked a cab from Amritsar to Katra.
Katra is where the actual pilgrimage began. Katra served as the base camp for all pilgrims and tourists. From here it was a good 12 Km trek uphill to reach the main temple at Bhavan. Exhausted from our long road trip, we decided to stay overnight in the town and energize ourselves for the walk the next day.It was one of the most organized pilgrimage sites that I had ever heard of. The temple is run by the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board who had set up offices in Katra and other base towns for registrations of pilgrims to help regulate the crowd. I was really impressed at the way they had maintained order and the facilities that they managed to offer to such a huge crowd. We got our registration done and found a small guest house for the night. The rates here were quite reasonable, considering its popularity.The KatraChowk was buzzing with thousands of people on their way to Vaishno Devi. It was the hub of all activities with pilgrims all geared up for the holy journey, porters and ponies scurrying around to cater to their rides, and returning pilgrims taking a breath after a tiring walk. There was electrifying energy about this place that seemed to keep everyone on toes. Perhaps, that is the magic of divinity.
A lot of people, especially older ones and young children opted for a pony or a palanquin hauled by porters. I also noticed helicopter rides for those who wish to have an exclusive experience. We, of course, chose to walk and opt for an alternative in case anyone of us felt unwell due to the altitude or the strain. There were two routes to choose from. One was a paved path and the other was up stone stairs. The stairs looked steep for my father to climb so we took the paved road. The higher we climbed, the cooler the air felt. While it felt tiring to the body after an hour or so, the mind felt rejuvenated with the fresh mountain air and the surrounding views. And I realized that was the best way to ignore the strain of the walk. I focused on the views, the clear blue sky and the lush greenery of the Himalayan forests.The Katra-Bhavan route was lined with small, local shops and roadside eateries. Most devotees tend to fast before their temple visit, but a more practical approach is to keep oneself hydrated and energized but never full, when climbing mountains.We stopped halfway at AdhKawari. They say the goddess meditated here for nine months to attain her powers. With such stories and hearing people chanting the goddess’s name, we soon reached Bhavan.
The main shrine at Bhavan
Before entering the main temple, a lot of pilgrims took a bath and changed into fresh clothes. A shower with freezing cold water is definitely not something I had envisaged on the trek but after the walk, it felt good on the sore muscles. At Bhavan, the tickets that we were issued at Katra were replaced with a batch number and people are sent in an order. This wait was quite long and eventually when it was our turn, we passed through a maze to reach the main shrine. This was a huge cave cut out of marble and rocks. It enshrines the deities of Lakshmi, Kali, and Saraswati- the three most important manifestations of Shakti and collectively form the Goddess of Vaishno Devi. Despite the grand décor of flowers and lamps, the main deities sat in the most unassuming setup. The idols were in the middle of the cave, sheltered by a rock which probably has been standing there for eons. Devotion is neither easy nor comfortable. All the way throughout the trek I wondered about those ancient sages who spent years meditating in the mountains, alienated from the world and facing the harsh nature. Despite all the exhaustion of climbing the steep slopes, waiting in long queues, or tolerating the chaotic crowd, it all felt worth at the end of it.
• Avail a top-rated and licensed car-rental in Amritsar so you enjoy a comfortable ride before the actual trek starts.
• If traveling in summer, be prepared for sudden rains and carry a raincoat or an umbrella.
• Always book your stay in Katra in advance for better availability.